33When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34The 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.
40“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
Today’s sermon will span over 4,000 years of history, so please forgive me if I just jump right into it.
In most ancient cultures, there are stories about the gods disguising themselves and knocking on the doors of unsuspecting homes. In Greek mythology, this was a favorite trick of the god Zeus. In Norse mythology it is usually Odin. They would disguise themselves as beggars and see what kind of welcome they might receive. If a home welcomed them in and treated them kindly, they would reveal themselves and then bless the home with riches and favor. If, on the other hand, they were rejected and rudely turned away, they would reveal themselves and curse the home, or worse, destroy it.
Like most mythology, these stories serve the purpose of teaching the principles valued by the ancient cultures that produced them, and also warning or threatening those who disregarded those principles. Stories about gods in disguise knocking on your door are usually meant to teach the ancient value of showing hospitality to strangers.
This was a necessary value, because in the earliest ancient civilizations there was no such thing as a hotel or an inn. Those came much later, with the Roman Empire. If you traveled, and all nomadic peoples traveled, you had to rely on whatever hospitality you could find among strange people and strange lands. If you expected to be welcomed kindly, you in turn had to welcome others kindly. For an ancient society to function, it was absolutely critical to promote the value of unquestioning hospitality through whatever means possible — stories, religious teachings, promises of great rewards, and threats of doom and destruction.
In the earliest stories of the Bible, we find a similar motif in the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, and in the story of the three angels who visit Abraham’s tent. In the first story, God’s emissaries are not welcomed, with disastrous consequences. In the second story, God’s emissaries are welcomed generously, and God blesses Abraham with wealth, fame, and many grandchildren.
Fast forward about a thousand years, to the time when many of these ancient civilizations were beginning to put their values and beliefs into another format: Legal Codes. In many cultures, the value of hospitality becomes the Law of Hospitality, written and enforced. Today’s Old Testament Scripture passage comes from Leviticus, part of the Hebrew books of law traditionally believed to have been given by Moses to the people of Israel.
“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 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.”
As the years passed, these laws regarding hospitality expanded to include not just hospitality toward a person him or herself, but also toward that person’s representative or emissary. In Hebrew tradition, this person was called the שָלִיחַ (Shaliah). Essentially, if you appointed someone to be your shaliah, that person had the legal power to act on your behalf, to negotiate and conclude deals, to act as a proxy, kind of like someone who has been granted power of attorney today. But it was more than that. The Jewish principle of agency taught that a person’s shaliah is regarded as the person himself.
In other words, if a shaliah of low social status (a servant or a slave) brought you a message from a person of high social status, and you attacked or injured the shaliah…you could be punished as though you had attacked the person of higher status (which would bring a harsher punishment). If you insulted a shaliah, you insulted the one who sent the shaliah. If you were kind to the shaliah, you were kind to the one who sent the shaliah.
We have a saying in modern English: Don’t shoot the messenger. This is really the opposite of the shaliah principle, because we’re saying “Hey, don’t get mad at me, I’m NOT the one who sent me. I’m different. Get mad at him, not me.” The shaliah says “We are one and the same. Treat me how you would treat the one who sent me.”
Jesus, of course, was Jewish. It is this principle of the shaliah—and the whole underlying code of hospitality—that Jesus invokes in today’s New Testament scripture passage, when he tells his disciples “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.”
This is a promise to his disciples that they can rely on the hospitality of strangers because they have his legal standing as his shaliah. It’s also a veiled threat to those who reject his disciples: You are rejecting me, and I am the shaliah of God. Treat my disciples like they are God himself in disguise.
In the first two verses, Jesus is talking about his disciples, but then he makes a subtle shift: “and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
Who are “these little ones?” (τῶν μικρῶν τούτων). It’s a saying Jesus uses several times in Matthew and also in Luke, but it doesn’t refer to children, or those small in physical size. Listen to something very similar Jesus says in Matthew 25:40: “And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” In this passage, Jesus tells us exactly who these little ones, the least of these are: They are the hungry, thirsty, impoverished, sick, the imprisoned. They are the marginalized, the minorities, the oppressed, and those on the fringes of society. They are the ones who are excluded, shut out, cast out, and rejected. Like the disciples, they are the shali’im of Jesus, and therefore the messengers, the emissaries of God himself.
And today, they are still knocking on our doors, God in disguise, waiting to see what kind of hospitality we will offer.
I’m going to do something preachers aren’t supposed to do today. I’m going to get political. I say preachers aren’t supposed to do this, but actually Presbyterian preachers have a long tradition of doing exactly this: Calvin spoke from the pulpit to some of the most divisive political issues of his day, and the famous reformed theologian Karl Barth said that a good preacher should preach with a Bible in one hand and a Newspaper in the other. So here goes…
Last week, at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (our big denominational gathering that happens every two years) the delegates who were elected to represent all the Presbyterian churches voted overwhelmingly to allow Presbyterian pastors to perform same-sex marriages in states where it is legal. They also voted to change wording in our constitution that limited marriage to a man and a woman, instead describing it as a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman.
This is a hot-button issue in our culture right now, and even in this very congregation. I’m not going to stand up here today and tell you what side of the argument you should be on (although if you want to know where I stand, come talk to me sometime—I’d be happy to share). There are intelligent, faithful, bible-reading people on both sides of this issue, and I respect that.
But lately, and especially this week, I’ve heard and read words exchanged among Christians that are angry, hurtful, and filled with spite. And that’s not a good thing. The world is watching the Presbyterian church this week. Gay people—some who identify themselves as Christians, and some who do not—are watching the Presbyterian church very closely this week. Some will be watching with suspicion, and some will be watching in hope. Because of this latest development in our denomination, some may come knocking on our door, strangers accustomed to being rejected by churches and Christians.
Whatever side of this difficult issue you are one, I hope that we can agree on at least one thing: When strangers come knocking on our door, we welcome them in with the gentle love of Christ. The only people Jesus ever got angry with were those already on the inside, the religious leaders. To those on the outside, he showed only hospitality and welcome. I’m not asking anyone to change your mind or your understanding of scripture. I’m asking you to change your heart, and your tone of voice. If someone who is gay walks into our church, I’m asking you to treat that person the way you would if Jesus walked into our church.
I’m not done being political.
Also this past week, 310 immigrants from Central America arrived in El Paso. Nearly all of them are undocumented, and most are women and children fleeing from violence and poverty in their native countries. The number of people crossing the border seeking refuge has grown so large, so quickly, that detention facilities cannot contain them, and so several area shelters and community centers have opened their doors to help.
This, too, is a hot-button issue in our culture, our city, and even in our congregation. I know well the arguments on each side, and there is merit to both. But again, what I have heard and read this week from Christians—in casual conversations, in news reports, and in facebook comments—too often resounds with anger and harsh words hastily spoken, not carefully thought out, and certainly not spoken in love.
Leviticus 19:34 says “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.” It doesn’t say, “the alien who resides with you and who came legally shall be as the citizen among you.” It doesn’t say “you shall love the documented alien as yourself.” It just says love them.
Again, I’m not asking anyone to change your mind or your interpretation and esteem for the law of the land. I’m asking all of us to change our hearts. Change our tone of voice. Treat these immigrants (who are Jesus’ very definition of hungry, thirsty, impoverished, sick, and imprisoned) with hospitality and welcome. Treat every one of them like one of our own. Better yet, treat them like beloved emissaries of God…because that’s exactly who sent them to our door.
Song: Golden Door