God has always called God’s people to remember that they were strangers in a land they did not know. Sometimes we might feel like we know exactly where we are and, other times, what is going on around us. When the people of God were enslaved in Egypt, God reminded again and again to care for others and not mistreat those who might be in similar circumstances. When the people of God found themselves with the power and tables had turned and they no longer struggled in quite the same way, God reminded again and again to care for others and not mistreat those who might be in similar circumstances.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, says it this way: “Why should you not hate the stranger? – asks the Torah. Because you once stood where he stands now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you. You must fight the hatred in your heart as I once fought the greatest ruler and the strongest empire in the ancient world on your behalf. I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers – for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are, whatever the colour of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are not in your image – says God – they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.” (1)
In these Sundays after Easter, we are continuing in a series of sermons. On the strength of Karl Barth, the German theologian, we are taking the proverbial newspaper in one hand and Bible in the other. We have been addressing bullying, mental health, environmental responsibility, and today, immigration. We are asking ourselves what the Bible says about the issues in our news media. How does our faith inform our understandings?
This week’s news story comes from a Supreme Court case, Trump vs. Hawaii. This case seeks to answer the constitutional question of whether presidential authority can restrict entry of individuals by country. As a country, our history has fluctuated between policies of intervening, isolating, imperialism, and open doors. Specific countries and specific presidential powers including the establishment clause are at stake, but for people of faith, we have even more to ponder.
How are we being called to move beyond an understanding of those we have not yet met as strangers to brother and sisters in Christ? When we hold others at a distance as other, we can demonize and develop policies that harm others. When we begin to imagine that we hold more in common than that separates us, we welcome and embrace one another.
Our Gospel lesson from Mark invites us into an open understanding of immigration policy. Jesus greets the wider collection of those who followed him as brothers and sisters, in the body of Christ. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection all took place during the Roman empire. If you were a Roman citizen, you could travel freely anywhere within the Roman empire. You were afforded great privilege and status. However, without citizenship, you lacked access. Jesus’ words of welcome and inclusion to the family of God were intentionally more welcoming in the face of hierarchical society. Jesus came to demolish the limits.
In the early church, the Benedictines took up these practices. St. Benedict took special care that the poor be noticed as guests. Listen to what he says in chapter 66: “As soon as anyone knocks, or a poor man calls out, he [the porter] replies, ‘Thanks be to God’ or ‘Your blessing, please’; then, with all the gentleness that comes from the fear of God, he provides a prompt answer with the warmth of love” (vv. 3-4). (2) Each guest was greeted and welcomed with kindness and love. A room was offered, as was care.
In this age of increased security risks, we become hesitant or at least weary of how to welcome strangers or those we have yet to meet. We wonder if we are making the right decisions as we agonize over policies and procedures. On an individual level, we struggle with how we make the appropriate decisions for ourselves and our families. On a church level, we think through how do we live our biblical mandate to be the church.
We will not forget a few years ago when we received a phone call from two young adults, Cesar, and Michael, hiking from New York City to Austin, Texas to remove the stigma around mental illness. It would have been easy to say these are people we have never met before. Please find somewhere to stay for the night. Instead, we had an opportunity to meet incredible human beings trekking to shed the light. On a night we were hosting Wednesday Night Fun, the church acted like the church and learned how others were inviting the world to act like the worldwide church. We were a witness to their stories, and they were a witness to our radical hospitality.
Sixty-seven times in the New Revised Standard Translation that we use in the United Methodist Church, does the Bible tell us to welcome. Who is being welcomed? Mothers and brothers, kings and royalty, deity and you guessed, strangers! Right along with those you know and respect, are those you have never met and can not describe. Our God did intentionally and on purpose calls us to welcome with compassion and passion those we have not yet met. God calls us beyond our comfort zone.
Earlier this winter, I sat with my brothers and sisters at ministerium as we held each other’s grief. Earlier that week, a middle school student who had been active in one of our ministries attended an immigration hearing with his father. He and his father were requested for a follow-up update. They complied. Imagine their devastation, when following protocol ends in a father and son, not going back home to mom, sisters, aunts, uncles, and other family members here in West Grove. Instead, the enforcement agents determined that dad, who had always worked, cared for his family, and not caused trouble, as well as his 8th grade son needed to return to home country. They were dropped into an unfamiliar town. The grief of the family, of the 8th grade class, of the students at the Garage, of the ministerium colleagues, of our community as we mourn is all real.
As we live out the biblical call to welcome out neighbors, we also notice that often read about biblical hospitality God needs to remind God’s people, “Do not be afraid”. Sometimes, fear rises up in us. Even when we want to be most brave, it raises from our toes into our throats. When we meet people, we have not met before, our minds become overactive, and scenarios develop. And before we have even gotten the second sentence of introduction out, the world is doomed in our own minds. Healthy doubt and appropriate boundaries are always advised, hear me to say. These are the reasons why the Supreme Court is having extended debate. However, let your faith and reason co-exist in conversation with one another.
Jesus invites in our daily lives, holding our newspapers or iPhone in one hand and Bibles in the other to welcome those we do not yet know. And you and I get the chance to do this every day. A chance to greet someone at the grocery store. A chance to let someone go ahead of us at the four-way stop. A chance to offer kindness to a new employee. A chance to bring water to hard working road workers. A chance to bring banana bread to a neighbor. A chance to introduce yourself to someone you have been wanting to meet. A chance to pray for someone others have called less than desirable.
When I was a stranger, you welcomed me.
Whoever does the will of God, these are my brothers and my sisters.
This is the Gospel, the good news of our Lord, Jesus Christ thanks be to God, Amen.
(1) Arnowitz, Charlie. Strangers in the Land of Egypt: Welcoming the Immigrant on Passover. April 3, 2014
(2) The Rule of St. Benedict.
Old Testament Lesson: Deuteronomy 10:17-19
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Gospel Lesson: Mark 3:28-35
“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Meditations For Your Week
Sunday, April 29 ~ Saturday, May 5
Sunday: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe” Deuteronomy 10: 17. Consider the character of our God who is God of us all.
Monday: “Who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing.” Deuteronomy 10: 18. Pray for those who are waiting for justice.
Tuesday: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:19. God’s people have been exiled from the land and been in positions of power. We are called to extend welcome. How will you use your power to extend welcome?
Wednesday: “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness but is guilty of an eternal sin’— for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’” Mark 3: 28- 30. Pray for all those in need of forgiveness in blame where we have not welcomed one another.
Thursday: “Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.” Mark 3: 31. Families can be complex. Pause today to be in prayer for the families of your friends.
Friday: “A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’” Mark 3: 32-33. Consider how God is stretching your understanding of the family of God.
Saturday: “And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’” Mark 3: 34- 35. Where is God calling you to do God’s way in welcoming those you might have called strangers?