For You Were a Stranger in Egypt

There are many biblical passages calling people to offer hospitality to the stranger. Here is one from the 19th chapter of the book of Leviticus:

When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall do them no wrong, the strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as natives among you, and you love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
—Leviticus 19:33-34
We are called to remember that each one of us comes from people who were captured and stolen away and from people who migrated. We are a species who moves. All of our ancestors – though some very distant in the past – came out of Africa.

Each of us has cause to thank our ancestors for their survival skills, for their perseverance in living. Recently my congregation showed the 2011 film, A Better Life, which shows the courage and love of a Mexican undocumented father and his teenaged son. It is both heartbreaking and inspiring, and it is a contemporary version of a very old story. Immigrants come seeking a better life, especially for their children. And they become strangers in a strange land, often yearning for home as they struggle to make this new place their home. They work hard providing services to their new homes. They work hard to survive.
Each of us in our own lives has had times when we felt marginalized, unheard, invisible. Each of us has experienced times of yearning for something lost or left behind. We are reminded to remember, “for you were strangers n Egypt.” We were strangers and we can provide hospitality and sanctuary. Eboo Patel is a contemporary American religious leader, the founder and Executive Director of Interfaith Youth Core. He wrote:

“I am an American Muslim. I believe in pluralism. In the Holy Quran, God tells us, ”I created you into diverse nations and tribes that you may come to know one another.” I believe America is humanity’s best opportunity to make God’s wish that we come to know one another a reality.”
A couple of weeks ago, bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon; perhaps Mr. Patel, like me and many others, prayed that the bombers would be white. Let the bomber not be one the larger culture labels “other.” I guess my prayer wasn’t specific enough! The young brothers were white, but also Muslim and immigrants.

There are some folks that go right to hatred and not even hatred for the persons, but widely generalized hatred – for all immigrants, all Muslims. It was two brothers, not all immigrants, not all Muslims. We don’t need to go to hatred. We need to remember that we were strangers in Egypt. We can provide hospitality and sanctuary. We can grow in compassion and our ability to listen to and understand each other. One way to know each other more deeply is to hear our stories, including the stories of our ancestors. Today, I invite you to reflect on the courage and perseverance of your ancestors and to share those moving stories with others. If you don’t know names of ancestors, then reflect on the qualities of their characters that allowed them to survive.
Jim McGovern wrote on about this last Sunday’s Philadelphia Interfaith Peace Walk:
“The 10th annual Interfaith Walk for Peace and Reconciliation is scheduled for this Sunday. When I heard the news I wondered if we would still walk. Of course, we will. . . . Walking together will be Muslims and Jews, Christians and Sikhs, Buddhists and seculars . . . We will honor and celebrate our fellowship and the messages of peace and connectedness found in all these great religions, but even more so in the crevices of our hearts.”
For you were strangers in Egypt . As we remember that we were strangers in Egypt, may we also help others to remember. In the words of the great American poet Gwendolyn Brooks: “We are each other’s business; we are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”

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