protecting the stranger

Leviticus 19:33-34
Deuteronomy 10:12-22

One of the things we work on at home—
as a family—
try and work on at home as a family—
on a fairly regular basis, actually,
is the tendency for deflection
of blame and responsibility.

Because in cases of misbehavior,
disrespect, loss of temper and control,
in cases of things said that shouldn’t have been said,
or things done that shouldn’t have been done,
it is, more often than not “someone else’s fault!”
Even when that makes no sense whatsoever!
Or in cases of chores or requests for help,
“That’s someone else’s job!”
“It’s someone else’s turn!”
It’s not my responsibility.

It drives everyone in the house crazy
when I do all that!

And I’m hoping we all continue the process—
suspect we will need to all continue the process
of growing out of what is essentially immature—
in order to grow up—
and accept responsibility.

Is that a familiar refrain to you too?
To parents, I’m sure—
anyone around children on a regular basis, really—
or anyone who needs to mature, regardless of age, right?
But more generally?

Read the newspaper much?
Listen to talk radio?
Follow politics?
Listen to much preaching?
Take a moment to think of just how much blame
gets thrown around
in the apparently usually validated hope
that it will not be recognized
as the blatant abdication of responsibility it is.
Whether that’s you know, because the 1% are buying our country,
or the poor are milking it,
or illegal aliens are exploiting it.
Whether that’s because of the current administration
or the previous one,
or because the devil made me do it, don’t you know?

And it’s not always people who are blamed.
Big business is often blamed—
though darn it! I keep forgetting they’re people now too.
It’s still not always people.
How often do we say “I just don’t have time for that right now.”
I have a friend who gets particularly irritated with that excuse.
“You choose not to make time for that,” she’s quick to correct.

And I’m guessing she might have an equal disdain
for sayings such as “Well the deck was just stacked against me.”
Or “now just isn’t the time,” or “the stars just weren’t aligned”—
any abrogation, really, of personal responsibility and initiative.

How much more we could accomplish,
just imagine,
if our conversation were modeled more along the lines of:
here’s the problem—
or maybe it’s not a problem—here’s the issue.
(That’s usually the easy part—
usually pretty obvious),
but what if the next part of the conversation were then,
and here’s how I contribute to it—the problem—the circumstances.
Here’s what I can do differently within my circumstances.
And here’s what I commit to doing differently.

Now that’s the mature language of having grown up.
“Don’t want to blame the rich for what they got.
Don’t point a finger at the poor for what they have not”
(Amos Lee, “Freedom,” Blue Note Records, 2006).
Where do you think we’re supposed to get that these days?
Where is that modeled and taught?
In the home? Sure, hopefully.
Though it assumes a level of health and maturity
we certainly can’t take for granted, right?
In school?
Sure, again, hopefully.
Though it sure is easy to blame the teachers,
the parents, the principal, the system, the curriculum.
In music?!
Our culture, in general though,
does not acknowledge responsibility
as much as it seeks to avoid responsibility.

Maybe we can learn it in church.
That is the model of our faith liturgy, you see.
Because in the faith language of our liturgy,
we look to ourselves, not others
(as often as the church has gotten that wrong).
We talk about the awareness of sin
(the problem—the circumstances),
followed by confession
(here’s how I contribute to the problem—the circumstances),
repentance (here’s what I commit to doing differently—
to work toward different circumstances).
and you know what follows that—
in the liturgy?
Words of assurance.

And in our Old Testament texts this morning
that come from the books of the law—
fundamental writings to the Jewish and Christian faith traditions—
fundamental to an understanding of God,
and fundamental to an understanding
of God’s expectations of God’s followers,
we are explicitly told those we’re most likely to blame
we are to protect and love and value.
Love the stranger. Love the alien.
Protect them, it reads in our psalm.

The Leviticus text is embedded in a section
that begins with God telling Moses to tell the people
“Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:1).
And the Deuteronomy passage on seeking justice
for widows and orphans and loving the stranger
follows the rhetorical question: what does God require of us?
To fear God, to walk in the ways of God, to love God
and to serve God with all your hear and all your soul
keeping God’s commandments (Deuteronomy 10:12-13a).

It’s a big deal.
One scholar identified 36 separate warnings
throughout the Old Testament of the obligation
of the people of God to aliens, widows, and orphans
(Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. The Book of Leviticus:
Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections

in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary
in Twelve Volumes: Volume I
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1994] 1135).

So amidst life, we’re to be as God.
Amidst the problems of life—
all the various circumstances,
we’re to be as God.

Here’s the thing.
I think we’re generally pretty good at recognizing problems.
We sure have enough of them!
And we know we need more words of assurance
in our lives and in our culture.
What we’ve lost is the middle part.
The confession and the repentance.
The work.
The taking responsibility.
Which is the being as God part, right?
And why have we lost the middle part?
Well, it’s the hard part—
the hard part that requires so much of us.

