Thursday, May 17, 2018

Love the Stranger

Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people are commanded to care for the social, ethnic, and religious outsiders in their midst, referred to in various passages as “aliens,” “strangers,” and “foreigners.” Indeed, this theme of exemplary, inclusive hospitality can be traced throughout the various literary and historical genres of the Old Testament, including the Torah, Writings, Major Prophets, and Minor Prophets. “The one command reiterated more than any other in the Mosaic love the stranger for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt,” observes Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the [British] Commonwealth. “Or to put it in a contemporary way, love the stranger because, to him, you're a stranger.”[1]


Since earliest days of creation, God’s people have been called to care equally for all of the created order and to serve as an exemplary blessing for all peoples. At many different points in the Old Testament narrative the people of God also found themselves strangers in a strange land, both before and after entering the Promised Land. This religious and historical reality is reflected in both the fundamental Levitical laws and first creedal statement handed down by God through the Moses to the Israelite children in Numbers 22.
In the earliest Genesis creation narratives God’s people are called to carefully steward the resources at their disposal, and to view each other with equality and respect befitting God’s pleasing creation.
“Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. So God created humankind in [God’s] image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them... God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.”[2]

In Genesis 12, God reaffirms and expands this call in the earliest covenant promises to Abram and Sarai. Indeed, God’s terms explicitly describe the exemplary nature of the blessing, one that will be extended to all peoples everywhere. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing,” the LORD promised Abram. “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”[3]
When Abram and Sarai (later Abraham and Sarah) and their descendants faithfully followed God’s command to leave the lands of their birth for the Promised Land, their resulting journeys repeatedly brought them into foreign social, ethnic, and religious contexts. Abraham and Sarah left Ur of the Chaldeans to wander among Canaanites, Egyptians, and Philistines. Although Isaac and Rebekah spent their whole lives in the areas surrounding Canaan, they too moved between Mesopotamian, Philistine, and Canaanite cultures. Isaac and Rebekah’s son, Jacob, follow a similarly meandering path, one often shaped by the necessity of fleeing a family squabble or business deal gone sour. After a long life among idol-worshipping Canaanites and Perizzites, Jacob spent his final years in Egypt, where his second-youngest son, Joseph, served as the Pharaoh’s regent. Jacob insisted on being buried in Canaan, however, and after a similarly itinerant life Joseph extracted the same promise from his own descendants.
After Joseph’s death, the Hebrew people lived as slaves in Egypt for more than 400 years before they could fulfill Joseph’s wishes, an experience that (together with the wanderings of the Patriarchs) helped solidify the importance of treating strangers honorably in succeeding Israelite social, legal and religious traditions. Passages such as Leviticus 19:33-34, Numbers 9:14 and 15:14-16, and Deuteronomy 1:16-17 repeatedly emphasize the importance of equal treatment for native Israelites and resident aliens alike. “As for the assembly, there shall be for both you and the resident alien a single statute, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you and the alien shall be alike before the Lord,” Moses commanded. “You and the alien who resides with you shall have the same law and the same ordinance.”[4] In the same way, passages like Exodus 22:21 and 23:9 and Deuteronomy 10:18-19 and 16:11-12 specifically command the children of Israel to care for aliens in their midst because they too were once strangers in a foreign land. “You shall not oppress a resident alien,” God instructed them. “You know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”[5]
These emphases on social, religious and legal equality, together with the Hebrews’ shared, itinerant heritage, also profoundly inform the first doctrinal statement ever handed down by God through Moses to the fledgling nation of Israel. Recorded in Deuteronomy 26:2-15, this creed affirms God’s faithfulness to his chosen people during their long wanderings:
“You shall make this response before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors...So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me’...Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.”[6]


Since the earliest days of the founding of the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people included strangers and aliens in their midst. Joshua 8:35 and 20:9 both refer to the “aliens who resided among them” at least some of whom observed (and participated in) the Hebrews social, religious, and legal traditions.[7] Indeed, II Chronicles 2:17 records that by the days of King Solomon, third king of Israel and Judah, more than 153,000 foreigners dwelt peaceably among the Israelites.[8]
The most celebrated story of an outsider in ancient Israel is that of Ruth, the Moabite widow of a deceased Hebrew husband who relocated to Israel and embraced the Jewish faith alongside her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi. The two widows lived and worked together, and earned their sustenance through Ruth’s willingness to gather the leavings from others’ fields in keeping with the legal provisions recorded in Deuteronomy 24:19-21: “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings.”[9] Her husband’s kinsman, Boaz, recognized Ruth’s faithfulness and hard work; David, the second king of Israel, was their great-grandson![10]
Perhaps in part because of this family heritage of inclusion, David repeatedly refers to God’s special protection for strangers, widows and orphans in passages such as Psalm 10:18, 68:5, and 146:9. “The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow,” David reminds his hearers. “But the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.”[11] King Solomon echoes his father’s sentiments in Psalm 23:11. “Do not remove an ancient landmark or encroach on the fields of orphans, for their redeemer is strong; he will plead their cause against you.”[12]

