Sunday, September 07, 2014

Strangers in our midst

Exodus 1:8-14
Hebrews 13:1-5
Matthew 25:31-16

"You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt."  Exodus 22:21 NRSV

"You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."  Exodus 22:21 NKJV

"When strangers start acting like neighbors, communities are reinvigorated." Ralph Nader

"Stranger Danger" is without a doubt the greatest challenge we face as disciples of Christ because our Lord calls us to ministry with and for these "aliens", these "strangers", these outsiders in whatever context we consider them to be "outsiders"; but our practical, protective selves are more inclined to focus on the potential danger involved in dealing with someone we know nothing about.  We of the Body of Christ are charged with a mission borne of a theological certainty that "while we were still sinners (that is, "outsiders"), Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8), our Lord extending to all of humanity a hospitality so radical and so unbelievable that even we who call ourselves Christians can barely wrap our minds around it!

It's one thing to believe Christ died for "me"; it is another thing altogether to fully embrace that certain reality that Christ died for "all".

The news reports never let us forget about "stranger danger".  Stories of children and women disappearing without a trace send a shiver down our collective spine and force us to circle the wagons, close our ranks, arm ourselves, and do all we can to protect our loved ones ... and maybe our friends.  We see nothing wrong with this, of course, and I cannot say for sure there is anything wrong with this because protecting one another is a responsibility.  Protecting anyone and everyone who needs protection, however, is not only a commandment of our Lord but a social responsibility as well.  According to the Holy Scriptures, we are charged with protecting the human dignity of even the "strangers".  Beyond taking care of "our own", we are commanded to "love our neighbors as we love ourselves" - that is, to do for them just as surely as we would do for ourselves and those we love.

Looking at a recent picture of my granddaughter, she was sitting in a little thingie that helped to support her and she had a little book in her lap that she was completely engrossed in.  And I got a little emotional looking at that picture because in the purity of her innocence and being oblivious to any sense of danger, she was learning, she was discovering, they were growing.  And our Lord is counting on her caregivers - not just "commanding" - to protect her so she can go about her business of growing up and learning and discovering new things without fear - becoming all our Lord created her to be.  Nothing productive and growth-enhancing is going to happen, however, if all she can know is fear and suspicion.

The same goes for us.  We know we live in a dangerous world; and though this crazy world seems to have become even more dangerous, the reality may be the world has always been this dangerous.  We are just more aware in an age of instantaneous news.  Being aware of these dangers, however, or being consumed by these dangers makes all the difference in whether we will continue to grow as human beings, as disciples of Christ, and as a people living in community with one another - or be stunted in our growth by our isolation, our suspicions, and our sometimes paralyzing fear of the unknown.

So what is it we think we know?  What are we more actively aware of?  It is written in Deuteronomy 25:17-19 (NRSV): "Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and struck down all who lagged behind you; he did not fear God.  Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies on every hand, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; do not forget."

So why should Israel not at least be mindful of past experiences when they were mistreated, when the "stragglers" were hit while they were "faint and weary"?  Should this not be a lesson for future generations so measures can be taken to be sure it does not happen again?

The experience itself cannot be forgotten, of course, and there are lessons to learn.  What we choose to dwell on, however, may well determine whether our outlook in the present and for the future is cynical or optimistic! 

Neurosurgeon Dr. Daniel J. Siegel writes, "How we focus our attention shapes the structure of the brain."  So when we erect any sort of barrier that we hope will protect us from future harm, science shows that "what we pay the most attention to defines us.  How we choose to spend the irreplaceable hours of our lives (bells which cannot be unrung) literally transforms us."   

A rabbi writing a devotional expressed an experience he had once at a Yom Kippur service when the rabbi of that synagogue asked the congregation to list off some names of Hitler's SS.  Of course there was that keen memory of specific names of Nazi leaders who were responsible for perpetuating the Holocaust.  But then the rabbi asked the congregation to name those who tried to save Anne Frank and her family.  There was silence.

He quoted the rabbi, "Blot out the memory of Amalek, of all those who have tried to destroy us. But ... whose names have we blotted out, and whose names have we remembered? In focusing on our suffering, we have chosen to see ourselves as victims, to see in others the potential hater" (Rabbi Shira Milgrom, "We are what we remember").

We don't really have that kind of collective memory as Christians (though we should) because even though we can agree the Holocaust was the worst human disaster of the 20th century, we can probably also agree (though we shouldn't) that it didn't really involve us.  Yet even if we do not see the Holocaust itself as a direct threat to us or to our past, the Jews have a different recollection; their current generation still has some tie to that horrific time.  It is very real to them.

So even if we do not have such a recollection, we still have a way of making the "boogie man" seem so real and so vivid to us in the present time that we shut out those we do not know, we shut out those whose ideologies we find strange or threatening, and we shut out those who don't look or live like we do!  What happens as a result is that we truly do forget who we are altogether; disciples of Messiah Jesus who calls us - commands us, actually - to take deliberate measures to narrow - and ultimately eliminate - the gap between ourselves and those we deem to be "outsiders", "strangers", "resident aliens" - all the things we truly once were.

We as the Body of Christ, as bearers of the Gospel of our Holy Father, must always bear in mind that "strangers" are our primary target, "aliens" are our primary focus, and "outsiders" are our primary mission.  We should not be looking for and focusing on strictly trying to recruit new "members" who fit a preconceived and socially acceptable mold; we must be about the business of "making disciples [who are not yet disciples] who [will then go on to] make disciples" themselves - including our children and grandchildren!  Beyond growing the Church, if we are not doing this, we are failing our Lord AND the next generation!

Even as we prepare to do some remodeling and get a new, colorful outdoor sign and playground equipment, we must remember our task is not to make for ourselves a more comfortable place to gather or a place we can take pride in; but rather to prepare ourselves to comfort the "stranger" and be not just willing but eager to welcome the "outsider" who may be a member of this wider community but is outside of the inheritance of The Covenant of our Lord. 

"Stranger danger" is a potential rather than an imminent, but the greater potential is that "strangers" will become friends and co-workers for the Kingdom of Heaven on earth; "outsiders" will become "insiders" when they see the Gospel faithfully lived out and extended to them in real and relevant ways.  Then lives will be transformed in positive ways, and the Gospel of our Lord will live to see yet another day - because we remember who we once were.  And then "the lion will lay down with the lamb" - in the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.    

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