And that’s the crux of it, I do believe.
For our culture’s such a big fan of easy.
Oh, we talk in terms of convenience or freedom—
potential,
but it’s all too often, really, about easy—
about not hard—
not challenging.

And, as a matter of fact, it is true,
in difficult circumstances—
challenging, dangerous circumstances,
it’s far easier to blame someone else—
to shift the responsibility to someone else
(or to something else).

It’s easier to blame the alien
and the stranger—
the ones not like us (whoever they be).
It’s their fault.
The violence in our culture, their fault,
they import it—
along with the drugs and all the other crime
and the weird music.
Our economic woes—
their fault.
They exploit our health system.
They take our jobs—
we’re educating their children
which leads to lower educational standards
because they won’t learn English,
or keeps our kids from their rightful place
because they’re too focused on discipline or study—
or meet some quota, right?
They drive property values down—
or keep us from the property we’d have if they didn’t—
make the roads dangerous—
driving their overloaded bad cars in convoys across the country.

How much easier to blame,
than to admit we’ve completely messed things up.
But if we think there’s something to our faith,
to our sacred texts, to our understanding of God,
then don’t we have to pay attention to that?

Throughout Lent, we’ve been identifying killing sin—
deadly sin.
And have you noticed that a good bit of that deadly sin
is pretty thoroughly integrated into our culture?

There’s a fairly explicit contrast set up in God’s word.
And it’s really so much less
a contrast between what we should and shouldn’t do,
than it is between
the way things are and the way God is.

We have a culture that trusts in violence,
and a faith that calls us to trust in God.
Who you going to listen to?
We have a Supreme Court that says “Listen to the money
and treat it as a person,”
while we have a God who says,
“Listen to the poor and disadvantaged.”
Who you going to listen to?
We have a culture that values stuff,
and a God who says not to worship anything made with hands.
A culture that says it’s all about the individual self,
that it’s all about winners and losers,
and a God who says we’re all in this together.
Who you going to listen to?
We have a church that to great extent prioritizes condemnation,
and a God who is grace.
Who you going to listen to?

For in just such a culture, we say,
we’re called to be about redeeming the world—
transforming it not being conformed to it.
We’re to be about reshaping the story of culture
by clinging to a story—a truth—that reshapes us.
And it’s not easy.
It’s hard.
But it’s fulfilling.
It makes for a rich and abundant life.
It makes for love.

Winning the blame game, you see,
has nothing whatsoever
to do with addressing, let alone fixing our problems.
And until we stop playing the blame game—
and allowing others to play the blame game,
no one will grow up—no one will mature,
and nothing will get fixed—
whether that’s in our homes with our kids,
whether that’s us,
whether that’s our leaders.
“Freedom is seldom found
by beating someone [else] to the ground”
(Amos Lee).

To be faithful—and healthy
and mature (growing), we must acknowledge,
that we are responsible for our problems,
and we are responsible for fixing them.
And that in order to do that, we need to change.
We need to change whatever it is about what we take for granted—
whatever it is that is creating—
whatever it is that is sustaining our problems.

Worship and community are there to sustain us—
to challenge us—to encourage us.
Not trying to figure out who we can blame
to whom we can shift responsibility
while thus continuing to ignore the fact
that the real problems goes unaddressed.

Now none of that is easy.
But it’s healthy.

Religion that makes of following God something easy
isn’t healthy.
Because life isn’t easy,
and if you think it is,
then someone’s footing your bill.
And that’s not right. And if it’s not right,
you have to put it right.”
(Tim Minchin, “Naughty” from Matilda
RSC: Matilda [Stratford, 2010]).

Southern writer Flannery O’Connor,
in one of her letters, noted that
“All human nature vigorously resists grace
because grace changes us,
and the change is painful.”
And grace is the change, to which we’re most often called.
Grace is the repentance most needed—
grace the reality that will most make a redemptive difference
in our lives and in our world.

This is the language of maturing—of growing up.
It’s the language of health.
And I believe, at the heart of our faith
is a mature health—
the recognition and affirmation
of the difficult work of taking responsibility
and making the personal commitment required
for a different tomorrow—a better tomorrow—
a more grace-filled tomorrow.

We partake regularly in our worship of a symbolic meal.
It is, in part, recognition of the need for sustenance—
a different kind of sustenance.
For the way we need to be—are called to be—
is sustained by nurture other than our culture’s.
It’s not an easy meal—
it cost Jesus a lot.

He asks for it to cost us something too.
Because the commitment to live love
is the hard way to grow up—
to not blame—
to take responsibility.
The rich, abundant way,
but the hard way.

So hear his voice this morning at our table:
“Eat this to remember—
not just how I lived but how to live.
Eat this for sustenance in thus living—
symbolic of the sustaining worship and community
we consistently need.
Eat this to remember what I paid, yes,
but not to dwell on that as much as you too often do,
but to ask yourself
is such a living—
and the reality such a living begins to shape—
is it worth your life too?”

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