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Scott Hoezee                                                             “For Remember . . .”

            Dordt College Immigration Conference           September 25, 2010

       Why did God bring salvation the way he did? That is what they refer to in the

Children and Worship program as “a wondering question.”             Wondering questions are

good ways to probe the familiar in ways that may open up new insights of

understanding—insights we may have been missing all along precisely because we are

overly familiar with a certain story, a certain incident, a certain set of ideas.

       In this case I am wondering why God brought salvation to the world the way he

did. We all know the big story. We all know it began with the Call of Abram, with the

establishment of the covenant, and then with the subsequent history of Israel, culminating

in the advent of Jesus. We know what happened and we have a decent idea of how it all

unfolded. But why did it go the way it did? And what does all of that have to say about

our identity as God‟s people even yet today?

       Specifically, I am wondering why salvation had to begin with a call for someone

to leave behind everything that was familiar so as to become a homeless wanderer on the

earth. From the biblical text of Genesis 12, it appears that Abram is already well situated

and content living in the land of Haran. Abram and his father‟s household appear well-

established and fairly wealthy, possessing significant land and also many possessions,

flocks, herds, and other goods. If I were Joel Osteen surveying Abram‟s lot in life, I‟d

flash a big toothy grin to declare that Abram most certainly had “his best life now.” God

had clearly blessed Abram and he could, thus, expect a long and good life under the

umbrella of God‟s grace right there in Haran.
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          So it would have made perfect sense had Yahweh come to Abram and said, “Stay

right where you are. You‟re already off to a good start, but I will increase your flocks

and herds and land holdings and I will grant to you a family even in your old age so that

there, in Haran, I can begin my renewal of all things.”

          But, of course, God said no such thing. Instead, the very first word God speaks to

Abram is “Leave” (Genesis 12:1).        Get out. Pull up stakes.   Heave ho and go!    God

would do a mighty work and would multiply Abram‟s descendants beyond the telling of

it but for some reason the first step in all that was for Abram to hit the road and become a

wanderer in a new land, a migrant person who had to leave all that he had in order to start

from scratch in a land far away and where he would have no prior claims whatsoever.

          I wonder why God did it this way.

          Because like all immigrant and refugee peoples thereafter, so Abram would be

cast out into a place that would make him vulnerable. Indeed, a scant ten verses into the

story of Abram we discover that the land to which God had directed him was enduring a

famine. With no stockpiles of resources to fall back on, Abram and company had to

leave for Egypt “because the famine was severe” in the very place to which God had

directed them (Genesis 12:10).

          Do you ever wonder if Abram had times of wanting to say to God, “Thanks a

whole bunch! How lucky I am to have been plucked out of prosperity so as to be thrown

into poverty!”      Sometimes being the bull‟s-eye of divine favor makes life harder, not

easier.
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       In any event, Abram and Sarai end up in Egypt, but once again they find

themselves strangers in a stranger land, with all the vulnerability that attends such a

status. When the Egyptians noted that Sarai was attractive and so suggested her to the

Pharaoh as a new member of his harem, Abram resorts to lying to try to save them. But

Abram‟s lack of trust in God‟s providence brought about God‟s displeasure and this, in

turn, brought disease on Pharaoh‟s household. As a result, Abram was once again forced

to hit the road after being exiled from Egypt by a Pharaoh who was angry at Abram‟s

deception. If you are keeping count, that‟s now two times Abram has had to hit the road

because of God‟s working in his life.

       But now please notice something else: All of this takes place in one short biblical

chapter. In the course of just 20 verses we see Abram forced to become a migrant and

see immediately the multiple vulnerabilities that this new status brought to a man who,

previously in his life, would have been safe and secure from all such threats.

       I wonder why God did it the way he did.          But whatever the exact reason, it

appears that God wanted the experience of being a stranger in a strange land to be deeply

embedded in the identity of his people.

