…when I was a stranger
February 18, 2018
Scripture: portions of Matthew 25
That scripture from Matthew 25 which recounts the events in Jesus’ life just prior to his betrayal by Judas and subsequent arrest is one that speaks loudly and clearly of the ways in which our Lord Jesus intends that we conduct our lives as disciples of his. From helping those who hunger to those held captive, those who are ill or injured to those who are complete strangers, Jesus calls us to reach out in love and compassion, and to serve them as representatives of his grace and mercy.
And yet that last one…‘reaching out to the stranger’…is not always the easiest thing to do. For it is one thing to help out a friend, or to hold great concern for a family member who is ill or struggling, but to extend ourselves on behalf of a complete stranger runs counter to a lot of what we may have been taught by our culture and society. In a time when taking care of oneself and the needs or concerns of one’s own holds so much value in our understanding, doing the same for one we do not know seems to carry far more risk than possible reward. And yet Jesus was very clear in his call for service towards others.
And while this scripture was originally spoken in a time when ‘not welcoming the stranger’ seemed to have much more dire consequences, I would hold that the withholding of one’s welcome and the decision to exclude is just as harmful and dangerous today. For while we as individuals have a choice whether or not to make acquaintance with, or to welcome any individual we so choose, when a group of people, or a community of people all make the same choice to exclude, then there surely are much more dire consequences. When a community chooses to reject someone or ‘some-ones’ and to set up boundaries or barriers between the perceived ‘us’ and ‘them’ then that community is moving closer to violating the spirit of what Jesus was seeking to tell us all when he asked us to treat every stranger in need just as we would treat the Lord himself.
For this whole conversation is really about community. And about how much the creation of and preservation of community is in truth the primary force underlying our Lord’s call to usher in his kingdom. Our reading makes it very clear that none are to be left out of God’s kingdom or excluded from his table. However the creation or preservation of inclusive and open community has always been a difficult and threatening concept for people to embrace, introducing as it does elements of fear and the possibility of being taken advantage of.
Our bible has numerous instances throughout where the forceful exclusion of someone from the community has very negative consequences. In fact it was Abraham, the father of the faith who forcibly dismissed his wife’s maid Hagar and her young son Ishmael after his wife Sarah became jealous of the boy who was in fact Abraham’s first born. Expelling Hagar from the community and sending her and her son out into the unforgiving desert was in effect giving them both a death sentence. Fortunately Hagar’s distressed cries were heard by the Lord and he rescued the woman and her son out of whom he raised up the nation that gave birth to Islam.
And again, at the very end of the Book of Ezra we find a disturbing account which recalls the expulsion of every woman along with her children who had married or were born into the Hebrew faith from another land or people. In a search for someone to blame for their previous misfortune, all of these individuals were singled out as a cause of their distress. Considered ‘unclean’ and a violation of the sacredness of the Hebrew bloodline these women and children were torn apart from their husbands and fathers and sent out into the desert to die…forcibly excluded from the community…truly a shocking account of ethnic cleansing if ever there was one and so far from Jesus’ words calling for us to welcome the stranger in our midst.
And yet, this fear of including strangers into our lives or extending ourselves to people we do not know persists for many of us, helped out in no small part by long-lived prejudice and policies that are created or upheld by many in our government at all levels. Too often we hear words playing on fears that are intended to create or reinforce divisions within our society and community rather than words celebrating the strength and beauty of the diversity placed into the very heart of Creation by our Lord Jesus…this same one who was a marginalized, outcast brown-skinned refugee in his own land…
And it is not enough as individuals or as Christians to try and keep ourselves somehow insulated from this issue…to try and keep it far enough away from ourselves or our own actions, hoping we never have to deal with it directly. It is not enough to say ‘we live in a broken world’, and that therefore these issues will somehow always be there and they do not require our own attention or involvement. That is simply not a valid excuse and does not allow us to turn our heads and not see or engage the sickness and strife all around us. There simply is no excuse to act in ways like this that surely deeply sadden our Lord.
We are a nation whose history has had many dark moments when it comes to how we treat the strangers among us. Too often we have sought to wall ourselves off in tribes or clans of same-minded, and similar looking and thinking individuals. However the truth is that some of our greatest moments of strength and forward looking purpose have been the result of cooperation and unity of very diverse elements of our society…truly all across Creation there is greater strength in diversity and mutually beneficial cooperation.
