Our lesson this morning comes from the Book of Isaiah. Isaiah, an ancient prophet, describes in the verses immediately preceding those I will read today that there was going to be some sort of disaster in region of Moab, causing its people to flee across the Dead Sea to seek refuge amongst the Israelites. Isaiah, in the verses from today’s lesson, is telling the Israelites to welcome those refugees, and by doing so will find favor with God.
It is also important to note that the translation we are using from the Womanist Lectionary by Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney often replaces masculine pronouns for feminine ones. By that I mean, she takes what is actually a gender-neutral pronoun in ancient Hebrew, which traditionally has been translated in masculine language and changes it to feminine. She is working to normalize feminine language in scripture. But – that is not the case today. The original Hebrew is not gender-neutral. This scripture speaks to the women of Israel, and speaks of the women of Moab. The fact that is section of scripture centralizes women is exceedingly rare in the Bible – both Old and New Testament. But the lesson it teaches is universal.
Within the last year, Winona has become the home of five refugee families. Two families from Honduras, one man from Columbia (who has a family that will hopefully be arriving soon), and two families from Afghanistan. Each of these families were fleeing threats and violence in their homeland. Some traveled through dangerous jungles for months to reach the US border. Others rushed to an airport in hopes of getting on a plane with very little notice. They all arrived in Winona under different circumstances, but each of those circumstances required the generosity and hospitality of everyday people within our wider community. This is something we in Winona should be very proud of.
Welcoming the stranger and providing hospitality to the refugee is a Divine imperative across all major religious traditions. Within Christianity, our scriptures – both Old and New Testament – are filled with reminders that we must care for anyone who comes to us for aid. And we must extend welcome and help to those we know need aid. I am not telling you anything you do not know, of course. This directive from God is so imbedded in our tradition that it is often taken for granted. Today’s scripture lesson echoes that familiar obligation, but it takes it one step further. The definition of hospitality, in my reading of the scripture, is expanded beyond simple welcome and support.
Isaiah is telling the people, in particular the women, of Israel to welcome the refugees from Moab – again, in particular the women. It is important to note that while Judah and Moab were neighbors, with just the Dead Sea separating them, their relationship was tumultuous. And even though the Israelites shared a heritage with Moab – King David was descended from Ruth the Moabite – they were not often inclined to extend welcome to their neighbors to the east. Additionally, women refugees, from anywhere, were traditionally not welcomed because there was a prejudiced fear that the foreign women would seduce the Israelite men, and cause the men to stray from God. So, Isaiah, speaking on behalf of God, is not only telling the Israelites they must welcome their unliked neighbors, but that welcome must be extended to everyone, especially the women. All prejudice must be set aside, commands Isaiah, in order to find favor with God.
Now, there is nothing particularly unusual about that command. The scriptures throughout the Bible are filled with reminders that humanity must set aside taught and learned prejudices. And as I said before, offering hospitality and refuge to the stranger is a common theme across all Judeo-Christian scriptures. But, what makes this particular iteration of that lesson stand-out has to do with one word. Let me read verse 3 again: “Receive counsel, daughter, grant justice, make your shade like night at the midpoint of noon, daughter.” The verse goes on, but it is the first word that stands out. “Receive counsel.” So, not only are the people told to grant justice to the Moabites, and offer them shelter, but they are also directed to receive counsel from the refugees. Learn from them, Isaiah says. Listen to what they have to teach you and take it seriously. In this lesson we learn hospitality to the stranger is more than shelter, hospitality to the stranger includes being willing to be changed by the stranger. Nowhere in this command does it say that the stranger must assimilate to the new culture in order to be fully welcomed. How I read it, to welcome means to be changed. And that is a much harder commandment to follow than simply offering shelter and provisions.
It is necessary for me to, for a moment anyway, take off my pastor hat and put on my teacher hat. You see, traditionally verse three begins this way, “Give counsel, grant justice…” etc. “Give” counsel, teach the refugee – offer them guidance. The ancient Hebrew verb there, Hiphil, can go either way – give or receive. This ambiguity is a very common feature of the ancient Hebrew language – and has caused Biblical scholars consternation for centuries. It is often necessary to guess, based on the surrounding text, what word is intended. Scholars examine how the same word is used in other scriptures, the tense is examined, and usually a subjective decision is made. Rev. Dr. Gafney, the Biblical scholar whose translations we are using, makes a very compelling argument that the traditional translation of ‘give’ is incorrect. The tense is wrong, the other uses of the word are different, on and on she goes. I am not an ancient Hebrew expert – I took two years of it, giving me just enough knowledge to be dangerous. But I was taught ancient Hebrew by experts, so I sent some of Rev. Dr. Gafney’s articles and translation notes on the subject to my professors, who got back to me almost immediately. One said this, “Wil (as Rev. Dr. Gafney is known by her friends) has been right about this for years. But trying to convince a bunch of old blank’s that we must learn from the other rather than teach the other is proving darn near impossible.” That was the note I received from one of my professors – which I edited a bit – he is a world-renowned scholar who doesn’t have much of a filter.
