Welcoming the Stranger, both Familiar and Unfamiliar


Filed under: Pastor Jeff’s Sermons 
A sermon preached on April 15th, 2018 based upon Luke 24:13 – 35.

If you’re counting, this is the third story we’ve heard in the season of Easter in which the risen Jesus initially goes unrecognized – he is a “stranger” to the people to whom he appears. First, there was Mary at the tomb mistaking Jesus for some random gardener. Second, there were the disciples out in the boat after a long, exhausting, unsuccessful night of fishing who fail to recognize Jesus when he appears to them on the shore. And now here once more, Jesus appears as a stranger walking besides two disciples on the dusty road to a town called Emmaus.

The “stranger” theme gets particularly drawn out in this story because Jesus walks and talks with these disciples for a couple of hours without their recognizing him, and when they finally they do – he vanishes.

It is easy I think to get caught up in the supernatural element in this story; in particular, the way Jesus suddenly vanishes at the end. But it is helpful to recognize that on a basic level this is a story about two people who in a state of great vulnerability encounter a stranger as they are traveling down the road from whom they are blessed. It’s a story about hospitality – of welcoming the stranger.

Offering hospitality to strangers is a BIG theme in the Bible. Jonathan Sacks, the wise chief rabbi of Great Britain has pointed out that in the Hebrew scriptures –- the scriptures with which Jesus, a good Jew was raised — there are 36 separate instances in which God commands the people to “welcome the stranger.” In contrast, the golden rule – “Love thy neighbor as thyself” – only occurs just once, which is not to lessen the importance of the “golden rule” but to recognize that in common parlance our “neighbors” are not thought of as “strangers.” Perhaps welcoming the stranger required so much reinforcement because there is something within us that seems to instinctively fear the stranger.

Many years ago, when my first born son Andrew was four years old I took him to play on the playground in Volunteers Park in Lake Hiawatha. I would take him to public playgrounds in part in the hope there would be other kids for Andrew to play with, and sure enough that day there was a boy who with a little coaxing on my part began to happily play with Andrew.

After a while, however he stopped and asked me what struck me a peculiar question: “Are you a ‘stranger’?” I tried answering his question, saying something to the effect of, “Well, we were strangers, but now that we’ve been playing together we’re becoming friends.” But my answer seemed to agitate him and he said, “I don’t want you to be a stranger!” And so I asked him, “Why? What do you mean by ‘stranger’?” At the point of tears the little boy said, “A stranger is somebody who steals children and kills them.”

And suddenly I got it. His parents had impressed upon him that strangers could be dangerous – that they steal and kill children. I was rather horrified that the child imagined I might be capable of such a thing.

But we’ve all heard horrifying stories of strangers who have done such things, and there is a reason the fear of strangers tends to run pretty deep in all of us.

And yet throughout scripture God commands us to welcome the stranger – that indeed, strangers often bring great blessings. (see Hebrews 13:2)

So in our story this morning suddenly a stranger is there walking beside the two grief stricken disciples, and after an initial hesitation – an expression of that instinctive fear of the stranger – they begin to open up to him, sharing the grief and disappointment they are feeling over their beloved Jesus’ crucifixion.

The stranger in turn begins to interpret the Scriptures for them – pointing out themes that were there that they had somehow overlooked – and slowly their situation begins to seem a little less bleak as they consider meanings and possibilities in the horrible thing that has come to pass. As they would describe it later, in the course of the conversation the chill that had overcome their hearts began to thaw. There hearts were strangely warmed.

As the story proceeds, as the sun is setting they reach the town of Emmaus and the home the two disciples were staying for the night. The stranger appears to be intent on continuing down the darkening road. The two disciples offer the most basic expression of hospitality to this stranger who in the hours they have spent together has become something of a friend: they invite him into their home to share a meal and stay the night.

It is important pause and note that without this offer of hospitality the disciples would never have discovered the true identity of the stranger.

As they sit down to table to break bread together, the stranger essentially takes over the role of the host: he initiates the meal, taking the bread, blessing it, and then breaking it to be shared, and in that moment their eyes are opened: they recognize Jesus, and he vanishes.

And so the message it seems to me of the story is that Jesus continues to walk among us, and that a crucial place to look for his presence is in our interactions with strangers, and in particular in the experience of offering, and receiving hospitality.

