So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it, yet the Lord set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today. Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen. Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in heaven.
A while back, I was online and stumbled across a site that was selling T shirts. One of the shirts they were advertising that made me laugh was one that said, in big, bold print, “JESUS LOVES YOU” – and then below that, in smaller print, it said, “…But I’m His Favorite.”
There’s a little bit of that mindset in this passage from Deuteronomy that we heard today. According to the passage, God tells the Hebrew people that they’re especially chosen; that God loved and chose them and their ancestors alone. I’m going to say right now that I don’t literally believe that for a moment – that God really did only love the Hebrews and no one else. In fact, there’s plenty of Old Testament scripture that shows that to not be literally true. And since I don’t believe that, I certainly don’t believe that Christians have now replaced Jews as God’s exclusively loved and chosen people. That’s a particularly nasty and dangerous theological idea that’s caused unbelievable harm over the last two thousand years, and that we especially need to reject now, in our post-Holocaust world.
But rather than get stuck on that point in this reading, let’s consider the bigger point that’s being made. According to one place in the passage, God is saying, you, Hebrews, are special and beloved and chosen by God, whether exclusively or not – and because of that, you have a special, higher obligation to be attentive to God’s ways, and to do likewise in your own lives. In other words, yes, you’re chosen, but it’s a kind of chosen that comes with homework.
So what is that homework? That they must love the person in need, and the stranger in their midst; the foreigner living within their borders. They need to provide them with food and clothing, caring for their unmet physical needs. They need to do this, God says, because at one time, they themselves were in the same boat – they had been resident aliens in Egypt, exploited and kept in poverty doing hard physical labor for the financial benefit of others. In fact, the entire Old Testament Law, the entire Jewish faith, has this idea of being compassionate to the foreigner, the resident alien living within their borders, as a constant undercurrent. It’s an absolute essential tenet of the faith – and by extension, it’s an essential tenet of ours, too. So when we hear those familiar words of Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” that are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free;
the wretched refuse of your teeming shore –
send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
When we hear these words, we know that they aren’t just a reflection of some of our most cherished national principles, they also reflect a core, non-negotiable, baseline principle of compassion within our Christian faith.
These days, it’s almost impossible to escape the topic of the stranger, the foreigner living within our borders. It seems like every day, there’s another news story about refugees or immigrants. An ICE crackdown that arrests and deports a dozen men in south Louisville, ripping them away from their wives and children. A proposed federal law that would could legal immigration and refugee entries almost in half. A state law that would prohibit cities, universities, and similar institutions from establishing themselves as safe havens for immigrants, and imposing stiff financial punishment on them if they tried to do so. Almost every night, another public statement of extreme isolationist, white-nationalist, alt-right ideology being spouted; men in suits offering up words that used to be reserved for men in hoods.
Well, this is the pivot point in the sermon. Some people might call it the “lettuce” point – the point where the preacher has laid out some situation, some problem, and then says, “So therefore, let us work harder to [fill in the blank];” “Let us go forth and be even more diligent about [whatever]. But I’m not going to do that today, because I know that you already get it when it comes to immigration and refugees. I’ve seen how this congregation has worked with Kentucky Refugee Ministries for years. I see the mountains of donated good that this congregation collects to help new refugee families get settled in. I’ve seen a Session that had the courage to take a stand against an unconstitutional ban on Muslim refugees and immigrants, and I’ve seen us host thoughtful community discussions on the topic. Every week, I see members of this congregation helping to teach immigrants English as a second language, and helping them prepare for their citizenship exams.
So today, I just want you to think about all those great things you’ve done. Be glad of the fact that together as a church family, Springdale gets it. And you’ve done it all because you’ve known and felt God’s love in your lives. You’ve heard, and lived the gospel – God’s good news of reconciliation and compassion for all people – and you’ve acted out of gratitude for it. And most likely, also because you remember some time when you benefited from someone else’s help, We may not have ever been slaves in Egypt, but all of us have likely known what it feels like to be in need.
So think about all that today. Recognize the good the you’ve done. Own it. Embrace it. Be grateful that you’ve been able to do so much.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that can just rest on our past achievements. We do always need to watch for ways to be just as compassionate in the future. See, I guess maybe there is a little bit of “lettuce” in this sermon after all. We should always be alert to new and unexpected ways we might be asked to show that there’s no green card in the kingdom of heaven; that God’s compassion knows no borders.
In 2003, on my fist trip to Montana de Luz, the orphanage in Honduras, I met Ramon. He was part of the bricklaying crew I was working with. That week, and one week every year for the next five or six years, I got to know Ramon. We worked together, ate together, laughed together. Once, he’d rushed to help me when I was hurt in a little accident. I was a guest in his tiny little home. I met his family. Simply put, Ramon became my friend.
About four years ago, I got a call out of the blue from Ramon. Through his broken English and my broken Spanish, he told me that he’d paid a coyote – a human smuggler – to take him on the very dangerous, and often deadly, trip north through Central America and Mexico, and to get him across the border into the U.S., where he could make enough money to send home to his family to keep them sheltered and fed and his children in school. But when they got to the border, the coyote changed the rules. Now, he wanted even more money to complete the job and get him across the border. Ramon was desperate. He didn’t have any money; he didn’t know what to do. So he called me, and asked if I might be able to send him $200 to help him get across.
I told him that as much as I’d like to help him, what he was asking was illegal, and that we’re a nation of laws, and that whether we like the law or not, we still have to obey it. So I told him no.
And I’ve been ashamed of my answer ever since. Every time I think of Ramon, I think of his face, and the face of his children. And I think of the poverty, and hunger, and destitution, and hopelessness that I allowed him to remain in. For two hundred dollars and so I could say I hadn’t broken the law.
I guess if there’s any “lettuce” in this sermon, I guess it’s this: let us always be on the lookout for ways to show compassion to the stranger, the foreigner in our midst, because it’s a bedrock teaching of our faith. And let us use our words, our voices, and yes, our votes, to keep immoral people from enacting unjust laws. Let us avoid becoming modern-day Pharisees, blindly obeying unjust laws that are already in place. Let us never be too timid to love the way that God has called us to. And let us always remember the great truth of another T shirt that was on that website I told you about. That T shirt was right next to the first one; this one said “JESUS LOVES YOU – But Then Again, He Loves Everyone.” And so he does.
Thanks be to God.