Some of the most strongly worded defenses of the rights of social and religious outsiders - and damning indictments of those who oppress them - are contained in the Old Testament writings of so-called “Major Prophets” such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. The Book of Isaiah holds numerous promises of protection for the poor, widows, orphans, and strangers in passages such as Isaiah 1:17-23, 56:3-8, and 58:6-12. “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer,” God promised the chosen people of Israel through Isaiah. “Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”[13]
God similarly affirms the covenantal promises with the chosen people of Israel through the prophet Jeremiah - if only they continue to look after the needs of social, ethnic, and religious outsiders in their midst. In passages such as Jeremiah 5:28, 7:5-7, and 22:3-4, the prophet reiterates the blessings that will follow if Israel keeps her commitments to defend the weak, oppressed, and excluded. “For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place,” the LORD promises,” and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.”[14] The prophet Ezekiel, conversely, prophesied against the Israelites’ continued disobedience and mistreatment of social and religious outsiders. “Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the alien residing within you suffers extortion; the orphan and the widow are wronged in you,” Ezekiel chastised God’s chosen people. “You have despised my holy things, and profaned my sabbaths.”[15]

Many of the so-called “Minor Prophets” such as Micah, Zechariah, and Malachi make similar pronouncements about Israel’s responsibility to defend social, ethnic, and religious outsiders. Micah offers a straightforward description of the kind of behavioral faithfulness to which God’s chosen people are called.[16] “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”[17] The prophet Zechariah proclaims a similar, more specific blueprint for the Israelites’ responsibilities toward the outsiders in their midst. “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”[18] In the same way, Malachi offers God’s chosen people an even sterner warning about the consequences of violating the covenant. “’I will be swift to bear witness...against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me,’ says the Lord of hosts.”[19]

As we have seen, God’s chosen people are commanded throughout the Old Testament, to care for the social, ethnic, and religious outsiders among them, including those referred to by various authors as “aliens,” “strangers,” and “foreigners.” This theme of exemplary, inclusive hospitality is evident throughout each of the several literary and historical genres of the Old Testament, including the Torah, Writings, Major Prophets, and Minor Prophets. Perhaps most tellingly, ministry to social and religious outsiders was also emphasized by Christ in the New Testament as a natural, loving way of demonstrating one’s citizenship in the kingdom of heaven:
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”[20]

Thus Christ confirms what Moses, David, and the prophets had proclaimed to God’s chosen people all along: care and compassion for the strangers and outcasts among them provided the kind of loving, inclusive example through which God seeks to bless, redeem, and re-create not just the people of Israel, but the whole world. Amen!

[1] Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “The Dignity of Difference,” On Being with Krista Tippett, September 13, 2012, 
[2] Genesis 1:26-27, 31. This and all subsequent quotations, Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version (1989).
[3] Genesis 12:2-3.
[4] Numbers 15:14-15.
[5] Exodus 23:9.
[6] Deuteronomy 26:5-11.
[7] Joshua 8:35.
[8] II Chronicles 2:17.
[9] Deuteronomy 24:19.
[10] Matthew 1:4-5.
[11] Psalm 146:9.
[12] Proverbs 23:10-11.
[13] Isaiah 56:6-7.
[14] Jeremiah 7:5-7.
[15] Ezekiel 22:7-8.
[16] Hosea 14:3.
[17] Micah 6:8.
[18] Zechariah 7:10.
[19] Malachi 3:5.
[20] Matthew 25:34-40.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Oh, God: A Pastor's Prayer

Oh, God:

Help us to lead our people.
Help us to know who our people are.
Help us to know where to lead them.
Help us to lead them faithfully.

Help us to love them well.
Help us to serve them well.

Help us to be for the world the Body of Christ,
redeemed by His blood.