       Perhaps that explains why in the rest of Scripture—in both the Old and New

Testaments—a concern to care for those who are also vulnerable due to being displaced

occurs again and again and again.       The experience of being displaced, of becoming in

essence a migrant and a refugee, lies at the very heart of the biblical narrative.   Before

the Abraham cycle of stories concludes—in a passage that is often underappreciated in
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terms of its poignancy—Abraham purchases his very first piece of Canaan when he

bargains to purchase a plot of land to bury the love of his life, Sarah.

       “I am an alien and a stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site

here so I can bury my dead” (Genesis 23:3). When you are an alien in a land not your

own, you are forced—even in a time of death and grief—to rely on the kindness of

strangers. Again, this experience is seared deep into the consciousness of Jews and

Christians alike from all that father Abraham went through as a result of the divine

election of his becoming the founder of the renewal of all the earth.

       But before the Book of Genesis is finished, we will be introduced to a situation

that will ultimately become even more pivotal and foundational for the nation of Israel.

Several generations after Abraham purchased his first piece of Canaan to bury Sarah, his

descendants once again became strangers in a strange land when famine led them once

more to Egypt where Joseph had become the Pharaoh‟s right-hand man.            Through the

strange providence of God, the rotten actions of Joseph‟s brothers yielded a situation that

finally saved not only the family of Jacob but untold other people in Egypt and many

surrounding nations. God‟s promise that Abram and his kin would become a blessing to

the entire earth had its first glimmer of fulfillment through Joseph‟s superintending of

food distribution in a time of severe famine throughout that region of the earth.

       But for the family members of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, being in Egypt set up a

longer term situation that would ultimately turn sour. The final phrase of the Book of

Genesis is “a coffin in Egypt” (Genesis 50:26). But we know that the story won‟t end in

Egypt because just a few verses prior to the report of Joseph‟s being placed “in a coffin in
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Egypt” Joseph had prophesied that the day would come when the family would return to

the land of promise and that when they did, they needed to return his bones to be properly

buried there.

         It would be over four centuries before that would take place.    The intervening

time represents a cruel and dark chapter in the history of God‟s people as they became

enslaved to Egyptians who came to fear the Hebrew people as a potential threat in their

midst.    But in and through all that happened, God‟s promises were also marching

forward. By the time biblical readers arrive at Exodus 1, the people of Israel are referred

to (for the first time in the Bible) as “a nation” or „am in Hebrew. Once again, the

experience of being an alien people in a strange land is seared deeply into the

consciousness of all subsequent generations.

         This is why so much of the Pentateuch concerns itself with laws and practices for

Israel that are designed both to build on their collective experience of having been

strangers who were once oppressed in a foreign land and to make sure that Israel itself

never became guilty of similar oppression of the strangers and aliens in her midst. That

is why I entitled this lecture “For Remember . . .” because in essence that is what God

says over and over again. “For remember that you were slaves in Egypt . . . remember all

the rotten things that were done to you so you don‟t do them to others, remember where

Father Abraham came from.”

         In fact, by the time the Ten Commandments are repeated to Israel in the Book of

Deuteronomy, the entire basis of the Sabbath gets grounded in Israel‟s experience as an

oppressed people in Egypt. Whereas the text of Exodus 20:11 grounded the practice of
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Sabbath in creation and the Lord‟s having taken a day of rest, the text of Deuteronomy

5:15 grounds Sabbath in the Israelite experience of being an oppressed people in Egypt

who were never given rest.

       “For remember that you were slaves in Egypt” God declared.        Curiously, this is

the only significant variation in the two versions of the Ten Commandments in Exodus

20 and Deuteronomy 5. Among other things, this may indicate that Sabbath has roots in

both Creation and Redemption. But it may also indicate that as the time drew closer for

the Israelites to return to the Promised Land of Canaan, the importance of remembering

their slave experience became increasingly acute. The Israelites who heard the law

repeated on the Plains of Moab in Deuteronomy represented a new generation that did not

recall slavery in Egypt on a firsthand basis. Their lack of active experience with being

oppressed did not, however, relieve them of the need to recall that experience and let it

set the tone for all generations to come.

