Love ye therefore the stranger
“Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt”.
Last week I travelled by train from London to my home in Bristol, having attended one of the Queen’s Garden Parties. The train was late, it was crowded, and there was a lot of stress in the air. The couple sitting opposite me, I think they were husband and wife, were holding an animated conversation–in Italian.
I realised, as I watched, that they were tourists, fresh off the plane at Heathrow, and trying to work out how to get to their hotel in Bristol.
They were poring over various maps, Great Western Railway timetables, and booking documents. Now, there are two train stations in Bristol and it was clear to me that they were headed for the wrong one.
And so I tried to help them.
They didn’t speak much English and my Italian is woeful, but slowly, with gestures and pointing, and drawing maps and writing down place names, I think I managed to help them with information they needed to get from the wrong place to the right one.
I’ve no idea whether or not they reached their hotel successfully, but I hope their holiday improved from the way in which it seemed to have started.
It struck me, then, how challenging it is to be a stranger in an unfamiliar land.
You may be able to recall times, perhaps on holiday, when you’ve been in an strange place, surrounded by names you don’t recognise, signs that don’t make sense and words you don’t understand, and how, when that happens, one longs for someone to come and help make the unfamiliar familiar.
Our text from Deuteronomy today asks what God requires of his people; to “fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul”.
That command to ‘love God’ includes loving what God loves; in particular, the stranger in their midst, remembering that they too were strangers once, as slaves in the land of Egypt. This instruction to love the stranger is about far more than helping tourists to find their hotels. It aims to ensure that the people of God through the ages offer hospitality to all those who find themselves alienated from home in one way or another.
The Christian faith has hospitality towards the stranger at its heart. The letter to the Hebrews, for example, urges, “not to neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.”
All of us will be aware of people who are strangers to us in one way or another. Perhaps not only the refugee resident in an alien land, as described in Deuteronomy, but any who are different from us in some way, who need us to show to them the love of God. And that love is to be practical, not simply emotional, following the example of God, who provides food and clothing.
Love is an action, not just a feeling.
The first letter of John urges “let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth”. We have seen such active love demonstrated very well in Kensington, as people who might once have considered each other strangers flocked to provide food, clothing and shelter to those affected by the fire in Grenfell Tower, “without fear or favour, supporting all those rebuilding lives so horribly affected by injury and loss” as her Majesty the Queen put it in her statement to the nation.
That is the kind of love of which this passage speaks.
Love which is merely emotional or vocal is not the kind of love which God exemplified in the giving of his Son, Jesus Christ, who suffered and died to bring all those who were strangers, ‘still far off’, closer to the heart of God.
In my role as principal of Trinity College in Bristol, my daily work is amongst those who are training to be priests in the Church of England. Many of our students are bright young things. (There is, rather encouragingly, an increase at the moment in candidates under 40 offering themselves for ordination). They come with a variety of gifts and skills that will fit them well for priestly ministry.
But one the things that impresses me most about this younger generation of would-be vicars is their awareness of their membership of a global community, where barriers are to be broken down, divisions diminished, hospitality offered, and strangers embraced.
And they do this in practical ways.
Some of them work in their spare time in food banks, or amongst refugees and asylum seekers, befriending and helping with practical needs. Some of them go out onto the streets of Bristol to offer support to those who are homeless. All this driven by their sense of loving God by loving the stranger. Christians, like God’s people in Deuteronomy, are to be generous and compassionate toward the stranger in our midst, offering hospitality, compassion and practical help, not forgetting that all of us have been strangers, in some way, at one time or another.
I worry that our culture today often teaches us to fear the stranger. We speak of ‘stranger danger’, and our children are taught to be suspicious of anyone they don’t know personally. Of course it is right that we are cautious and that people, especially children, are kept safe, but we should never forget that there is the most terrible danger in staying only ever with those who are most familiar to us.
The measure of our love for God lies not only in our service to the hungry, the poor, and the stranger, but also in our willingness to see ourselves connected to them, as co-citizens with them, as one with them. And then of course they won’t be strangers any longer, but friends.
“Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt”. Amen.