Love Your Neighbor

I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

Jesus

I crossed the southern border into Mexico last month and I met Jesus. Here was the surprise: he wasn’t anything like I expected. He had brown skin, sad eyes, a lanky build, and he spoke softly a language I didn’t understand. He even pronounced his name differently than I’ve been saying it all my life: “Yesus.”

It’s been said that God created humanity in God’s own image, and ever since that time we’ve been trying to return the favor. I’m sure that’s been true for me. I’ve always imposed images onto Jesus that I’m accustomed to and comfortable with. My thoughtless default is to imagine God as a strong, white male, someone who is well-spoken, confident in his spiritual authority, with an uncanny ability to persuade others. He’s tall, charismatic, gentle, good looking; a real charmer. Someone, in other words, who’s got WOO: The ability to Win Others Over.

But pretty much all of that is just me trying to return the favor.

I’m grateful for an encounter with the living Jesus of today when he was incarnated to me as a Hispanic teenager who, with his mother and younger brother, was waiting for his number to be called during his long pursuit of asylum. He and his family had fled their rural village in central Mexico which had become overrun by gang violence. Neither I nor the dozen pastors I was with that day dared to ask where his father was; we all presumed him to be dead, a victim of violence. Our world is home to so much violence. It may be the singular thing that most defies the values of the coming, peaceable kingdom of God.

Jesus and his fatherless family had joined a caravan of thousands of other souls who were risking their lives in an attempt to save their lives by making the dangerous journey to one of our country’s legal ports of entry. I learned from one of the World Relief staffers with us that day that migrating women typically use some form of birth control as they travel because there is an 80% chance of them being raped somewhere along the way. And then, as if the journey isn’t already harsh enough, people seeking refuge in our country are deterred with a long wait time and the threat of detention. From the moment they knock on the door of our border wall they are made to feel unwanted, even criminal. The message might just as well be displayed with a neon sign: No Vacancy.

A friend recently shared with me that, upon entering New York Harbor on his return trip from a European cruise, a voice came over the public address system quoting the poem inscribed and immortalized on the Statue of Liberty given to us by Emma Lazarus who referred to Lady Liberty as the “Mother of Exiles”:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The New Colossus

My friend shared his sense of how wrong those words sounded to his ears given the severe limitations our current administration has placed on the number of people now permitted to settle in the United States. The dissonance between the 1883 poem and our 2019 policy was jolting.

But words don’t necessarily reflect present reality. Sometimes they stand not for how things are but for how things should be. Poetry does this, as do the scriptures: descriptions of a kingdom that is coming, surely enough, while being met by various forms of resistance and outright hostility as it comes. The question for Christians is always, “do I accept the reality of what is, or do I serve the divine vision of what is to be?” According to the Gospel, Jesus did the latter, claiming a prophetic mission for his life by borrowing from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor 

Luke 4:18

My brief visit to the wall revealed to me a Jesus who rejects the seats of power, privilege, and prestige in order to huddle with the hurting people of this world. This is a savior who locates himself in some of the more out of the way places, a messiah who abides with the most overlooked people. I am persuaded now more than ever that if we want to be close to Jesus, we have to go where he goes, to follow his lead, to allow the gravitational force of grace to place us in the company of those he once affectionately described as “the least of my brothers and sisters,” people who were hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, or in prison (Mt 25:35-36).

It was a transformative experience for this North American man who lives a privileged existence: I met a disheveled Jesus in the company of the kinds of people he is happy to claim as his brothers and sisters. And although the border wall was being visited by the very Host of heaven, there wasn’t a welcome mat in sight. It’s a sobering reminder for me that there are people who—though separated by thousands of miles—are no less our neighbors, no less our brothers and sisters. And hospitality to such neighbors is perhaps the clearest exhibition of the coming peaceable kingdom of God. That, I believe, is the way it should be. And that, I believe, is the way it one day surely will be. Although I live on this side of the wall, I’d like to be found on that side of history.

Grace and peace,

Pastor Eric

Eric Peterson is the head pastor at Colbert Presbyterian Church in Colbert, WA. He attended seminary at Princeton University and pastored a church in Tacoma, WA until 1997 when he moved to Eastern Washington to pastor Colbert.