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October 4, 2018

The Whole State of Christ’s Church, Part 3


Grayson Warren BrownI want to say something about the immigration crisis that is facing our country, and I want to address this topic from a biblical perspective. One reason I had attained a fair level of success in my career, was that in all of the workshops and concerts and talks I had given throughout the years, I always tried to rely heavily on the Scriptures. That way if people didn’t like something they heard, I could tell them they shouldn’t get mad with me; they should take up their grievance with the Lord. I would laugh and say to people, “Hey, you don’t like the idea of loving your enemies or turning the other cheek, don’t get mad at me, I’m just the messenger. But this is what it says, right here in the book.”

So it is with this Scriptural approach that I want to talk about the plight of immigrants trying to enter into the United States, and the treatment they often receive from people who themselves were immigrants just a few generations before. And the best way to understand this from a Scriptural perspective is to understand the plight and the rescue of some of the original aliens according to the Bible, the ancient Israelites and their escape from the land of Egypt.

Many years ago I took some Scripture courses at an institution called the Hartford Seminary Foundation. And there was one particular professor there who was absolutely phenomenal in his knowledge of Scripture, both Old Testament and new. And it pains me that I cannot think of his name for the purpose of this blog, (it was 30 years ago), but he was the best professor of Scripture I ever had. One of the things he talked about at great length was, what is known in Scripture study as, “the covenant agreement.” And he said that it was important to understand that in the story of the Exodus, God chose a people who were oppressed, poor, powerless, and without any human rights, and tells them that he will become personally involved in their struggle to be free. He tells them that he will adopt them and that they will become his people and he will become their God. And what they must do once they were free was to live their lives in such a way that all would know that this God hated intolerance and loved justice.

Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will adopt you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. Exodus 6:6-7

Well, everyone knows what happened, if not from the Bible, at least from the movies. But before the Israelites were allowed to settle into the promised land after being freed from the Egyptians, they were forced to wander the desert for 40 long years. While wandering in the desert, you can see proof that the Israelites understood what was expected of them as a society. It is here that the word justice becomes clearly defined. In the Old Testament, justice almost always dealt with how one treated the poor, the widows and orphans, and also the alien or the stranger. And justice was at the center of the biblical man’s understanding of who God was and what he expected of his followers. The great biblical scholar Abraham Heschel writes:

“There are few thoughts as deeply ingrained in the mind of biblical man as the thought of God’s justice and righteousness. It is not an inference, but an a priori of biblical faith, self evident; not an added attribute to his essence, but given with the very thought of God. It is inherent in his essence and identified with his ways.” (The Prophets. New York: Colophon Books, 1962, p 199-200)

In the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy there are wonderful examples of how the Israelite community as a matter of law, tried to take care of all the poor and oppressed that they came into contact with, because they understood that by accepting the Lord’s help in obtaining their own freedom, they had a responsibility to act in such a way that all would know that this God was a God of freedom and justice, thus honoring this covenant agreement they entered into with God. But what was of particular importance was that they were to treat the stranger or the alien in a welcoming manner, because they themselves had been mistreated as aliens in the land of Egypt.

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. Exodus 23: 9
He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. Deut 10: 18-19

In other words, they should never forget where they came from.


If one were to pick up the Old Testament and start reading the works of the prophets, one might notice a certain amount of anger in their messages. Yes there is also beautiful poetry particularly with the prophet Isaiah, but they’re also pretty angry, which might make one wonder, what were they so angry about. The answer has to do with the Israelites, after leaving this semi-nomadic existence, settling into the promised land, and then starting to behave like the very people whom God had liberated them from. It is clear that by the time of the prophets, Israel had become a place where justice was trampled upon by those who had now gained power and wealth.

“Among my people are the wicked who lie in wait like men who snare birds and like those who set traps to catch people. Like cages full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; they have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek. Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not seek justice. They do not promote the case of the fatherless; they do not defend the just cause of the poor. Should I not punish them for this?” declares the Lord. “Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this?” Jeremiah 5: 27-29

The prophet Amos not only describes what the place made up of former slaves had become, but he ends his description with the reminder that it was the same God speaking to them now, that brought them out of Egypt all those generations ago. He reminds them of the covenant agreement.

This is what the Lord says:

“For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed… I brought you up out of Egypt and led you forty years in the wilderness to give you the land of the Amorites.” Amos 2: 6_10.

