The Stranger at the Door
By Dr. Randy L. Hyde
Spend a little time with Matthew’s gospel, and this is what you will find Jesus telling his disciples as they are about to embark on their first evangelistic rally… Proclaim the good news, cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons, take no payment, no gold or silver, and don’t put any change in your pockets. Don’t carry a bag or take any extra clothing or shoes. Work for what you eat.
That’s what Jesus told his disciples. That’s all. That’s all.
Let me tell you, that’s enough. But he’s not through. After giving them their marching orders, he tells them what they can expect for their troubles…
“I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves,” he says ominously, “so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves… Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his children, and children will rise up against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name…”
It doesn’t sound much like the gospel, does it? Sounds more like the Civil War.
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna…
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword…
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
My friends, that’s all just in chapter ten – just in chapter ten – of Matthew’s gospel. One chapter. In fact, it’s one of the most difficult portions of scripture that we will find anywhere.
So what is Jesus saying? What is Matthew telling us by putting these words of Jesus together? They are saying it’s a fearful world out there, especially for the one who dares carry Jesus’ name as an I.D.
So it is with rejoicing – and not a little bit of relief – that we finally get through all these terrible warnings and dire messages, and find a hopeful word when Jesus says, “… whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – amen I tell you – none of these will lose their reward.”
Like the allusion itself, after hearing all the terrible things that can happen to one who dares follow Jesus, these words are like a cup of cold water to a dry and parched throat. After telling his disciples what they must do – which seems downright impossible to us – Jesus tells them the consequences of it all will be harsh. But then he says it is enough – it is quite enough – simply to be offered a cup of cold water in his name. Just a cup of water.
So, we offer a collective sigh of relief and think that this lets us off the hook. After all, we live not only in the Bible Belt, we reside on the Bible Belt buckle. Christians there are a’plenty around these parts, and we don’t have to look far to find those with whom we hold our faith in common. Ask somebody where he or she goes to church, and you’ll be told gladly. If they don’t go to church, they will apologize for it. It’s not unusual around here for people to be Christian. We’re the majority.
Besides, a cup of cold water… why, that’s easy. Piece o’ cake.
Except, Craig Kocher reminds us of something all too real. “In a world as broken and fragmented as ours,” he says, “a simple act of kindness, a welcome to a stranger, a little genuine hospitality can be downright dangerous.” And that’s true right here in the Bible Belt, even in our very own neighborhood.
“In a world where people are attacked in their own homes,” he says, “answering the doorbell becomes an act of faithfulness. Offering directions to a lost traveler provokes second thoughts. Holding another’s hand involves body contact. Visiting the hospital or retirement home means an encounter with the sick, the dying, and the lonely… Mumbling hello to a stranger on a crowded street may seem odd. A little airplane flight to visit…friends can be nerve-racking; a bomb may be aboard… In this kind of world, a world of walls and barriers, violence and loneliness, Christian hospitality becomes a prophetic act.”1
Yes, even here where we live, this is not an easy world for many of us, if for no other reason than we have memories of a simpler and more pleasant time with which to compare it. Many of us grew up in a safer, different world. At least, that’s the way we remember it.
Robert Browning, not the poet but a pastor in Georgia, puts it well and says it for a lot us who are here this morning… “I grew up in a time,” he says, “when houses had screen doors that let light, air, pollen and noise filter throughout each room. Company never surprised us because we could hear their car coming up the gravel driveway. Spring rains did not sneak up on us either because we could smell them before they arrived.”2
Do you remember?
Now, we have air-conditioning and blaring TVs that blot out all the outside noises while we have transformed our homes into cocoons of safety and retreat. Dead-bolts and security alarms, lights that come on automatically when there is a motion nearby. For some, the only way you can get into your neighborhood is to have an access code that guards the gate. We’re more comfortable, it seems, to live this way, but underneath it all is an underlying sense of unease, that lurking just outside the walls of our homes is danger. So we do all we can to protect ourselves from that which would jeopardize our well-being. We don’t live in that open, screen-door world any more.
Truth be told, however, neither did Jesus.
The context for what Jesus says here is conflict. The world he describes sounds more like Nazi Germany, when neighbors spied on neighbors and turned them in if their loyalty was not orthodox to the existing regime. Jesus has warned his disciples that even family members would turn against one another because of one’s allegiance to him.
