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  • Writer's pictureRev. Izzy Harbin

Welcome the Stranger

Leviticus 19:33-34, Inclusive Bible

Do not mistreat the foreigners who reside in your land. The foreigner who lives among you must be treated like one of your own. Love them as you love yourself, for you too were a foreigner in the land of Egypt. I am YHWH.

Zechariah 7:9-14, Inclusive Bible

“Didn’t I tell them, ‘Thus says YHWH Omnipotent: Administer true justice; show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widowed or the orphaned, the resident alien or the poor, and do not plot evil against one another’? But they refused to listen; they turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears in order not to hear. They were adamant in their refusal to accept the Law and its teachings which YHWH Omnipotent sent by the spirit through the prophets of old. Since they did not listen when I called, I would not listen when they called. I scattered them out among all the nations unknown to them, leaving their land deserted behind them, so that no one came and went. So, their pleasant land turned into a desert.”

Throughout the Hebrew text, we find passage after passage that admonishes the Israelite people to welcome the stranger, foreigner, or alien among them; to threat them like their own, often followed by a reminder that they were once foreigners in the land of Egypt and barely made it out of there with their culture intact. In the United States, we generally ignore the Hebrew texts warnings about treating the stranger, foreigner, or alien unfairly. We, too, have forgotten that we came from somewhere else, many of our ancestors fleeing various types of persecution from governments of tyranny.

Why do we have such short memory spans? And why do we ignore these passages of scripture that are so compelling about how we SHOULD treat one another?

I guess what I find astounding is that we haven’t learned yet, whether from scripture or just from daily living, that how we treat each other actually matters.

I had this amazing experience this week that brought this message home to me so clearly. Our doorbell rang in the middle of the day, which usually indicates a delivery. I stopped working to go check the front porch because I don’t like to leave stuff out there, which can invite mischief to your front door. When I opened the door, though, it wasn’t a delivery, but rather a gentleman that I did not recognize. He immediately introduced himself and explained the reason for his intrusion. He and his wife were doing a six-week observation at the hospital, both of them doctors from India, and he was looking for a place to stay. We ended up having a wonderful conversation. I invited him in so that I could get his contact information and I told him I would call if I discovered anything close by that might work for him.

At dinner, I talked it over with my wife, and we agreed to call them back and offer them a room. I couldn’t believe we were going to do this, but it felt so right. I knew that I needed to do this. So, I called them back right then and we set up a time for them to come the next day.

We both got up early and started cleaning the house (we wanted to make a good impression) and managed to get everything done in preparation for their arrival. I felt good about our efforts and was looking forward to seeing him again. Sadly, I received a text message from him that he had found lodging with someone else that really was a better fit—more room and a cultural connection.

Up until this event, I had been floundering on which of several passages I wanted to focus on this week. The two passages I chose were among those I was wrestling with.

I am convinced that how we treat the stranger, foreigner, or alien seeking any kind of refuge in our country really does matter. There is something so foundational to that kind of hospitality that it is inescapable as a spiritual practice. Coming face to face with someone who doesn’t look like us or someone who doesn’t have the same customs as us can move us to expand our vision of the world. We are suddenly thrust into uncharted territory where learning about how other people think, worship, and live can open us more fully to our creator. We are being shown the various expressions of God every time we step outside our comfort zone and have conversations with people with a variety of heritages.

In scripture, these mandates are often tied to the land in which the Israelites occupy. They are often told that there are consequences for not treating others fairly. God threatens the Israelites with expulsion from the land if they do not honor the stranger, foreigner, or alien residing among them. This feels like harsh treatment coming from God, and maybe it is, but I suspect that the prophets who made these pronouncements in the name of God were trying to convey a broader message of hospitality as a spiritual practice and that without this foundational piece anchoring their faith, they are likely to become the very thing they hate. The oppressed become the oppressor.

If we look at what is happening in Israel at the moment, and we remember all the previous moments where the Israeli army decided to remove Palestinians from their land, it has never gone well for them. In the United States, it has been unpopular to speak out against the actions of the Israeli army for its antagonistic actions toward Palestine, and those who do get labeled Anti-Semitic. As someone who studies Jewish texts and who understands the covenantal relationship between God and Abraham and the Christian grafting onto that covenant that we claim as followers of Jesus, I can state with certainty that I am not Anti-Semitic. I can also state with certainty that the ongoing aggression toward Palestine is not in keeping with God’s command to his favored people.

The oppressed have become the oppressors.

Recognizing that the relationship between Israel and Palestine is a complicated issue, I do not want to simplify it so much that we miss the complexity of God’s covenant with Abraham juxtaposed against the backdrop of a modern-day conflict between two nations competing for the same land and resources. There is nothing simple about this conflict or the right of either Israel or Palestine to possess the land.

Still, we cannot ignore the multitude of times that the Israelite people are told to welcome the stranger, foreigner, or alien resident among them. We cannot ignore the many times the Israelite people are reminded that they were once in the land of Egypt, foreigners in a foreign land, and that they had to be liberated from that land if they expected to survive. They were worth saving. Are not others worth saving also?

When we treat our neighbors with contempt; when we intentionally draw battle lines where we should be eliminating borders, we keep the good out along with the bad. There really isn’t any way to guard against the bad actions of the few. Sometimes we are in the path of those actions, and it doesn’t go so well. We can try to protect ourselves from this level of interaction, but there will always be someone, somewhere, who can slip through our defenses.

Instead, God is calling us to live wide-open. We have talked many times about how living from a place of vulnerability is the most courageous thing we can do. It is true. Often people retaliate as a way to keep from being on the receiving end of retaliation. This creates a tit-for-tat kind of situation that never ends. What would happen, though, if we decided to put down all of our weapons, our armor, everything that we think protects us from the outside world and tried to listen—to just be present to the moment? Would it change how we see each other? Would we be more open to the ways we are alike rather than only looking at the ways we are different?

The Spiritual Practice of Hospitality teaches me that acknowledging the stranger, foreigner, and alien is the first step to seeing just how create God is. Once we acknowledge God’s creativity, then we can begin to grasp the necessity for diversity of culture, religions, and political ideologies. If we can see that diversity matters, then we are more apt to accept that God’s creation is more magnificent than we first realized; that God’s dwelling place must be equally diverse, equally filled with possibility. That is the God I serve, a God who pushes me to grow, change, and be transformed by the world around me.

It takes all of us learning from each other, engaging in mutual cooperation, to even begin to unravel the secrets of the universe. It is through our encounters with one another that we catch a glimpse of who God is and how God works in the world. When we remember that all of this belongs to God in the first place, I am more willing to concede that we must create space for one another; that we must share in all our resources so that we can all thrive in this world.

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