Strangers in the Land (A Sermon on Deuteronomy 10:12-22)

Given at Colonial Church on September 29, 2019. You can listen to the sermon online.

Deuteronomy 10:12-22 | New Revised Standard Version (NRSV, adapted)

12 So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all God’s ways, to love God, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and God’s decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. 14 Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it, 15 yet God’s heart has been set in love on your ancestors alone, and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today. 16 Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. 19 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 20 You shall fear the Lord your God; God alone you shall worship; to God you shall hold fast, and by God’s name you shall swear. 21 God is your praise; God is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen. 22 Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in heaven.

Welcome & Prayer

Well, good morning! It’s good to see you all on this cozy, rainy, Sunday morning as we gather together to worship. As we continue, will you join me in prayer?

Oh God of Abraham and Isaac; God of Hagar and Sarah: thank you for being the God of our lives. Thank you for being the one who throughout time has loved all people and who has also invited and called us to be your own. May we remember this love, and may it change us. It’s in your name that we gather and pray…Amen.

Sermon: “Strangers in the Land”

I was going to start my sermon with something that I have now moved to second position because in this Year of the Good Neighbor, I have another story I want to begin with.

I ran into Hazel this morning and she said that she liked my dress. I replied: “Well, it’s actually my neighbor’s!” It’s true! You see, the downfall of having a man as your spouse is that I can’t steal all his clothing (am I right?!). If any of you had sisters or female roommates, you’re all like (to your male partner, if you have one): “Seriously, your clothes don’t help me.” So my neighbor had on a really fun dress yesterday and I asked if I could borrow it for today and she was like, “Yes! Sure, absolutely!” I share that just as a fun story of how my neighbor is really a great neighbor!

One of the things that I love about what Hazel’s comment brought to light is what happens when you have an idea or an invitation before you, such as our invitation to be good neighbors, and you begin to notice it pop up in many places in your life. And that is one of the invitations to us this fall as we are reflecting upon and praying about what it means to be good neighbors—that we would notice where God’s love shows up in our lives through our neighbors and likewise where those small opportunities for us to be good neighbors are clear. Maybe it’s sharing a dress with your neighbor…or not…just depends!

But here’s the thing about being neighbors…when we were young many of us learned that we were supposed to be afraid of folks we don’t know. And there are good reasons for this. When I was in elementary school, Jacob Wetterling was abducted, shattering the innocence of communities in relationship to the safety they could trust in their neighborhoods.[1]

I don’t remember a lot about that time except that I remember the grown-ups being really afraid, and I remember that at school we started being taught about how we were supposed to engage with grown-ups who we didn’t know in terms of learning about “stranger danger”. Quite honestly, I am grateful for this education in many ways because when I was in second grade there was a man who attempted multiple abductions of kids in and around Hudson, Wisconsin where I lived. One day when I was walking home from school he stopped his van and called out to me, “Hey, little girl, come here. I have something to show you.” I knew what I was supposed to do… I wasn’t supposed to talk to him because he was a stranger and I ran directly to my house.

I’m grateful for what I learned about being safe as a kid, but sometimes we internalize these early “stranger danger” teachings so that it leads to put up walls with strangers even into our adult lives…in ways we don’t need to.

And this morning I want to talk about our invitation to love our neighbors with flesh on.What I mean by this is that we can probably all agree in theory, right? Love God. Love Neighbors.We all think, Yep. Totally- I’m on board!” Loving God and neighbor is easy in theory, but I want to talk about it in an actual context, first that of Deuteronomy, so as to then talk about it in the actual context of our lives, and the actual context of our church.

To do so, let me begin with a little bit of historical context.

Welcome to the book Deuteronomy! (Aren’t you excited?!) Now you know you’re in trouble!