       In Moses‟ grand sermon that constitutes the bulk of the text in Deuteronomy, the

people of Israel are reminded repeatedly to remember their collective experience as

slaves even as they are also reminded that the land they will soon enter is a sheer gift of

divine grace. As the writer of Psalm 24 would later write, so Moses in essence told the

people, “The earth is the Lord‟s and everything in it.”     The land and all its goodness

represent a divine bequest that the Israelites would occupy as a kind of tenant. It was not

finally theirs to hoard—its riches had to be shared with all, including to chiefly the

strangers and aliens in their midst.
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        But these final reminders in Deuteronomy represent only the culmination of the

many laws that had been given to the generation of the exodus in Exodus and Leviticus.

The verses that most clearly reveal the heart of God and that summarize what God desires

to characterize his people come in Leviticus 19:33-34: “When an alien lives with you in

your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your

native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your

God.”

        Those two verses are the clearest summary of many similar verses scattered

throughout the Pentateuch.     The Hebrew word for “alien” occurs twenty-nine times in

Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers and in nearly every instance the text makes clear that the

benefits of the promised land are to be extended to strangers as well as to the Israelites

themselves even as strangers are to be offered the same protections as the Israelites

enjoyed.

        In sum, there was no significant difference between God‟s desire for the Israelites

as they enjoyed their lives in the land flowing with milk and honey and God‟s desire for

the strangers and aliens in the midst of Israel. But this is not surprising when we read

these words from Leviticus 25:23: “The land [of Canaan] must not be sold permanently

because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants.” In other words, God

desired Israel to extend the strangers in their midst every kindness and courtesy because

in so doing, the Israelites would be mirroring their God who extended his grace, his

lovingkindness, to the Israelites who were just as much an immigrant people in God‟s

eyes as anyone else on the earth. In fact, the Israelites were to go beyond merely offering
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strangers the same benefits and protections as the rest of the people enjoyed. To shore

up the life of strangers even more, the Israelites were required actively to provide extra

protections.

       Throughout the Old Testament, God makes clear that there is a special place

reserved in the divine heart for the most vulnerable members of society: widows,

orphans, and aliens. As David Holwerda once summarized it, God‟s abiding concern for

that triplet of widows, orphans, and aliens reveals a fundamental fact: “God hates poverty

and desires its abolition.”   Under ordinary circumstances, these three groups of people

represented the most vulnerable members of society. In a patriarchal society like ancient

Israel, women and children who lacked the protection and status of a male head of the

family (a husband and/or a father) were liable to become invisible to the rest of society

and could easily have fallen through the social cracks as a result.

       Similarly, resident aliens who lacked formal citizenship and any claim to land

were also liable to mistreatment and had few prospects unless special provision was

made. Hence, God repeatedly told the Israelites to make just such special provisions

through things like gleaner laws that instructed farmers and vintners to intentionally leave

portions of their fields and vineyards unharvested so that widows and orphans and aliens

could come by and gather up provisions for themselves.

       Just before the new generation of Israelites moved in to take the Promised Land

for themselves, God reminded them of what is sometimes called God‟s “preferential

option for the poor” through these soaring words in Deuteronomy 10:17-20: “For the

LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome,
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who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and

the widow and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those

who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt. Fear the LORD your God and

serve him.”

       I wonder why God brought salvation the way he did. I think we are beginning to

arrive at an answer: God wanted us to have hearts as tender and gracious as his own

heart. God wanted us to see how we benefit from God‟s care of the stranger so that we‟d

treat the stranger well, too.

       These themes weave through the entire Old Testament. By the time the biblical

reader arrives at prophetic books like Amos, Micah, and Isaiah, God‟s love for the

vulnerable becomes clear in a new way as the prophets indicted Israel for precisely their

failure to extend special courtesy to the vulnerable. “They sell the righteous for silver

and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample the heads of the poor as upon the dust

of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed” (Amos 2:6b-7a). “Your hands are full

of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop

doing wrong; learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the case of

the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:15-17).