Once when a man told Jesus he would follow him anyway, Jesus responded by declaring, “Foxes have dens, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man (the title Jesus used for himself) has no place to lay his head.” In his ministry Jesus embraced the place of the stranger who is dependent upon the kindness of strangers – a vulnerable place to be for sure. If we would follow in his way, we too must embrace this way of being in the world.

To drive home this point, Jesus sent his original twelve disciples, and later in Luke’s Gospel seventy more out into the world two by two, without money or weapons, going door to door in search of the kindness of strangers. “Be wise as serpents but innocent as doves” he told them, which was to say they shouldn’t be naïve – yes, there are people out there who can’t be trusted, and you surely will have doors slammed in your face both literally or metaphorically. But don’t give in to the fear of strangers and harden your hearts. Just shake off the dust from your sandals and move on to the next home. For where you are received in a way that allows strangers to become friends you will share an experience of the Kingdom of God drawn near.

There was a Jewish philosopher in the early 20th century named Martin Buber who wrote about to basics ways of relating to the world in general and to other human beings in particular. One he called the “I – Thou” relationship in which we sense and underlying connection while at the same time appreciating a sacred mystery to the other. The other he called the “I – it” relationship in which we view people as fundamentally separate from ourselves – as objects that can either further or hinder our attempts to get what we want in this world. Bringing a “I – it” consciousness into the world can help us in becoming a big success in the eyes of the world. But it is only through an “I – Thou” consciousness that life finds its true meaning.

From a Christian perspective, it is only by relating to others as an I encountering a Thou that we experience the presence of Christ among us. And to do this, we can’t let our innate fear of the stranger control our lives. We need to embrace the vulnerability required that allows I-Thou interactions with strangers to occur. Sometimes this means extending hospitality and others it means allowing ourselves to be the recipient of hospitality.

I want to make a distinction between two kinds of strangers, and here I’m not talking about the distinction between trustworthy and untrustworthy strangers, since both can be found in the two categories I am offering: There are familiar strangers and there are unfamiliar strangers.

In the first category I am talking about the people who already are very much a part of our lives — our family, friends, people we work besides, our fellow church members – people who we would not normally call strangers because we think that for the most part we already pretty much know all we need to know about them. It is because they are so familiar that we can be prone to relate to them in an “I – it” manner. We objectify them, overlooking the sacred mystery of who they are which extends beyond our limited knowledge of them. In doing so, the relationships stagnate.

Think about the familiar strangers of your life and consider what would be involved in more intentionally relating to them as an I to a Thou. It might mean a deeper kind of listening, and a willingness to be surprised as we let go of the mental construct we’ve fashioned in our brains as to who these people are and what moves them in the depths of their hearts. Perhaps it would mean asking questions we’ve never asked, or embracing the risk of revealing ourselves in ways we haven’t dared to do before. It can be risky, but in doing so we might just discover the presence of Jesus in a new way in the midst of an old, familiar relationship.

And the “unfamiliar strangers.” Some of these are people we view merely in terms of the roles they fill — like Mary seeing only “the gardener” outside the tomb — and how rarely we consider them as a holy and mysterious Thou. Think of the cashier at the check out line or the waitress who serve our food. What difference might it make to take a moment as you interact with them to ponder the simple truth that their lives are stories as long as your own with their own deep unseen yearnings in their hearts?

But also consider finding ways to go out of your way to interact with persons who seem quite unfamiliar, perhaps because they have are of a different religion or race or culture, or what seems an altogether different background.

One of the most striking things about Jesus was his willingness to be in an open-hearted relationship with people who on the surface seemed quite different from himself. Jesus was a rabbi, which meant that he was a scholar of the Scriptures, but his disciples included rough, unlearned fishermen. There was a tax-collector and a political zealot in the ranks. He gave his full attention to otherwise “invisible” blind beggars and lepers who were accustomed to being treated as “its” rather than people possessing sacred souls.

We hear of Jesus having an intimate conversation beside a well with a Samaritan woman who is an outcaste in her own community, and another such conversation with Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, the religious authorities with whom he so often came in conflict. We hear of him bringing blessings to Roman Centurions who open their hearts to him.

So intentionally seek out opportunities to interact without pre-judgments with people who on the surface seem to come from a different world from your own. A Muslim or Hindu or Atheist neighbor perhaps, or someone with a distinctly different political point of view from your own. Come with an open mind and an open heart, and it is in such contacts that you may discover the unseen presence of our risen Savior walking among us to reconcile this broken world.

“The Supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not our image.” Rabbi Jonathan Sachs

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