Worship Resources for Radical Hospitality
Scripture models well for us how to speak about immigration in worship. Together, with Abraham, Jesus, and the early church, we can model radical hospitality, we can lament the pain of leaving and the pain of the journey, we can witness God's faithfulness to the refugees and migrants in the past, and together, united as the body of Christ, we can seek responses that reflect God's heart. Ultimately, we can look forward with hope, knowing that our "citizenship is in heaven."
“Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:1-2).
Abraham modeled a radical hospitality, a going above-and-beyond kind of hospitality, when he welcomed the strangers into the shade of a tree, washed their feet, and offered them the finest of foods (Genesis 18:1-8). Lydia, too, modeled this radical hospitality when she housed Paul and Silas (Acts 16:11-15, 40). Images of hospitality appear all through the Bible.
Throughout history, many artists have taken up the task of illustrating what this radical hospitality can look like. The image above is Andre Rublev’s “Icon of the Trinity,” a rendering of the hospitality that took place in Genesis 18 at the tree of Mamre. As Henri J.M. Nouwen says in his book Behold the Beauty of the Lord, “It is the mystery of hospitality expressed not only in Abraham and Sarah’s welcome of three angels, but also in God’s welcome of the aged couple into the joy of the covenant through an heir.” For it was at that meeting with the three strangers that God promised Abraham and Sarah their longed-for son Isaac, and it was there that the “tree of Mamre becomes the tree of life, the house of Abraham becomes the dwelling place of God-with-us…”* Through that covenant, God brings his Son Jesus Christ, the great reconciler, into the world to offer the greatest gesture of hospitality—a seat at the table of the King.
By following the example of radical hospitality, modeled by Abraham, Jesus, and the early church, we can worship together by welcoming all into our churches and homes, lives and hearts. And in taking the laments of the world’s peoples on our tongues, we can pray together even when words escape us, knowing that God hears the desires of all hearts.
Scripture has a lot to say about the journey of God’s people. Together we can learn from the biblical narratives how God guided refugees and migrants in the past. Together, united as the body of Christ, we can seek responses that reflect God’s heart.
And, ultimately, we can look forward with hope, knowing that, like the refugees and migrants, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). And while many Christians resist the pie-in-the-sky idiom that God is in fact eagerly anticipating the coming of the Kingdom, we can also acknowledge that what we see is not all that there is—in fact, there is a promise from God not yet received. “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland….But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:13-16). And so, in the meantime, we continue in love and hope, serving God and his world.
There are many, often politicized terms for people who are moving from one place to another. Refugees are, as defined by the United Nations Refugee Agency, “persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution.” By the end of 2014 there were at least 19.5 million refugees worldwide. Asylum seekers are refugees seeking protection, for which some countries are under international obligation to consider. The United Nations Refugee Agency explains, “Migrants choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons.” Unlike refugees, migrants can safely return home. Immigrants are people who choose to resettle in another country, making the new country their home. The Bible uses other terms for people on the move. For a good part of his life, Abraham lived as an alien in foreign lands. “Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land” (Genesis 12:10). When large groups of people are on the move, the lines are often blurred as to who is a refugee and who is a migrant. This article refers to both groups unless otherwise specified. Both groups are people who bear the likeness of Christ; both groups have left everything they knew for a reason that we are in no position to judge; and both groups need the love of God, as poured out from the church.
“So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (Ephesians 2:17-22).
Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we come before you as many parts of a single body; people drawn from every tribe, every nation, every language; some indigenous - peoples of the land; some refugees, immigrants, pilgrims, people on the move; some hosts, some guests; some both hosts and guests; all of us searching for an eternal place where we can belong.
Creator, forgive us. The earth is yours and everything that is in it. But we forget. In our arrogance we think we own it. In our greed we think we can steal it. In our ignorance we worship it. In our thoughtlessness we destroy it. We forget that you created it to bring praise and joy to you. That you gave it as a gift, for us to steward, for us to enjoy, for us to see more clearly your beauty and your majesty.
Jesus, save us. We wait for your kingdom. We long for your throne. We hunger for your reconciliation, for that day when people, from every tribe and every tongue will gather around you and sing your praises.
Holy Spirit, teach us. Help us to remember that the body is made up of many parts; each one unique and every one necessary. Teach us to embrace the discomfort that comes from our diversity and to celebrate the fact that we are unified, not through our sameness, but through the blood of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Triune God, we love you. Your creation is beautiful. Your salvation is merciful. And your wisdom is beyond compare. We pray this all in Jesus’ name. Amen.**
“Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).
