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Blog Post

Welcoming the Stranger

Updated: Jul 28, 2023

The 19th century short-story writer and Civil War veteran, Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary wrote a humorous, somewhat scathing social critique, disguised as a resource book.

Listen to these entrances:

“Love, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage.”

The book is also quite cynical!

“Lottery: A tax on people who are bad at math.”

Clearly math has never been humanity’s strong point!

“Cabbage, n. A familiar kitchen-garden vegetable about as large and wise as a man’s head.”

Apparently, men were just as obtuse in his day! But it is his definition of hospitality that concerns us this morning.

“Hospitality, “The virtue which induces us to feed and lodge certain persons who are not in need of food and lodging.”

In Bierce’s time, as perhaps in ours, what passed for hospitality was exchanging social favors amongst the well-to-do.

This is the opposite of what Jesus had in mind when He spoke of welcoming others, indeed in His ministry and the way He lived His life. Far from exchanging social niceties with His peers, He spent time with tax collectors, lepers, sinners. Essentially the people others refused to. He entered their homes, ate and drank with them, despite the naysayers. He enjoyed life with them.

This welcome Jesus calls us to is not as simple as saying hello to a passerby. It is not a generic reception. It is tailored to the person on your doorstop; welcoming “a prophet as a prophet” He says, “a righteous person as a righteous person”. Specifically, Jesus means that each encounter you have is a chance to experience God’s plan for your life. For to welcome them for who they are means exploring the intention of God.

In the Middle East, welcoming the stranger is an obligation that has been embedded in their culture, since even before the time of Jesus. I remember on a trip to Jordan in the midst of floating on the Dead Sea, looking at the river Jordan, peering over Mt. Nebo, where Moses first saw the Promised Land, the most memorable aspect was the reception we had in every town, market, and hotel.

The stranger is treated as an honored guest because you never know who they might be. Perhaps this practice stems from the ancient encounter that Sarah and Abraham had with three strangers at the Oaks of Mamre as told in Genesis 18. Abraham spies three strangers from the comfort of his tent. He runs to greet them and offers them, not his leftovers, but the very best (i.e., most expensive) cakes and meat from his larder.

Jonathon Sacks, the once Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, observed that the Hebrew Bible contains only one command to love the neighbor, but no less than 36 to love the alien. And because of our fragmented world, that person may be someone across the globe, across town, or even at the end of your pew. And a gracious welcome has the power to change the world.

After extending his hospitality, suddenly these three strangers seem to be more. Somehow, they know his wife’s name and declare, “In due time your wife will have a son.” In fact, it has ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women, so she laughs saying, “After I grow old shall I have pleasure?” She could not believe in a future filled with the promise of a child. She could not conceive of a world full of joy. Especially not one that came about from being nice to a stranger.

Out of the blue in this story, suddenly the voice of God speaks, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?!” Apparently not, for soon Isaac is born and the history of salvation begins.

But serving the “aliens” of this world brings us pause. We hesitate to help a person on the subway because we’re not sure if they are faking it. Not too far down the street from one of my old houses there was a driveway with a sign that read, “No pulling in the driveway. Especially stalled cars. This means you!” But Abraham shows us how to open ourselves up to the stranger.

He bowed down to them.

If three strange men appeared on your lawn, what might your reaction be?

A) Run inside, close the blinds and hope they didn’t see you

B) Turn on the sprinkler system to teach them a lesson, or

C) As Abraham did, run to meet them, bow down while saying “If I find favor with you let me serve you.

Somehow, rather than fear them, Abraham considered it a privilege to welcome the stranger.

Karen Armstrong, world-renowned expert in religious studies, explains how Abraham did not simply exhibit the age-old aphorism, “be kind to strangers”. Rather, he acted on one of the deepest truths folded into the very fabric of the universe.

[Abraham’s encounter of God at Mamre] expresses a truth which is central to monotheism, the sacred does not manifest itself only in holy places. We can also encounter the divine in other human beings. It is essential therefore that we treat the men and women with whom we come into contact, even complete strangers, with absolute honor and respect because they too enshrine the divine mystery. This is what Abraham discovered when he ran out joyfully to meet these three travelers and insisted on giving them all the refreshment and comfort he could. [Jerusalem: Once City Three Faiths]

Dignity. Respect. In some ways in our world today there is a vast chasm that has opened between cultures, religions, races, economics and more. But this passage suggests that dignity and respect may be the key to crossing this chasm.

One German philosopher, Gadamer, went even further explaining there is a fundamental distance between all people because you can never truly get inside someone’s head, walk in their shoes, you can never truly understand their perspective. But as people of faith we believe there is a power that can bridge the divide, that can cross the existential gap between us all; the power of the Holy Spirit.

And as you can see in Abraham and Sarah’s encounter, and Jesus’ way of life, the Holy Spirit’s binding power comes through, extending hospitality, actively welcoming. It is not sitting on our metaphorical front porches waiting for someone to knock. It means chasing down the encounter as Abraham did and bowing down to the divine within them.

I never knew the power of welcome until we moved to Magnolia, Arkansas to pastor First Presbyterian Church.

At first, I thought they were being fake, I was not used to people being that nice! Sterling Lacy, an Elder there, was a shining example. Every person he met he vigorously shook their hand while looking them in the eye with an inviting smile and enthusiastic hello.

He sang in the choir, and (despite his propensity to fall asleep and snore during the sermon!) he would spy a visitor any the congregation and make a beeline to the back of the church to catch them before they left. In 1994, he stood up and challenged the session to ensure that where all the other churches pushed them away we would welcome those with AIDS, as we would have welcomed the Lord Himself.

My goal is to become 1/10th as gracious as Sterling Lacy and I will be able to meet my Lord with a head held high.

Brick has this spark. People come to the Tree Lighting and are hooked for decades. And people from many walks come to our campus. In fact, on Easter, we had agnostics, Sikhs, Jews, and atheists. Several of them came to me and remarked how much joy the entire service gave them and how welcome they felt. That warms my heart to know that they know we love and respect them, whatever their path in life and that we do so because this is precisely what our Lord taught us to do.

A few weeks ago, people raved about the Strawberry Festival, especially those from the neighborhood.

As I was passing out hotdogs one woman came to me, “I am Jewish, but If I were a Christian this would be my church!”

May we welcome all as we would welcome the Lord Himself, and we too will discover the healing power of God to bring all people into the divine fold of love.


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