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Resident Aliens

Like many Americans I know, you may as well mark me down as something of a conscientious objector given that docile compliance with the boredom of basic bureaucratic procedure has never registered as one of my top spiritual giftsAs a general rule, I do not relish my occasional opportunities to fill out Postal Service forms, stand in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, or file our personal tax returns on April 15. It is not that I am against the necessity of these civic duties in principle, it is just that I would prefer not to be there at the time. My guess is that a fair number of my fellow citizens must suffer from a similarly low-grade case of disinterest and organizational antipathy. How else to explain that our democratic elections never seem to report much more than a standard 50 percent participation rate even though most of us are merely being asked to vote by mail? I am sure that we would all do more if we could, but hard choices are required when there are only so many hours in a day to update our Facebook status and view cat videos on YouTube.

If all of that strikes you as a bit snarky or sassy, well, I apologize. Maybe my tone is a bit off-key due to a building sense of bureaucratic pressure, for lately it seems that those friendly folks representing both the Federal and State Guv-mint have been out to ask for a bit of my free time and personal attention. Mind you, we are not talking about any felony warrants or wiretaps. It is just that recently the daily mail where we live continues to cough up one low-level legal responsibility after another. Often there are those quarterly tax payments and the odd, occasional summons to jury duty . . . which always tends to be a personal favorite for me. I mean, you have no idea how absolutely excited the counsel for the defense becomes when given a chance to use the voir dire interview with prospective jurors to size up my innate ministerial potential as just the kind of well-meaning doofus who might well come in handy later as the foreman of a hung jury. But after pawing through our stack of mail on the kitchen counter, I could see that it was time once again to renew my driver’s license and update my passport documentation. Unclear as to which of those two tasks could turn out to be more of a bureaucratic mine-field, I am resigned to notify my next-of-kin that I will be spending some quality-time on my next day-off in that Purgatory known as the DMV.  But the passport? Now that is likely to take even longer. Even so, Carmen reminds me that I will need to get on it right away just to make sure that none of you ever witness me starring in a Breaking News feature on CNN, being unceremoniously dragged by my ankles off some JetBlue plane by one of those buff and burly, brush-cut Sky Marshals from TSA. There is simply no point in putting myself at that kind of risk. It is already hard enough for me to get a proper snack bag of peanuts on one of those Friday night, milk-run flights.

All that being said, in the ten years since I last filled out a passport application, it appears that things have gotten much more complicated. But actually, that is not all bad, if you ask me. For as I began assembling all of my supporting documentation, it was not long before I started thinking more deeply about the people from whom I have come and the story that I am. After all, when you consider the place that you call Home, what exactly do you mean, and where should you fix and establish those rather arbitrary boundaries that serve to mark the location of your Family and Life? And once you start to remember those foundational narratives, what do these stories that your loved ones always seem to tell and retell really explain as a way of identifying who your people are?

Now I know that your family has its own saga of origins, and so does mine. In our family story, for some time it has been rather difficult for us to get beyond a couple of generations prior to my own, largely because we come from a group of sturdy ancestors who traveled here from fully half a world away. So, we look at the sepia-toned photographs of my great-grandmother, and wonder what secrets have long been forgotten from her life as a 15-year old immigrant from Sweden who disembarked by herself from a ship in San Francisco to begin her American journey once she found work as an in-home domestic. Does any of that explain why all of our kin on that side of the family have always demonstrated a certain kind of perfectionistic zeal regarding their housekeeping and a deep, perhaps instinctual fear of ever being in debt or out of work? We also wonder whether or not some sort of latent desire within that lonely, teen aged girl fresh off the boat turned out to be the reason Christian faith has exercised such an iron grip on my family. Is it possible, for instance, that some simple yearning to hear her Swedish mother tongue spoken in an American city like turn-of-the-last-century San Francisco was enough to lead my great-grandmother to come on Sunday after Sunday to worship at a downtown Swedish Covenant Church where that language of her homeland was still being spoken regularly when I was later present as a child? I do not know many answers to those questions. But I do know enough of the story to know who my people are. And if your family is anything like that maternal side of my family, then you will understand what I am about to say: If you know who your people are, then you also know how to act. Or as one of my Swedish relatives would sometimes say to us whenever we were misbehaving while in his charge, “You don’t want to make me come in there to remind you who you are.” Let us simply say that I learned very early that he was never kidding.

