since you, too, were once immigrants

A couple of weeks ago, when the President issued an Executive Order that drastically changed our country’s policies toward immigrants and refugees, I changed our church sign out by the road. The text is still there: “Love the immigrant as yourself, Leviticus 19:34”

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The biblical command to offer hospitality to strangers is a thick thread throughout the entire witness of scripture. Some version of the formulation to care for foreigners, sojourners, immigrants and aliens shows up in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Numbers, Zechariah, Psalms, Ezekiel, Malachi, and Jeremiah, just to get started. Jesus tells story after story of how being faithful includes caring for unknown neighbors and strangers – the Good Samaritan, the Woman at the Well, his own consistent care for those both within and outside of his proscribed social circles. In Hebrews 13, we’re told that we ought not neglect hospitality to strangers, since that by doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it.

Hospitality is one of the strongest, most obvious and impossible to ignore themes – if there can be such a thing in such a varied and complicated witness – of scripture.

And still, when I put that sign up, it was not met with unanimous approval among our Christian sisters and brothers.

That’s probably not surprising, given how the public conversations among people of faith are going these days.

I shared a photo of our sign on Facebook, and a friend shared it to his wall. A discussion ensued, there, with some arguing that the sign was “political and not spiritual,” that it was disingenuous to quote that particular verse of Leviticus without including the verse a few before that forbids men from cutting the hair on their foreheads, that if we weren’t going to follow the hair-cutting commands then we really couldn’t be expected to follow the ones about hospitality.

I explained that I chose this scripture from among the dozens and dozens about practicing hospitality because of the formulation: love the immigrant as yourself reminds us immediately of Jesus’ words in Mark to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Immigrants and refugees are, in fact, our neighbors.

The explanation was not sufficient for this brother who was upset about the sign, and seeing as how I did not know him, we left it at that.

But the conversation stuck with me, especially as the larger political realities have continued to move toward exclusion instead of embrace, walls and deportments instead of compassion and hospitality. In these days, casting our lot on the side of God’s clear and repeated command to practice welcome and hospitality has become a rather radical act.

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This is the last week in our series on Living Into Community, and hospitality is the last practice that Christine Pohl offers as foundational for sustainable community life. We explored three other practices: gratitude, making & keeping promises and truth telling. Pohl says that all of the practices are intertwined, that each requires the other three to be embraced fully. Hospitality, she says, is the result of a healthy community that has already committed itself to practicing gratitude, promise keeping and truth telling.

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Often, we hear about hospitality as an industry or an enterprise. The Hospitality Industry – full of hotel and motel chains, businesses invested in making and keeping travelers comfortable, for profit. But biblical hospitality is not a profit-motive endeavor. Biblical hospitality is part of a community’s life lived in response to the hospitality and grace we experience as people of God.

All of those biblical calls to welcome the stranger hang on this interesting motivation: “welcome the stranger, therefore, since you were once strangers in Egypt.” “Do not oppress the foreigner, since you were once foreigners.”

The scriptures call on God’s people to remember that they, too, were once immigrants and refugees, forced from their land and exiled into the wilderness, into an unknown land and required to rely on the kindness and hospitality of strangers. They are to practice hospitality not only because God requires it of them, but because they know, from immediate communal experience, what it feels like to be far from home, vulnerable and afraid, dependent on the compassion and care of strangers.

Faithful hospitality is not a means to an end. We are not called to be a welcoming church so that we will grow, or so that we can convert or save others. We are not called to Christ-like hospitality in order to achieve some measurable result. In fact, the practice of hospitality might actually deplete us – energetically, financially, relationally. It might not have a huge pay-off on paper.

The practice of hospitality is an end in its self. “Hospitable communities,” Christine Pohl says, “recognize that they are incomplete without other folks but also that they have a ‘treasure’ to share with them.” We practice hospitality because we know that strangers and neighbors have immense gifts for us, and we for them. We practice hospitality because, like the Israelites, we have known God’s welcome and are compelled to share that kind of welcome with others.