Okay so here’s the deal: random fact that you probably don’t know about me is that when I was in seminary I worked as a T.A. (teaching assistant) for one of our Old Testament professors, and I was tasked with editing his commentary on Deuteronomy. In the midst of this project, I got hit by a Hummer (yes, my car got totaled) and I had a brain injury so I would fall asleep while I was reading my professor’s commentary (which I realize some people do in reading Deuteronomy even without having brain injuries…but I digress).

But in truth, I love this book and I want to let you know a few things about it. The first thing I want to point out is the title Deuteronomy is based upon a Greek translation of the title, which is a mistranslation of the phrase “a copy of this law”, which should have actually have been translated as “second law”. Yet the actual title of this book in Hebrew is “words” because the compiled text is understood to be the record of the words of Moses right before the people are about to move into the promised land.[2]

Some commentators break this book down into three different sections of speeches of Moses as the people of Israel are on the precipice of the promised land having been on the journey through the wilderness after they got out of slavery…these speeches then are the instructions for how they are supposed to live as they come into the land.

Commentators disagree (shockingly) about when exactly this book came into its final form, but we know that it was clearly utilized in the life of the Jewish people as a means to wrestle with what it is to be the people of God, what it means to be faithful, and who they are called to be in relationship to YHWH God.

Now a little bit about the context and the occasion for the book. As I said earlier, Deuteronomy narrates the moments before the Israelites are about to cross over into the promised land. It’s an authoritative book, but it’s not particularly authoritarian; it’s about the fundamental relationship that Israel is supposed to have with YHWH. All of the laws and commands that you read about in the pages of Deuteronomy are about reminding the people that their relationship with YHWH God is to be the center of all things.

So when the text says, “Hey don’t do this or that…” so much of that is about making clear that as they move into the new land they are to live as Yahweh’s people; what’s central to all of the words of this book is the challenge and invitation to the people that they remember that the center of their entire being, their entire life, and their entire community is supposed to be YHWH God.

Deuteronomy calls to them: “Do not forget, because you are going to be tempted to forget when you move into the land… and oh, by the way, here are some ways that you can help yourself to not forget (which is fleshed our in the remaining chapters of the book).”

This text also aims to encourage the people to take up the responsibility to live out a particular way of being in relationship with YHWH God. Now here’s one of the things that I think is really cool (and I hope you get really excited about it too!): The thing that you might not know about Deuteronomy is that Deuteronomy is put together in a way that reflects and mirrors the covenantal treaties that would have existed at that time in the Ancient Near East.[3]

Why is that really cool, Sara?  (In case you didn’t already think that).

Here’s why I think this is so cool. Given that this book takes the standard elements of a treaty between a king and the people, it then can be read then like a treaty or a covenant between God and God’s people. As such, it’s a way to make clear that it is not an external king—the promise of God isn’t for a king like David or Solomon—that’s not the point. The point for the people of God is that the only true King ever is YHWH God. The one that we are primary relationship with the people is supposed to be YHWH. Period.

And the book of Deuteronomy calls to them (and us): “As you go into the the land do not forget because you’re going to be tempted to become like the other people, to want a King to rule you. But don’t forget that YHWH alone is King.”

You know how Christians often say, “Jesus is Lord.” This language echoes what is happening in Deuteronomy, and is found in the language of the early church and in Jesus’ own words…to say that “Jesus is the Lord” means Caesar isn’t. This is why the early church was accused of being insurrectionists and the like because they would always affirm that their first allegiance always belongs to God.

That of course doesn’t mean that there weren’t still Jews and Gentiles in the early church. This doesn’t mean that today there aren’t Americans and Germans and Swedes. But it does mean that we can’t ever forget that the center of our being as people who claim the name of Christ is that we are Christian.That the one with whom we are in fundamental relationship with, to whom we owe our loyalty isn’t Barack Obama or Donald Trump. It’s to God.

And sometimes we, just like the folks back in Deuteronomy, forget. This theme of remembrance and forgetting is present throughout all of Scripture, but particularly we see this so much in the Jewish prophets… remembrance is such a central theme because we are human and we forget.