What kind of story does your family tell regarding its origins, core values, and deepest hopes? Even if you do not know much about this kind of foundational narrative within your own family tree, if you are a disciple of Jesus, you need not worry too much about the facts that mark your primary identity and history. We have, in fact, been given such a narrative, a primal family story which is provided for all of us in the 26th chapter of Deuteronomy as a kind of early liturgy calling us to gather as the Church, a family constituted in a journey of faith dating back to our father and mother, those aged ancestors Abraham and Sarah. The Gospel truth is that this liturgy of thanksgiving and gratitude makes it indisputably clear that ours has always been an immigrant story, and that might prove to be rather significant to us if we will choose to pay attention to this particular time in which more than 65 million people worldwide are presently displaced and on the move due to warfare, starvation, and political upheaval. So when we were listening to our missionary friends Jay and Teanna Sunberg report the other night on their ongoing work helping to coordinate our Nazarene compassionate ministry response to the humanitarian crisis affecting more than 5 million Syrians who have been attempting to journey toward freedom and hope in Central and Northern Europe, my thoughts immediately turned back to the confession of that old text in Deuteronomy 26: “A wandering Aramean [a Syrian, if you will accept such a Word] was my ancestor . . . he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number. . . [And when we suffered] we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, [and] the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. [And] the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm . . . and He brought us into this place and gave us this land.” As I say, this has forever been the story of our faith family: We are descendants of immigrants and resident aliens, those undocumented who crossed borders with nothing more than the Voice of God as their map, calling them forward. Or, to be more precise from the ancient text of these Scriptures of ours, we are the descendants of those who were in fact "wandering," a unique Hebrew phrase that may just as easily be translated as “perishing.” And once you know that to be true . . . once you know who your people are, now you should be able to know what you must do. For if you know where your family is from, you should certainly be able to remember what you are expected to do.

Well, since I’ve tried to teach you some of the vocabulary of the Hebrew Bible, may I finish by telling you about a Spanish word that I learned from Heidi Neumark, a Lutheran pastor who served a remarkable, multi-ethnic congregation in one of the poorest neighborhoods of New York City for more than 20 years? Heidi explains that in Spanish, the word we would translate as “parish” is parroquia, a term that aligns closely to a related term (paroikia) from Biblical Greek. Recently she put it this way: “Paroikia indicates a place of exile, a place where you might find a paroikos – a stranger, a resident alien. Our parishes are intended to be places of hospitality for the paroikos. Such ministry is not a sideline but our core identity as a church – an identity with a long history, as Deuteronomy reminds us. We don’t label our Biblical ancestors as economic interlopers, suspect strangers or terrorists; we honor and love them as foremothers and forefathers of our faith. We are to welcome each new paroikos in the same way.” And then Pastor Heidi went on to remember old Abraham and Sarah who were immigrants and became resident aliens in the unfamiliar culture to which their God led them; Joseph who was victimized by human traffickers and was incarcerated unjustly; bereaved Ruth who remained steadfast at the side of her grieving mother-in-law to become a paroikos in her new country of Israel; and even Moses, a child who was truly left behind until he later matured by the grace of God into the “divinely appointed coyote who led a band of desperate refugees on a desert trek toward freedom” in the Promised Land. In other words, over and over again our Scriptures tell us a unifying story of how God leads migrating people who are always, it seems, just on the cusp of crossing into a new place of promise and hope.

Again, while listening the other night to Jay and Teanna, it occurred to me that these new circumstances demand that we begin thinking in fresh ways about the people who would at first seem to be these strangers, the paroikos people now inexplicably present all around us as sojourners in what we often think of as our community. Perhaps I can put it this way. The older missionary model or paradigm we had been using usually came out something like this: We would train and equip our witnesses, pray for the Lord’s Holy Spirit to empower them, and then we sent them over there, wherever there happened to be at the time. But now, it seems that the Lord is doing something breathtakingly new and audacious, and we might want to call it what it actually seems to be: A reverse-Pentecost.  The dynamic of such a reverse-Pentecost is simple:  All those others who formerly lived over there (far, it seems, beyond our grinding attempts to mobilize our resources and send out missionary witnesses one-by-one), now have flooded past our safe and secure borders in desperation to make a way here, whether or not we are truly ready for their arrival and their needs.

Are you ready, or not? Before you answer, let me simply remind you of our own story of faith. A wandering Aramean, a wandering Syrian, was our father. And if you ever decide to go back and read Deuteronomy 26, let me tell you that once you know the kind of family that you are in, there is really no choice in the matter. For the liturgy of that text ends up with the extension of a neighborly dinner invitation to all of the landless Levites as well as those hopeless strangers and sojourners who just happen to be passing through like all the rest of us resident aliens. Which means, of course, that the first words we must learn to say to these unfamiliar immigrants all around us are not so much, “Are you legal?” But instead, “Will you come join us at the Lord’s Table?”

Jeff Crosno