Bishop Mark Hanson: Strangers Among Us

The strangers among us

What message might God send in these people?

Those who knew my mother still describe her amazing gift of hospitality. Even 16 years after her death, it is wonderful to hear descriptions of a delicious meal, lively conversation, joyful singing, meaningful devotions, heartfelt laughter and a beautifully decorated table.

In the busyness of our lives, my wife Ione and I are often the recipients of the hospitality of others. To be honest, I have learned more about being a guest than a host. My teachers have often been those who live in poverty but have welcomed me with warm, generous and even lavish hospitality.

I will never forget Lucy Clark. My first call was in a public housing community. When Lucy invited me over for lunch to meet her family, I was served before the other members were seated. It was her way of honoring me as her guest and new pastor.

When Ione and I first traveled to Tanzania in 1996, we experienced similar hospitality. In rural villages, often we were welcomed into the pastor's home and served a feast with children, family and congregational leaders looking on. We assumed that one of the family's few chickens had been slaughtered for our meal, and we found it hard to understand the delight of those gathered around us until we realized our hosts felt pure joy in welcoming strangers.

Those experiences remind me of the first two verses of Hebrews 13: "Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it." The verse is actually quite jarring, for it speaks not of extending hospitality to guests but to strangers. That is altogether different, isn't it?

How are we doing in extending hospitality as a church? When I ask ELCA members to tell me about their congregation, I often hear that they are "just like a family" or "so friendly." As admirable as those qualities are, we may forget that it is not always easy to be a stranger coming into a family.

We hope for visitors at our congregational events, but are we ready for strangers? When we are honest, most of us would acknowledge that it is easier to welcome guests who share much in common with us than it is to welcome strangers who may not seem like "one of us." We may seek to erase the uniqueness of strangers, easing them into the culture of our congregations as quickly as possible, so they sing, pray, think, act and eat like the rest of us, as if it were "our" church and not God's, our lives and not God's life in us.

What if God is sending these strangers, not to help pay the bills and expand our membership but to bring a message? What if, when we extend hospitality to strangers, we are entertaining angels - messengers - without knowing it? What message from God might the stranger be telling us?

Could they be witnessing to God, who came strangely into the world - bloody, naked and crying - not a welcomed guest in a comfortable room, but an unwelcome newborn in an animal's shelter?

Jesus' life ended the same way - bloody, sweaty, naked, crying out. God's strange mercy, a love for outcasts, rejects and strangers, was not welcomed but despised and rejected. Jesus was tortured to death for his strange, forgiving love.

The news of this strange person and his strange love was given first to shepherds who slept in the Palestinian dirt and then to Galilee's most thickheaded fishermen. When he was raised from the dead, Jewish women first told the story. And then a murderer named Saul, who, from one generation of strangers to another, taught you and me.

So let us not make of hospitality too easy a thing, as if we are only making people appreciate how friendly we are. I want us to know the truth: a strange God is coming in strange ways through strange people to meet you. In spite of all our fears and defensiveness, I pray you will recognize your true love, Jesus Christ.

Friends, "let love be true. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers." Before you know it, God's messengers will be telling you some strangely wonderful news.

--Mark Hanson

[Taken with permission from the Presiding Bishop's monthly column in The Lutheran magazine, May 2010. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.]