Click on the play button above to hear audio of this Sermon.

Texts: A Readers’ Theatre of Scripture passages about
care for refugees and strangers.

        Perhaps you are surprised—wearied, even—to hear 18 different scripture passages commanding God’s people to love and provide for refugees and strangers, calling them to remember their own immigrant histories, telling us that when we welcome a stranger we are welcoming Jesus himself.

        Perhaps you would be even more surprised to know that what feels like a long litany of readings represents just a fraction of the biblical passages concerned with this topic. In fact, the Hebrew Bible contains no fewer than 36 commands to extend hospitality to the stranger, compared to just one that tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves. 1 And other verses go much further in spelling out what that means. Did you know, for example, that as the liberated Israelites were establishing a society based on love and justice that they were commanded to create six entire cities of refuge, places where people on the run would be protected from harm?

        Perhaps the reading of multiple passages telling the Israelites to love the aliens among them because they themselves had been aliens in Egypt felt redundant and unnecessary to you. Again, what you heard represents only a fraction of such passages.

        Perhaps you know that even now, more than 3,000 years later, Jews who gather around the Passover table still claim their alien identity and remember their liberation, making sure to praise the One who heard their ancestors’ cries and brought them out of Egypt with a mighty arm.

        They know from their ancient history and, more recently, from the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, that alienation and endangerment are as much a part of their collective DNA as eye color and skin tone.

        Jesus of Nazareth, himself a child refugee and a first-century Jew living in occupied Palestine, knew it, too.

        “I was a stranger,” he said, “and you welcomed me.”

        His followers, shaking their heads in confusion, said, “When, Lord? When was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you?”

        “Truly, I tell you,” Jesus said, “just as you did it to the least of these—the Syrians, the Muslims, the Mexicans, the homeless—you did it to me. Come, you salt of the earth and light of the world. Come and dwell in the world God has intended for you from the beginning of time.”

        A world where each person sits in security and safety on their own land, under their own fig tree, in their own home. Or, until then, a world where exiles are at least given refuge, love, and a new nation to call their own. Or, failing that, a place where a blind-folded Arab-American man standing on New York City’s Central Park West can proclaim both his fear and his trust, and be met with hugs and handshakes. 2 A place where a high school principal in Iowa, realizing that the president of the United States has managed to scare his multinational student body nearly to death, will take to the public-address system to try to assure students that the school is on their side.

        “For our immigrant students,” he said one morning last week, “especially those of you whose home country is Iran, or Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, or Somalia, we are here to support you as this attempt to ban your family from our country is constructed by the federal government. I ask every TRHS student to stand by our friends, support them with unwavering love and empathy, and be respectful during this chaotic time. This is a time where Roughriders [the school mascot] can show the world what happens when unity and love can overcome injustice. We love and respect each and every one of you and hope to prove that through our actions each day.” 3

        “Show the world what happens when unity and love overcome injustice.”

        The principal might as well have been quoting Jesus and speaking to the church, saying, “This is a time when you—the salt of the earth and the light of the world, you who dwell in that sometimes dark place between the world as we know it and the kingdom of heaven within you—will welcome the strangers into  your own safe space. This is your moment. You, too, were once strangers and aliens, but no longer. I have loved you into being for just such a time as this. I have welcomed you into the household—the very heart—of God. So let your love-light shine.”

        Now I can’t say what this might mean for us as a church, but I feel called to encourage us to pray about it and consider it. Since shortly after the election last November, I have been engaged in conversations and meetings with community organizers and clergy colleagues who want to discern how to extend hospitality to the strangers among us, how to protect undocumented workers from deportation, how to keep families together and ensure that college students who were brought to this country as children can continue their studies.

        Personally, I signed up for something called Sanctuary in the Streets, meaning that someday I might get a text or a phone call instructing me to witness an immigration raid or to assist in the protection of an immigrant in danger. Over the past week, these conversations have taken on a new urgency, and last Wednesday I attended a meeting of 30 other UCC clergy members interested in helping to build the Interfaith Sanctuary and Solidarity Network of Western Massachusetts.

        Again, it is not for me to say what our role in such a network might be.  Many of you have already asked questions about the banner on our front porch that declares we welcome immigrants and refugees here. As sometimes happens, our good intentions got ahead of our process. But as our moderator, Russ Vernon-Jones has told you, soon we will meet as a congregation to explore these questions together.

        Until then, I am happy to take your questions. Until then, we can study the scriptures and pray together. Until then, we can consider our personal experiences as strangers and refugees, and we can reflect on our call to be the church and remember our shared history around the challenge to provide sanctuary for those in danger. In 1985, First Church voted unanimously to support the decision of Mt. Toby Friends Meeting to provide sanctuary to refugees from Central America and to urge our church members to find their own ways to support refugees. I’m sure Marla Killough, who led the church through that process, could add much to the rather dry and matter-of-fact documents I found last week.

        Yes, these  times are unsettling and even frightening, but they also are ripe with hope. In the midst of alternative facts, hateful speech, and much fear-mongering, the goodness of our common humanity is also revealed. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said long ago, “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

        In Texas, members of a mosque that was burned down have been inundated with financial support and gifted with a key to the local synagogue. When a mosque in rural Pennsylvania was attacked in print by white supremacists, Jews and Christians, Republicans and Democrats, peaceniks and war veterans showed up to provide support and protection. One person said, “I am a Trump redneck. But this [hate speech] is not okay.” 4

        Photographs of refugee and immigrant supporters taken over the past week have shown a pregnant lawyer sitting on the cold floor of Dulles International Airport, her laptop resting on top of cartons of bottled water. Another photo, this one taken at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, shows a Muslim father and a Jewish father standing side by side, each man holding his young child on his shoulders. The Muslim girl wearing a black hijab holds a sign that says simply “Love love.” The smiling Jewish boy wearing a kippah holds a sign saying, “Hate has no home here.” 5

        “Do no neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” we read in the Letter to the Hebrews, “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Beyond that, we know that justice-making heals us, peace-making blesses us, and it is through the cracks in our hearts, the shortcomings in our systems, and, yes, even the injustices of our government that the transforming Light of Love comes into the world.

        How will we as First Church show hospitality? How will we welcome the strangers—angels, perhaps!—in our midst? How can we participate in a network of sanctuary and solidarity? The Spirit will lead us. Time will tell.

        In 1883 a young New York poet, the descendant of Jewish immigrants, was asked to write a sonnet to help raise money for the construction of a massive pedestal to hold what was then considered little more than a burden, a gift from France called the Statue of Liberty. 6

        By the time Emma Lazarus’s poem was “inscribed on a plaque” and attached to the pedestal it helped build, she had been dead almost 20 years.

        Still, more than 100 years later, it still calls us to be true to our highest ideals—as people of faith, as Americans, as beloveds who were once strangers, citizens who were once aliens, all of us welcomed into the very heart of God.

        In a few minutes, when we gather around Christ’s welcome table, we will say together some of Lazarus’s poem. May we hear these words as Christ’s invitation to us, and share them as our commitment to welcoming others:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teaming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”