A User Friendly Church (part 4) – The Stranger

headshot-timwoodroofby Tim Woodroof – welcome-sign

Life was precarious in ancient times. Violence, famine, and plague lurked around every corner. Failed crops and marauding armies threatened ruin for all but the wealthiest few. A careless word, a simple lack of attention, could spell disaster.

This was especially true for the “stranger.” A long way from the safety of home, from familiar people and accustomed habits, the stranger was in constant danger. Traveling was difficult enough in itself: storm, flood, fatigue, poor maps, accident. Add to that the threat of thieving gangs, the suspicions of others, the opportunities for confusion and offense that come with different languages and different ways.

Perhaps because life was so precarious for the stranger, hospitality was seen as an essential virtue in the ancient world. Providing food for hungry wanderers, shelter from weather and the road, and safety from thieves and rapists was considered a duty and a privilege. “Guest rights” were extended and honored even at great personal sacrifice to a host. To be welcomed into someone’s home meant receiving their time and attention, generosity and protection.

What if every stranger appearing in your church’s foyer is Jesus in other form?

The “Rule of Hospitality” was respected in every ancient culture. People may have worshipped different gods and observed different marriage customs and lived under different forms of government, but they all appreciated the importance of hospitality and the virtue of caring for the stranger.

So it isn’t surprising that the Bible gives so many examples of (and speaks so warmly about) hospitality. You remember Lot, opening his home and endangering his daughters. Or the time Abraham offered food and shelter, unaware that he was hosting angels. Mary and Martha are famous for the hospitality they showed Jesus.

In defense of his integrity, Job would say, “No stranger had to spend the night in the street, for my door was always open to the traveler” (Job 31:32) Paul says simply, “Practice hospitality” (Romans 12:13).

The Lost Art?

Perhaps because life is relatively safe now, hospitality appears to be on the wane. We don’t offer hospitality because people don’t need it. We don’t extend ourselves for the stranger because they really don’t require our assistance. They have iPhones to figure out directions. There’s a hotel just down the street.

When the worst thing that could happen from a lack of hospitality is a bit of embarrassment and a little inconvenience, the necessity of “practicing hospitality” loses some of its urgency and oomph.

Even for Christians. Even for the church.

Every week, we encounter the “stranger.” We discover people in our foyers who look out of place, can’t speak our language, don’t know our customs, and seem a long way from home. They stand awkwardly apart. They wear puzzled expressions. They don’t know what to do with their hands. They are hoping, maybe, that someone will take pity on their strangeness and put them out of their misery.

But there is no imminent danger of them being swept away by flood or beaten by robbers or starving to death. There are signs above our bathroom doors and numbers on our classrooms, after all. There’s a “welcome” brochure in the lobby and an order of worship in our bulletin. If they get lost looking for the fellowship hall … well … that’s not the end of the world!

So we turn aside. We seek out our friends. We start our familiar routines. We find our accustomed places. We do not offer time and attention. We do not extend generosity and protection.

And, yes, those strangers will likely live another day. Nothing fatal will befall them during their visit. You can’t die of awkwardness. Nobody expires from a little self-consciousness, right? We know they will recover from our lack of hospitality.

But will we?

Why Bother being a “Yes” Church?

Jesus’ parable about the Last Judgment is chilling. Not because the occasion is so grand (the judgment of the world!) and the stakes are so high (the kingdom or the fire). But because of the criteria Jesus uses to make his final judgment.

I wish, of course, he took into consideration how many times these people attended church or how many Bible verses they memorized or how many vices they avoided. But Jesus is firmly focused on mercy in this parable. Feeding the hungry. Visiting the sick.

Oh, and caring for the stranger.

“I was a stranger and you invited me in.”

“When did we ever do that?” the righteous asked him.

“When you cared for any stranger,” Jesus assured them, “you were caring for me. When you treated any stranger with kindness and concern, whenever you paid attention to the alien and the outsider, you were welcoming me.”

“And what about us?” the unrighteous asked. “When did we ever see you in your robe and crown and refused to be nice? Name one time you appeared in glorious epiphany and we failed to honor you.”

Now the chilling part. “When you didn’t do it for the least of these …”

What if every stranger appearing in your church’s foyer is Jesus in other form? What if every outsider, standing there with his heart in his hands, is actually Jesus, hoping someone will invite him in? What if every time you see a stranger with that bewildered look on her face, wandering around in your parking lot or building, and you offer a little time and attention … what if, really, that is Jesus helping you determine whether you’ll stand on his right or left at the great day of reckoning?

We need “Yes” churches because we desperately need to show hospitality to strangers. It’s a matter of life-and-death. For both of us.

Would that change your mind about what’s at stake with visitors to your church? Would that motivate you to go over and hold out your hand and say, “Welcome!”? Would that help you realize hospitality is not an option, tacked on to the finer points of faith, one among thousands of other good things to do “when you get around to it”? That hospitality is a central virtue in the kingdom of God? That your eternal fate will rest on how hospitable you are?

That’s why you need to be a “Yes” Christian … and your church needs to be a “Yes” church.

Because, truthfully, the strangers coming through our doors are in danger. They’re spiritually tired. They are hungry for the bread of life. Satan has beaten them badly and wants to do so again. Life is precarious when you wander from God.

But also because strangers are a test. The way we treat strangers is the mark we make with our yellow, #2 pencils. Do we care about them? Do we respond to them in godly and generous ways? Do we invite them in or freeze them out? Do we see the shadow of Jesus in the stranger?

We need “Yes” churches because there are strangers in desperate need of our hospitality. We need “Yes” churches because we desperately need to show hospitality to strangers. It’s a matter of life-and-death. For both of us.

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