We forget how God has shown up in our lives. We forget the healing mercies that God has bestowed on us. There are big monsters in our lands too and we get afraid! We, like the people of Israel, clamor for power that will make us feel more safe, and yet the King comes on a donkey and says “I came to bring peace…” And when we live from that place of peace, that place of right relationship, that place of knowing that we are God’s chosen people– beloved by God– it changes how we can be neighbors to one another. It animates a particular way of being, and that is central to what is going on in this text: YHWH God, the one was brought them out of slavery, calls to them (and us):

“Hear oh Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one, and you shall love this God with all of your being…it is from this place that neighbor love begins and ends and finds its meaning.[4]

And so we come to this particular text in Deuteronomy 10:12-22. This text comes at the end of a section in Deuteronomy where the call to covenantal loyalty has been issued, starting back in chapter six with the passage I just referenced above. And it wraps up here in chapter 10 before we go into the next section of the book.

The call to commitment is transpiring as we see in verse 12: “And now, oh Israel, what does the Lord require of you?” Do you remember the text from Micah 6:8? Does that sound a little familiar? “Now, what does the Lord require?” This is basically the same question in Deuteronomy as in Micah. Micah calls us to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” Here in Deuteronomy, this passage which would have been written on the hearts and minds of the people of Israel, they are called to only fear the Lord your God (I’m in verse 12), to walk in God’s ways, to love God, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and your soul, and to keep the commands that the Lord your God and God’s decrees that I am commanding you today…and I love this last clause—“for your own well-being.”

This passage isn’t about laws, just to give you the law. These laws are spoken because this is what is good for you and the Lord your God who brought you out of slavery, the God who has created you, the God who loves you says: “This is for your good! Choose life!”

Deuteronomy wants Israel to choose life–to choose the way of YHWH– and to remember and trust this love.  Moving into verse 14 and 15, here it reads: “Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, and the earth with all that is in it.” This is again asserting that even though there may be other gods that people worship in the land, there might be other kings, the ONE who is above all is YHWH.

Everything belongs to and is under the reign of YHWH. Verse 15: “yet God’s heart has been set in love on your ancestors alone, and chosen you” (as God’s people). Could you imagine what an amazing promise this would be when you’re about to go into a land that feels terrifying, or when you come back from captivity, to be reminded that no matter what it looks like this God is actually for you?! This is the remembrance that is set before them.

But here’s the really cool thing that I love about the story of God’s relationship to Israel: going back to the book of Genesis, the promise didn’t end with them. The promise was always supposed to be for all the people. So if you go forward to the last verse of this section of Deuteronomy 10, verse 22 says “your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons, and they were enslaved, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in the heavens.” The promise of the decedents being as numerous as the stars is given back in Genesis 26: “One day your descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the heavens.” So going back even to Genesis, there is a clear picture that by choosing Israel as God’s people, through Israel God was going to bless the entire world, and through this initial relationship the whole world would come to know YHWH God.

In view of who this God is (going back to verse 16), they are called to circumcise their hearts. Circumcision was about identifying who you were, of making clear that you were people who were set apart. Going back in Deuteronomy, which Jesus harkens back as he preaches in the Sermon on the Mount that it’s not about the external but about our hearts, he is challenging that it’s always been about us being in right relationship with God. “So don’t be stubborn! Common!” The text cries out to its hearers: “God isn’t partial; this God doesn’t take bribes (verse 18); executes justice for the orphans and the widow, and loves the stranger… you also should do this for you yourself were strangers in the land of Egypt.” It challenges: In view of this history and God’s faithfulness to you, this is how you’re supposed to live.

So that’s a little bit about the actual context of Deuteronomy, let me and us now turn to the actual context of our lives and our time as we consider how we might be invited to love our neighbors not in theory, but with flesh on.

I titled this sermon “Strangers in the Land” because I wanted to talk about our actual context—our current political moment.