In fact, I would hold that our greatest strength and our greatest moments together as a people who inhabit or who have come to this great land have been moments when we were able to show ourselves as the compassionate and caring individuals we all are at heart. Unfortunately this is seen far too often only in times of deep tragedy and trial rather than as a matter of course on any street, on any day, and at any moment in America.
We need to learn to trust one another and to rely on the Spirit within our hearts as it directs us to reach out in care for one another. We need to get to a point of deciding to make our own decisions rather that to rely on all the ‘fear-speak’ we may hear about this or that person or persons.
This was a lesson I learned early on in my adult life when I was part of the buying team for a company I worked for who sourced their products over in Taiwan. Prior to my first visit to the factories in Taiwan I was instructed not to trust the agents or factory owners we would be meeting with as the prevailing wisdom was that they were always and in every way searching for ways to take advantage of you. I was given specific examples and strong advice to toe this company line and not to stray far from it.
However, that was not me. I was always one to give someone the benefit of a doubt and to go into new relationships trusting first and revising my opinion only if forced to do so. And so I met and got to know these individuals whom we were doing business with and over the course of our visit was able to develop a relationship that was both based on trust, and mutually beneficial. And that relationship remained so for the balance of the time I worked with the company and subsequent visits only served to deepen the trust and the relationship even further to a point where both Nancy and I considered the young agent and his wife our friends.
Have I ever been taken advantage of for this approach? To be sure…but the rewards of trusting first have far outweighed the few times I was wronged…and more often than not, the times I was taken in and outfoxed were by people who were not strangers to me at all…
In truth, the strangers in our midst are here to stay…they are a part of the fabric that makes this nation as strong and resourceful as it is. Be they immigrants who came here as strangers over a hundred years ago, or immigrants who have only recently arrived on the shores of this land, we are a nation comprised almost solely of those who came here as strangers. Which is not to say they had it easy, as we seem to have always resisted welcoming newcomers into our midst who did not look, speak, of believe as we did. And yet, we are who we are solely because at some point the diversity of the family of those who bear the image of our Lord was allowed to remain and to flourish. The kingdom of our Lord…the table of our Lord here in this land has room for every one of the children of our God.
We are a nation of immigrants…not a nation beset by ‘illegals’. If there is one thing I would hope that you take away from this it is there is no one who deserves to be objectified in this way. To call someone who is in every way as loved by God as you an illegal is to diminish them as a human being. They may be people who have come here illegally, they may not have the proper documentation, but they are not an illegal.
So again, if there is one take away…please do not ever say again ‘illegals’…or ‘aliens’…for they are neither, and these terms are nasty pejoratives and not loving by any stretch.
Rather, when referring to those without proper documentation…those still waiting on line as all of our ancestors once did…refer to them as ‘undocumented’ if you must, although it is far better to see them as just the latest wave of immigrants waiting to make our country stronger and more diverse, waiting to make our country into an even closer reflection of the image of God in which all of humankind was created…an image which knows no single characteristic…not color, not gender, not race, not age or sexual orientation, not any of these categories which we hold on to so tightly in order to be able to distinguish us from them.
So…as we seek to engage in our Lord’s call to welcome him by welcoming the strangers in our midst, let us please remember to keep this in mind…for truly our Lord, were he to arrive on our shores today would surely be one who was viewed much the same as those others whom we are so slow to embrace or care for.
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you a stranger, and invite you in’?”
Was it you my Lord, the one standing on the corner with a Latino sounding name, or was that just a fellow Western image bearer?…Was it you my Lord looking so hard for work to support your family… was it you on line at our food pantry… or emerging from the night time shadows on a Poughkeepsie street to accept a pair of warm socks from volunteers on a Midnight Run… was it you O Lord, all alone in the corner of that old and tired nursing home… long left alone by family and friends, hardly ever seeing a visitor to brighten your day – was that when we saw you a stranger?
Or perhaps it was you who dressed differently…or behaved a bit differently…or spoke in unfamiliar and halting English…or perhaps…even believed a bit differently…was that you my Lord?
“The Lord will answer…, ‘I tell you the truth… whatever you do for one of the least of these…whenever you reach out in love to one of these brothers and sisters of mine, co-bearers with you of my image…
…whatever you do to restore, to preserve, and to honor the breath of life within any of these my children…that you do unto me”.
Let us always be quick to serve our Lord as we reach out in love and compassion to our sister and our brother…all of whom have been sent to us by the Spirit of love…