Week 1: “You Were, Once”
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Texts: Deuteronomy 10:12-22; Matthew 2:13-15
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Alien. Stranger. Sojourner.
Nearly 100 times the Hebrew Scriptures uses these words, with this mandate: welcome, befriend, offer kindness to them. With due respect to some current Christian leaders, immigration is very clearly a Bible issue. And there’s no question where the Scriptures stand.
At the core, the Scriptures tell the story of a world of immigrants and aliens, wandering people who are found by the God of all people and welcomed. Even the Son of God became a refugee when he was only a child. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus look exactly like the refugee families fleeing famine and war and persecution in the Middle East today.
“You shall love the stranger,” Moses says today, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This is the heart of the Biblical witness to our identity: remember who you were before you were found by God’s love. Remember that you, too, or maybe your forebears, were an outsider, a stranger. You didn’t belong, and people didn’t welcome you. Now you know you are loved by God forever, offer that love to everyone else.
If once you’ve been welcomed out of the storm into a warm room, with a fire and food and kindness, don’t bar the door behind you. Take turns watching to see if anyone else is lost out there needing to come in.
This is a huge problem in our country right now. It’s one of our oldest problems.
We gladly recite Emma Lazarus’ words on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” But it’s not true. It’s not how we behave most times.
In 1798, John Adams’ government passed four Alien and Sedition Acts, making it harder for immigrants to become citizens, giving the president authority to deport or imprison non-citizens who were deemed dangerous or who came from nations the U.S. considered hostile, and giving sweeping power to shut down any who spoke against the government. After Jefferson became president, three of these were repealed. But the law permitting deportation and imprisonment of immigrants who belong to nations we consider enemies remains on the books.
It was picked up again in 1918 and broadened to include even citizens, causing many German-Americans grief and persecution. German language newspapers in the Midwest were bombed, their presses destroyed. People on both sides of my family changed the spelling of their last names so they seemed less German.
FDR picked it up again in World War II to justify the incarceration of thousands of Japanese-Americans and the theft of their lives and property. This is who we truly are. Muslim immigrants are only the latest iteration of our fear of the stranger.
And even without these laws, every wave of immigrants, including many of our grandparents and great-grandparents, faced discrimination, hatred, abuse, simply for being different.
If the words on the Statue of Liberty were actually true of our national character, we would be right in proclaiming them. It’s hard to find an era in our history where the truth wasn’t the exact opposite of these words.
We must be honest with ourselves as the Church, too.
Franklin Graham isn’t the only Christian leader supporting a ban on immigration and the deportation of illegal aliens. Throughout history the Church is commonly on the side of the powers in charge, the side of the status quo, and leaves the stranger, the immigrant, out in the cold.
It’s a basic human challenge: we band together in groups. We were made for companionship. But pretty quickly we act as if the group is only valuable and safe if we control who’s in and who’s out. If we can close the doors to some people, somehow we feel better about who we are.
So the Church too often has been on the wrong side of history. We who have been welcomed by God in Christ without our doing anything have then tried to shut the door to anyone else, at least anyone who isn’t like us. We’ll deal with this more in a couple weeks, but our history on race and slavery is just one example of Christians happily accepting the Good News of the grace of God and just as happily refusing it to others. In the history of immigrants in this nation, it’s most often Christians leading the charge against the outsiders, even against fellow Christians. My Irish Catholic forebears were hated by good American Lutherans, some of whom were probably my relatives, too.
We shut the doors to others because we are afraid.
Our fear of the other is deep-rooted, and until we name it and face it, it will continue to drive us. We fear those we don’t understand, those who behave differently than we, those with different cultures and customs. We struggle to shake that fear, so much so that once we get used to one group, we’ll find another to fear.
So Christ first always tries to ease our fear. We hear “do not be afraid” often, and it is more than just words. Trusting we belong to God’s love forever means we can learn, through the grace of the Spirit, to let go of our fear of the other, and be welcoming to all.
This congregation has learned that over the years and it’s almost second nature to us. But we still have times when we’re challenged to keep that hospitality. Our old fears crop up just when we thought they’d gone forever.
As we are filled with God’s grace in this place, we pray that we are also given a spirit of peace and hope, and not one of fear. So we can love. And so we can deal with the question of barriers and doors more hopefully and honestly.
Because Christ blows open all doors, and not just on Easter Day.
Here, in this place, we are welcomed in God’s love, even if we felt outsiders before. We belong.
But Christ never lets us stop there. To follow Christ is to break down all barriers between all people. Jesus frequently got into trouble for talking to and welcoming people he wasn’t supposed to welcome. To belong to the family of Christ is to belong to a family with no doors, no walls, no barriers. As Paul has said, there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.
But that’s also our great joy: if there are no walls, doors, or barriers, we also can never be left out in the cold. Once we’ve found God’s warmth and love, how then can we likewise envision ever leaving someone else out in the cold? And once we’ve enjoyed the freedom of this country, how can we refuse it to others?
This is a non-negotiable truth for any who wish to follow Christ: all are neighbors to us, all are loved by God, and all are welcome.
It is the very love of God in Christ that we know that breaks open our hearts. That love takes away our fear of the stranger. That love can open our doors, take down our walls, and help us reach out to those who are strange to us. When we do that here, and in our daily lives, we can also work with others in this country to make our nation live up to what we hope is its destiny as a home for any who seek a home.
You once were strangers yourselves, God says to us. But now you belong, and are welcomed, loved, forgiven, graced. Go, and be that love and welcome and forgiveness and grace to the stranger. There is room enough for all in God’s reign.
In the name of Jesus. Amen