Welcoming the Stranger

Isaiah 56:1-8 Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. 2Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil. 3Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” 4For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. 6And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— 7these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. 8Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered. __________

This scripture was read as the Hebrew Bible lesson recently for those who follow the assigned readings of the Common Lectionary. Its words were a breath of fresh air to those who, for one reason or another, had been considered outcast or unwelcome in the nation of Israel. Isaiah was offering a glimpse of what he believed the post-exilic community of faith could look like: people who had been excluded from the faith community either for reasons related to ritual defilement or because they were not natives of that particular place now had reason to be hopeful. If anyone was willing to keep the Sabbath and accept the covenant that the Lord had made with the people, that person was to be welcomed into the community. Perhaps Isaiah was able to offer this change in how outcasts should be viewed because a large number of the descendants of the Children of Israel had been carried off into exile for a generation. They had experienced what it was like to be a stranger in a strange and unwelcoming land. As with most visions, not all of the things hoped for came to pass after the exile ended, and Israel still battled enemies outside and within. With President Trump's announcement that the Dream Act will be phased out, we need to recall Isaiah's words more than ever. Even though his words did not miraculously restore eternal peace and justice to the Israelites, it gave them a starting place from which to work. Young people who have known only the United States as their homeland are now threatened with eventual expulsion, for some, to a land where they do not even understand the language. Our government seems obsessed with identifying some people as "other." Though not the intent of the purity laws found in Leviticus, sometimes people were marginalized by the very laws meant to preserve the faith community, and they were identified as "other." As a nation, the United States is becoming less and less welcoming to those who, for one reason or another, are perceived as "other." There are practical reasons for immigration laws and limits on how many people from other countries may enter our country each year. But the dissolution of the Dream Act seeks to expel those who have been productive citizens; they may be people who live down the block from us or students who live and work on our college and university campuses. Isaiah's vision must become our vision, and prophetic voices must be heard, challenging anyone, anywhere, who seeks to divide one group of citizens from the "others." Isaiah's vision described a new understanding of what it meant to be members of a faith community. What was in an individual's heart mattered more than one's individual infirmities or geographical homeland. During these days of national unrest, distrust and marginalization, we who claim to be people of faith cannot, and must not remain silent. Moving from Isaiah's message to the Gospels, one cannot help but see that Jesus came to fell barriers and expand boundaries. However, seeing is not the same as understanding. May God grant us understanding.

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