Hebrews 13 begins with some instructions: Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
I heard about a monastery in Egypt called St. Macarius, where these instructions are taken very seriously. Each visitor receives a meal, a small gift, and time spent with one or more of the monks who live there.
These monks don’t care what the visitor believes, where he’s from, or whether or not he has a tie on. One man felt so blessed by the welcome he received that he assumed he was getting special treatment. As he was leaving, he thanked the monk again and again until finally, the kind monk said, “Really, we do this with every visitor. We do our best to love and welcome everyone — just in case.”
As church members today, we have to find a way to remind ourselves that nothing has changed.
The visitor may look different, be of a different race or ethnicity, have never been taught proper “church etiquette” – but our job is to welcome him and love him, not judge him.
Just in case.
I served a church where a visitor came in to the sanctuary one Easter morning and was asked to move by a longtime church member, who said, “You’re sitting in my pew. This is my seat. Please find somewhere else to sit.” Oh, yes, it really happened.
I’ve heard ushers counting the offering after worship, criticizing a visitor for his or her scant donation. A visitor stayed after worship for a covered dish dinner and when she tried to sit down at a particular table, she was told that all the seats were saved. The message sent: We like to be with our friends, keep our circles closed and tight and fellowship with those who look and sound as we do.
But God is there with us. An angel doesn’t always show up in a blinding flash of light with a huge voice saying, “Fear not!” The stranger, the visitor, the one who’s different or makes us uncomfortable, may very well be a messenger sent to us by God to teach us about God’s love and compassion.
In scripture, angels are messengers, protectors, and sometimes warriors on our behalf. Even without a lot of drama, we may have an angel in our midst who wants to help us learn the things God wants to teach us.
When we are inhospitable, selfish, or judgmental, God is not smiling. But when we welcome the stranger with open hearts and open arms, we are sharing the very truth of God’s being with the one who comes to church needing it — The truth of God’s grace, his acceptance and his love in Jesus Christ.
Those who come needing Jesus must be welcomed through not only the front doors of our churches, but through the inner doors, as well — into our lives and our circle of friends, into worship and fellowship and service. We have much to learn from the people God sends into our lives.
If our “inner Pharisee” is criticizing and judging the one who’s different or strange to us, we must shut down that ugly voice and open ourselves to God’s Spirit. Every person comes with a need, a concern or a hope – our job is to reach out to the stranger and welcome him or her home.
Just in case.