A sermon on Deuteronomy 11:8-12, 18-21, 27-28 by Nathan Nettleton, 16 October 2005
preached at the First Congregational Church of Dunbarton, New Hampshire, USA
Last week Margie, Acacia and I caught the ferry from New York to Ellis Island to visit the Immigration Museum. This was a special visit for us because one of Acacia’s favourite story books is a book called “When Jessie came across the sea.” Perhaps you know it. It is about a young refugee girl from Eastern Europe who emigrates to America, and she comes through the immigration processing centre on Ellis Island. Together the book and the visit to Ellis Island gave us a wonderful sense of both the anticipation and the reality experienced by those coming to this country, many as refugees, in the first half of the last century. To so many of them, this was indeed the promised land.
As you know I come from Australia on the other side of the world. Australia and America have many things in common, but an original sense of being a promised land is not one of them. While your pilgrim forebears came here in search of a promised land, Australia was founded as a penal settlement. Convicts were told that they were forsaken by God and were being sent to the most God forsaken place on earth. Now any of you who have seen pictures of Sydney harbour will know that the place does not look God-forsaken, but that’s how the first white inhabitants of Australia felt there. Over the years though, things have changed. In the last hundred years or so, people who are fleeing places of violence and hatred and poverty have looked at Australia and America in very similar ways. Both are seen as very very desirable destinations, as places of freedom and hope, as promised lands. And over that time, both our countries have welcomed in hundreds and thousands of people who had no future elsewhere, and we’ve given them a home and a future. The words mounted on the base of the Statue of Liberty were written as the voice of America, but for a long time they could have equally been the words of Australia:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
I live in Melbourne, a city that has benefited greatly from successive waves of immigration. I love the vibrancy and diversity that so many different people groups have brought to my country. There have been times when racism has reared its ugly head and we’ve struggled to accept incoming groups, but overall, I have been proud of my country and its welcoming ways. At Ellis Island, I sensed something of the pride many of you must feel in the way your country has lived up to those words on the Statue of Liberty, the Mother of Exiles. Both of our nations were founded by people who left their previous homelands and made a home as exiles in a foreign land. Your forebears fled, and mine were expelled, but both made a new home in a new land and then opened their doors and their hearts to others who came later, also fleeing or being kicked out of other lands.
Thousands of years ago, our forebears in the faith, the Hebrew people, also fled a place of violence and oppression and sought to make their home in a new land. They too found, as our reading described, a land flowing with milk and honey, a land of hills and valleys watered by the rain from the sky, a land that the Lord God looks after. (The hills and valleys around here seem to have been watered a little too much from the skies just lately, from what I’ve seen, but let’s not quibble over minor details!) As they stood poised to enter the land of Israel and make it their home, they must have felt a lot like many of those refugees felt when they first saw the statue of liberty as they approached Ellis Island. At last, the promised land! After all the years of struggle and all the difficulty of the journey, all the hoping and waiting and fearing and yearning. At last, the promised land. A land to call our home.
And as they stood poised to make the land their home, Moses speaks to them on behalf of the Lord God. When we picked up the story today, Moses has just given them a replacement copy of the ten commandments. The first copy had been smashed in the chaos following the golden calf incident. So this people with all their hoping and striving, but also their checkered history of idolatry and unfaithfulness, are now hearing what in some ways was like their declaration of independence: the speech in which the basis of their future as a nation is spelled out.
In this speech, it becomes apparent that the people are not the only ones full of hopes and dreams and fervent yearnings. At the heart of this speech is the deep yearning of God. God is in love with this land and longs to bless it abundantly. God is in love with this people, and longs to bless them abundantly. God longs to see this people flourish and prosper in this land and for land and people and God all to be an ongoing blessing to one another. This after all is always God’s deepest desire; to create and bless and prosper and enjoy. God’s primary business and primary passion is blessing. Sure salvation is important too, but salvation is only ever the remedial plan, the action God has to take when things get screwed up in order that there might be a restoration of the primary activity of blessing and flourishing.
How common this experience of looking forward to a new homeland is, and how constant is God’s desire to settle us in a new homeland of safety and promise, and to bless us richly. What God wished for the runaway Hebrew slaves as they entered their promised land is the same as what God wished for the pilgrim settlers arriving in America, and for the exiled convicts as they were cast into Australia, and for the countless thousands of people who have been forced to flee the only homes they have known and who have arrived on our shores seeking refuge, asylum, and a new future. What God wants for us all is the rich blessings of a place to call home, of deep roots, of flourishing families, of prosperity for all, no exceptions. Our God has a passion for this, because our God has a passion for us. This is what God lives for. This is what God is all about.
