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Genesis 18:1-15 & Matthew 9:35-10:1, 10:5-15
If you were to count, you’d find about 300 or so passages in the Bible which mention the
foreigner, the stranger, the alien, those wandering about in exile. And not only does our scripture mention them, it is pretty clear about how we should treat them. Here’s a little hint – it’s not building a wall, imposing a travel ban or retreating into our fear. No, it is an act of faith, our Bible tells us, that we treat the stranger with kindness, and the widows and orphans, the displaced and marginalized, with respect and dignity and compassion.
Now I know what you are probably wondering – hey, Chris…why are you quoting the Bible at us? Aren’t you the guy always criticizing the people who wave the Bible around? Aren’t you the guy who, when confronted with the assertion that the “Bible says”, often replies, “Well, the Bible says lots of things.” Guilty as charged. I am not persuaded in my faith nor in my ethics by a single Bible verse alone…probably not even two or three. However, if you add them up, like 300+ verses, major themes and multiple parables, instead of cherry-picking a few verses here and there, I start getting suspicious that maybe God is trying to tell us something.
We spend inordinate amounts of time and energy in the Church debating and screaming and splitting up over single sentences, or small collections of verses on particular issues…like, let’s say, same-sex relationships. There are at the most 6 verses of scripture that contend with same-sex relationships, and most of them aren’t talking about what we call same-gender, loving relationships, they contend with sexual abuse. But, as previously mentioned, over 300 verses about how we treat refugees and immigrants. Now, when denominations start having judicatory meetings about how their churches aren’t being just to refugees, I might attend. Until then, I’ll be ready to defend myself to Jesus on our open & affirming position any day of the week.
The Bible, as it turns out, talks a lot about justice and the displacement of people, whether for economic reasons, like Jacob arriving in Egypt, or because of climate change, like Noah and the
flood, because of war, like the people of Israel exiled to Babylon, or because of tyranny, like with the family of Jesus who flee to Egypt to escape persecution. Jesus, it would seem, so prizes the value of welcoming that he sends his disciples out into the world as refugees, essentially, telling them to set aside their need for security, to take no money, to rely on the kindness of strangers. It is as if he holds the value of hospitality so high that he wants his disciples to experience both sides – welcoming and being welcomed. He wants them to know themselves in the people cast aside, and to experience what it means to be left out, for that will grow in the hearts compassion.
The story from Genesis is actually the first part of a larger narrative explaining this very concept. We get only the first part, Abraham and Sarah encountering these three strangers at their camp, which the text tells us is really a visit from God. Abraham’s behavior, not unlike the father in the parable of the prodigal, is exaggerated…extreme. His sense of welcome is over the top – bowing to the men, prostrating himself on the ground. He then asks for lavish amounts of food, asking Sarah to prepare “three measures of flour”, a measure being enough bread for a single day. And he runs to the flock and selects a calf, which is a risky move as a rancher. It is the most tender meat, but also you need your flock to grow, which doesn’t happen when you kill off the young ones. These are signs of an extravagant welcome.
Now for the part we didn’t hear this morning. The strangers, in response to Sarah and Abraham’s welcome, reiterate the promise of God made so long ago…we shall return soon and when we do, Sarah will have a child. Now Abraham and Sarah were “advanced in age”, the text says, this may not be welcome news anymore. And we’re not sure whether it is greeted with joy or concern, as we have only a laugh, sort of to herself, and this cryptic question from Sarah – “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” You can sure take that a lot of ways. And the way that this is setup in the story seems to be that the promise, the deal that God made a long time ago with Abraham but which is almost forgotten because so much time has passed, is coming true, in part at least, because of this welcoming…a sign of their faithfulness and what the Hebrew Bible would call “righteousness.”
And then…after that has been established…THEN we have the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Well, first we have a little exchange between God and Abraham where Abraham tries to reason with God, who has announced the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah for their sin. Abraham tries to get God to spare the cities, for surely not all of the people there are wicked. And a negotiation ensues, with God finally promising not to bring destruction IF there there are ten righteous people in all of the two cities. Alas, as we know from the next part of the story, this is not the case.
So, after the gratuitous story of welcome and the story of God and Abraham that introduces the idea that our actions help to sway the hand of a mighty God, comes the story of extreme LACK of hospitality that greets the same strangers in Sodom. There Lot behaves in a similar, if less extravagant, manner as Abraham. He brings welcome, comfort and shelter but the rest of the city brings rejection, violence and danger, even to the point of sexual violence aimed at these three strangers. The juxtaposition is clear to the reader between Abraham and Sarah’s welcome and the hostility of the people of Sodom.
