06 August 2017

Loving the Strange(r)

Fr. Robert Lentz, Christ of Maryknoll

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Did you know that close to seventy Bible verses summon us to care for the refugee, the alien, the sojourner, and the stranger?  It’s true.  Most of the references are found in the Old Testament, but the New certainly has its share.   A classic example is found in Deuteronomy 10. 

Here in our text, we learn that a replicate of the original stone tablets of the Law (the Ten Commandments or Decalogue) was placed in the ark of the covenant.  You’ll recall that Moses smashed the original tablets in a fit of rage (Exodus 32:19). With a new version of the original Decalogue, representing the covenant between Yahweh and the people Israel, it was a time for Israel to reaffirm its relationship with Yahweh, and recommit to the obligations that come with the relationship.

“So now, O Israel, what does Yahweh require of you?”  In other words, what have they agreed to in the covenant?  Fear Yahweh; that is, stand in awe before God.  Walk in the ways of God.  Love God.  Serve God with all your heart and soul—that is, serve from the core, the depth of your being, with all your passion—and keep the commandments.  And why does God require this? It’s there in the text: for your own well-being.  The covenant, the commandments were not given to make their lives more difficult, they were all given in love, for their own well-being!

There’s one more thing to do.  The God who calls us into covenantal relationship is a God “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, loves the stranger, providing for them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:18-19).

Israel has a responsibility to care for the weakest, most vulnerable members of society, such as the orphan and the widow, because they know what it’s like to be absent parental love and support, they know what it’s like to be alone in the world.  And Israel has a responsibility to the stranger, the sojourner, because they know what it’s like to be strangers in a strange land, in Egypt.  They know the hardships of being landless, without country, far from home, in an alien country, surrounded by an alien religion, unwanted, scared, used as slaves, used for cheap labor, used.  They know what that feels like.  Therefore, they shall have compassion toward the stranger, the resident alien. 

This is the biblical, theological mandate to God’s people, to Israel, and to the Church.  Despite the laws of any given nation, whatever the country might be, God’s people (you and me) have an obligation to care for the refugee, the stranger, the alien. We have a sacred obligation to execute justice—meaning, fairness, wholeness, healing—on their behalf.  We have to protect them, provide for them, provide sanctuary, safety, help.  We risk caring for them for no other reason than that they are vulnerable and need our help.

All of this sounds oddly relevant today, doesn’t it? As we know, immigration and refugee policies are politically and emotionally charged issues in the United States these days.  You know the story: we have proposed travel bans, the construction of a wall on the Mexico border (which will cost around $12 billion dollars, although estimates are as high as $21 billion dollars).  This past week a new immigration bill was introduced that wants to restrict legal immigration to English-speaking, skilled workers and to cut the number of legal immigrations by fifty-percent, to so-called “historic levels.”  According to the Migration Policy Institute, there were “1.3 million immigrants in 1907, about a quarter of a million more than in 2015.  Immigration relative to the US population peaked in 1890, when immigrants made up nearly 15% of the population.” Immigration numbers have ebbed and flowed, especially during times of national crisis.  Whether we like it or not, the words of Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) remain part of our narrative: 

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”[1] 

We must be very wary of those who want to separate this vision from what we mean by liberty. The progressive-evangelical pastor/writer, Rob Bell said recently, “When a nation of immigrants starts putting up travel bans, you have officially lost the plot.” 

Yes, all that I just shared about immigration and refugees is politically charged—and it’s complicated.  But, I want to return to the plot.  Not the nation’s plot, but the plot of the church, our story, our mandate, our obligation, the work that we’re called to do within the body politic.  If the church’s work to care for the immigrant and the refugee is politically charged, don’t blame the church for being “political.”  If our mandate puts us at odds with society around us, then so be it.  We don’t really have a choice, if we say we’re in covenantal relationship with God, then we have an obligation to act.  We are called to act justly.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann reminds us, “Yahweh’s justice does indeed have a preferential inclination for the poor and the marginated.  This preferential option that is mandated to Israel is rooted in Yahweh’s own practice and inclination, so that in the practice of justice Israel is indeed to imitate Yahweh.”[2] Israel has an obligation to the poor and those pushed to the margins.  God assumes that the wealth and social resources of Israel do not belong to them in a privatistic or acquisitive way; the “common resources…are to be managed and deployed for the enhancement of the community by the enhancement of its weakest and most disadvantaged members.”[3]