UGH (deep breath). These conversations are really hard right now, right? I’m sure for some of you in seeing my sermon title you were a bit worried about what might happen this morning, so thank you all for showing up.

Here’s my concern: that sometimes in our current political moment we hear the word “stranger” from Deuteronomy and it’s SO laden with baggage. You might have heard the sermon title and thought: “Oh! A liberal agenda is going to get preached on Sunday!” Or maybe you read the sermon title and you were like: “Sara better bring it on Sunday!”

My concern as a pastor, which I think resonates with Deuteronomy, is that I want us to be a people who while yes, we are obviously living in our current moment and in our current time– there is no way you can’t be influenced by culture (you speak English! Maybe other languages too)—these things are all a part of shaping you. The majority of us in this room are American citizens. Many of us have deep and profound love for our country. You love your family. Maybe you like pop music (maybe you don’t). All of these things are true and have and do shape you, BUT central to who we are called to be is that we are called to be a people who have one king and one God and one love, we are one body…and that is Christ.

And what concerns me is that sometimes these other things become the first thing accidently or instead of our central calling to have God be at the center. And my hope and my prayer is that as we wrestle with what it means to be a good neighbor that we come back to the text–that we wrestle with it together, that we ask questions…

What does it mean to not forget?

What does it mean that we are called throughout Scripture to care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger?

Sometimes we can too easily conflate these calls with particular partisan positions…but please, let’s be intentional about letting the Gospel and the good news of this life that Christ calls us to, to offer us invitation, reminder, and critique.

We aren’t going to agree about what to do about borders. We aren’t going to agree about a whole lot of things. When in the life of this church have we ever agreed about everything? We disagree. GREAT! Welcome to community! Welcome to being in relationship.

It is through this wrestling that we can become better, right? Iron sharpens iron. So let’s be better Christians together!

Let’s be people who wrestle with these texts, acknowledging that there are some positions that can’t be defended. As a Christ-follower; I don’t get to say: “Kill everybody.” Not an option, folks. I would pretty much have to throw out all of the Bible if I say that.

We are called to love the stranger. We are called to love the widow (and widower). We are called to love the orphan. Scripture makes this clear. I mean we could go on for quite a while here. We could talk about Colossians 3:11,[5]Hebrews 11:1-3,[6]Matthew 25:40,[7]Luke 10:27;[8]Zechariah 7:9-10;[9]Ezekiel 47:22;[10]Psalm 146:9;[11]I Chronicles 16:19-22;[12]Leviticus 19:34;[13]Deuteronomy 10:19…our passage today…amongst others.[14]

I say this just say our first call as people who love this God, is to put this God first. To let this text and the story of God in the midst of God’s people be something that invites and critiques us to see things differently, to wrestle together with what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves, to seek to be the people in the land… in our land, and in our time who are so clearly the people of God.

That is my prayer, and that is my hope.

One of my favorite theologians, Johann Baptist Metz, lived through Nazi Germany; he was actually conscripted into the Nazi military as a teenager right at the end of the war. He spent the rest of his life wrestling with what it means to be Christian in view of the Shoa. What does it mean to claim the name Christ in view of the way that Christianity has been complicit in evil in our world? One of the things he talked about was how the cross is always supposed to function as a critique of the ways that we live. And I mean, I want the cross to critique me! I want this God of love to call to me: “Sara, you missed it.” I want us as community to challenge one another; I want you to challenge me when I get locked into a particular narrative when I am sure I have all of the truth.

I want to be a person, and I want us to be a people, who go back to these texts and remember that the greatest commandment according to Jesus is to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves…and we then let that stand in both invitation and critique to all of us to be the people of God in our time.