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Our text this morning is from Revelation. Our Sunday school class spent a month studying the letters to the churches in the beginning of Revelation, so some of you might remember that these verses come from the letter to the church in Laodicea. In each letter, John shares commendations and condemnations for the particular church. Laodicea, however, wasn’t commended for anything. They only got condemnations – for being “lukewarm,” for thinking that they were rich enough to save themselves, that they were completely self-sufficient and needed nothing. Karen, when she taught our class, told us that the church at Laodicea had suffered a destructive earthquake and refused aid from anyone else, choosing instead to use their own considerable riches to rebuild.

John writes in the letter:

17 For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. 19 I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. 20 Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.

Somehow, the church at Laodicea had decided that they were just fine all by themselves, that the didn’t need anything or anyone else. But John is quoting Jesus, who says that they need to repent, to acknowledge their neediness, and, when they hear someone standing at the door, knocking and asking to be let in, they ought to practice hospitality: invite them in, eat with them, discover what it is they might actually be lacking but had no way of knowing when they’d isolated themselves.

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Christine Pohl writes that “communities that practice hospitality discover that one of the most precious resources they have to share with people is their fellowship and friendship. More than offering ministry or services to ‘those in need,’ they welcome people into a common life.”

Hospitality is not something we do because we are the privileged and others are in need. Hospitality is something we practice because we know that we are incomplete and need the other – the stranger, the immigrant, the refugee – to make our community complete. We practice hospitality because we need one another, even the other that is different, even the other that we don’t understand, even the other that makes us a little fearful.

This kind of hospitality – practiced out of humility and faithfulness – is hard to do. It requires us to re-think our motives. Were we being welcoming because we wanted to change that person? Were we practicing hospitality because we thought it might improve our attendance numbers? Were we trying to make hospitality into a program, an accomplishment, a checked-off box on our discipleship to-do list?

Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and spiritual author who spent a portion of his life working in the L’Arche community, where people with disabilities live alongside assistants in intentional community, said:

The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create an emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the lifestyle of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.”

This is hard to do. It is hard to be hospitable in a way that creates empty space for a guest to find their own way, to offer support and welcome while the new person is singing unknown songs and speaking unknown languages. It is hard, but it is the work we are called to do. It is the gift we are given to live out.

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A couple of days ago, I got an email from Jourdi at Church World Service. Our congregation has been discerning and working toward partnering with CWS to help practice hospitality with recently resettled refugees here in Durham, but the Executive Order threw all of those plans and commitments into chaos. Several of us have been trained, but we assumed the partnering with a refugee family would be on hold indefinitely as the process spun through the political chaos.

But, it turns out there is a family here in Durham in need of some hospitality and friendship. We’ve been matched with a family of five, living in Durham and in need of friendship and English as a Second Language help and…hospitality.

At the training for CWS volunteers, Jourdi emphasized that our job is not to do things FOR our refugee neighbors, but to enable and empower them to do what needs to be done themselves. Our purpose, in volunteering this way, is not to change these new friends, or to offer some sort of paternalistic caregiving for them. Instead, we are to be friends, to share welcome, to leverage our particular privilege as English-speaking natives of this place so that they might find some space to find their own way here in this new life.

I will share more details as I get them. Only those of us who have been through the training with CWS are able to interact with the family, so if that had been on your list of possible ways to live your own faith journey in the midst of these crazy political times, I suggest signing up for the next training. If you’re not able to be trained for direct service, CWS is also in immediate need of volunteers to advocate on behalf of refugee resettlement, as well as immediate financial assistance, since their funding comes through federal grants and the federal commitment to refugees is on particularly shaky ground these days.

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That brother who argued with my choice of scripture for our sign out front said that the message was “political and not spiritual.” I disagree, deeply. Practicing hospitality is a deeply spiritual practice, born of our own faith in the God who first welcomes us and then sends us out to welcome others. The fact that following God’s command to practice hospitality has become a radical political act says more about the direction of our country than it does about the direction of our discipleship. We are following God’s command to welcome the stranger, to love the immigrant, to show hospitality to the refugee among us, because we were once strangers in a strange land, ourselves; because God has welcomed us into the abundance of God’s community of love, and we are gifted this opportunity to share that welcome.

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