One of the reasons we know that God loves us so much and longs for the best for us so much is that God is not all mushy and sentimental about it. God knows how easily we could stuff it up and sabotage the blessings and lay waste to our own promised lands. God cares enough to make sure we don’t stumble into disaster unwarned and unwary. God makes sure we know what it takes to have fullness of life and fullness of days in the land we have been given. And so, through Moses, God encourages us to take these teachings to heart. “Do whatever you need to do to keep them fixed in your minds: write them on the back of your hands; wear them as a badge stuck on your forehead. Teach them to your children and talk about them morning, noon and night, at home or wherever you go. Stick them up on your door and on your gate so that you will be reminded of them as you come and go. That way you will be assured of a long and happy life in the land the LORD promised to your ancestors. Your children will enjoy the same, and their children too, as long as the earth keeps turning.”
So what are these teachings which the Lord has encouraged us to take to heart so that we might live long and blessed in the land? Well, the teachings are many, but both Jesus the Christ and Paul the Apostle have taught us that we can summarise them pretty easily. Both said that all the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbour as yourself. (Matthew 22:37-40) Love of God and love of neighbour. And we know what answer Jesus gave when he was asked who is my neighbour. In the parable of the good Al-Queda operative – sorry, the good samaritan wasn’t it? – Jesus tells us that even the person who we are most likely to regard as someone to be shunned, as an outsider, a threat, an undesirable, even that one we are to regard as a neighbour to be actively loved.
And if you want it spelled out in relation to this question of refugees that we have been discussing, lets just flick back a few verses in Deuteronomy. Just before our reading began it said this:
For the LORD your God is the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the LORD your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear.
There you have it again: love and honour the Lord your God, and love even the strangers, for you yourselves were strangers when you came to this land.
Now I don’t actually know that much about current American practice with regard to strangers who come as refugees and asylum seekers, but I know that if loving and providing for the strangers is one of the things that we need to be doing to ensure that we continue to enjoy God’s blessing and live long in the land, then my nation, Australia, has forfeited its future and chosen death and curse rather than life and blessing. You can tell me whether there are similarities in the policies and public sentiment here, but Australia has embarked on a policy of closed borders and deliberate mistreatment of those who come uninvited seeking refuge. My nation as employed a policy of mandatory detention for those who arrive without prior approval until their claims are tested – sometimes years – and the government has built concentration camps in remote and inhospitable areas to detain these people, even women and children. And they openly say that the policy is designed to deter others from trying to make their way to Australia. And just in case you think I am making politically partisan comments here, I am not: there is no significant difference in the opposition party’s policies on refugees, and opinion polls say the policy is still supported by the majority of the population. And to make matters worse, the Australian government frequently talks about a need for population growth, so the closed border policy is simply racist. We want more people, but not the kind of people who are strangers to us. We are not loving the strangers, because presumably we are not remembering that we ourselves came to the land as strangers and exiles.
I am ashamed to say that I think my nation’s practice in this area is one of the most abhorrent in the world at the present time. The welcoming and hospitable nation I was once so proud of has been led down a pathway of selfishness and callousness and has become anything but loving. I don’t know much about the present practice here in the USA. I doubt whether it could be as obviously contrary to the revealed will of God as Australia’s, but are there some similarities?
You know, in a way I reckon that this complete failure to live up to the law of love at the national level is bound up with a failure on the other plank of our two commandment summary. I reckon it is an expression of our failure to love and honour God with all our heart, and that failure is seen most clearly, as always, in the idolatries that our nations fall prey too. And I am going to be a bit more presumptuous here and talk about America as well as my own country, because this it is clearly evident in both countries.
