YOU WERE STRANGERS (Christian Unity Week)

Love the stranger, for you were strangers…” (Deuteronomy 10)

This phrase has been in my prayer for the past few days and it connects well with the Gospel of the Good Samaritan which has been chosen as the theme for Christian Unity week 2024. And I have the honour of preaching on this theme at St. Clement’s Church of England here in the Old Town. It is a first for me – preaching in a church that is not Roman Catholic. I’m very grateful to Father Mat for inviting me.

Love the stranger, for you were strangers…” 

Both parts of the phrase are important, though we tend to focus on the first. The obligation to love the other which we all take seriously.

St. Catherine of Siena had a mystical experience in which she was taken up to Heaven where she experienced the fullness of life and joy in the presence of God. After a while Jesus told her “It’s time for you to go back.” And when she protested He said, “I need you to go back to bring love to the world!” “I am not able to love” she said. Then Jesus took her heart from her, placed His own Heart within her and said, “now you are able to love!” It echoes the prophecy of Ezekiel, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

A lot of the time we are good Samaritans to the people we meet in life; like the man in the gospel our hearts are moved with compassion for the sufferings of others, moved to the extent that we actually do something to help them. But there are times when we feel unable to love as we should and there are times when we are like the priest and the Levite – when confronted with the wounds of another we pass by on the other side and do nothing; sometimes our eyes are shut, our ears and hearts are closed, and we don’t even notice what’s there in front of us. It might simply be too inconvenient for us to notice. We are called to do something about this, and Jesus offers us the Heart that will enable us to do it. I will give you a new heart.

We might also need to deal with the fact that along the road of life, we ourselves have been attacked, wounded, left helpless and ignored in one way or another. We need to be anointed, lifted up and brought to a place of healing. Jesus himself is the Good Samaritan who lifts us up, binds our wounds and brings us the relief and healing that enable us to be wounded healers for each other.

“Love the stranger, for you were strangers…” Love the wounded, for you were wounded.

Our love for the stranger, for the wounded is born out of our own personal experience of being stranger, being wounded; our love for the other is born out of our encounter with Jesus through times of brokenness. We know Him because he has touched us directly, personally and we know Him through the people He has sent to minister to us and take care of us.

The Camino to Santiago de Compostella in Spain has been one of the most defining experiences of my life. It is a 500 mile pilgrim walk and it has shaped my understanding of how life can be lived. It has shaped my understanding of what it means to walk with people of other faiths and none.

The unwritten rule of the Camino is that you accept  other person as they are, that you accept and respect the other. We walked together and we walked alone. We slept in the same dormitories, ate at the same tables, heard each other’s stories, and tended each other’s wounds, both physically and emotionally.

I was led one Sunday to pray with a small group of young people. We were led to pray with each other, and the group included a Muslim, a Jew, a couple of lapsed Catholics and an American married couple, one of whom came from an Evangelical Missionary tradition and the other an Episcopalian. So, we prayed together on a Sunday morning in a remote Spanish catholic church, a moment when each of us needed it in our own personal ways.

And for most of the group that was it. We didn’t cling to each other because that too is the spirit of the Camino. To not cling. And not try to become part of each other’s faith traditions. Not try to change each other.

Three of that group became very close friends of mine. We are still very close friends. One of them, Brend is a non-practising Dutch Catholic with a passion for Jesus and the others are the young American Couple, Mark and Becky who also have a passion for Jesus and for justice.

I injured my foot which made the walking extremely painful and slow. But these young people stayed with me. They became my Samaritans. And one day as we were going up a 12km hike and I was struggling very badly, Brend said to me, “Eamonn, if you can’t walk we will carry you. And he absolutely meant it. It would have been impossible, but they would have done their best to make it happen.

There with me was Christ the Good Samaritan, in Brend I encountered Christ face to face.

Friendship has become for me the foundation of ecumenism, the unity of friendship. Our friendship with Jesus and our friendship with each other. In this Old Town we are friends to each other.  We show it very clearly in the procession of witness on Good Friday, in the Community club that meets on Mondays, in the casual encounters of every day on the street.

My prayer is that this friendship will deepen, that with the Heart of Jesus in us we will keep our eyes and ears open to those who struggle on the road that we all follow, that our way of living will be evidence of the presence of Christ among us. That we may see Him more clearly, love Him more dearly, follow Him more nearly.  And in the spirit of St. Vincent Pallotti, in whatever way is possible,  that there may be one fold under one Sheperd, Jesus Christ. Amen

PS After the service in St. Clement’s Father Mat welcomed me to the kitchen table of his home where I sat drinking tea and eating toast with his wife and eldest son. There is a genuine affection between us.