       God had asked the formerly oppressed Israelites to remember the horrors of

oppression as a reason never to oppress the vulnerable in their midst. But if history has

taught us anything, it is that those who were once oppressed often turn their anger over

such mistreatment into a license to then oppress some other group. As someone once

noted, the most recent group to finally get admitted to the country club often becomes the
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most vocal about keeping out the next discriminated group. God wanted to snap this

cycle of oppression.      Alas, for ancient Israel, the sinful tendency to perpetuate the

exploitation of the vulnerable won out over God‟s grander vision of inclusivity as part of

the path that would lead to the global salvation first promised to Abram in Genesis 12.

        The fact that God retains this desire for his people to reach out in love to all people

will continue to be revealed in the witness of the New Testament. But before leaving this

summary of salient features of the Old Testament, we must be reminded of the premiere

example of what can happen when the alien in one‟s midst is treated with love and

justice: Ruth. As narrated by the Book of Ruth, Ruth‟s story presents us with a character

who was vulnerable on multiple fronts. First, she was from Moab and so was a foreign

stranger in Israel when she arrived in Bethlehem with her mother-in-law Naomi. Second,

although she had married an Israelite man, she was a widow without formal claim to any

land or possessions in Israel. Third, she was poor on account of these other two strikes

against her and so could survive only if others took some extra care to provide for her.

Ruth‟s only hope, in other words, was if the people of Israel followed God‟s heart in how

to treat strangers and aliens.

        The story of Ruth begins with emptiness and bitterness and with a high probability

of ending badly. The fact that the story has a “happy ending” occurs only because in this

case, God‟s commands to Israel were heeded. Boaz makes sure that the gleaning laws

are followed so that poor persons like Ruth would be able to find plenty of grain. Boaz

also recognized Ruth‟s vulnerability to rape and other mistreatment and so extended a
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special invitation that she glean in no one else‟s fields but his own so that through his

influence over his own workers she could be kept safe.

        And finally, despite the dangers that could be associated with intermarriage in

Israel, Boaz went the extra mile to become the kinsman-redeemer who could marry Ruth

and so give her a reliable and solid future in Israel. Like so many others in Israel, Boaz

could have gone another way. He could have ignored God‟s injunctions to give special

treatment to the alien and the widow and the poor. But by following God‟s ways Boaz

not only saved Ruth and Naomi from a dire fate, he became a key player in the line of

people who would one day produce no less than the Christ of God as Ruth and Boaz

became the great-great grandparents of King David.

        And thus it is no surprise that by the time we come to the New Testament and its

presentation of Jesus, we find all of these various threads coming together. Like his

ancestors in Israel, so Jesus‟ advent into this world represented a profound experience in

being a stranger in a strange land. All of the gospels have their unique ways of bringing

this out. The Apostle John told us that although the whole world had been made through

Jesus, when Jesus got to this world, no one recognized him. No one understood him.

His family didn‟t. His disciples didn‟t. The religious authorities didn‟t. He came unto

that which was his own, and his own people knew him not.        To quote a song by The

Beatles, Jesus was the ultimate “nowhere man.”

        Matthew, Mark, and Luke each show us this in various ways, too.      For his part,

Matthew introduces this theme as overtly as anyone just by how he constructed the

family tree of Jesus that makes up his first chapter--you know, the part we always skip
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when reading the Bible for devotions!     For centuries now Matthew has, for all intents

and purposes, started in Matthew 2:1! But it‟s a mistake to begin Matthew with chapter

2. We need chapter 1. Matthew knew that this genealogy was not only necessary for

his Jewish readers to establish Jesus‟ credentials as a true son of David, it was also

necessary as a way to set up a gospel that will seek to reach beyond just Israel to include

all peoples.

          A typical Jewish genealogy did not include the names of any women. If a family

tree did include any female names, they would be limited to the great matriarchs of Israel:

Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, and Leah.       But Matthew takes pains to mention—or directly

refer to—four very different women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.          Strikingly,

each of these women came from outside Israel and three of the four have something more

than vaguely scandalous associated with them. Tamar played the harlot with her father-

in-law Judah. Rahab was the Jerichoite who, when we first meet her, is the head of a

brothel in the doomed city of Jericho. Bathsheba is the wife of Uriah the Hittite who

became Solomon‟s mother only after the adulterous liaison forced on her by King David

(who then as much as had Uriah killed to cover up his egregious sins). Since Matthew

was under no obligation to mention any women in this genealogy, it is remarkable that he

brought out these foreign women who, in addition to their non-Israelite background, also

conjure up in the reader‟s mind what could be regarded as “skeletons” in Jesus‟ family

closet.