All Are Welcome – Marty Haugen (ELW 641, GATH 741, GtG 301, LUYH 269)
Radical hospitality is exactly what this song envisions: “Let us build a house where all are named, their songs and visions heard and loved and treasured, taught and claimed as words within the Word. Built of tears and cries and laughter, prayers of faith and songs of grace, let this house proclaim from floor to rafter: All are welcome in this place.” What a glorious day it will be when we can truly belong to a place like this—a place where “peace and justice meet”; a place built on “hopes and dreams and visions”; a place where the love of Christ truly ends all divisions. This glorious day will come and we can focus on, dream of, and work toward it.
Great God of Earth and Heaven – Shirley Erena Murray
For many of us, the refugee and migrant crisis seems far away. We can read about it on the news and then we go about our daily lives, un-impacted by the lack of normalcy for millions of people around the world. This song was written for us. The second stanza asks God to forgive those of us who are apathetic to the situation. It asks God to “restore in us a passion to make the broken whole.” The hymn’s beautiful poetry stands alone in asking for forgiveness for the “comfort of our lives.” May we all learn to breathe daily the last words of this prayer: “God of our flesh and fiber, whose mercy does not cease, implant your mind within us, create a world for peace!”
Here to the House of God We Come – Shirley Erena Murray
This song centers on the concept of presence in the house of God. It urges us to listen for the knock on our door, the voice “of the frightened refugee” or the “cry of the children in the cold” and to offer them shelter, for “these are no strangers in your [God’s] eyes, this is your family which cries.”
“Hear my cry; O God; listen to my prayer. From the end of the earth I call to you, when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy. Let me abide in your tent forever, find refuge under the shelter of your wings” (Psalm 61:1-4).
For the Healing of the Nations – Fred Kaan (GtG 346, GATH 712, LUYH 289, WOR 643, UM 428)
The second stanza of this song places on the tongue of the singer the plea of refugees and migrants: “Lead us forward into freedom, from despair your world release, that, redeemed from war and hatred, all may come and go in peace.”
God, How Can We Comprehend – Carolyn Winfrey Gillette
This hymn aptly articulates the sometimes incomprehensible suffering of millions in this world—the lines of people seeking a new life, far from everything they have ever known. While it is set to music, this hymn also reads beautifully as a prayer of lament. “God of outcasts, may we see how you value everyone, for each homeless refugee is your daughter or your son….Spirit, may our love increase; may we reach to all your earth, till your whole world lives in peace; till we see each person’s worth.”
Hear Us, O Lord, As We Voice Our Laments – David Landegent (LUYH 290)
Based on Psalm 64, this hymn acknowledges the oppression and hurt that so many refugees and migrants experience. While the first two stanzas ask God to “be a strong refuge for all refugees,” the final stanza speaks with the psalmist’s assurance when it says that “God is a refuge for all refugees.”
The Children Come – Carolyn Winfrey Gillettte
Crossing the border alone, nearly 70,000 (apprehended) children from South and Central America crossed into the United States in 2014. This song tells their story. Tired, cold, afraid and in danger, these children traveled, holding onto their parents’ hope or their own hope of finding something better. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.” This song calls us to follow Christ’s example: “For unto such as these belongs your kingdom, and in each child, it is your face we see. May we, your church, respond in truth and action, and with you, Lord, say ‘Let them come to me.’”
Where Armies Scourge the Countryside – Herman G. Stuempfle Jr. (ELW 700, GtG 344, LUYH 658)
While people flee their homes for many reasons, it’s often because of war. This song is a plea for peace from war, a plea for peace so that homes can be safe once again. “Where armies scourge the countryside, and people flee in fear, where sirens scream through flaming nights, and death is ever near… bring peace.”
Recalling the biblical refugees and migrants
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:8-10).
I Will Be Your God – Judith A. Fetter (GtG 51, LUYH 40)
God called Abraham and Sarah to leave everything they knew and loved. However, God didn’t let them go without a promise. God promised to be with them always and to never forsake them. This promise then extended to the generations of pilgrims after Abraham and Sarah, and it extends to us as well. And so, this song says, we can rest “secure and unafraid.” We can rejoice in God’s goodness to us and continue trusting in his word as we journey with God through this world, looking forward to the fulfilment of God’s ultimate promise, a heavenly kingdom.
In the Midst of New Dimensions – Julian B. Rush (GtG 315)
When God makes promises to his people, the promises are kept. God promises to never leave us nor forsake us. We see this faithfulness in biblical images that this song recounts. “God of rainbow, fiery pillar, leading where the eagles soar, we your people, ours the journey now and ever, now and ever, now and evermore.” This promise continues today—God still leads and still fulfills his promises.
Jesus Entered Egypt – Adam M.L. Tice (GtG 154)
When we tell the Christmas story, we tend to forget Joseph’s second dream, telling him to flee King Herod’s wrath and to take the newborn Christ to Egypt. Thus Christ became a refugee, living in a land that was not his own. This song tells this forgotten tale and ends with Christ’s pertinent words, reminding us to welcome strangers, because, in doing so, we welcome Christ.
