Preaching is not an easy thing to do today – especially in our current political climate. All across my various Facebook ministry groups you can see the anxiety. From the young Presbyterian pastors group to the ecumenical group consisting of pastors from conservative to progressive denominations, the anxiety over how to preach from week to week continues to grow among pastors of all ages, denominations, social, and political affiliations.
This week, during an interview on the NPR show 1A, Rev. Adam Hamilton spoke to the challenges of preaching during divisive times. If his name sounds familiar to you, it’s because Adam Hamilton is the author of the book “Making Sense of the Bible” which we studied at the end of the summer. The study which was so well received by this congregation. In his interview, Adam Hamilton stated that in a recent survey, he discovered that his congregation is a near even split between Democrats and Republicans. And so he regularly gets emails where people tell him, “Quit preaching politics and just preach the bible.” To which Hamilton says in his interview, “What you’re calling politics, I’m calling ethics and morals and values. When we’re talking about justice issues, [about] people who are being hurt, we are talking about moral issues.” Hamilton went on to say that, “‘politics’ becomes the catch-all phrase for ‘something I don’t agree with’.”
At the same time, pastors like Hamilton are also having other people in their congregation demand that they preach on this issues – the most compelling issues of the day. And when he does, he also receives emails that say, “I’m so glad that you addressed that issue. It gave me a way to approach it from the point of view of my faith.” And so Hamilton asks his congregation, “What informs your politics?” Is you politics informed by a deep sense of spirituality? By a deeper sense of the meaning of life? About why we’re here?
The Baptist church is also addressing these issues this week. On Friday, an article came out through the Baptist News Global addressing the concern about politics and the pulpit. The article, entitled, “Think your pastor’s preaching is ‘too political’? Try listening to Jesus” states, “What congregations seem to mean when they ask pastors to ‘just preach the gospel’ is to avoid the things that make them uncomfortable and cause them to leave worship with something less than a warm glow in their hearts…This is not an evil desire, nor is it unreasonable – in part because the Christian church in America…has conditioned us to leave worship feeling happy and sometimes smug about our personal piety…We must remember that the ‘gospel’ got Jesus killed by an angry mob…[and so]…pastors who stand in the pulpit and declare help for the poor, release of captives and health care for the blind can easily be accused of ‘being political’ or ‘soft on crime’ or ‘socialists’ or worse.” The article finishes by saying, “Conservative Christians had it right years ago when they embraced the WWJD bracelets…Sadly, the WWJD question has been replaced in many Christian minds by WMMC – What Makes Me Comfortable?”
Then I get to a text like the one we have today. Mind you that this text was selected months ago, during the summer when we chose the curriculum for the children’s church and decided to use those texts for preaching as well. I could have never predicted that this text, which speaks about “love for the foreigner” would fall at the same time when we are facing a large group of people migrating across Mexico, trying to reach the border in America because of the insufferable violence in Central America.
This is why pastors tend to use lectionaries – so that they can’t be accused of choosing scripture for political reasons. But if I preached from the Revised Common Lectionary, I could choose from either the beginning of Ruth – where a woman follows her mother-in-law to a foreign country because there are no resources for her to survive in her home country – or Mark 12 – where Jesus gives the double command to “love God and love your neighbor as yourself”, stating that these commands are “more important than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” – meaning more important that worshiping on Sunday mornings.
If I preached from the Narrative Lectionary, I would preach on 2 Kings 5 – the story of the Naaman, the foreign king of Syria healed by a merciful prophet Elisha. This sounds pretty safe at first, until you dig deeper and find that this text speaks against systems of war, violence, forced submission, and plunder. And all those lectionary texts were mapped out YEARS in advance. So it appears that God wants something said about the relationship between God, God’s people, and those from foreign lands.
The truth is, the majority who come to our borders are trying to use legal means to be able to enter the country. Often camping outside of ports of entry to days for the opportunity to be one of the limited number taken in each day. The U.S. has two major laws under which people may enter the country seeking asylum. The first is the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, which the U.S. is a part of and obligated to follow. The second is the 1990 Immigration and Nationality Act, signed into law under President Bush, and includes temporary protection visas for those who cannot return to their home country due to ongoing armed conflict, environmental disaster, or other extraordinary condition.
Under these laws, someone can come to any port of entry in the U.S. OR even approach immigration officials AFTER entering illegally, and ask for asylum. Those individuals are then temporarily placed in custody and sent through expedited deportation proceedings. During the proceedings, the person seeking asylum may speak to their “credible fear” for their life in their home country for one of five reasons: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Poverty and other economic factors are not credible reasons. If the fear is deemed “credible” they are NOT guarantee asylum, only that they can move forward in the process. They may be released into the U.S. until their court date. Immigration court is a civil proceeding – meaning that government appointed lawyers are NOT available. Only lawyers that the asylum seekers can afford or those who work for charity legal aid are available. And even when cases get to this point, the vast majority – nearly 80% of seekers – are denied asylum at their hearing. If they are part of the lucky 20%, they receive a green card one year from the day they are granted asylum.