The prophets Micah and Jeremiah also remind the Israelites of the role God played in their freedom, and by extension, reminded them that they were once poor and persecuted aliens living in a strange land. And also reminded them they had promised God that they would make justice the hallmark of their society, a promise they had surely forgotten once in the promise land.

Micah 6:

What fault did your ancestors find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves. They did not ask, ‘Where is the Lord, who brought us up out of Egypt and led us through the barren wilderness,’ Jeremiah 2: 6-7

It’s important to note that amongst the many crimes the prophets had accused the nation of committing, one of the chief among them were the way these descendents of slaves and aliens, began to treat those who they now considered “foreigners.”

This is what the Lord says: Be fair-minded and just. Do what is right! Help those who have been robbed; rescue them from their oppressors. Quit your evil deeds! Do not mistreat foreigners, orphans, and widows. Stop murdering the innocent! Jeremiah 22: 3-4

Eerily parallel

When I look at what is going on in our country in regards to the immigrant question, I can’t help but feel we might be in danger of repeating the sins of the ancient Israelites. Except for Native Americans who were born here, and African-Americans who were kidnapped and brought over in slave ships, everyone else who now lives here are descendents of people who migrated here from somewhere else, or are themselves first generation immigrants. And everyone who came here came in search of the “promise land.” I fear that if the prophets heard some of the rhetoric coming from sons and daughters of people who themselves were once considered “foreigners,” they might be none too pleased. After all, for many families who were living in their own version of Egyptian slavery, did the Lord not hear their prayers and lead them through the desert and bring them safely to a new world? Would he not say to the children of immigrants today, what he said to the Israelites when they were preparing the law and the holiness codes in the Old Testament?

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. Exodus 23: 9

The New Testament

Jesus of course gives the quintessential reason why those who would be his followers should welcome those who are fleeing oppression into their midst. In Matthew 25, Jesus goes so far as to tell the world that however we treat people, particularly the poor, the hungry and the naked, is how we are treating the Lord himself. I don’t think Jesus could make it any plainer. He says whatever you do to them, you are doing to me. But understanding the history of the Jewish people who were once themselves slaves, you can understand why Jesus also included strangers, or foreigners in the list of people he demands we care for.

Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.

They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’” Matthew 25 34 – 45

I am not a politician. I don’t wish to score some political point. But there is no way I can look on the faces of the families facing enormous dangers to get to what they believe is the promise land, and not hear Jesus say to me what he said in Matthew 25, only slightly expanded.

I was a mother from El Salvador trying to escape the violence that threatened my children, and you called me a criminal and turned me away.

I was a father trying to save my sons from ending up as gang members, and you called me and my children gang members and turned me away.

I was a mother from Central America with two small children making a dangerous and perilous trip to what I thought would be freedom, and you took my children away from me at the border and threw me in prison.

How do we look upon these people, knowing what Jesus says in Mathew, and simply turn them away, and worse, separate them from their children?

Suffer the little children to come unto me…Mathew 19:14

I was heartened to see that people of all political persuasions were joining together to condemn the tearing apart of families at the border. Seeing the faces of these children desperately searching for their mothers and fathers was excruciatingly painful to watch. But I was also heartened to see the reaction from many in the church. The headline in the June issue of the Catholic New York, the country’s largest Catholic newspaper reads:

“Bishops across US condemn separation of migrant children.”

And even the Holy Father weighed in. He supported recent statements by US Catholic bishops who called the separation of children from their parents "contrary to our Catholic values" and "immoral." Reuters, June 20 2018.

Even many conservative evangelical pastors are calling for an end to that practice.

June 14, 2018 08:11 AM North Carolina-based evangelist Franklin Graham on Wednesday called separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border "disgraceful" and "terrible."

I believe there is no way, in light of the Old Testament story about the early Hebrews, and Jesus’ admonition to see his face in all people, that we Christians can turn our backs on those struggling to find safety on our shores. And yes we have to be careful and diligent in order to protect those we love, but we must never forget the powerful words spoken by the prophets, or what Jesus says to us in Matthew’s gospel. As Christians we believe we are all going to face Jesus someday. Will we act surprised when he turns to us and asks, “Remember me?”

Just the messenger folks, just the messenger.