Reading from the Commemoration of Cornelius the Centurion
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant—
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
8 Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.* - Isaiah 56:6-8
I never traveled much when I was growing up. My family and I only took one trip together although I went to camp several times, to New York once, and to DC multiple times. It always felt strange to go somewhere new and different. Many things were the same but so many others were not the way we did or said or saw them back home.
When I married and moved from the East Coast to the West, it was like moving to a foreign country. It felt and smelled different, and it took some getting used to like walking around in shorts and a t-shirt at Christmas when I'd bundled up as much as possible when I lived at home. I had started to adjust when we got orders, this time to a foreign country. The Philippines became a real eye opener.
For the first time in my life I felt like a foreigner. I had light brown hair, blue eyes and somewhat fair skin. I stuck out like a watermelon at a basketball game. I was a "Joe," a "rich" American who could be bested at bargaining, followed and begged for money, and who didn't understand the comments spoken at the local market because I didn't speak their languages (I learned just enough, it seems). Granted, we lived on a military base with a lot of other "foreigners," but we had to go out into the regular community from time to time and it always accentuated the difference between us. It was a nice place to visit, the people there were interesting and some were very cordial, but I was more than ready to come home after three years there.
Isaiah was a prophet speaking to people who had gotten orders to go to a very foreign land and to live there for a lot longer than three years. The place undoubtedly felt, smelled and appeared very different from their homeland, and their realization that they were foreigners in a foreign land must have been devastating. Even though they were called captives, their lives went on much as it had back home. They were not slaves, they were allowed to practice their trades and professions, and they were allowed to practice their own religion. Even though they were given these privileges that slaves would not have had, they were still far from home, strangers in a strange land.
The children of Israel were there in that foreign land because they had been less than obedient to God and the covenant their ancestors had accepted from God. They had been exiled in Egypt but had been freed. You might have thought that they would have learned their lesson, but no. They moved to the Promised Land and there things started to fall apart.
God sent the Assyrians to get their attention through a relocation program, but it didn't seem to help a lot either. Later the Babylonians took the upper crust--priests, nobles, and rich, high-ranking officials--for an extended stay.
When the time came years later to go back home, many chose to remain where they were; they had assimilated into the foreign culture and liked it. The others went home to find life very different than what they had left behind as they went into exile. They found they were strangers to people, some of them long-separated relatives, who perhaps should have welcomed them with open arms.
The prophet Isaiah had a very specific message for the exiles. They weren't going to be God's only chosen ones. Strangers, including what the Israelites would consider foreigners, who loved God, followed the rules, observed the Sabbath and lived by the covenant God had originally given to Israel would be drawn into the community and fellowship.
Whether one is at home or in a foreign land, there are always rules to be followed. God's rules weren't all that onerous, even though it required and still requires attention and some work, but the reward was and is a home in God's presence and citizenship in the community of God's people.
That's a promise that I think is worth pursuing. The reward is out of this world.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, February 7, 2015.