Jesus says plainly that following him can lead to struggle, not smooth sailing. It can create more havoc than it does peace of mind. He is sending out his messengers, and wherever they go they will run the risk of creating the same kind of situation he himself has found everywhere he has gone. In some places he was accepted, received with warm hospitality. In others, he was met with anything but that. He also understood why. For someone to offer Jesus and his disciples hospitality – even just a cup of cold water – that in itself could be considered an act of treason.
It was a difficult world in which Jesus lived, a world in which hospitality had a dangerous edge to it. To us, the word “hospitality” implies coffee and donuts for Sunday School, a polite reception in the parlor with cake and punch. To Jesus, it meant far more than that. It meant acceptance, even to those who, in his society and in his day, were deemed to be unacceptable. Which is why he put his arms around lepers, ate with tax collectors and sinners, forgave adulterers, and broke Sabbath laws. Hospitality was not only important to Jesus, it was at the very heart of being like God. And it didn’t make any difference to him where such hospitality took place, or to whom, or on what day.
Hospitality can have a hard edge even today. I suppose it depends on where you are and whether you’re willing to put yourself in difficult places.
My friend Jim Somerville is pastor of the First Baptist Church in Washington, D. C. Once one of the most prominent churches in our nation’s capital, it is still housed in a wonderful, ornate facility. However, there are few people who come to worship there anymore.
Washington has one of the highest populations of homeless people in America, if not the highest. They’re everywhere, and sometimes they take refuge near churches. Jim couldn’t help but notice that a group of homeless people were spending their nights on the church’s property. In an effort to be hospitable, and to put a human face on homelessness, he and another young fellow from his church took their sleeping bags and spent a night with these people who had no roof over their heads.
They had to endure the initiation process, as if being homeless is a fraternity. First of all, if they were going to relate to these people, they would have to give up the sleeping bags. Nobody else had them. They were instructed as to how to make a good bed out of cardboard and to use other materials to insulate their “home.” In the course of questioning their new friends, the pastor and his idealistic deacon asked them what were their greatest difficulties. The answer was obvious… where to go to the bathroom. And since there were women in the ranks, it was especially difficult for them.
So, the next day, Jim ordered a portable toilet to be delivered to the church and placed nearby where this group of people slept. It did not – how shall I put this – it did not go over well with some folk in the congregation. A day or two later, a padlock appeared on the outdoor facility… as I recall, courtesy of the grounds committee, or someone else “in charge.” When we visited there in late February for a meeting, the padlock was still there. “What are you going to do?” I asked Jim. “Oh,” he responded sadly, “the toilet will have to go.”
But that’s not the end of the story. Here’s the interesting thing… One of those homeless men joined his church and has developed into one of its most active and committed members.
You never know, you just never know, what might happen when you extend a hand or even a cup of water – or a port-o-let – to someone in Jesus’ name. You see, you never know who that stranger may be at your door.
One night, Mark Ralls, a minister in North Carolina, was leaving his church at the same time a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous was adjourning. He found himself in conversation with a man standing next to his rusty, worn-out Ford, and introduced himself as one of the pastors of the church that had hosted his group. The man sighed and told Mark how long he had intended to “get back to church.” So Mark invited him to worship. Immediately, the man launched into a story of his life.
It was, as Mark puts it, “the familiar string of regrets and loss that accompany addiction.” Mark prayed with him, and they parted ways.
As he walked to his car, the man called after him with a sense of urgency. “Did you mean what you said?” “About what?” “Did you mean that I could come to this church?”
Mark says that as he drove home he realized the man had told his life story as a way of explaining why he couldn’t come to church. He felt he wasn’t “clean enough” to be included in that kind of congregation.
How clean does someone have to be before he or she is accepted by Jesus? How clean before someone is accepted by you and me?
In this inhospitable world of ours, Jesus would have us – I think Jesus would have us – throw caution to the wind. You can’t do that without opening the door. And when you do, you might just find Jesus standing there disguised as a stranger.
Find us hospitable to you, O Lord, and to your children regardless of who they are. In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.
1Pulpit Resource, “Risky Business,” Vol. 33, No. 2: Year A, p. 55.
2Robert Browning, “The Screen Door Generation,” April 17, 2005
Copyright 2005 Dr. Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.