Readings: Leviticus 19:1-6, 9-20, 32-37, Apocalypse Revealed 586:3 (see below)
See also on Youtube
Photo credit: Maria Orlova from Pexels
Something that may have been on our minds lately is the topic of immigration. The withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan has meant that a large number of Afghani evacuees have entered the United States for their own protection. Many agencies, churches and communities (ours included), have and are stepping up to welcome them and to support their transition. This is fantastic and wonderful and gives me hope for humanity.
And, we can contrast that with images made public last month of ICE officers rounding up and intimidating Haitian refugees on horseback, evoking terrible images of slave patrols in days past. The current administration has vigorously repudiated these actions by ICE but still, also, is sending most of these Haitian refugees back to Haiti. And even further, we have all observed how some politicians use the specter of immigration, illegal or otherwise, to rile up their base, to center their followers in fear and anxiety and the notion of white centrality and white supremacy.
The question of immigration is complicated one, for many countries the world over. The reality is that climate change, the pandemic, and active conflicts are creating large numbers of refugees world wide, and many countries are grappling with the logistics of accepting and integrating these refugees effectively and humanely. It takes a lot of resources and positive intention to do so, as well as foresight. I read recently that in the U.S. we are using asylum laws were written in the Cold War era to deal with our current refugee challenges, and I think we are finding that these laws are really not up to the task. And so, as the world and our country grapples with the question of how to manage the flow of immigration thoughtfully and charitably, I think it is worth taking a moment to see what our system of faith offers the conversation, to ask how it grounds our guiding ethos and intention.
When one is wondering how the bible talks about immigration, one often turns to a famous passage in Leviticus:
‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. (Lev 19:33-34)
We don’t often refer to Leviticus in church. It represents part of our history as a tradition, but the tradition has evolved over the millennia and parts of this book might feel irrelevant to our modern context. This is understandable. Leviticus represents the faith and practice of a specific group of people in a specific time period; we no longer share their context and so we no longer share many of those practices. But, it remains one of our sacred texts. Why? Because we recognize and worship the God from which it came, we recognize that as specificity may fall away, principle and ethos remains.
A good part of the book of Leviticus, which specifically includes Chapter 19, is often called The Holiness Code. We can see this reflected in how Chapter 19 begins: Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy. Throughout the book of Leviticus, this statement or one similar occurs 152 times(1). But what is holiness exactly and how does it relate to all the very specific laws the book contains?
Holiness is one of those words that seems easily definable on its face, because we use it all the time, but more slippery when we interrogate it. Essentially, something that is holy is set apart, or different, or other, than what we experience in our everyday life. Think about how we understand our holy spaces, like this church. We treat them differently, reverently, because we want them to be something else, other than our everyday spaces. Or, when we want part of our everyday spaces to be holy, what do we do? We might arrange them differently, act in them differently, or speak a blessing (like grace at the dinner table) over them so that, even momentarily, the space is differentiated for us. Or perhaps you have had a holy experience? Maybe on a mountain top, or in meditation, or relationship with another. What was it about that experience that caused you to call it holy? I think it is likely because it felt different, it felt like the veil had been lifted back for a moment, you felt and saw and knew things differently, even though you were right here in the world as you always are.
This is why God is called holy. Not necessarily because God is good (although God is) or because God is powerful (although God is) but because holy is the word that we use to explain that God is “other” than us, or “beyond” us in some way. God is the source of whatever it is that is “different” to us in our experience of holiness.
But, God doesn’t want that essential otherness to equal remoteness or distance or inaccessibility. And so God is always inviting us into ways of thinking, appreciating, loving, seeing, and acting that bring us closer to God, that bring us closer to what we call holiness. You might recall that I preached on this two weeks ago, about having the kind of eyes that can see the holiness that is all around us. And this is what the book of Leviticus is really about. It is a long list of rituals and laws the purpose which would be to help the people of Israel live the kind of life that would let them feel and be close to God, a holy life.
But it is so important to recognize that the point of God inviting us into holiness is not for the purpose of rescue or escape, that we might become better than others, or so holy and pure that we can be drawn away from our world to get closer to God. As you might have noticed from our reading, so many of the laws were ones that would bring us into healthy relationship with the people around us. While the Hebrew word for holy means set apart, the english root for the word holy means whole, and both are getting at something important.
Recall how many times, just in our reading let alone in the whole book, we heard the phrase “I am the Lord.”
I will paraphrase: Leave the gleanings of your harvest for the poor, I am the Lord. Do not defraud, do pervert justice, do not anything that endangers your neighbors life, I am the Lord. Do not hate a fellow, do not seek revenge, I am the Lord. Over and over and over.
