Advent Inverted: Hope for the Alien

November 27, 2016


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Nov. 27, 2016

“Advent Inverted – Hope for the Alien”
Matt. 2:13-15a

This week I was captured by the video of a boy in Aleppo who had survived a chemical attack. He was being treated in the hospital, but had no family there to comfort him. He asked the nurse repeatedly, “Miss, will I die?” What is even more haunting is to imagine what happens to that boy into the future.
• Will he be found and claimed by a relative? Does he even have surviving family members?
• Where will he go if his home or village has been destroyed?
• Will he become one of millions of Syrian refugees dislocated and thrown into unimaginable circumstances in another land?
• Will he be able to survive starvation, other attacks, life on his own?
• Is there any chance for him to receive a home, education, or love so that he can grow into a man?

I realize this is not the way to start a typical Advent sermon. But Advent is a time of darkness – a time in which we hunger for the light. It is in the darkest of nights that we yearn for our God. So, this Advent, we are going to invert our celebration and contrast the liturgical word of the day (today’s word is hope) with an ancient and modern concern (today’s concern is displaced persons).

There are many more Biblical passages about immigration and our attitude toward it than I ever imagined. In fact, I started marking my Bible with sticky notes so that I could read the texts and choose one for the traditional reading, but ended up with many more than I could count.
1. Abraham was called to immigrate to another country.
2. The sons of Jacob were strangers in a foreign land, Egypt.
3. Ruth was an immigrant and had to rely on the generosity of Boaz to survive in her new land after her husband’s death.
4. Jesus himself, as a baby, was a stranger in the same Egypt.
5. And we know that Jesus sent the disciples out to all lands and they lived there.
This is a huge theme in the Bible – what to do with the “stranger”, the “foreigner” and the less preferred word, “alien”.

Here is the story from the Gospel of Matthew about Joseph and Mary’s escape into Egypt.
“… An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.” Matt. 2:13-15a

This reference in the Gospel of Matthew is specifically told in the same way that the Hebrew Bible tells stories of other immigrants Joseph, Moses, the exodus, and Passover itself are told.

Have you ever been made to feel that you were an outcast… that you and/or your ideas weren’t important… that you weren’t appreciated enough or valued enough…. That you didn’t quite belong? We probably have all felt that we were the outcast in some group at some time – that we didn’t belong and weren’t as significant as others. Do you remember how that felt? The experience of alienation is an ancient experience – as far back as we have information, humans have always longed to belong. I imagine most of us have some childhood story of being picked last for the kickball team or not being included in some social group.

Take a moment to contrast that to a time when you experienced the feeling of belonging. I hope that I can safely argue that each of us has at some point in our lives experienced really skilled hospitality. Hopefully we have all met the host or hostess who knew how to make us feel truly at home, easing our awkward transition to a new situation. Huston Smith wrote, “(An) ideal host is armed with a self-respect that generates respect for others, he approaches them wondering not, ‘what can I get from them’ but ‘what can I do to accommodate them?’”

How can we, as people of faith, provide hope for the immigrant or alien?

1. Understand that “we” and “they” is not a Biblical concept. We are all one people, created by one God. We all belong to each other; we all belong to one family. In an increasingly mobile and technological world, we are more connected than ever. And yet, this is a spiritual concept. As Leviticus says, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress that person. Rather that stranger who resides with you shall be to you as an authentic citizen. Even more: you will love that person as your very self. Do not forget you were strangers and aliens yourselves.” We truly belong to a single shimmering web of relationship and possibility and dream.

2. Realize that how we treat the “stranger” is a measure of how we treat God. You’re probably familiar with the Good Samaritan story. Someone asks Jesus a trick question after he said that loving our neighbor is the great commandment. The trick question was, “who is my neighbor?” In response, Jesus told the story of a Samaritan – a foreign half-breed – a social piraha – a despised race and nation. An injured person on the side of the road did not get attention from the first two that passed him. But a Samaritan (someone who knew about being alienated from society) stopped to help. When the story comes to an end, Jesus asks a Zen-like question. He doesn’t ask: “Who in this story loved his neighbor?” Instead he asks, “Who was the neighbor to the injured man?”

Matt. 25 is the story of the sheep and the goats. The sheep were the ones who gave food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothes to the needy, help to the sick, and welcome to the stranger. What’s really striking to me is that the people gathered in front of the throne of Christ in this story all really believe they are among his followers. And they must be completely stunned to learn that they will be separated and judged by how they have treated the poor and the foreigner! Jesus says, “I know how much you love me by how you treat them.”

3. Work / advocate to address global poverty. Poverty is the number one reason for immigration. People are desperate and willing to do illegal things to have a better chance for education, health care, or support for their families. What if we addressed the source of the immigration problem instead of just the symptoms! Dr. Robert Pastor talks suggests that the long-term, effective solution to the immigration problem would be if we invested $80 billion in economic and infrastructure development in Mexico, thereby increasing the number of jobs and average wage. This worked when the European Union was formed. Of course, the sticking point for such a proposal is that monstrous $80 billion – spread out over a number of years. Such an amount seems outrageous until you realize that amount is only 10% of what we spend on war in less than a year!

4. Be aware of our own biases and prejudices. It wasn’t that long ago that there were rampant prejudices against the Irish who immigrated to the U.S. Today the majority of hateful rhetoric is against Hispanic and Muslim people. There are many biases and prejudices we carry – no one among us is exempt. When we are aware of our inner judging ways, we can begin to address them.

5. Reject zero sum analysis. This theory says that we only have so much space and wealth and what goes to foreign and undocumented workers does not go to our own. In fact, most economic analysis would suggest the larger the pool of workers, the greater the possibility of economic growth and the greater likelihood of an increasing job market.
6. Advocate for humane ways to deal with immigration. Shooting people at borders, taking measures to cause more immigrants to drown, or watching people thirst to death is not a humane or a Christian answer to immigration. There are more humane ways to deal with the problems. As Christians, we ought to be outraged that our nation handles desperate people the way we sometimes do.

7. Understand that we are called to do more than to be just. As Christians, we are invited, no, commanded – repeatedly – to go farther in our actions than to simply be just. We are to go way beyond – not allowing immigrants to work on Sundays, offering assistance and shelter, and support, and hospitality.

Let us remember that Jesus himself was once an immigrant trying to escape threats in his homeland. Mary & Joseph had hope that they could find safety for their family and new life in another country. Because of the hospitality of strangers, they were able to raise the child Jesus into boyhood.

May we be the stranger who welcomes, offers hospitality, and gives hope to those seeking new homes. For how we treat them is how we treat our Jesus himself.

The little boy in Aleppo asked the nurse this week, “Miss, am I going to die?” Her answer was “no, you’re not going to die.” The little boy’s voice rings in our ears. I hope our answer is, “No, you’re going to LIVE.”