What I am talking about is an idolatry of nation; allowing our nation to occupy the place in our hearts and minds that should belong to God alone. And part of this idolatry begins with a misunderstanding of the concept of a promised land, and what it means to be living in one. If we think of the promised land as something we have a right to, then we quickly lose our bearings and are making for ourselves an idol. If this passage from Deuteronomy reminds us of anything, it should remind us that we do not have an inalienable right to the land and its fruits. The land is an undeserved gift from a gracious God, and whatever “right” we have to live long in it and prosper and enjoy its fruits is clearly conditional on our willingness to remember that we too are aliens and strangers and to treat other aliens and strangers as we would wish to be treated ourselves. To fail to live by those conditions is to violate the covenant, and once we are no longer party to the covenant, the land is not our land at all. My nation has no right to expect God’s blessing on our occupation of the land, because we have not paid our rent in faithfulness to the call to welcome and provide for the stranger and refugee.
Instead we have erected an idolatrous definition of ourselves as a nation and claimed that our right to occupy the land and enjoy its fruits is based, not on covenant faithfulness, but on the legal constructs of national boundaries, citizenship and residential status. I can find absolutely nothing in the teachings of Jesus or his apostles that gives Christians any justification for honouring the practice of drawing national boundary lines, defining concepts of legal citizenship, and then discriminating in our treatment of people based on whether their citizenship is on this side of the line or that side. Instead, Jesus is absolutely clear. Treat the non-citizen samaritan, the potentially-a-threat-to-our-national-security samaritan, as your neighbour, and love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus does not say love your neighbour as yourself except when it is not in the best interests of your nation. He does not say love your neighbour as yourself so long as your neighbour can produce the right paperwork and prove their capacity to contribute productively to the national economy. He does not say love your neighbour as yourself unless there are a lot of them and providing for them will potentially erode our standard of living. Jesus simply says love your neighbour as yourself. Full stop.
Of course, a secular nation can do as it likes in this regard, but it has no right to claim God’s blessing on such actions. And when the secular nation decides that it has a responsibility to further the interests of its own citizens by refusing to love and welcome undesirable non-citizens, then we who would follow Jesus the Christ have no right to support the decision of such a nation. In the waters of baptism we renounced all other allegiances but our allegiance to Jesus the Christ and to his boundaryless empire. As a baptised disciple, I am no longer at liberty to regard the land of Australia as belonging to the designated citizens of Australia. I am now to regard it, and America, and every other land, as the possession of a gracious God who entrusts the lands to us on the understanding that we will love and welcome and provide for the stranger and refugee, just as as God has loved and welcomed and provided for us.
I see a lot of bumper stickers here saying “God bless America”, and I hope and pray that God will bless America. And I suspect that many of those who put those stickers on their cars would say, if I questioned them, that they want God to bless the rest of the world too. But I also suspect that if I put a sticker on the car I’m driving around America that said “God bless everyone; no favourites, no exceptions”, a lot of people would regard that as anti-American. And let me say quite bluntly that every Christian in America who has a sense that such a sentiment is somehow anti-American is in fact veering dangerously towards an idolatry of nation; an idolatry that somehow concludes that not only should America champion its own interests over those of the rest of the world’s peoples, but that so should God. At that point, the nation itself, yours and mine alike, becomes an idol that lures us away from faithfulness to the God who came among us as a refugee and stranger, and who welcomes us still as refugees and strangers.
On September 11, 2002, President George Bush was on Ellis Island, and he made a speech in which he said, “The ideal of America is the hope of all mankind.” Can you see that he has got that backwards. It is not just arrogant and imperialistic, but idolatrous to claim that the ideal of America is the hope of all humanity. Had he said it the other way around, it could have contained the sort of humility and servanthood that we followers of Jesus could applaud: “The hope of all humanity is the ideal for which America will strive.” He went on to say, “That hope drew millions to this harbour. That hope still lights our way … and the darkness will not overcome it.”
That sentiment we can certainly say Amen to. Because in that hope we meet both the yearning of every people for freedom and a place of belonging where families can be raised and blessings can be enjoyed, and the yearning of the God who longs to welcome and bless and prosper everyone, no favourites, no exceptions. May that hope continue to light our way, and may those who are drawn by such hope to lands of promise like American and Australia, once again find us remembering that we too were strangers in the land and offering the hand of welcome and support to the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of every teeming shore. For thus says the Lord:
“Take note. Today I have taught you how the LORD your God wants you to live, and now it is in your hands. Your life can be blessed or cursed; the choice is yours. Everything will work out well for you if you live the way the LORD your God has told you to live. But everything will fall apart for you if you turn your back on the way the LORD your God has told you to live and take off after other ways and other objects of devotion.” (Deuteronomy 11:26-28)