“The command to justice,” Brueggemann insists, “is understood as marking the polity of the community of Israel.  That is, justice is not charity, nor is it romantic do-goodism.  It is rather a mandate to order public policy, public practice, and public institutions for the common good and in resistance to the kind of greedy initiative that damages the community.”[4]

Yes, God commands us to do justice for the most vulnerable, toward the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.  Actually, we are called to “love the stranger.” Why the stranger?  Yes, Israel was once a stranger in Egypt (Deut. 10:19).  But there’s another reason. Did you catch it?  “God loves the stranger!”  That’s a remarkable declaration.  It’s a window into the heart or being of God.  God loves the stranger!  This means that God’s people love the stranger too!

How do we begin to fathom this aspect of God?   How can we love the stranger when we’re taught to be afraid of strangers and the strange?  How can we love the stranger when we never put ourselves out there to encounter the stranger?  The strange, the different, the other often scares us (and sometimes for good reason).  Still, we prefer to stay with the familiar, the known, the safe.  It’s tough to know how to love the stranger if you’ve never known what it’s like to be viewed as a stranger or strange.  That’s tough to do if you spend most or all of your time as part of the dominant culture.  

Is there a time when you were considered strange, odd, different other?  (O, perhaps you’re still considered strange, odd, or different.)  A time when you were in the minority, when you felt that everyone was looking at you suspiciously because you looked different, dressed different, spoke different, smelled different?  How did you feel? A time when you felt vulnerable and unsure of yourself because you were in unfamiliar territory, a neighborhood, a country with different customs and languages and religion, where you felt displaced?  A time when you were considered strange because you thought or believed differently, that you loved differently from the dominant culture?

Instead of avoiding or being wary of the stranger or strange, we discover, from a biblical perspective, that God loves the stranger and God loves the strange.  If you think about it, an encounter with God is always “strange” for us; Abraham and Sarah, Moses had no idea what to make of Yahweh.  The first encounter is always strange.  In fact, the strangeness of God is part of God’s divine holiness, the divine is always other.  God encounters us as strange and remains, in many respects a stranger to us. God can never be “absorbed into our categories of experience,” we can’t manage God’s strangeness or even remove it.  In fact, our encounter with the strangeness of God, that is, our relative ease in the presence of God’s strangeness, being comfortable with the strangeness of God, “prepares people for the new and unexpected.”[5]   

I’m grateful for the work of German theologian Theo Sundermeier, who has explored this theme of strangeness.  The strange God comes to us in Jesus Christ, yet Christ is always a stranger to us.  Christ is the “strange guest,” the one who came to his own, as the Gospel of John says, but was neither recognized nor accepted (John 1:10-11).  According to Luke, “Jesus is the strange guest in the house of the tax collector” (Luke 19:1-10). “Christ is the stranger who welcomes all strangers as his friends.  The gospel is essentially concerned with hospitality, with a company of strangers who are the friends of God and thus of each other.”  The German word for hospitality, Gastfreundschaft, literally means, “friends with guests.”  “The gospel declares to people who are estranged from God and from their fellow human beings…that they have a right to live, and grants them a space to live.”  The estranged of God become friends, because God loves strangers.  And then Jesus, in his life and teaching, intensifies the command to love the stranger, because according to Matthew 25, Jesus identifies himself with the strangers of the world.  He places himself in the strange and the stranger, so that the “stranger is indeed the Christus praesens”—the presence of Christ.[6]  And he invites us to love him through loving the stranger.  We love Jesus by loving the stranger.  “Come, blessed of my Father…I was a stranger and you welcomed me" (Mt. 25:33, 35).