Now this is where I, as a pastor, must speak NOT to politics, but to biblical ethics. What does the bible have to say about how we treat foreigners? Our text today specifically states, “God doesn’t play favorites, takes no bribes…takes loving care of foreigners by seeing that they get food and clothing. You must treat foreigners with the same loving care—remember, you were once foreigners in Egypt.” I need to know more about what the bible says about how to ethically treat foreigners. So I looked up the Hebrew word for “foreigner” – ger – to find out more about what it means. Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann says that the word ger “reflects displaced people who are displaced because of economic, political, or military disruption. They seek life in a new place where they do not belong, because they are no longer welcome or can no longer sustain themselves in their old place.” He then goes on to argue that “Israel’s capacity to welcome the ‘other’ has become a distinguishing hallmark of biblical ethics, as well as part of a lively trajectory of interpretation that expands in scope.”
To better understand this “expanding scope” that Brueggemann speaks about, I read through the 87 other verses of the Old Testament that uses the Hebrew word ger. Two spoke of Abraham being a foreigner in a foreign land. Two others spoke of Moses’ son being named Gershom, meaning “a foreigner in a foreign land.” The rest fit into several categories.
Exodus 12:19, 12:49, and Numbers 9:14 says that foreigners are welcomed to participate in the Passover feast Leviticus 16:29, 17:8, Numbers 15:26, and Deuteronomy 16:11 & 14 state the foreigners are allowed to participate in the Day of Atonement, Pentecost, and the Festival of Booths celebrations as well because there should only be one law for both the native and the foreigner. A command also given in Leviticus 24:22, Numbers 9:14, and twice in Numbers 15:15-16 – because foreigners and natives are seen the same in God’s eyes. Therefore, Exodus 23:10, 23:12, and Deuteronomy 5:14 says that foreigners should also be given the Sabbath to rest and refresh.
Exodus 22:21, 23:9, and Leviticus 10:33-34 all say that Israel’s own experience of being a foreign slave should give them empathy for foreigners and therefore should deal with them justly, treating them as natives.
Leviticus 19:10, 23:22, and Deuteronomy 24:19-21 all state that Israelites should not “glean their fields” because it should be left to provide food for the foreigner. And Deuteronomy 14:29 and 26:12-13 says that the people should give 10% (a tithe) of every third year to help feed the foreigner. This is the biblical version of welfare – something that illegals can NOT receive in America because they don’t have a social security number to apply. (I had international friends in seminary who could not collect food stamps for the same reason.)
Numbers 35:15 and Joshua 20:9 says that foreigners are entitled to use sanctuary cities if they accidentally caused the death of another person – to prevent revenge violence.
Deuteronomy 1:16, 24:17, and 27:19 says that judges should be just with foreigners – treating them like natives – and that those judges and people who are not just to foreigners are cursed of God.
Deuteronomy 24:14 specifically states that one should not oppress a foreign hired servant.
In Deuteronomy 29:11 and 31:12, Moses renews the covenant with the people, including foreigners, and reads the entire Torah to them. This covenant and reading of Torah is renewed to foreigners in Joshua 8:33-35.
Our scripture today, Deuteronomy 10:18-19 and Psalm 146:9 states that God loves the foreigner and provides for them. That God commands the people of God to treat foreigners with justice and love. But what about when they people do NOT treat the foreigner justice and love?
Deuteronomy 28:42 states that disobedience of these laws will cause God to raise the foreigner above you – placing them in charge of you politically. Jeremiah 7:6 states that God will be with the people as long as they don’t oppress the foreigner and in verse 22:3 commands kings NOT to do violence against foreigners. Ezekiel 22:29 says that God will enact judgment against those who allow extortion and robbery of foreigners without punishment. Zechariah 7:10 states that true piety, true faith, is to not oppress the foreigner, and that those who refuse to hear these commands, God will refuse to hear their payers as punishment. Malachi 3:5 states that on the final judgment day, the Lord will be both judge and witness against those who oppress the widows and orphans and who turn away the foreigner. Jesus repeats this in Matthew 25:25-36, the parable of the sheep and goats, saying that the righteous invite the foreigner in and the wicked do not welcome them. And whatever you do to the foreigner, you do also to Jesus himself. Therefore, the wicked will go to “eternal punishment.”
The prophet Isaiah states in 14:1 and 56:3-6 that you will know when God has returned to the people because, the foreigners will join the native in the land and even foreigners previously excluded will be included, if they are faithful. In fact, in Leviticus 25:23, God tells the people that the land upon which they live is not even theirs. It was a gift from God and that even the natives are just tenants of God’s property.