          What was Matthew‟s point?       Perhaps to begin his gospel with a series of

reminders that the story of God‟s people had always been wider than Israel alone, that it
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had often been moved forward in history by the good treatment of aliens in Israel‟s midst

(Ruth being the premiere example), and that even the Christ of God could not emerge

into history without a familial past in need of forgiveness and redemption.              By

constructing his genealogy of Jesus the way he did, Matthew is sounding an inclusive

note to his gospel at the very outset. For those with theological eyes to see, Matthew‟s

opening chapter is not a stale and dull family tree but something that bristles with hints

that this gospel is going to contain some surprises in the direction of inclusivity and a

wide-reaching grace.

        But you cannot miss that point even if you do skip over Matthew 1 so as to start

the gospel in chapter 2. Because even there Matthew hits the reader over the top of the

head by bringing stargazers from the east to the cradle of the Christ. To Jewish readers in

Matthew‟s day, the presence of the Magi would not have represented an infusion of

exotic color and spice into the Christmas story the way many in the church today regard

the Magi.

        The Magi represented a foreign presence and a sinful presence. And yet Matthew

makes a point of bringing them to the cradle of baby Jesus as yet another early signal in

this gospel that whatever else Immanuel, “God with us,” would mean, it would have

meaning for all the people of the earth and not just those already on the inside of certain

religious communities.

        No sooner do the Magi exit the stage and the series of calamitous events their visit

to Herod set off force Mary and Joseph to take their child and flee to Egypt. As many in

church history have noted, this makes the Holy Family itself an emblem of all refugee
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peoples ever since. The flight into Egypt mirrors Abram‟s flight there in Genesis 12 as

well as Israel‟s own history of being forced to flee to, and then remain for a time in, that

foreign land. Presumably, Mary, Joseph, and their infant child survived their time in

Egypt because they themselves found some kind of a welcome from the Egyptians, who

must have also provided some kind of lodging and sustenance that preserved the life of

no less than God‟s own Son. Again, early in his gospel Matthew is hitting on themes and

sounding various theological notes calculated to get our attention and to force us to widen

our vision of who Jesus is, where he came from, and what he came to this world to do.

        And then there is the Gospel of Luke, which so memorably drives home the idea

that salvation seeks out the least likely people and most especially the strangers in our

midst. Luke is at his best in reconstructing for us some of Jesus‟ parables, two of which

deserve brief mention today. The first is the parable “The Rich Man and Lazarus” (Luke

16:19-31).       We all know the story but what we may not always notice is that this is the

only parable in the entire Bible that has a character with a name.       The poor, Luke is

saying, the people who go unnoticed by us in the rush of daily life, they are real people,

they have names, and God knows those names.

        But Luke‟s greatest contribution to a “theology of the stranger” comes in his

reporting of Jesus‟ landmark “Parable of the Good Samaritan” in Luke 10:25-37.        It was

an expert in the law who kicked off what has become one of the most famous parables of

all time.      Jesus reminded this man of the biblical injunction “to love your neighbor as

yourself,” which prompted this man to inquire “And who is my neighbor?” As our

summary of the Old Testament made clear, the answer to this question is “just about
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anybody you meet.” The reach of God‟s love is wide, not narrow; is as all-inclusive as

possible, not exclusivist.   But the very premise of a question like “And who is my

neighbor?” is that there must be relevant restrictions that apply so as to shrink the pool of

potential neighbors whom we‟d be obligated to love. To explode that kind of thinking,

Jesus tells a story.

        He begins it in Luke 10:30 with as broad a term as he could find. Jesus says that

“A certain man” was traveling to Jericho. In Greek the phrase is anthropos tis, which

could be loosely translated “Some guy.” He didn‟t tell us it was some Jewish guy. No,

it‟s just some guy who fell into the hands of robbers and so needed assistance to live.