Friday, July 22, 2016

Into the Reign and Presence of God

The early disciples' lives were governed by the reign of God and not by the press of politics or the call of culture. 

They were different because they chose to live in their lives in obedience to and in the presence of God. 

Their radical love for God and neighbor resulted in dramatic actions that that perplexed all who observed them. 

When we move securely into the reign and presence of God, our lives also take on a beautiful and mysterious quality because God's presence and principles are being expressed in all that we do.

-Rueben P. Job, A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

And to push back darkness.

There was an ugly, racially insensitive incident at my alma mater a few weeks ago.

To make a long story short: a young man made a dumb choice in public, and things escalated pretty quickly thanks to social media. Views were traded, insults exchanged, and a few threats were made.

It didn’t take long for the conversation to get out of hand, and the school’s campus justice council stepped in pretty quickly. But in some ways the damage was already done.

In the immediate aftermath, I was surprised to hear many different sides to the same story. Some of my friends saw nothing wrong with the young man’s innocent insensitivity. Others condemned his offensive actions, regardless of their intent. Some blamed the young man; some blamed the environment he was raised in; others blamed the school itself.

A few days after the incident, I attended an on-campus discussion forum held for staff members, students, and alumni to share their ideas and experiences. I was surprised and saddened to hear so many members of the campus community describe their personal interactions with racial prejudice. Right here in Oklahoma. In 2016.

I heard angry voices.

“I was told by one student here that I was the Affirmative Action hire.”

“I shouldn’t have to answer phone calls from people in Ohio and have to explain to people who don’t know that we are not like this.”

“When I came to interview for a job here, a secretary looked at me and said. ‘Oh, I’m so glad you’re here. The trash is really piling up.’ She thought I was the janitor.”

I heard incredulous voices.

“On the way to Disney World, my family got stopped six times. We didn’t thing that living in the United States was supposed to be like this, you now? The land of the free.”

“Let’s not promote Christ and then not act like him.”

“Stop telling me that you’re sorry and just fix it.”

I heard saddened voices.

“For 17 years I hated my skin tone. I’m 19 years old now. People have been pointing out my color for as long as I’ve been alive. People used to ask my mom whose kid she was babysitting.”

“A lot of the professors here are very smart and very successful. And why don’t any of them look like me?”

“I’m getting tired. And it sucks. Because I don’t really feel like loving people anymore.”

But I also heard voices of hope.
“I love you all. I love this place. And it breaks my heart that this has been a place where so many have been marginalized and experienced prejudice.”
“I really believe that as Christians we are called to do three things: love God, love others, and push back darkness.”

And then -mercifully, beautifully- the school chaplain recalled for us of the words of the Peace Prayer sometimes attributed to St. Francis of Assisi:

“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon...Where there is darkness, light; Where there is sadness, joy.”

And we were reminded: as Christians, we are created to live (and love) in community.

We are responsible for each other -in good times and bad times- because we are in relationship with each other. And those relationships transcend categories like race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and socio-economic status.

As the Apostle Paul reminded the Galatians: “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith...There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:26-28, NRSV)

In other words: we are called to bring love, light, and joy to each other.

To love God. To love others. And to push back darkness.


Wednesday, February 24, 2016

That We May Delight: A Confession

"Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,

by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. 

We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;

that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. 

-Confession of Sin, Holy Eucharist Rite II

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

So That the Demonizing Will Stop.

[Faith is] about being in companionship with Jesus. St. Ignatius in his spiritual exercises has a meditation called The Two Standards, and in it he says very simply, "See Jesus standing in the lowly place."

It's not about saluting a set of beliefs necessarily; it's about walking with Jesus and being a companion. 

And I haven't found anything that's brought me more life or joy than standing with Jesus, but also with the particularity of standing in the lowly place with the easily despised and the readily left out and with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop and with the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away. 

And I find the fullness of life in trying to as best I can in my own way to stand there." -Fr. Greg Boyle, S. J.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

All the Stories are about Us.

"The power of stories is that they are telling us that life adds up somehow, that life itself is like a story. 

And this grips and fascinates us because of the feeling it gives us that if there is any meaning in life -in Hamlet's, in Mary's, in Christ's- then there is meaning also in our lives.

And if this is true, it is of enormous significance in itself, and it makes us listen to the storyteller with great intensity because in this way all [the] stories are about us and because it is always possible that [the storyteller] may give us some clue as to what the meaning of our lives is." -Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat