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What makes a someone a stranger? 

Matthew 25:31-46, Genesis 18:1-8

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What makes a someone a stranger? 

As the old song says, “A stranger’s just a friend you do not know.”[1]

I wonder if our friend Merry Lloyd was worried about meeting strangers on the ‘round-the-world cruise she and her husband Rod are on right now?  Nah.  Rod probably said, “Don’t worry.  We’re all in the same boat.”

Do you like to meet new people?  I do now, but I haven’t always. For many years I rode the bus to work and made sure I always had a book to bury my nose in so that people wouldn’t talk to me. 

This week we’re talking about the part of the parable in Matthew 25 where Jesus says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”  Whenever we welcome a stranger, we’re welcoming Jesus.  But it’s not always easy to do.  And the less we do it, the harder it seems to get.

If we only go to the same places, we may not have had much recent experience at being a stranger. When we go to a new place, we are likely to be looking for a friendly face, someone who makes eye contact and smiles and seems like they will be kind and helpful.

I am not a good church visitor.[2]  I especially don’t like to go alone.  But my friend was getting ordained in Galveston and I wanted to be there for her, so I went.  I’d never been to a Disciples of Christ church and I didn’t know anything about their service or customs, so I was nervous even just walking through the door.  My friend must have told people to watch for me, because soon after I walked in, a women came up to me and said, “You must be Melissa.”  Yes!  Relief!  We chatted for a few moments as we slowly walked toward the sanctuary, and I was thinking how much better I felt to have found a new friend and not be alone….but as we came to the pews, she excused herself and went off to sit on the other side of the church.  If she’d invited me to sit with her, I would have gladly gone with her, but she didn’t.

[3]

An entirely different kind of welcome happened the first time we had Thanksgiving dinner with some cousins we didn’t know very well.  We were new in town, so they invited us to have Thanksgiving at their house.  We had some friends who were also new in town and had nowhere to go, so our cousins told us to invite them as well.

On the day of the dinner, we all showed up at their house with our food to share, introduced each other and sat down to dinner. Everything was going well and then after a little while the doorbell rang.  We looked at each other questioningly. Was there someone we’d forgotten?  The wife of our host family got up to answer the door and found there someone she’d never seen before, holding some food she’d brought to share.  Turns out there was someone we’d forgotten, but we just thought she wasn’t coming.  Without hesitating, our hostess welcomed this person in as if she were a long-lost family member, and I was so impressed at how well she made us all feel like part of the family.

[4]

This is a lot like Abraham’s hospitality in our reading from Genesis 18 today. He sees people coming down the road and runs out to greet them, welcomes them in, offering shade and a place to rest, washes their feet, and quickly throws together a pretty nice meal, including some roast beast.

We aren’t told who these men are.  They aren’t named or described.  Maybe that’s because it doesn’t matter, or maybe because their anonymity makes this an even better demonstration of hospitality.  Abraham welcomes them in before he knows anything about them.  As the story goes on, Abraham calls one of them Yahweh (Gen. 18:22), the name of God, and tradition says that they were angels.  Some say that Abraham welcomed Jesus that day.

We should note that this is happening long before any of God’s commands in the Torah to love your neighbors or to welcome strangers.  Abraham is showing us the high value of hospitality that was inherent in the culture.  It was a matter of survival, actually.  There were no hotels then, no McDonalds or Starbucks.  A traveler had to forage for food, and hope to find water along the way, or be welcomed into someone’s home.

Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

You know, I always assumed this verse was referring to the story in Genesis 18 about Abraham.  But now I think it’s also referring to Jesus’ words in Matthew 25.

In Matthew 25, when Jesus is telling the parable about the king who says that when the sheep were welcoming strangers they were welcoming him, he’s commending them for doing something their culture already encouraged them to do.  But as we also see, not everyone did it.  The king says to the goats, whatever you didn’t do for the least of these, you didn’t do for me.

Today’s focus, welcoming the stranger, is in a sense a summary of the previous two weeks of talking about Matthew 25, because showing hospitality includes providing food for the hungry and drink for the thirsty and clothing for those who need it.

Maybe hospitality is not as high a value these days. One reason may be that we now have entire industries dedicated to doing this for us.  Hotels and restaurants are available just about everywhere we go. Even hospitals are providing hospitality.

Unfortunately, in our culture today we may value our privacy even more than we value hospitality. And we’ve become conditioned to be afraid of strangers. It’s natural to be afraid of the unknown. It’s good to be wise and careful, but how much caution is too much caution?

In 1947, the first modern suburb was built on Long Island. Businessman Alfred Levitt and his two sons turned some potato fields into the first cookie-cutter neighborhood and called it Levittown.  They built 17,000 uniform, boxy houses. Their assembly-line style construction made them quite cost efficient, and they sold like hotcakes to soldiers returning from WWII.  But only certain soldiers.  Levitt made sure they did not sell houses to families of color. Levittown was the pattern for future suburbs…and also a model of racism and exclusion. A clause in the standard lease for the first Levitt houses boldly stated that the homes could not “be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.” Government policies at the time supported these racist practices, blocking Black Americans and other people of color from the new suburbs and homeownership.[5]

Those sorts of exclusions happened all over the country, and though we might say “that was then but this is now” and “we don’t do that anymore,” we are still influenced by those practices and ways of thinking.  And they still exist, they just don’t happen so blatantly…and then again, sometimes they do.