Yes, we will disagree about what to do about borders. But praying for the well-being of migrant kids (and their parents) shouldn’t be a question for us. How exactly we are going to do that? What policies do we think we need to have? We are going to disagree about these answers– great. Let’s wrestle together with those challenges, but never forgetting that our and my first loyalty isn’t to a political party, no- I am and we are first a people who have claimed the name of Jesus. And I want to live in fidelity to that kindom’s coming. That is our kingdom. The kingdom of YHWH God.

I want us to be those people.

I get it…this is hard. And this is messy.

You’re a Republican? Great. Be a Jesus Republican.

You’re a Democrat? Fine. Be a Jesus Democrat.

You’re a Green Party person? Great. Be a Jesus Green Party person.

Be a purple party…I don’t care!

What I care about is: is your faith the center thing that you allow to invite and critique who you are and who we are being?

Deuteronomy stands in prophetic invitation to us to say, “Hey Colonial Church, hear this: “The Lord your God, the Lord is one. And you should love this God with everything. And oh, by the way- don’t forget. Don’t forget how I’ve shown up in your life. Don’t forget the healing work I’ve done in your midst. Live from this place of remembrance so that you can live in resonance with this invitation to circumcise your hearts, to live in loving relationship with the God who is the Lord of all. To be the people who don’t take bribes, but join God in the execution of justice for the orphan and the widow and the stranger, providing them food and clothing because we remember and because we pray and long for the day when indeed, those who know this great love of God are, indeed, far more numerous than the stars.”

This is the Year of the Good Neighbor.

To be good neighbors asks us to be Christians who allow ourselves to be transformed by the Spirit of God. It’s the gospel with flesh on.

Remember. There is one God. And there is one King and there is one Lord of all.

So if you are in, if you are in to wrestle together, even as it’s hard, then let’s do this work together.

Let’s go into the new land. Remembering who we are. And remembering from whence we’ve come.

For we are to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts and all of our souls and all of our minds. And we are to love our neighbors…and even the strangers…as ourselves.

For we were once strangers… in fact, we still are…a little strange.

So amen.

Amen.

 

[1]For a history see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Jacob_Wetterling.

[2]So much of this section comes from the work of Dr. Carolyn Pressler and my notes from her class at United Seminary “Older Testament in the Life of the Church.”

[3]Though Deuteronomy is not shaped as a treaty in its final form, the elements of the Suzerainty Treaty are present. Carolyn Pressler argues that the “treaty form influenced its authors. It may even have had the shape of a divine-human treaty earlier in its history (an earlier draft). PDM calls the suzerainty treaty the “submerged structure” of Deuteronomy.” The elements of a treaty between an overlord and vassal include: (a) Preamble. The sovereign identifies himself. (b) Historical Prologue. The sovereign describes the benevolent acts he has done for the sake of the vassal people. (c) Treaty stipulations. (d) Provision for depositing the treaty in a temple and for periodic readings of it (this is optional). (e) References to witnesses and (f) Blessings and curses. All are present in Deuteronomy.

[4]From Deuteronomy 4:6-9.

[5]In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all. Colossians 3:11

[6]Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Hebrews 13:1-3

[7]Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of my brethren you did it to me. Matthew 25:40

[8]You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. Luke 10:27

[9]Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another. Zechariah 7:9-10

[10]You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who reside among you and have begotten children among you. They shall be to you as citizens of Israel; with you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. Ezekiel 47:22

[11]The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. Psalm146:9

[12]When they were few in number, of little account, and strangers in the land, wandering from nation to nation, from one kingdom to another people, he allowed no one to oppress them; he rebuked kings on their account, saying, ‘Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm.’ 1 Chronicles 16:19-22

[13]The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. Leviticus 19:34

[14]‘Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.’ Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’ (Leviticus 27:19) I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy, and I championed the cause of the stranger. I broke the fangs of the unrighteous, and made them drop their prey from their teeth. (Job 29:15-17) For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. (Jeremiah 7:5-7) I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. (Matthew 25:35) Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. (Acts 10:34) Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. (Romans 12:13) Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:10)

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