Loving the Stranger in the Image of God

By Pastor Chris Jorgensen & Pastor Peter Karanja
July 5, 2020
Video of whole service: https://www.facebook.com/hanscomparkchurch/videos/703231240245000/

Scripture: Deuteronomy 10:17-22

[Pastor Chris:] 

Today’s scripture from the Book of Deuteronomy contains a common ethic, some common guidance, for the people of God, that is found in many places throughout scripture. Here in Deuteronomy 10:19 specifically, it reads, “You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” But you can find this teaching to care for the stranger or the immigrant, sometimes called the alien, all over. Let’s just hear a few more from the Hebrew Bible (what we sometimes call the Old Testament).

picture of a bible page with drawings in the margins

Exodus 22:21 – “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

Leviticus 19:33-34 – “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt:  I am the Lord your God.”

Deuteronomy 24:17-18 – “You shall not deprive a resident alien…of justice.”

Deuteronomy 27:19 – “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien…of justice.”

Psalm 146:9 – “The Lord watches over the strangers…”

Jeremiah 7:5-7 – (God says: )“If you do not oppress the alien…then I will dwell with you in this place…”

These are just six examples from the almost 60 I gleaned from one list on the internet. https://www.ucc.org/justice_immigration_worship_biblical-references-to I will spare you the rest, but you can look at the link later.

Suffice it to say that welcoming the stranger, the alien, the immigrant, the foreigner is an especially important ethic in the Hebrew Bible, which is the foundation of our Christian tradition. This is the scripture that Jesus himself would have been raised on – and often quoted.

Now, you heard in this list where this teaching comes from. It is based in the Israelites’ (the Hebrew people’s) own history. Because they were once strangers, they should have empathy – they should understand – those who are strangers in their land. However this ethic, especially in our reading today in Deuteronomy, goes even further than just having empathy for the stranger. It is an injunction to actively care for the strangers in one’s land: to be both generous to them and treat them with justice. 

This is not just because God says so; it’s because caring for the stranger is what God does. Hear this again:

17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. 19 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 

I think this is amazing. We are called to love the stranger because we or our ancestors were once strangers. Then when we do that, when we actually love the stranger, we are living into the very image of God. We are being like God when we love the stranger. What an amazing way to share God’s love with the world!

Some of you know that Pastor Peter and I, with help from Pastor Eddie from the Ethiopian Community Association, have been trying to love the stranger in these coronatimes. We have been serving our immigrant and refugee neighbors, who Pastor Eddie calls New Americans. And I like that – New Americans. We have been trying to support and serve and figure out ways to empower New Americans here at Hanscom Park Church. 

Some of you might know that we received a grant from Tyson foods, where Pastor Eddie works. Through that grant, we gave $4500 worth of grocery store gift cards to folks who have been affected by the coronavirus – either through having gotten sick – or through lost jobs or lost hours. We have served New Americans who were born in Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, Myanmar, Thailand, Ethiopia, and Somalia…people who have come to Omaha from all over the world.

Thanks to Pastor Eddie and a grant from the Omaha Community Foundation, we’ve also been giving out masks. We’ve been providing people with information about health safety and given out vegetables from our Big Garden. We’ve been doing this for three weeks now. It’s been a little chaotic, and we are still figuring it out. But we are already learning new ways to serve: we have started helping folks sign up for the P-EBT state program that makes food available to children in low-income families. We are also working on connecting with more community agencies to continue our support of our New American neighbors.

As Peter and I have worked together on providing this support and empowerment, we have been reflecting on our own experiences as strangers. I shared mine with you during the Children’s Time, but Peter has an even more interesting story, I think. And I’m going to invite him to share that with you.

[Pastor Peter:]

I remember very well it was on the Eve of 2008, of course a time for all sorts of jubilations / fireworks  /music /shouts and countdown to usher in a new year. On the contrary, this was not the case for me. My family and many of the neighbors, we had no choice but ran for our dear lives that night, leaving behind our houses that were billowing in smokes and violence raging from all directions. And all this chaos was triggered by the Kenya general election outcome dispute that reckless politicians used as a tool to divide the communities based on ethnicity.  

I remember my friend and I that night trying to squeeze our tiny bodies below a car for warmth outside the police station. I will never forget the painful cold that I endured that night without warm clothes. I couldn’t believe that the town I was born and raised in was about to spit me out. After a few days in police stations, it was clear we were internally displaced Kenyan citizens who had homes but now were homeless, helpless and only holding on to our dear fragile lives. 

Home, home was no longer safe; the only option was to leave. Together with my family we took refuge in Naivasha Town about 45 miles away and stayed with my uncle. There was something strange about this new town to us. To begin it was too dry, and to make it worse, the water had this disgusting taste that was due its high content of fluoride. 

However, one Sunday morning our life changed for the better. Together as a family we put on our Sunday best clothing and jumped into the neighborhood to find a church. In the process of our window church shopping we saw the first church. That was pass. The second one was also a pass, and there came a third church there was something special about it – especially its protruded cross on the roof. We agreed to give it a try. To our surprise, the magnitude of hospitality that was received was beyond our imagination. They listened to us, fed us and as if that was not enough they would bring us groceries and help my dad with start-up kits for business and many other internally displaced persons who had sought refuge in Naivasha. 

Moreover, the Naivasha Trinity United Methodist Church opened its doors for me and my family to propagate our gifts and talents. My mom became one of the church’s great prayer intercessors and lay preachers; my sisters Wange and Becky who are twins (whom I grew up knowing to be shy) became bold worship leaders. I was invited to help in children and youth ministry and on special occasions as a lay preacher. 

The Church went on further to support me through my seminary education at Africa University in Zimbabwe. I will forever be grateful to Trinity UMC, a small church in Kenya that opened its doors and hearts to me and my family and many other internally displaced persons that needed a shoulder to lean on. Here, I am a testimony of what a church can do if it cares enough for the stranger. 

Warsan Shire a Kenyan-born Somali poet made it clear that none of the internally or externally displaced persons would just flee from their motherland for no reasons. “No one lives home unless home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well.”

I believe it is a time for the church to put into practice what John Wesley would call social holiness: a radical hospitality that will transform our communities for the better. 

[Pastor Chris:]

When I first heard Peter’s story, I was speechless. And as I thought about it more, it brought me to tears. It brought me to tears because here was Peter’s family, strangers in the community, and they happened upon this United Methodist Church. The church welcomed them with open arms. The church offered hope and a community – and then the church received the wonderful gifts of Peter and his family. There was this beautiful mutual blessing that they all received. 

And because of the hospitality of one, small United Methodist Church in Kenya, Peter is here with us today. Friends, sometimes it is hard to be church. Sometimes, the church struggles to be God’s hands and feet in this world. But Peter’s church in Kenya, they got it right. Look what is happening here – look what seeds they have planted that are beginning to bear fruit as Peter serves among us. 

I want us to be like that church in Kenya – a place that welcomes the stranger with radical hospitality and in doing so, grows in the very image of God. May it be so.

Amen.

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