No Longer Strangers: A Biblical Framework for Loving our Immigrant Neighbor Well

This morning I’ll be speaking with you briefly about the framework the Bible provides for how to love the immigrant. I also want to let you know up front what this talk isn’t about: immigration policy. I’m not even really going to talk about how we as Americans should think about immigrants, but about how we as a delivered and brought-near-to-God people should love our immigrant neighbor made in the image of God. So if you can put policy and even your Americanness out of your mind for next 10 minutes, I think you may get more out of this.

Some of you may know that I’ve spent 7 years and 5 as an adult living overseas. In China and Laos, they had very limited exposure to black people. The images they had received about us in China suggested we were mostly violent criminals, troublemakers. Our portrayal in the media and in the handful of movies about that had made their way into their market about cops, inner city schools, or undisciplined and underperforming athletic teams left a deep but incorrect impression. Our representation was so marginal, that many people refused to believe I was American at all and insisted I was African and therefore poor. My white friends could introduce themselves as being American but when I did they’d ask where I was really from. Being seen as strong and possibly violent worked in my favor though and I called it my crime repellant. No one dared try anything with me. In Laos, people had had such a negative experience with Christianity that I had to sign a contract with my employer saying I wouldn’t attend church my first year there. Their suspicion of Christians impacted my ability to worship freely. So, when I talk about loving foreigners well, it’s personal.

The US has a long history of immigration. People have come here for a variety of reasons since our beginning—to escape poverty, conflict, or oppression in their home countries, for better work or education opportunities, or as the dependent of one of those. Today immigrants make up 13.5% of the population with most of these people coming from India, China, and Mexico. In the past they came from mostly Europe.

Closer to home, DC’s proportion of foreign-born residents is higher than the national average. 23%, or 1.3 million, of DC residents are immigrants with people from El Salvador making up the majority of that number. There are also many foreign students studying at the universities in the area. The Migration Policy Institute’s 2016 research on international students reports, “International students represented 5 percent of all students enrolled in higher education across the country, but have an enrollment share higher than the national average in Washington, DC (12 percent).” A 2014 Brooking Institute report showed DC ranking fifth in total numbers of foreign students among major metropolitan regions.  Another special feature of DC is its place as the unofficial international NGO headquarters of the US. Embassies from 177 countries are within our city limits. A quarter of DC residents speak a language other than English at home. We are surrounded by people from other countries.

There are many ways our being called to live in this city at this time potentially equips us to love better than people living anywhere else would. DC is a city of transplants, we’re kind of all sojourners here. What is it they say, “Almost no one is from DC.” Second, if you’re a DC resident you lack voting representation in Congress. You don’t have someone on a national level to represent your interests. This should be a point over which you can easily empathize. Third, you have plenty of opportunity for practice. There are parts of the States—possibly your home towns—that never see more than a handful of people from other countries. They don’t rub elbows with them at work, they don’t attend church with them, they don’t ride the metro with them or have a chance to attend cultural events at their embassies. All these are gifts you can use to your advantage.

In Luke 10 before launching into the parable of the Good Samaritan, one of the experts in the law challenges Jesus asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” That’s a high stakes question if I ever heard one. Jesus answers, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” Hoping to walk away with a clear conscience, he asks Jesus the question at the heart of this discussion this morning, “Who is my neighbor?”

Throughout scripture there seems to be several categories of neighbors each with its own standard for the love we are to show them. There’re general principles about our everyday neighbor (Leviticus 19:18, 1 Peter 2:7). There’s guidance on how to treat our friend neighbor (John 15:13). Then there’s that pesky enemy neighbor we’re just supposed to smother our “extra mile” love on (Matthew 5:38-44). There’s instruction about our Christian neighbor and how we are to treat those within the body of Christ (Gal 6:2, 10). And finally, there’s a set of laws governing how we as people of God treat our vulnerable neighbor (Jeremiah 22:3).

A couple years ago I was randomly choosing athletic teams to support because I am “such a sports fan” and when it came to basketball I asked who was the worst and said whoever they were would be my team, so “Go 76ers!” Not the best way to pick a team, but God basically did the same. We don’t have to guess his strategy: 1 Corinthians 1:28 says, “God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are.” The vulnerable and “things that are not” hold a special place in His heart. From the beginning of His relationship with His people Israel this can be seen. Deuteronomy 7:7 says, “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples.”