When Israel Was in Egypt’s Land – African American spiritual (AAHH 543, GtG 52, LUYH 42, UM 448, WOR 508)
Rooted in the African American spiritual tradition of the pre-[American] Civil War era, this song carries multiple meanings. We can think first of all the refugees fleeing persecution in Egypt. We also sing with the history of American slavery on our tongues, knowing that this conflict created refugees as slaves fled bondage. In services that focus on today’s refugees and migrants, we remember God’s goodness in history and God’s promise that we are all free in Christ. With all this in mind, we can all sing on behalf of those struggling for freedom from bondage, all over the world.
The Psalms of Ascent
These psalms (Psalms 120-134) were traditionally sung by the Israelites as they journeyed along the treacherous ascent to Jerusalem for Passover. Throughout history, these psalms have been sung along the way of many journeys; in fact, many families have the habit of praying Psalm 121 together before any trip. In the Reformed tradition, Psalm 124 was used at the opening of worship services, reminding everyone where ultimate help comes from—“Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” There are many musical settings of these psalms that can be prayed or sung on behalf of all those journeying from one place to another.
I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore (Psalm 121).
Maker of heaven and earth,
we trust you to keep us in your care.
Guard us from evil, protect us from harm.
Help us to know you, and knowing you to follow you,
so that all our comings and goings may conform
to your purpose for our lives,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.***
Our citizenship is in heaven…
“Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.
Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us….Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself” (Philippians 3:12-16, 20-21).
Guide Me, O My Great Redeemer – William Williams and Peter Williams (AAHH 139-140, ELW 618, GtG 65, LUYH 43, UM 127)
Christians are uniquely equipped to journey with refugees and migrants, for we are all journeying “through this barren land.” If life has taught us anything, it is that we as humans are quite weak, but God, the bread of heaven, is mighty and holds us securely in the palm of his hand. God will bring us through the deserts and across the Jordan Rivers of our lives, leading us safely to the Promised Land—the heavenly kingdom. But for now, we live in the “not yet” of this pilgrim journey. And so, as we think about, pray about, and work toward finding refuge for the refugees, we know that we too are refugees in a land that really isn’t our own.
Where I Belong – Switchfoot
Anticipating the heavenly kingdom, this song yearns for a place “where I belong.” It says that in this world, we are simply refugees and migrants or “rentals,” and “no one makes it out alive.” This song uniquely names something true of all of us: “This body’s not my home, this world is not my own…”
Additional Resources about Immigration
A Prayer for the People of Syria – United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
This prayer was written in 2015 in response to the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe. It is available in English and Spanish.
Prayer for Peace in Syria, Iraq, and Libya – World Council of Churches
The World Council of Churches crafted this prayer service with certain communities in mind. However, you can easily adapt it to fit whatever refugee and migrant crisis the world is currently experiencing. Parts of the service are available in Arabic, French, German, Twi and other languages.
“Refugee Sunday” Worship Resources – The Episcopal Church
This resource provides litanies, Bible passages and hymns for “Refugee Sunday” or other refugee awareness events. It includes a few prayers especially suitable for children.
Refugee Week – United Methodist Church, United Kingdom
This resource from the United Methodist Church in the United Kingdom also provides Bible passages, a Bible study and hymn suggestions. It’s unique in offering poems from several eras, each appropriate for using in worship or for thinking about the world’s refugees and migrants.
Sermon on Leviticus 19:33-34 – Mike Vanhofwegen
This sermon challenges readers to listen to and follow God’s command for how to treat everyone living in our communities. It ends with a challenge to rethink our interactions with refugees and migrants in our everyday living.
Worship Resources in Response to the Refuge Crisis – Church of Scotland
This resource is full of scripture that is relevant to the refugee and migration crisis, and prayers that respond to those passages. It also contains a lengthier discussion of an artist’s rendering of hospitality.
Hymnal Abbreviation Key (in alphabetical order):
AAHH = African American Heritage Hymnal, 2001 GIA Publications, Inc.
ELW = Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 2006 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
GATH = Gather Comprehensive (2nd edition), 2004 GIA Publications, Inc.
GtG = Glory to God, 2013 Westminster John Knox Press
LUYH = Lift Up Your Hearts, 2013 Faith Alive Christian Resources
UM = The United Methodist Hymnal, 1989 The United Methodist Publishing House
WOR = Worship: A Hymnal and Service Book for Roman Catholics (3rd edition), 1986 GIA Publications, Inc.
*Nouwen, Henri J.M. Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons. Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1987, page 23.
**From Lift Up Your Hearts, 270.
***From Psalms for All Seasons, page 792.