The subjective assumption has been that to welcome the refugee is to teach them, to offer them counsel. The assumption has been that the welcomer has more wisdom to share than the one who is being welcomed. We have seen this over and over again. In our world today, refugees – whether they are fleeing violence or economic oppression – are looked down on. Their poverty, nearly always a result of the conditions they are fleeing, is seen as a reflection of their intelligence and value. And even those refugees who have advanced education and expertise find, in the United States anyway, that our society is set up to assume their education was not nearly as good as ours, and therefore could not possibly be qualified to do the same work here that they were doing in their home before being forced to flee.
Additionally, when refugees are welcomed into a community, they are taught about how to fit-in to the culture. Now, of course this is necessary. Learning how to navigate in a foreign land is crucial to survival. But what I very rarely ever see is how the community that is doing the welcoming is taught how they must adapt to truly be a place of welcome. When refugees are welcomed into a new community, the entire community must change. Which is exactly what I think God is commanding God’s followers to do in this scripture – “Receive counsel.” Receive wisdom that will change you. Receive guidance about who you are to become. Receive the blessing the stranger brings and be ready to be forever changed by it, in ways you cannot possibly imagine. In this instance, it is better to receive than it is to give.
This imperative is reinforced by Jesus when he directs his disciples to go and spread the Good News of God’s Kingdom. From Matthew 10, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The Kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave…If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.’” To be a disciple, Jesus teaches, to spread the wisdom and blessings of God, is to be a stranger in a strange land. And if that strange land does not welcome you and receive your counsel, then leave them behind for they are not worthy of God’s favor.
Today’s scripture lesson from Isaiah, especially when held alongside Jesus’ teaching of what discipleship looks like, expands what it means to welcome the refugee to our community. Scripture should change us, and speaking for myself, my prayerful work around this scripture has started to change me. I am eager to support the refugees new to our community. I have donated money, visited with them, encouraged you to donate money or household goods, and will continue to do what I can. But what I had not considered before is how I must change in order to truly welcome them. I had not considered before that it is necessary for me to learn from them – not just learn about their culture and stories – but learn from them what this community must look like in order for it to truly be home. And I haven’t seen, yet, anyway, any real conversation about this. So, I have no 10-point plan to offer. But, as your pastor and friend, I am calling on all of you to join me in beginning that conversation.
My sincere prayer is that Winona will be forever changed as we welcome refugees and our community grows. Not only are we commanded by God to learn, but we must also remember it is entirely possible that those refugees are in fact God’s messengers. Disciples of the Divine bringing with them the Good News of God’s inclusive and diverse Kingdom, and providing us with miracles and blessings. Indeed, each refugee could be Christ – God incarnate – walking amongst us if we can only recognize them. True community is mutual care: shared hospitality, shared wisdom, and a willingness by all to be transformed. True community is the Kingdom of God, a world that is not dominated by one but instead is the familiar home of all. Amen.
God of new possibilities,
we give thanks for your constant reminder
that you have a vision for our world
that far exceeds our present realities.
You call us up out of our cynicism, apathy and fear
to keep our eyes on the life you would have us live.
We are grateful for the courage and determination
you make available to us to sustain our efforts
to work for better relationships, justice and peace.
Help us to find the language and the courage
to share our own faith stories with each other,
and to be open and honest and humble in all of our interactions.
God, we pray for our world and those nations
where violence and tyranny cause so much suffering.
We pray for people driven out of their homes and their homelands,
and struggle to survive in refugee camps.
We pray for those who do not have enough food to sustain them
or water to quench their thirst.
We pray for those entering into new communities, seeking to find
a familiar home amongst strangers.
We pray for this community, and all communities welcome, that don’t
just save the refugee, but are saved their presence amongst us.
God, we know this call feels like a heavy burden, and we can feel so helpless at times.
Help us to enact your command
to love and grow.
Be our light in this world, God.
In Jesus’ name we pray and in the way he taught us, we say…Our Father…