Stranger in a Strange Land

Stranger in a Strange Land

Leviticus 19:33 When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

My wife Heather and I have three children, two; Julie and Chris, were products of Heather’s first marriage and the third, Aba, is a young woman who came to Canada as a 15 year old refugee from Ghana, whose Canadian parents we became.

In 2002 I was serving a one-year appointment at St. James United Church on the west side of Toronto. The congregation included one black family who had immigrated to Canada from Ghana some time earlier. James, the father in that family, had visited in Ghana some years previous and while there he had left his Canadian phone number with some of the people in a small village in the remote south eastern area of the country.

Somehow that phone number came into the hands of a 15 year old girl named Barbara who lived in that village and one day James was surprised to get a phone call from Immigration Canada at Pearson Airport saying that Barbara had just arrived on a flight from Geneva and had given them James’ phone number as her contact person in Canada.

Although he had never met Barbara, James agreed to provide a home in Canada for a fellow Ghanaian so she was allowed to stay with him while her claim for refugee status was processed. At her first hearing before the Refugee Board Barbara was denied refugee status, primarily because she did not have legal representation and the person who acted as her agent was incompetent. This was when I came into the picture.

The refugee committee at St. James United had taken Barbara under their wing and they were looking for a lawyer who could appeal the decision of the Refugee Board and hopefully succeed in getting Barbara permission to stay in Canada. Because I had practiced law I was asked to help in the task of recruiting the right lawyer.

When I told Heather about Barbara she wanted to meet this young girl and so I brought her home. Heather asked if she had an African name, since Barbara didn’t seem to quite fit and we discovered that it is the custom in Ghana for everyone to be given a name that designates the day on which you were born. Barbara had been born on a Thursday and so her name was “Aba”, which means “girl born on a Thursday.” From that time on we have called her Aba.

Aba had fled Ghana because her mother was trying to force her to marry an older chief in her village in order to get money that could pay for her brother’s education. Aba’s older sister had been married to this chief, but she had died in childbirth, with Aba the only person present. I believe it was this experience that gave her the determination to flee Ghana with only the phone number of a stranger in Canada to guide her to a new land where she could make her own choices in life.

The process by which a young girl who barely spoke English got from rural Ghana to urban Canada is too long a tale for a single sermon, but get here she did. With the help of St James and the Canadian government she completed her high school education then did a degree in nursing and now works as an RN in the children’s hospital in Halifax. Aba became the partner of a fellow from Malawi several years ago and she and Smartex now have three delightful children whom we are privileged to call our grandchildren.

As Nadine told us last week during the Minute for Mission, February is black history month in Canada and when I heard that reminder I thought I would share with you my own black history. The entry of Aba into our lives was not a dramatic or difficult decision. She has been so industrious and independent that she has never been any kind of an imposition on Heather and I. In all ways she is what one hopes for in the story of a refugee, someone who comes to this country, works hard and makes a contribution to the flourishing of Canadian society. We are simply the beneficiaries of the fact that this amazing young woman somehow managed to escape a situation that would have been ruinous for her and in becoming a Canadian has enriched our collective lives.

Our text for this morning is taken from one of the earliest books of the Bible and it sets out a great many rules by which the people of God are commanded to live. In the 21st century our understanding of the law is that it is a political institution. The law is a body of statutes and court decisions that set a limit on how we live our lives within Canadian society. In ancient Israel the law was a central part of the religious life of the community. It originated in God and not Parliament or the king. Obedience to the law was not something imposed by threat of punishment, it was a sacred obligation that was seen as a gift from God that lead to a full and flourishing life.

Perhaps the most striking illustration of the way in which law was regarded is Psalm 119, an excerpt from which we read this morning. This is the longest Psalm in the Bible and it was written as a love song to God for the gift of the law. The shape of the Psalm testifies to the intention of the author. It contains 22 verses, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each of the eight lines in every one of those verses begins with the same letter. There is a legend that the author of the psalm wrote it this way in order to teach children the alphabet, although memorizing the whole 176 lines seems a challenging way to do that. Perhaps the most striking thing about this Psalm is the fact that every line contains the word “law” or a synonym. Every line is a celebration and thanksgiving for God’s gift of the law.

Our modern attitude toward the law tends to be to view it as a restraint on our freedom. It is a necessary restraint that balances the interests of individuals and those of the whole of society, but a restraint nonetheless. We recognize that if there were no rules of the road traffic could not move, but it still bugs us that we have to obey the speed limit or sit at a red light when there are no other cars around.

The traditional, biblical view is that the law is given by God to enable humans to live in harmony and thus to achieve the God given potential for a full and rich life with which we are born.

The passage from Leviticus that is prescribed for today contains a wide variety of laws; some dietary, some having to do with sexual behavior and some dealing with how we are to treat aliens. Throughout the Old Testament God reminds the people of Israel that they were once aliens in the land of Egypt. Though they were eventually enslaved, the story of Joseph is the story of Egyptian hospitality, the sharing of surplus food that they had accumulated with a people from another land who were starving.

The practice of leaving some of one’s crop in the field so that the poor and the alien could come in after harvest and find something to eat is testimony to the continued influence of that history. The Bible commands the people to share what they have with those who are in need.

In verses 33 and 34, which come later in Leviticus, the obligation to welcome and care for the stranger is spelled out even more clearly.

Leviticus 19:33 When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

The reference to the time when the Israelites were aliens in Egypt suggests that reciprocity lies behind this law. And there is something to that notion. If I care for the alien today it may be that when fortunes change and I am forced to become an alien myself, someone will care for me.

But I think there is a more immediate reward received for showing kindness to the alien, and that is that our lives are improved by the increase in love and generosity that doing so creates in the world. Let me finish with a little story about my granddaughter Hannah, who is now eight.

Three years ago Heather and I along with Aba and Hannah were staying with a friend in Toronto. I asked Hannah to come out to Starbucks with me to pick up some morning coffees and there was one close enough that we could easily walk there. On the way through the parking lot Hannah, full of the boundless energy and joy of a six year old, danced and skipped and ran in circles until we got into the building and joined the line-up.

Just in front of me was a fellow I’d guess was in his thirties who was pretty tough looking. He had a shaved head, several heavy earrings, tattoos and a lot of muscle bulging out from his sleeveless tee shirt. He turned and looked at me and asked, “Is that your little girl?” “Yes” I said. “I watched her coming in here,” he told me, “and you know, I don’t think I’ve ever been that happy in my whole life.”

When St James United and the Canadian government welcomed Aba fifteen years ago, there was no guarantee that the result would be a little girl who could bring a moment of joy to the life of a stranger in Starbucks. But God does promise that welcoming the alien will lead to a fuller, richer life for all of us. I have certainly been blessed to have experienced that. And so I give thanks to God for the guidance we are given when the law encourages us to love our neighbour as ourselves and in so doing to care for those who are in need. In this way we cultivate in ourselves the promise that God has planted within. In this way the aliens in our land become our beloved brothers and sisters. In this way we enrich the lives of all of God’s people.


Rev. Dr. John Burton reserves all rights © 2017. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce this sermon with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.