Sodom and Gomorrah, as it turns out, is not a story about same-gender sex at all, but a claim on our call to be hospitable and welcoming. It is a demand from God, in ancient Hebrew terms, that we shelter and protect the stranger, that we possess and nurture a value of extravagant welcome. That, the story of scripture tells us, is what makes us righteous.
Friends, this morning I want to suggest to you that such a value – extravagant welcome – means that we must make room for the refugee, the immigrant, the “other” in our society if this value means anything to us as people of faith. More than 65 million people worldwide are currently displaced by war, famine or violence, 51% of whom are children. Our liturgy today, the scriptures and the prayers, are designed to help us identify with “the other” in our midst. While today this means refugees and immigrants, this is an ongoing value for us as an “open & affirming” church. We open our eyes to the margins, looking for those left out and abandoned. We see this as a value that Jesus taught. For him it looked like widows and orphans, Samaritans and Canaanites, women and children, the blind, the sick, the lame. For us it means much of the same, plus our own artificial tribal divisions, the spectrum of what we call race and gender, and the divisions that we have created through racism, sexism, persecution based on religion or sexuality.
There is a deep connection between our recognition of the plight and rights of refugees and immigrants today and our work on white privilege…between our participation in Pride and our effort to help feed the hungry. There is a deep connection between our embrace of the Muslim community and our desire to see change in the ways the policing takes place in our city. The fancy word for this is intersectionality, and it asks that we see how all of these things are connected…how human rights are human rights and if we claim them in one place, that ought to impact how we see them in other places.
Why do we care about refugees from Syria or South Sudan or Burma? Well, because we believe these claims from Genesis – first that we are all created in the image of God, ALL of us God’s children, and also because we believe in some way, shape or form, that we are accountable for one another, whether by the judgment of a God who holds us accountable, or by the historically predictable reactions of social karma. Such caring, by the pull of intersectionality, also drives us to care about marginalization in other forms, in other places. We begin to see lots of people housed in tents, tents of cloth or nylon or tents of shame…tents of oppression and injustice…tents of hopelessness and despair.
While we look at the physical tents that house people who need care, we can also see the metaphorical tents, where people reside outside the walls of justice, people who have not been served, but abused, not welcomed, but chastised and scorned. Who resides in those tents? Tamir Rice? Freddie Gray? Sandra Bland? Terence Crutcher? Philando Castile? People who join a long list of black faces refused justice by a system that may never have been created to give it to them in the first place? Who else resides there? Countless children who don’t have enough to eat in the richest nation in the world because we need to “balance a budget?” Veterans returned from serving this nation who end up on the streets because we can wave a flag, but we can’t honor a sacrifice? The refugees are everywhere, their tents all around us.
It’s a complicated world. This was supposed to be a sermon about the plight of refugees in our world, but then another verdict, another acquittal for the shooting of a black man and I could not remain silent about that, even though it doesn’t have anything to do with refugees. Or does it? The call from God to welcome the stranger is a never ending call. There are always more strangers. There are always ways that we are closing off our hearts to fellow human beings for no good reason at all, other than our fears, or biases or misconceptions. And what lies at the core of this call, the same one Abraham felt and Jesus sent his disciples out to learn, is this – what happens to one of us happens to all of us. Unfortunately we all too often only learn that lesson when it hits very, very close to home…mostly because we always define “us” far too narrowly.
So, maybe that is a big chunk of the work…to expand the circle, to draw it wider, to learn to stand in solidarity with those whose plight we cannot simply fix, whose struggle we may have caused, even if only from a historical perspective because of race and racial systems. Maybe it is learning to walk with people. I’m certain that it is developing skills and communities to cope and confront the surges of outrage and trauma that come at us these days like the summer storms that have rolled in the past few nights – bringing heavy winds that knock things down and hail and rain that assault our senses.
I don’t have any magic answers. What I do know is this – the overwhelming witness of the Biblical narrative is that we were created not to be afraid…of one another, of creation itself, nor of the Creator. We were created by the same God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Moses and Miriam, David, the prophets and Jesus resurrected…the God who breathes life into the dust, and raises us from the depths…the God who is still here, still speaking, still making all things new. I believe, sometimes despite the evidence, that God is still at work. So I will be, too.