“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).
A couple of weeks ago I was in the middle of teaching Sunday School when the outside door of our classroom opened and a woman stepped in. She was unexpected, unannounced, and uninvited. She just showed up and asked what time church started.
I don’t know if we were entertaining an angel that day, but I do know that she was a stranger. She was not a stranger in the sense that she was unknown and unfamiliar to me. I had dealt with her before. She was, however, a stranger in the sense that she was different from me and the others in the class. Her look, smell, and way of life were strange to us.
I welcomed her, invited her to have a seat, told her that the service would begin in about forty minutes, and that after class I would take her into the church.
I said all the right things, at least out loud I did. But the ideas, thoughts, and conversation inside me were a bit different. My first thought was that the vestry decided to keep that door unlocked so we could get out in case of an emergency, not so a stranger could just walk in. I admit that wasn’t one of my better thoughts. There was more neglect than hospitality in it. And it doesn’t sound much like the kind of hospitality Jesus is talking about.
When I picture her face now I can’t help but think about a couple of verses from Matthew 25:
- Verse 35 in which Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” and
- Verse 43 in which he said, “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.”
Welcomed or not welcomed, “the mark of God is on the face of the stranger, on the ‘other,’ not the ‘same’” (Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event, 263).
That’s not just about an unexpected Sunday School visitor. It’s also about the migrant and refugee, the pregnant welfare mother, a black teenager, a Muslim man, a gay or lesbian couple. The mark of God is on the face of the stranger, the one who isn’t like you and me. That’s true about all those who look, act, and live differently from us. It’s true about those whose religious or political beliefs are not anything like our own. And it’s true about us and all those times we’ve felt like a stranger in our skin.
What came to your mind when I listed those different types of strangers? What feelings, thoughts, ideas did you have? Was you heart open or closed?
Over and over Jesus opened his heart, spirit, and life to the stranger: lepers, prostitutes and tax collectors, the blind and lame, the poor and powerless, widows and orphans, the hungry and sick, Gentiles and foreigners, the lost and outcast, the weary and burdened, the ones on the edge and the ones hanging on by a thread. No one was excluded. All were welcomed.
That’s how I want to live and yet I struggle with the stranger. I think we all do. We’re not sure what to do, what to say, or how to act. We fear the one who is different from or unknown to us. We resist being vulnerable and opening ourselves to the stranger. Here’s what I mean:
- How often do you answer the phone when the caller ID says, “Unknown caller?” I suspect most of us don’t. We want to know who is calling. We don’t want surprises. We want the option, the control, of deciding when and for whom we’ll answer the phone.
- When the doorbell rings do you first look to see if you recognize the car in the driveway? Have you ever asked your spouse, “Are you expecting someone?” Have you ever looked out the window or peep hole and then pretended you weren’t there?
- Who was the last person you invited to lunch or supper? I’m guessing it was someone you already knew when you invited him or her. We typically invite friends and family, those who are already known to us, those with whom we are comfortable, those who can serve our interests or pleasure, those whose favor we seek, those who will reciprocate or pay us back. In short we welcome those who are already welcome, not those who are unwelcome.
- Have you ever received an invitation to a party or dinner at someone’s house and wondered or even tried to find out who would be there? Would they be your kind of people? The kind of people you want to be with? Have you ever accepted or declined an invitation because of who else would or would not be there?
- Think about the lessons we teach our children about strangers. “Stranger danger” was what I grew up with and passed on to my boys. That doesn’t sound much like Jesus either.
The world’s hospitality is always conditional. The guests are already known, vetted, and welcome. Their names are on our invitation list. Other names are not. We take the initiative. We extend the invitation. And we decide in advance the terms and conditions of the invitation. That’s not, however, hospitality in the kingdom.
In the kingdom, hospitality is unconditional. We have lost the initiative. Hospitality in the kingdom “is not an invitation we initiate but a visitation we did not see coming” (Caputo, Hoping Against Hope: Confessions of a Postmodern Pilgrim, 85), like an unexpected Sunday School visitor, a migrant family, a beggar asking for a cup of cold water.
Biblical hospitality, the kind Jesus offered and taught, means welcoming into our house and life the other, the one who is different from us, the stranger. For Jesus, hospitality extends beyond “your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors.” It’s about “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,” those who are different from us and have no power, ability, or resources to reciprocate, pay back, take us out to dinner, or serve our interests.
Kingdom hospitality leaves us feeling vulnerable and at risk. And for good reason. Kingdom hospitality tells us to open the door even before we know who is there. Let me be clear, however. I am not suggesting that we open the door to just anyone at any time of night. Jesus is not asking us to be reckless with our safety or the safety of others. And I don’t want our children running up to any and every stranger they see on the street. That’s not hospitality, that’s foolishness.
Hospitality does not begin with opening the door of our house. It begins with opening the door of our heart. Hospitality challenges me to face the ways I’ve closed and locked the door of my heart. When we shut the door of our heart and exclude the stranger we also imprison ourselves. Strangers have a way of showing us ourselves and the doors we have closed. That’s what happened a couple of weeks ago. That uninvited visitor, that stranger, revealed my estrangement from myself, the person I want to be, the values I claim to hold, the life I want to live, the faith I profess, and the Lord I follow.
Hospitality isn’t so much about who the other is or isn’t but who I am and how I want to be. Instead of making a guest list of who is welcome maybe we should take an inventory and make a lost of our own fears, prejudices, judgments, skepticisms, cynicisms, and profiling of others. Those are the locks on our heart’s door.
What does hospitality look like in your life today? To whom is your heart open and to whom is it closed? What locks are on your inventory? Who are the strangers in your life? In what ways have you become a stranger to yourself?
The woman that showed up two weeks ago? Her name is Denise. And I’m sorry to say that she left before church began. I’m sorry for her, for me, for you.
I don’t know when or where but there will be another Denise. It might be today, tomorrow, or next week. A stranger who carries the mark of God on her or his face will come to us. I don’t know what her or his name will be. It might be María, José, or Jesús. It might be Pierre, Jeanette, Tonia, Larry, or Abdul.
Let’s not what until she or her gets here. Let’s start now unlocking and opening the door of our heart. What would that look like for you today? What locks need to be unlocked? What is one door to your heart that you could begin opening today?