The character of God, the holiness of the Lord, was to be embodied, grounded, was to be found and excavated in the care that the Israelites showed one another. This is an ethos that we can draw from Leviticus that transcends time and context. It is as important to us now as it was to the Israelites then. And, then as now, loving our neighbor as ourselves is not just a rule to followed so that we can be called good, it is a reality to be evoked and created, it is completing a sacred circle. We are told: Do this, align with the character of the Lord, and bring it back around to become a holy connection with the people around us.
Which finally brings us back around to immigration. The Lord entreats the Israelites to be kind to the foreigner among them, directly confronting tribalism by telling them to treat a foreigner as if they native-born, with no distinction. And how were they to be in touch with their own best motivations in this practice? Through empathy: Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.
God understands who we are. God understands how hard it is to love others sometimes, how easily we get possessive and protective, how easily we retreat or get distracted. God understands how seductive group-based dominance and hierarchy can be, how it can provide us with a surge of powerful but shallow personal significance. God understands who we are.
So God tells us to be guided by empathy, to remember our commonalities as human beings, as images of God. For the Israelites, they had a literal experience of being mistreated foreigners. These stories filled their narrative imagination, their escape to freedom defined their identity. So God called upon that memory as a guide, paraphrased by Jesus’ contemporary Rabbi Hillel as: what is hateful to yourself, do not do to another. The Israelites had a visceral experience of trauma at the hands of a despotic ruler, and God said: remember that and do not perpetuate that trauma upon others.
And the same spiritual principle works for us now. We thankfully, may not have personal stories of political persecution or trauma or displacement to guide our empathy, but we might not have to go very far in either our family histories or relationship networks to find someone who has. My grandmother was a Latvian refugee in the second world war. I’m quite sure it changed her, as it did her whole family. And at minimum, at a basic level, we all know what it feels like to be afraid, to be despairing, to not know who we can count on, to not know where we belong, to be afraid that we don’t in fact belong anywhere.
But we do, we all do, belong that is. This is the ethos of the holiness code. God stands apart, but only because *we* choose to be petty and small and blind. Of course God stands apart from that. But God, and God’s holiness, is deeply deeply present in the love that we show to one another, not as sanction or reward, but because when we love one other, enfold one another into community, especially when it is hard, we are living into the true reality that is the character of God, we are living into whatever it is that is behind the veil, that we can sometimes glimpse when we are quiet and open and ready.
With the eyes of our spiritual tradition, we can look upon the earthy challenge of immigration and see that it is an opportunity to practice holiness, that it is an opportunity to embody the character and ethos of God in our everyday. Of course, that is going to take a lot of work, political will, give and take, and probably some mistakes. And it also doesn’t mean that God doesn’t support healthy boundaries (and that is a topic for another day.). But what *is* clear, is that if we are looking to the bible to justify in-group and out-group thinking, it doesn’t. Our text today takes that completely off the table. That kind of thinking does not express the character of God; it is the opposite of holy.
Our Swedenborg readings makes the distinction, that a spiritual life is not about being holy per se, but about being a vessel, a dwelling place, for truths and goods, for ways of thinking and acting, that are holy. The Lord alone is holy; may we reflect as many precious points of light as we can.
(1) The New Interpreters Bible, pg 520
Leviticus 19:1-6, 9-20, 32-37
1 The LORD said to Moses, 2 “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy. 3 “ ‘Each of you must respect your mother and father, and you must observe my Sabbaths. I am the LORD your God. 4 “ ‘Do not turn to idols or make metal gods for yourselves. I am the LORD your God. 5 “ ‘When you sacrifice a fellowship offering to the LORD, sacrifice it in such a way that it will be accepted on your behalf. 6 It shall be eaten on the day you sacrifice it or on the next day; anything left over until the third day must be burned up.
9 “ ‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God. 11 “ ‘Do not steal. “ ‘Do not lie. “ ‘Do not deceive one another. 12 “ ‘Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD. 13 “ ‘Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. “ ‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight. 14 “ ‘Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD. 15 “ ‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. 16 “ ‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people. “ ‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the LORD. 17 “ ‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt. 18 “ ‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. 19 “ ‘Keep my decrees. “ ‘Do not mate different kinds of animals. “ ‘Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. “ ‘Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.
32 “ ‘Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the LORD. 33 “ ‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. 34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God. 35 “ ‘Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity. 36 Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt. 37 “ ‘Keep all my decrees and all my laws and follow them. I am the LORD.’ ”
Apocalypse Revealed 586:3
Those people who live according to the Word's truths are called saints, not because they are holy, but because the truths in them are holy; and truths are holy when they come from the Lord in them, and they have the Lord in them when they have His truths in them