Jesus said, “Whenever you welcomed a stranger, you welcomed me.  And whenever you did NOT welcome a stranger, you did NOT welcome me.” (Matt. 25:37-45)  So when Alfred Levitt refused to allow people of color into his neighborhoods, he was refusing to allow Jesus to live there.

Who are we trying to keep out? Who is hard for us to include?

Is this because of our own experiences or because of what we’ve been told by leaders or the media?

And the biggest one—what or whom are we afraid of?[6]

2 Timothy 1:7 says that God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and self-control.  The Holy Spirit is our encourager, filling us with God’s love.  God’s love is perfect love, and greater than our fear.  1 John 4:18 says that perfect love is the antidote to fear.

Love overcomes fear. The way to overcome our fear is through hospitality.  In Greek the word for hospitality is philoxenia, which literally means love of strangers.[7]

So how do we show hospitality?  How do we show love to people we don’t yet know?

It starts by connecting with a smile and by saying hello. Invite people to sit with you at church or a restaurant or a show.  Invite someone you wouldn’t normally invite.

Some churches have put out signs to make sure everyone knows they are welcome, like this one that says, “Love your neighbor…who doesn’t look like you, think like you, love like you, speak like you, pray like you, vote like you. Love your neighbor. No exceptions.”[8]

What kind of message would we be sending if we put that sign out in front of our church, or our houses?

At the beginning of worship, we sang, “All are welcome in this place, no one left out or unwanted.”  How do we make sure that is true?  How do we help people know that is true?

In Isaiah 56, God says, “…my Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations.For the Sovereign Lord, who brings back the outcasts of Israel, says: I will bring others, too, besides my people Israel.”

Jesus quotes this passage when he goes into the temple in Jerusalem and chases out the moneychangers and flips over their tables. (Mark 11:15-19)

Is our church a place that anyone can come and seek God?  Is this a place where anyone can come and find the love of God?  Is this a place where anyone can come and feel safe from judgment or scorn or shame?  Is this a welcoming place?

Let’s take that further. Are we welcoming people?  It’s not just what happens in here, but also outside of here.

Do we talk to people we don’t know?  Do we invite new people to join us at a meal?  Or do we assume they wouldn’t want to?  Or that it would be too awkward if we did?

Maybe we’ve gotten out of the habit of including people, or of connecting with new people.  And maybe instead we’re more in the habit of making assumptions about people.

[9]That was the case for sheriff’s deputy Jacob Swalwell in San Leandro, California.  He assumed that the homeless man who was standing on the side of the road asking passersby for money was homeless because of alcohol or drugs.  The deputy had warned the man many times, and chased him off repeatedly.  But this 67-year-old man kept coming back because this was the only way he’d been able to survive.  So the deputy finally decided to write up a citation.

He asked the man his name.  Mik Myers.  ID please.  Myers didn’t have any.  He’d lost it ten years before and been unable to get another one. 

Myers had tried to get a new card at the DMV, but didn’t have the required documents. He was homeless because you need ID to get a job or government assistance. Myers said, “All they gave me was excuses. I couldn’t get an ID, because I have to have a birth certificate. I never got around to getting a birth certificate, but I know what’s going to happen: I gotta have a picture ID. So I kind of gave up on that.”[10]

The deputy took Myers to the DMV to try to help him get a new ID, but they no longer had any record of Myers, and without a birth certificate, they wouldn’t give him one.  So the deputy got him a birth certificate, but then there were other obstacles. Myers didn’t have any proof of residence. It took three trips to the DMV, a letter from the sheriff’s department and a proof of residency letter from the deputy’s church before they were able to get Myers an ID.

Now with an ID, Myers is able to get senior citizen benefits, a job, and a place to live.  And he and the deputy have become good friends.  But the story doesn’t end there!

A private investigator saw Mik’s story on the local news.  Mik had said in the story that he was adopted and had never felt like a part of the family.  The investigator tracked down Mik’s birth mother who was thrilled to meet him and introduced Mik to siblings and cousins he never knew he had.  Now he has a home, a job, and a family.

Romans 15:7 says to welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.

How does Jesus welcome us? Like the Abraham welcomes the strangers in Genesis 18.  Eagerly. Without reserve. With unconditional love.

Beloved, let us continue to find ways to make strangers into friends.


[1] Artist: Jim Reeves, Written by Gilbert Gibson  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NtAqlkGGd5w

[2] Photo by Joshua Eckstein on Unsplash

[3] Photo by Spencer Davis on Unsplash

[4] Abraham Washing The Feet Of The Three Angels, Émile Levy, Paris, 1854, Oil On Canvas, 113 X 145.5 Cm, École Nationale Supérieure Des Beaux-Arts, Paris © Beaux-Arts De Paris, Dist. Rmn-Grand Palais / Image Beaux-Arts De Paris.

[5] https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/levittown-new-york

[6] Escobar, Kathy. Practicing (p. 77). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[7] https://biblehub.com/greek/5381.htm

[8] http://www.allsoulsdc.org/neighbor

[9] https://www.facebook.com/profile/100064863961401/search/?q=mik%20myers

[10] https://www.ktvu.com/news/deputy-helps-homeless-man-get-id

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