I was reminded this week of a contemporary icon, known as Christ of Maryknoll.  It was painted by Br. Robert Lentz, a Franciscan.  You see a dark-skinned young man with piercing eyes, wearing an olive-drab t-shirt.  There’s barbed wire in front of him and he’s trying to lift it, as if to get through.  It could be any man, but then you notice his hands: they both have wounds, they're the wounds of the Christ.  Br. Lentz worked for many years in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and cared the people seeking refuge.  He was inspired by Matthew 25, “As you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did to me" (Mt. 25:40).  

Lentz explains, “Our earth today is crisscrossed with our walls and fences. Our intention is to keep out undesirable people. If we took the time to gaze into the eyes of these people and recognize their humanity, we might be as surprised…to find in them Christ.”  Like most icons, this one is multi-dimensional, unsettling, even a little strange.  Jesus has pleading, piercing eyes.  You see the barbed wire in front of Jesus, but you can’t tell whether he’s trying to come in, but the barbed wire is keeping him out, or whether he’s fenced in and wants to be set free.  Have we put up the fence and imprisoned Christ? Or have we imprisoned ourselves?  Lentz says, “Ironically, our fences imprison us. In the eyes of every person we try to exclude, Christ asks us ‘Why?’ Will we avert our eyes in discomfort so that we escape his gaze?  Perhaps, even worse, will we find some way to scratch out his eyes? When even our religion becomes a fence we use to protect ourselves from people who are different from us, when we stop seeing in one another God’s image and likeness, that is precisely what we do.”[7]

We are the strange strangers that God loves, called to love strangers and the strange.  For the “strange God meets us in the strange neighbor.”[8] This is a strong, sobering, demanding message for us today.  But, as we know, this is what compassion looks like. Despite the political storms swirling all around us, as Christians, we know what we must do.  We Choose Welcome.

At Catonsville Presbyterian Church, we are reaching out to the stranger, the refugee in our midst.  We are serving Christ in our neighbor, it doesn’t matter if our neighbor is Muslim, because we are all created in the image of the same God.  You’ll have to talk to the members of the Refugee Relief Group to hear all that this church has done in the last three weeks.  Two weeks ago, I shared that we are caring for a family that lost everything in Aleppo, then lived in a refugee camp in Turkey for several years, and then came to the Catonsville area, knowing very little English, with little money, looking for work.  The children have been bullied.  Their daughter, Aya, was assaulted in school, leaving her with a serious concussion.*  It’s not safe to play in the streets where they live.  They are being picked on for being other, strange, different.  Through generous donations and help from our Child Care Center, the children are participating in our summer program.  They love it here at the church.  They love playing in our playground.  Last week, a teacher stopped by my study to tell me something that happened that day.  One of the teachers asked Aya if she liked America.  She replied, “No.”  She said people had been mean to her and her family.  But then she said, referring to the Center, being at the Church, playing in the playground, “This is my America.”  At the end of that week, Aya's mother baked bread for the teachers of the Center.

I’m grateful that Aya discovered “America” here, on this corner of God’s Kingdom.  America, yes, but even more, I like to think that she’s experienced again (or maybe for the first time), something of God’s grace and love for her, expressed through the teachers of the Center.  I like to think that after so much trauma and fear, hunger and suffering,  she knows, through us, that God loves the stranger, the refugee, the immigrant, the resident alien in our midst.  Those that love God can do no less.

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*Not her real name.

[1] Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus. These lines appear on a bronze plaque on the base of the Statue of Liberty, placed in 1903. The sonnet was written in 1883 and donated to an auction, conducted by the Art Loan Fund Exhibition in Aid of the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund for the Statue of Liberty, to raise funds to build the pedestal.
[2] Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 422.
[3] Brueggemann, 422.
[4] Brueggemann, 423.
[5] Theo Sundermeier, Den Fremden verstehen: Eine praktische Hermeneutik (Understanding the Stranger: A Practical Hermeneutic), (Göttingen, 1996), 207, cited in David W. Congdon, The God Who Saves (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), 48-49.  I’m grateful to Congdon for introducing me to the writings and theories of Sundermeier.
[6] Citations from Sundermeier (208-209), see Congdon, 49.
[7] Fr. Robert Lentz. See also.
[8] Congdon, 187.

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