The man in the ditch at the side of the road could be anybody. And he is, which was just

Jesus‟ point.

        Upon encountering the man, the unlikely hero of the story—the Samaritan—does

not calculate his actions, he just acts. He does not inspect the man to see if his ethnicity,

socio-economic status, or religion is “right” as a precondition to reaching out to him. He

does not launch an investigation to see if his having fallen into the hands of robbers was

somehow the victim‟s fault (“Were you traveling at a safe time of the day? Did you

consider bringing along some traveling companions—there‟s safety in numbers, you

know?!”). The Good Samaritan does not ask questions, consult a checklist, or launch an

investigation to see if this man at the roadside was worthy of help. He simply sees needs

and meets them.

        But before Jesus finishes this parable, he pulls the rug out from underneath his

initial conversation partner and all of us who read the story.       This parable is Jesus‟
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extended answer to the law expert‟s question, “And who is my neighbor?”                When

reading the parable, we think the bottom line is that the man in the ditch is the neighbor.

“Who is your neighbor?” Jesus could have said to the law expert. “Well, your neighbor

is that anonymous guy in the ditch. That’s the neighbor whom you are to love as

yourself.”

        But that‟s not quite what Jesus says. Instead in Luke 10:36 he asks who was the

neighbor to the man in the ditch. This turns the law expert‟s question back on him.

Based on the Law of God in the Old Testament in places like Leviticus and

Deuteronomy, our task is not to figure out who “out there” in the wider world is our

neighbor. Instead, it‟s our job to recognize that wherever we are, we are the neighbor, we

are the alien in the presence of other people and we act lovingly.       We are supposed to

represent no less than God and if we look at the world that way, we won‟t wonder about

how to treat others because we‟ll know: we treat others with love because that‟s how God

already treated us. Our job is just to be a chip off the divine block.

        Well, this is a whirlwind tour of the Bible that reveals what I believe is a

constitutive theme of Scripture.    I‟ve left out far more than I have included, but even

with just this much material before us, let me return to the wondering question I posed at

the outset today: Why did God perform salvation the way he did? And what does God‟s

having accomplished it just this way tell us about our identity as God‟s people even yet

today? Let me propose several things for your consideration as I conclude this talk.

        First, I believe we are supposed to regard every person we meet—no matter how

different from us, no matter how strange, no matter how foreign—as a potential object of
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God‟s love and as deserving of our love.     In her book Dakota, Kathleen Norris speaks

often of monasteries and the fabled hospitality of monks. St. Benedict himself in the

sixth century admonished all monks to receive all guests as Christ. According to a story

that Norris says originated in a Russian Orthodox monastery, an older monk says to a

younger monk, “I have finally learned to accept people as they are. Whatever they are in

the world, a prostitute, a prime minister, it all the same to me.   But sometimes I see a

stranger coming up the road and I say, „Oh, dear Jesus Christ, is it you again?‟”

        Hospitality, Norris goes on to note, is the way monks live out the very gospel and

imitate Jesus‟ own ways when he was in this world.       I think that from the eviction of

Abram from Haran to the incarnation of Jesus, we are being shown in the Bible to receive

each stranger the way we want to be received by God and by others. I think one reason

God accomplished salvation the way he did is because fundamental to how we must

understand the nature of sin is that it made us strangers to God. Adam and Eve had to

leave the Garden where once they had walked with God. That was not just a punishment

to keep them from living in a really spiffy location but a symbol of the chasm that had

yawned open between God and humanity.

        Salvation had to involve the experience of being immigrants, strangers in strange

lands, because coming back together with our great God would require exactly our

overcoming the alienation sin had brought to the world. Salvation emerges from the

experience of being the stranger—culminating in the divine Son of God being treated like

a stranger in this sinful world—because this gets at a fundamental dynamic of our

relationship with God. We treat others well not because we are the known commodity
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and they are the strangers but because we are all strangers.    We treat others well not

because we see them as our neighbor but because we want to be a neighbor to them.

