As our nation celebrates its 235th anniversary, reflection on our liberty, freedom, and relationship with God, the giver of all liberty, is a good exercise.
We learn from the passage chosen from Deuteronomy that the foundation of our liberty is conceived in justice, that our “great God … is not partial and takes no bribe … executes justice for the orphan and widow, and loves strangers, providing them food and clothing.” What might we find were we to lay this standard up against our political realities?
The writer of Deuteronomy also exhorts the hearer to love the stranger and fear the Lord. In our time, that is not a popular standard. Rather, the reverse seems to be what we hear: people talk of loving God but fearing the stranger. Of course, we all know we got this way by straying from the fundamentals of liberty and justice for all. Yet people keep trying desperately to come to America for those very things: the justice of a paying job, the liberty to be free from corruption and sinister dictatorships.
In the passage from Hebrews, we look at the faith of Abraham and Sarah, who see themselves as strangers and foreigners on earth who seek a homeland, people who desire a better country. That is the desire that still dominates much of our civil discourse and should be the standard of our Christian community. A better country means, in the terms described in Deuteronomy, a just country for everyone, including the stranger – for all of us are in some way strangers seeking a better country.
It is common to talk of disillusionment and be discouraged about the future of our nation, our culture, and our society. Christians are called to be un-common in the way we talk about these things. We maintain a critical and sometimes prophetic stance about injustice and the treatment of the poor and oppressed, so we cannot join the chorus of those who are only negative. We see in our own failures the need for us to place ourselves under God’s gracious leadership. Without that, we have nothing to offer that is Good News. As it says in today’s reading from Matthew, “And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?”
So, what is the Good News in a time of economic uncertainty and national disillusionment? The Good News is that we find in those very strangers who come among us, in those who would perhaps be our enemy, the future of peace through just relationships with all of our neighbors.
Recently the Dalai Lama spoke to several university communities while visiting America. He said he loves America because of its passion for energy, new ideas, and continuing exploration and change. He also said he is grateful for our leadership, but questions our motives in some of our political decisions. His message of peace echoes the gospel reading for today, that loving our enemies and persecutors is the only way forward.
Christians are called to be advocates of the Good News of Jesus Christ. That is how we celebrate our freedom, and that is how we proclaim our liberty. Taking on that Good News means we have to change our values to those of Christ. We cannot ignore the stranger among us, nor can we write off our enemies. But we do just that all the time. Jesus calls us to a higher standard, one that includes struggle, misunderstanding at times, and the possibility of failure.
What we have done as a church in the last few decades, learning how to speak civilly about our differences, attempting to reconcile with those who differ from us, taking up the cause of justice for those who are treated unjustly, has thinned our ranks, but it has also perfected our faith. That is something to celebrate in a nation where it is still possible to proclaim and expect liberty and justice for all.
In the Mid-South there is a group of people from the Marshall Islands who have come to live and work under the Compact of Free Association, an agreement entered into between our government and nations in the South Pacific. These are people who have left extreme poverty to come and work, mainly in meat-processing plants. They, along with Latinos from Mexico and Central America, form the backbone of a work force that provides our food, adds to our tax base, serves in our military, and generally leads law-abiding lives. Engaging with these “strangers” is a rewarding challenge.
One new Episcopal church plant has embraced these strangers and finds itself growing from their ranks. As they join the church, a whole new culture of Christian growth of liberty and freedom emerges. That is the vision of Deuteronomy, the faith described in the passage from Hebrews that desires a better country, and the Good News that moves from greeting only those who are like us to embracing the stranger and finding in that embrace the God of liberty and justice for us all.