Life + Culture

Welcoming the Stranger: #AllPeoplePractices

Image result for welcome the strangerThe following was adapted from a short address given at this weekend's All People Conference in Columbus, OH. 

The Hebrew word “ger” or “stranger” appears 92 times in the Old Testament.  We see that God “defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger residing among you, giving them food and clothing” (Deut. 10:18). The bible also tells us not to “oppress the widow, the fatherless, the stranger, or the poor and let none devise evil against another in his heart." (Zechariah 7:10)

Indeed Malachi pretty strongly warns us that God "will be swift... against those who thrust aside the stranger." And in Deuteronomy 10:19 it says “So you, too, must show love to stranger, for you yourselves were once the new kid in the pew.” I may have mistranslated that last one...

But I do know that in Leviticus 19 it says “when a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the stranger. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the stranger as yourself.” I’ve always thought it was funny how some folks jump right over that verse when they’re in such a hurry to quote the chapters on either side of it...

Image result for flight to egypt
Throughout scripture we see that our faith has been founded on the shoulders of strangers seeking welcome in new places. As a teenager, Joseph narrowly evaded death, and was forced to leave his parents to live in a foreign country. We remember Noah, who stuffed his family onto a crowded ship, and endured the tossing waves to escape their eminent doom. We honor Moses, who also floated on a life raft in troubled waters to reach safety as a baby boy. And Jesus himself, who as a child was forced to escape state violence and oppression by crossing a border, and became a refugee in a foreign land. People of God, let us remember who we are!

What if Pharaoh’s daughter hadn't taken in a child in need? What if Joseph the Dreamer hadn't been able to find employment in a new country? What if the Egyptian immigration agents had stopped Mary and Joseph at the border? Where would the Church be today, but for those that were willing to welcome the stranger?

Indeed, the idea of welcoming the stranger is at the very heart of God’s love for God’s people. It can be seen as the distilled essence of the Gospel message itself. For it is in our sinfulness, our estrangement, our stranger-ness, that Christ welcomed us into God’s own family. How can we but do anything else for each other?

Image result for citizen of heavenWe worship a God that does not heartlessly tell us to "go away," but says instead "welcome home." We benefit from a Savior who helped us cross the border into God's land of prosperity, where we are welcomed with the full rights of Heaven’s citizenship.And while we were not natural born members of God’s heavenly Kingdom, we know that Christ has sworn us in as naturalized citizens, having been born again on God’s sovereign soil.

But if at times we are apprehensive before the throne of God, perhaps it is because we know we have barred shut the gates of our own kingdoms at home. And I don’t just mean the gates at our nation’s entrances, but the gates around our own hearts and minds as well.

If we operate out of fear, we end up creating our own famines. We cling to the way it’s always been, and wonder why things never change. We create artificial codes of entry with unwritten rules of behavior and then look around in wonder when yet another local church is laid to rest.

Sometimes our welcome sign is sending mixed messages:
We say “bring your kids, but they’d better not cry”
We say “serve the church, but only if you’re able bodied”
We say “bring your charity, but not those that need it”
We say “bring your diversity, but only if you’ll assimilate”
We neglect our neighbors in the narthex, and vet our visitors in the vestibule
We say “come as you are”…when we really mean “come as we are”
And sometimes we leave the folks outside our walls to wonder why any church would be worth the all that trouble.

We don’t seem to realize is that by building walls--around our hearts, around our churches, and around our country--we are locking ourselves in, more than keeping others out. But Church, I tell you we cannot have open hearts, open minds, open door, while we have closed borders.

Image result for welcomeIt was of course Jesus that said to those who offered love and kindness “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

So what does it mean to welcome the stranger?
It means wrapping our arms around those that the world has discarded
It means setting aside our own comfort and preferences for the sake those around us
It means caring for the injustice in others' lives, and working daily to right the wrongs against them
It means affirming that undocumented doesn’t not mean unloved or unworthy
And it means offering forward the same radical welcome that Christ offered to us through His life and death on the cross.
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