So far this summer, nearly every Sunday has featured a different need mentioned in Matthew Twenty-Five. When, O LORD, did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or naked? When were you sick and we took care of you, or in prison and we visited you? And today we’re finishing this series by hearing our own selves say: Lord have mercy! When did we see that you were an immigrant and we welcomed you…
Once again this Sunday, our first scripture is from Matthew Twenty-Five, but our second scripture is from —get this! — Leviticus. I know! I’ve been a pastor going on twelve years. I have never once preached from Leviticus! Let me tell you, Leviticus is an easy book to Never Preach On.
For one thing, it’s full of rules. You and I know, it can be tempting to reduce our faith to the collections of Thou Shalts or You Betters. You better accept Jesus into your heart. Or You better trust God. You better do the right thing. You better forgive. Nobody needs this, right? Where’s the Hallelujah? Where’s the thrill of beholding the grace of God… Requirements have their place, but if our faith is just rules, that’s not going to save our lives or get us singing.
It’s easy to avoid Leviticus because of all the rules and because all the rules are all over the place. Just in Chapter Nineteen, there’s a rule prohibiting the wearing of two kinds of fabric, a rule prohibiting consulting with wizards, there’s a rule that provides an accommodation to men who rape women who are enslaved, and who wants that. There are thousands of reasons to avoid reading Leviticus, but here’s the thing.
There’s at least one reason to give it a try. If you tilt your head, and squint your eyes just so, you will see something of the splendid compassion that is the LORD. You will see the heart of God — in the middle of Leviticus.
Somehow. Some of the actual grace of God managed to get into all this human instruction. And so it is that Leviticus Nineteen begins: “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Next it launches into its litany of laws, but after every few points, the voice of God repeats this refrain: I am the LORD. The actual name of God is unpronounceable, but the name of God in English is rendered as I am.
What’s happening is whoever wrote Leviticus imagines the Creator of the Universe saying: Do these things because I want you to be like me. I want you to be close to me. Remember, I am the LORD your God. I am who I am. God is noticing and naming our deep human need to bridge the unbridgeable divide, to speak the unpronounceable name, to reach across the chasm between heaven and earth, between divinity and humanity.
It’s like God is reaching out to us saying: I see you! I see how you are holy! And we are looking back and saying: When O LORD. When did we see you so human…
And if we were to pore over all the laws in Leviticus, if we were to keep going and read all the laws in all the Torah, plus all the prophecies, all the poetry, we would hear that God is particularly concerned about three groups of people: widows, orphans, and immigrants. These are the people who are forced to rely on the community for their livelihood, so whenever you hear these three groups of people invoked, it’s code for those who are most vulnerable. Caring for those who are vulnerable is the very heart of God.
This means, our scripture from Leviticus was exactly not a persnickety rule that doesn’t matter anymore. Our scripture just happens to be entirely representative of who God really is:
“You shall not oppress the immigrant… You shall love the immigrants as yourself, for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”
We are called to welcome immigrants, not because God says so, but because this is where God’s own heart breaks. And we know that. And we know in our world, this work is harder than it sounds.
These days when it comes to welcoming immigrants, I’m hearing two main fears. The first one comes from a concern of scarcity: What if there’s not enough to go around! So we find ourselves feeling threatened by immigrants because what if they take what we need, like our jobs, or our health care, or our church? What if they take this from us…
The second fear is like the first. It goes like this: But immigrants are different from us. We don’t know their language, or their faith traditions, or their cultural practices. Their way of being in the world seems strange and unfamiliar. It’s enough to leave us feeling wary and worried.
I’m pretty sure, you have heard these fears spoken out loud. I’m pretty sure you have felt them flare up in your own heart. I have felt them in mine. I know, we have given into these fears as a church. We’ve allowed them to inform decisions about sharing our building and our resources. And it’s not that we are anti-immigrant! We are not anti-immigrant. We’re an immigrant church ourselves! It’s just that we’ve tried to be welcoming in the past, and we’ve had some misunderstandings, so these days, the truth is, we’re a little wary. We’re a little worried.
When I first came to Church of Peace, I heard the story of the famous vote of nineteen seventy-five and our decision to stay in the neighborhood and be good neighbors. You might remember, I was intent that we needed to go learn our neighbors’ names. We’ll knock on doors if we have to, and I really did some of that.
Addressing each other by name is a sign of trust. Now you’ve got to understand, I’m a former camp counselor. Any camp counselor knows, the first thing you do on the first day is get in a big circle and play a name game. Learning names —learning how to pronounce names correctly— is critically important. I was ready to charge in and make this my campaign, and wow, was I ever wrong.
As it turns out, learning each other’s names is something that has to be earned. It’s not just a greeting; it’s a whole project. It takes repeated attempts, and humility, and all kinds of forgiveness. It is not the first conversation. It might not be the sixth, or the seventh, or the seventeenth.
But even before we know each other’s names, our immigrant neighbors have not given up on welcoming us. Some of them walk to our church for ESL. Lately, we’ve gotten to meet a number of families who come to the Food Pantry, and I’ve got to tell you. It is getting harder and harder to stay worried.
-The little boy from a few houses down comes over, and he’s dancing like nobody’s watching. Well pretty soon, Christy is too. She’s cheering him on, and if he felt nervous about approaching us, he is not anymore!
-Not too long ago, I hear Sylvia greeting a man in French! She’s called on her years of French classes to communicate with our neighbor who can speak French but not English.
-Later a mama comes over with a blanket tied on her back. Callen sees baby toes poking out from under the blanket, then you know where this is headed! The mom breaks into smiles and unwraps her baby and we all have to come behold the cuteness!
Now maybe this doesn’t sound like much. But in each of these loving encounters, what’s happening is that we church folks are being welcomed by our neighbors. There’s a melting of worry and wariness on both sides. No longer can we worry about immigrants taking what we need; here we’re giving them food! Every time, God proves that our fear of scarcity is no match for generosity. Giving leads to abundance.
These tender moments with our neighbors do not erase all the ways we seem strange to each other, but together we’re practicing a curiosity rooted in kindness. Now our strangeness is no longer a threat.
It’s getting really hard to be afraid of our neighbors; I mean, many of them are children! It also seems like it’s hard for the neighbors to be afraid of us. Our worry is melting and giving way to the beginning of the beginning of a tender trust. And the more interaction we have, the more the worry will dissolve while the trust deepens. And look, I don’t know when this day will come, but I know it will. One day our smiling and waving is going to turn into exchanging names. And you and I know. Addressing each other by name is a sign of trust.
All through the Bible, the LORD our God cries out on behalf of widows, and orphans, and immigrants. God does not say: Thou shalt protect those who are in need because I’m stamping my foot and yelling at you, so you better. God says: If you mean to love me, you need to know who I am. If you mean to love me, I need you to love whom I love. My heart belongs to those who are vulnerable. I am the LORD your God.
When it comes to welcoming our neighbors, there’s no question that we have a long way to go. The more we keep trying, the more we will learn to trust our own right to be in the neighborhood, the more we will find ourselves welcoming Christ.
And who knows. It could be that one day our neighbors will teach us some new names for God. After all, addressing God by name is a sign of trust. This day might really come. May it be so.