Now there are other words used in the bible that are sometimes translated “foreigner” including the words nekhar, towshab, and zuwr/zar and these “foreigners” have different rules because they have different roles in Israelite society. Nekhars are temporary foreigners who have few rights and practice a different religion. A native Israelite can even become a nekhar if they do not obey God’s law. Yet Isaiah even says in 56:3-6 that they will be given full rights on the day of the Lord. The towshab is a “passing guest” or “temporary resident” usually just doing business in the country. The zuwr/zar is actually “layman” or “stranger” – an outsider who is unauthorized to perform specific religious rituals or roles – so it’s a specifically religious term.
Wanting to be fair and balanced, I researched biblical arguments against foreigners entering another country. One article spoke about the use and abuse of scripture in the immigration debate. The author referenced Numbers 20:14-21, where, while crossing the Sinai Peninsula to reach the Promised Land, the Israelites arrive at the border of Edom where they seek permission to pass through the land, even offering to pay for any resources they use. Fearing the size of the Israelite caravan, the Edomite king refuses, and even sends his army to the border to make sure they don’t cross. So the Israelites, not receiving permission, go another way. And Deuteronomy 23:7 even commands the Israelites NOT to hate the Edomite foreigners.
The other examples the author notes include Genesis 47 where the brothers of Joseph ask Pharaoh’s permission to settle in Egypt because of the famine in Canaan, and Exodus 2:18-22 where Moses is received as a ger/foreigner in the land of Midian because he fears for his life after killing an Egyptian slave master. The author argues, it is clear that “in the ancient biblical world, countries had borders that were protected and respected, and that foreigners who wanted to reside in another country had to obtain some sort of permission in order to be considered an alien with certain rights and privileges.” He also argues that the ger is distinctly different “foreigner” from the nekhar, towshab, and zuwr/zar because “the ger were not just aliens to whom social and legal protections were offered, but were also considered converts, and thus could participate in the religious life of the community… It is wrong, therefore, to confuse these two categories of foreigners and then to use passages regarding the ger as if they were relevant to illegal immigrants of today.”
And he’s right. The people of God sought permission to enter the lands of Egypt, Edom, and Midian. Yet in my search of every word for “foreigner” in Hebrew (ger, nekhar, towshab, and zuwr/zar), no such law or rule is found for foreigners entering the land of the Israelites. The land belonging to the people of God. At the same time, when the Israelites try to pass through Moab, the king summons the priest Balaam to curse them, to attack them. Yet his plan backfires when God reverses all of Balaam’s curses. And later in Deuteronomy 23:3, God, through Moses, commands the people to never allow a Moabite or an Ammonite – not even to the tenth generation – to become part of their people because “they did not offer you food and water as you journeyed through their lands.” (Yet God is gracious, and we later find in the Book of Ruth that a Moabite named Naomi becomes the great-grandmother of King David.)
At the same time, the author’s argument about the different categories of “foreigner” in Hebrew, while correct, is also problematic. I referenced a Torah commentary, hoping that the Jewish tradition could give me a deeper understading of these Hebrew words/ideas. The Torah commentary states that a ger/foreigner is a “foreign-born, permanent resident with status between a native-born and temporary foreigner (or nekhar). That with no local family to help support them, the ger was dependent upon the goodwill of others [in Israel] because they could be easily victimized or discriminated against.” Hence why they are almost always listed with “widows and orphans” in rules about social welfare for others. The Torah commentary goes on to say that to “wrong” a ger is to use verbal or emotional abuse against them and to “oppress” a ger is to defraud or victimize them. And while the ger have the right to participate in the religious ceremonies of Israel, they are not required to participate short of not sacrificing to other gods or keeping anything with leaven during the Passover – and that was to keep the Israelites they lived among from accidentally breaking the law.
So that’s the extent of biblical arguments and ethics on both sides of the issue about immigration and treatment of foreigners. That’s how the bible views the ethical treatment of foreigners. You can agree with them or not, my job is to present them to you. The timing of this text with the current situation has nothing to do with me but everything to do with the Holy Spirit. Your call, as a person of Christian faith, is to apply those ethics to your own life in every way – including how you vote. You should vote for people who reflect your religious ethics – regardless of whether I or anyone else in the congregation agrees with it or not. And no side, candidate, or political party is well-aligned with Christian ethics. Everyone picks and chooses. Christian ethics are complicated and messy from one tradition to the next. But love is also messy. We even acknowledge that in our values here at Grace, where we believe that “we are called to show love that is compassionate, accepting, full of grace, mercy, forgiveness and forbearance; love that is authentic and messy, unconditional and vulnerable, and is committed to action.”
So as you vote this week, show the love of God with your vote. And when you leave, continue to show love for each other, regardless of how each other voted. Welcome all of God’s people, and you will reap love.