One of the most ubiquitous and enduring lessons of childhood in the U.S. is, “Don’t talk to strangers.” I’m not sure that was always true, but for the last several decades, parents have warned their kids of “stranger danger.”
This is a week when I’ve been especially conscious of how dangerous strangers can be. The anniversary of the massacre at Pulse night club was on Monday, and we remember with mourning the 49 people who were shot by someone who didn’t know them personally, who was a stranger, who hated them just because they were different from him.
It was also the two-year anniversary of the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, where they welcomed Dylann Roof when he appeared as a stranger, and paid for it when he killed nine of their members.
The officer who shot Philando Castile, because “stranger danger” told him that this dark-skinned man was a threat, was acquitted. Locally, we’re waiting on the trial of Ray Tensing for the similar situation in which he shot Sam DuBose.
We have plenty of reasons to be afraid of strangers.
It seems like it’s part of the human condition to separate people into “us” and “them,” and to distrust the “them.” Humans have always found strangers and foreigners suspect. When we encounter people who look different, speak a different language, believe different things about the world, act differently, love differently, “different” can quickly be interpreted as bad, or inferior, or scary. And then we create systems that reinforce our biases and insulate us even more from anyone who might be different, who might challenge our perspectives. Because, stranger danger.
But, there is a small problem with that for those of us who take the Bible as our sacred text. And that is that pretty much the entire Bible is a story of strangers, foreigners, wanders, and immigrants.
In the third chapter of Genesis, in these creation stories that are trying to make sense of the origins and condition of humanity, Adam and Eve are cast out of the garden of Eden. From the very beginning, the story of humankind carries a sense that we are never fully at home, that all of us are in a sense displaced from our intended home.
Then the Israelites begin to form an established nation, but it’s about five minutes before they are enslaved by the Egyptians. Then they get freed from Egypt…and spend the next forty years wandering the wilderness. Then they reach the promised land, but are sent into exile twice and eventually dispersed around the globe, never really having a stable homeland that remains their own.
.Jesus and his parents spent time as refugees, fleeing from a tyrannical king. As an adult, Jesus kicked off his public ministry by wandering in the wilderness alone for 40 days, and then left his home and family behind to preach, teach, and heal.
The disciples left their homes and families and jobs to follow Jesus, although they didn’t know where he was going. In the passage we read today, they are sent out as strangers into villages where they would often be seen as suspect. Paul traveled from place to place to spread the Gospel and establish churches.
And many of God’s most important messages came through strangers: angels arriving in the guise of ordinary travelers, or prophets traveling far from home to deliver God’s words.
One would almost think that God has a soft spot for strangers.
We added blue and indigo to our rainbow today. As we build our rainbow through Pride month and consider how the Spirit is poured out on all people, these water colors call to mind those who cross oceans and seas to new lives. When I planned for this month, I had it in mind to talk mostly about immigrants and refugees, which is certainly a worthy topic all on its own. But given the events of the week, it seems more appropriate to talk more generally about how we receive the stranger.
I keep thinking about these disciples, sent out two by two, without money, food, or clothing beyond what is already on their bodies. They arrive in unfamiliar villages with nothing, relying on the kindness of strangers for the most basic of needs, with no payment but good news.
I keep imagining these disciples arriving in our towns in the current social climate of the United States, dirty and disheveled from the road, carrying no bags or belongings, asking for a meal and a place to stay the night. It doesn’t take much imagination. I see people doing exactly that every day as I walk my dog around Cincinnati. The man who asked if I knew somewhere he could fill his water bottle. The woman who couldn’t get into a shelter. The couple who used to bed down in a covered doorway near my apartment every night, until someone must have told them they couldn’t sleep there anymore.
I keep imagining these disciples arriving on U.S. soil with their brown, middle eastern skin and dark, coarse hair, speaking with a thick accent, or maybe not speaking our language at all. This doesn’t take much imagination either; I have seen these people on the news as they are detained at airports and attacked on public transportation. I’ve seen the fervor for travel bans and walls to keep out anyone who seems different.
I imagine these disciples showing up here, trying to bring us good news, and I wonder what kind of hospitality they would receive – whether they would be able to stay to teach and heal us, or if they would be forced to shake the dust off their shoes and move on.
Now, it would be really easy to turn this into a sermon about how we should all just be nice to each other and hold hands and sing Kumbaya, or at least not try to kill each other over being different. But that’s a pretty low bar, and it also doesn’t address a major part of human nature that plays a huge factor in how we encounter strangers. Humans who are in power are really good at codifying our fears – at making them into structures that justify treating people as other, and that ensure that the people at the top of the power structure will be as insulated as possible from those who are different.
This is why racism, for example, isn’t just about whether you treat an individual person of color with basic courtesy. It’s about a whole system that maintains white privilege – that makes it possible for many white people to never really know a person of color, or to never see people of color in equal numbers or roles in government or business or entertainment, or to never have awareness of the aggressions and inequalities faced by people of color every day. If you are black in this culture, you are required to have awareness of predominantly white culture, language, behavior, and perspectives. If you are white, you can choose whether or not you are aware. The same dynamics play out in every social division. If you are any combination of white, male, American-born, straight, cis-gender, able-bodied, affluent, or educated, congratulations. Your experience is the baseline. And that means that you have the privilege of having the option of not being exposed to the experience of people who are non-white, female, foreign-born, LGBTQIA, disabled, neurodivergent, economically disadvantaged, or uneducated.
But for those of us who follow a God who has a soft spot for the stranger, is that really an option?
This is a God who seems to constantly be showing up to the stranger, and showing up as the stranger. There’s a real sense in this story about the disciples and in scripture as a whole that to welcome the stranger is to welcome God.
Living in a structure that is meant to keep us insulated means that the onus is on us. The stranger may not necessarily come wandering in our door looking for us, because frankly, people of privilege are a lot more dangerous to marginalized people than the other way around. If we want to welcome the stranger, if we want to welcome God, we can’t wait for strangers to come to us. We may need to actively seek out people who are different. We may need to intentionally challenge our own perspectives by willingly opening our lives to foreignness.
This can be disorienting work that calls into question our own identities. It can put us into situations that feel scary. Everything in us may at some point shout, “Stranger danger!” This world is often chaotic. Frightening. Foreign. But we are called to bring good news to it anyway.