Certainly, their size would be a disadvantage. Being so outnumbered was also a source of anxiety for them. Every time they’re faced with an enemy they cower because of their size (Deut 7:1, Judges 7, Number 13:25-33, Deut 2:10, 2 Kings 6:15-17). Being small both in number and size meant they were especially vulnerable to being subdued by enemies. They were ripe for defeat. And God chose them.

Immigrants are instant minorities. At the moment they become immigrants they are immediately outnumbered. Whether they had been a part of the majority group in the countries they left or not, from the moment their foot lands on foreign soil they’re fighting against the feeling that they don’t belong.

Frequently throughout the Old Testament we encounter “the quartet of the vulnerable”—the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the sojourner—objects of God’s special concern. Israel was known for treating foreigners better than other nations at that time because their laws and their God required it, so if a foreigner was looking for good treatment, Israel was a safe bet, or should have been. In the book Christians at the Border, Daniel Carroll says,“ The first thing that stands out in Old Testament law is the remarkable contrast that can be drawn with the other law codes of the ancient Near East…The laws are numerous, and they are gracious to the sojourner.” As recipients of ‘something for nothing’ in their being chosen in spite of themselves, what did God require of his people? Simply put, to pay it forward.

In Leviticus 19, God gives guidance on loving your neighbor starting in verse 9. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap right up to its edge.” In verse 10, “you shall not strip your vineyard bare.” In verse 11 he says if grapes fall, leave them on the ground. Why? For the poor and the sojourner. They are not to be an afterthought. Goodness towards them should be premeditated. Why? Because he is their God and his goodness is premeditated. He ends each series of rules with “I am the LORD.”  Later in the same chapter he says, “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Here he adds an additional motive: their own experience as strangers. They were not to become the Egyptians when given the opportunity.

I mentioned that the Bible seemed to present various categories of neighbors but actually it really only presents one: Jesus. And we have one standard: to love as we would want to be loved. To treat as we’d want to be treated. I often wonder why it doesn’t say to love our neighbor as we would love Jesus, but in His wisdom I think God knew that we would always be far more skilled and practiced at loving ourselves than loving him. So let us be equally skilled and practiced at loving our neighbor—including the immigrant—so we may love God.

In several places, scripture attests to God being the ultimate beneficiary of our obedience to him—faith expressing itself through love. For example, in the Colossians passage on servants and masters it says that “it is Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:24). Proverbs 19:17 says, “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord,”, and in the famous passage in Matthew about “the least of these” he says that when they clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger and visited the sick they were doing it to him (Matthew 25:34-40).

It also points to him as the victim of our disobedience. In 1 Samuel when the demand a king for Israel God tells Samuel they aren’t rejecting him but God himself. (1 Samuel 8:7). When Joseph turns down Potiphar’s wife’s advances in Gen 39 he says, “How could I sin against God?” In Psalm 51:4, David confesses, “Against you and you only I have sinned.” Proverbs 14:31 says, “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker.” Whether good or bad, how we treat our neighbor, in action, word, thought or disposition of our heart, gets transferred to God their maker.

The title of this event is “No Longer Strangers”, a phrase lifted out of Ephesians 2:19. I’ll read from 17 for context, “And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” In case someone should think that the New Testament is more lax than the Old, the New Testament trend is towards more generosity not less because of Jesus. In Luke 14, Jesus says, “When you have a banquet invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind and you will be blessed.” When you give unselfishly and extravagantly you model the gospel. We move from leaving the edges of our fields for the vulnerable to throwing them feasts. The vulnerable go from getting a little for nothing to getting immeasurably more for nothing, a picture of ourselves in Christ.

Think about what it has meant for your life that you have an advocate before God in Christ, that you enjoy the hospitality of the Father preempting your return from scandalous idolatry and ruin with lavish grace like the father of the of the prodigal son, think about how merciful he’s been, his patience, his genuine concern for your welfare, his asking questions of the woman at the well rather than othering or shaming her and how he takes away your shame and draws you near. Just something to consider.

Our sojourning isn’t over. Rather, it is a status we’re called to maintain. 1 Peter 2:10-12 says, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”

To close, Here’s some practical suggestions on how to love our immigrant neighbor better:

Host for holidays or ask if you can participate in some of theirs
Learn about their culture both from them and from other resources
Adopt part of their culture over which you can bond
Don’t assume or show partiality for those with jobs like yours
Remember the grace of Christ and if you’ve had experiences abroad remember your own pain points
Seek out foreigners, there are plenty around. The Lord sought us first.

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