From Pastor Ray’s sermon on the first Sunday of Lent, March 5, 2017
In 1974, the book, “The Spaceships of Ezekiel” hit bookstore shelves. Written by NASA systems manager Josef Blumrich, the book hypothesized and set out to prove that the Ezekiel’s vision of the glory of God was actually a close encounter with an alien spaceship. The book was quickly debunked by the scientific and religious community as a creative, but flawed, interpretation of Scripture that was more about cashing in on recent UFO sightings than on pursuit of science.
While some may still believe that aliens have visited this planet, when the Bible speaks of “aliens”, it is not referring to extraterrestrials. In the Hebrew Scriptures, “aliens” were a classification of people that resided in a place that was not their original home. The words “stranger” and “foreigner” are often used synonymously or in conjunction with the word “alien.”. Aliens are outsiders. Aliens are people who are different. Aliens are “other.” In our context, we use another word to describe this group. Aliens are immigrants. And aliens are, by virtue of their “otherness”, a vulnerable people—at risk of oppression and abuse.
While God recognizes “difference” between alien and native born, God does not advocate exclusion. In fact, God advocates special attention and protection that leads to full inclusion and acceptance.
- In Deuteronomy 10:17-19, God is identified as the “Defender of the alien.” God loves the stranger, providing food and clothing for them.
- In Leviticus 19:34, God’s people are told to love the alien and stranger as themselves.
- In Isaiah 56:6-7, God envisions the day that foreigners will enjoy full participation in the life of the community—including religious life.
And the New Testament—Matthew’s gospel in particular—fleshes out God’s identification with the alien. Matthew presents Jesus, whom he has identified as “Emmanuel: God with us”, as an alien. In two instances in Jesus’ formative years, Jesus is the immigrant. First, he becomes the refugee in Egypt when Joseph makes a nighttime escape from Bethlehem and the coming genocide of Herod. Then, Jesus becomes the immigrant in Galilee after Joseph—out of fear for his family’s safety—settles in the backwater town of Nazareth—a place that is hardly on the map. (See Matthew 2:13 ff)
In both cases, Jesus would have experienced of being the outsider. In Egypt, Jesus would have experienced the “otherness” of language, religion and culture. He would have been an ethnic, cultural, and religious minority. And his returned from Egypt only to settle in Nazareth did not enhance his résumé. Nathanael expressed the prevailing distain for outsider Nazoreans when he asked Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Galileans were considered lower class. They were identifiable by their accent. (Remember Peter warming himself outside the trial of Jesus and being identified by the servant girl as “one of them.”) They were rubes, suspicious characters, not to be fully trusted. Sound familiar?
So why is “alien” status of Jesus important? Why does Matthew go to great pains to show us “refugee Jesus” and “immigrant Jesus” right at the start of his gospel?
Mike Angell, an Episcopal priest and blogger, writes:
“Seeing Jesus Christ as an immigrant gives us a lens through which we see his action in scripture. We see Jesus consistently including outsiders in his ministry. He reveals himself to a Samaritan Woman as the Messiah. He includes Matthew the Roman tax collector, and Simon the Zealot among his apostles. He ministers with women, children, lepers, and gentiles. Understanding Jesus as an immigrant outsider helps to articulate the Christological reasoning behind the need for the inclusion of the outsider.”
Matthew is committed to presenting Jesus as one who understands the immigrant experience and identifies himself with the alien and stranger. And Jesus’ treatment as the outsider is fundamental to understanding his statement to the goats in Matthew 25, “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.” The rejection of the stranger is a rejection of Jesus. Jesus knows the stigma of being an outsider. Jesus knows rejection. Conversely, when we receive the stranger and treat them with dignity and inclusion, we welcome Jesus, the immigrant.
That is why we must fast from xenophobia and fear of the outsider this Lent. The current climate in this country is to identify the “other” and act to protect ourselves from the threat they represent to “our country”, our way of life, our religion, our security.
If we want to welcome Christ, we must defend the immigrant and the refugee. If we want to welcome Christ, we must stand up for those who are oppressed as outsiders—people like Daniela Vargas, a 22-year-old college student who was brought to the US when she was 7. She was detained by ICE and scheduled for deportation shortly after she spoke at an immigration rally. This, despite her protected DACA (Deferred Action for Child Alien) status. If we want to welcome Christ, we must speak up when immigrants and refugees are targeted for harassment and discrimination—people like Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, high-tech immigrants from India who were told “Get out of my country” before they were shot by a 51-year-old white man. Srinivas was killed. If we want to welcome Christ, we must act up to provide a welcoming place for the refugee and the asylum seeker. We must fast from our fear of the stranger and feast on love—the love that God has for us and the love that God has for the alien and the stranger; Love that is fleshed out in sacrifice, inclusion, and justice.
Because of love, Jesus went to the cross, where—according to the Apostle Paul—the dividing wall of hostility was dismantled and where one new humanity was formed. In this new community, there is neither Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, Barbarian or Sythian. There is no “other.” Those who were outsiders are now brought in. The alien and stranger are fully included. To rebuild the dividing walls and reject or marginalize the “other” is to deny the work of Jesus. Only by welcoming the stranger do we affirm the transformational work of Christ in and among us.
Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.
Follow the church’s 2017 Lenten Compact, “Stranger Love: Fast For Immigrant and Refugee Justice” at www.lentencompact.wordpress.com.