        A second consideration: obviously the church today is not the equivalent of the

theocratic nation that was Ancient Israel. And obviously aliens from other nations in this

day and age have to countenance and navigate laws and policies and restrictions that did

not per se exist in Old Testament times. But such laws do exist today in ways that

inevitably bring up other issues that impinge on the relationship between the Christian

and the law, the church and the state.   Nothing I have said today has been designed to

answer every possible question that could come up in this regard. There are no easy

ways to lift out of the Bible passages or themes that automatically point to comprehensive

immigration reform.

        But what our survey of Scripture can do is suggest a set of yearnings and desires

within us as believers. Christian people can debate as long and as fiercely as anyone the

various ins and outs of specific immigration policies. But if we are going to bring into

the debate the broad outlines of our faith, then it seems to me we can speak of some

broadly desired outcomes when trying to figure out how to deal with strangers in our

midst today.

        What might some of those outcomes be? Well, with all due allowance for having

laws to punish those who truly deserve to be punished for crimes and the like, we should

hope that for the ordinary immigrant, policies can be structured in ways that promote

deference and understanding and that seek to understand why a given person or family

made the choices they did to come to another country such as the USA. We should hope
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for a system that is not excessively punitive and that is not so daunting as to make it

undesireable even to attempt to follow the law. We should hope for a system that can

find the immigration law equivalent of leaving some gleanings at the edges of the fields

such that those caught up in trying to get to this country—or trying to become legal in

this country—have at least a reasonable chance for success by virtue of having some

extra help provided along the way.

        It is amazing how far out of their way the Israelites were supposed to go in helping

out the stranger within their gates. Again, in our modern context that fact from Ancient

Israel does not mean we drop all immigration laws and make it “anything goes.”

However, what it may mean is that we aim for structures that are fair and that are even—

here and there at least—downright convenient and user-friendly for those who must

navigate their way through the system.

        A third consideration that is in some ways related to my first: when talking about

immigration policy—much less when dealing with concrete instances of having strangers

in our midst—we need to move beyond the ugly shouting, the racially-laden slurs, and

the general categorizing and stereotyping of migrant people that we have seen too much

of in the media and at various rallies and demonstrations.      We need to remember the

lesson of Luke‟s parable on the Rich Man and Lazarus. There is a reason Luke did not

write down the parable of the Rich Man and the Poor Man. The poor have names. They

have stories. They have hopes and dreams and aspirations.

        One of the most brutal things that happens during times of war is the way the

enemy gets reduced to a caricature. In World War II all Japanese people were reduced to
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the pictures you could see on lots of pro-American war posters: sinister-looking people

with slanty eyes, arched black eyebrows, and outsized buck teeth. We dehumanize those

we wish to kill. And too often this happens in the immigration debate, too.     We may

not be able to prevent others from doing this but we in the church need to do our best to

keep the human face, the human names, the human stories in front of others.

        There is no one-size-fits-all description of people who come over the border. We

will find that out if we actually meet and listen to such persons. But even as Luke shows

us how Jesus gave the poor man a name in that parable and even as Matthew was careful

to include the names of the foreign women in Jesus‟ family tree, so we need to keep

names and faces and stories in front of others as well. Doing so is one of the ways we

bear a truthful witness to the world. We bear false witness against our neighbors when

we perpetuate—or allow others to perpetuate—images that detract from people‟s true

humanity.

        When God told the Israelites what to do when faced with the stranger within their

gates, he told them as often as not “For remember who you are and were and then go

from there.”    We in the church today do well to remember who also we are, who our

Savior is, and what that implies for how we treat all whom we meet.


        I will close my talk this morning the same way I closed my portion of the

synodical study committee report with these lyric words from Hebrews 11:


“By faith Abraham . . . was enabled to become a father because he considered him

faithful who made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came
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descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the

seashore. All these people were still living by faith when they died . . . and they admitted

they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are

looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left,

they would have had opportunity to return. Instead they were longing for a better

country—a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he

has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:11-16).

				
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