Stranger Danger

By Pastor Reginald Holmes

Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.
– Hebrews 13:1,2

By now all of us have heard the shocking news from Charleston. Nine lives were terminated by a twenty-one year old white terrorist who purposely targeted a Pastor and his flock. Ironically, he showed up on a Wednesday night. The very same Wednesday night our church had an emergency meeting about security concerns at our church.

The innocent deaths of those at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston have highlighted a number of issues facing the Church. The very essence of the ministry and the question of what we are and who we are as believers in Christ are issues we are going to have to deal with. The devil seems to be forcing us to come face to face with what it means to be the church.

But it should also be obvious to all of us that we are being equally challenged not just by this incident, but by the sustained incidents of violence (by law enforcement and gangs) inflicted upon our people. These repetitive incidents of violence are forcing us to deal with the question of what it means to be black in America. The incident in Charleston, like Columbine, Aurora, and Sandy Hook, forces us to ask the question, “What kind of nation are we?” There is no other nation on the face of the earth that continually suffers these kinds of tragic gun murders like this country does. In this country people worship guns more than they worship God. We need to fix that.

So, we have got to ask ourselves, “What is the message we need to take away from the incident in Charleston? What do we really need to talk about and where do we need to begin the conversation?” I think there can only be one place to start the conversation. Let me ask you this: Did your parents ever give you THE talk? Do you remember if you ever had THAT talk with your mother or father? I am not talking about the “Birds and the Bees”. But have you ever had the one about stranger danger? “The one that says, “Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t trust the stranger. Beware of the stranger.” Have you ever had the conversation about stranger danger?

The incident in Charleston was very much about stranger danger. The only problem with the ‘strange danger’ conversation is that we can never stereotype the stranger. The stranger can come from anywhere. The stranger may or may not look like you. It is hard to put any one face on the stranger.

It was said that the young man went to bible study and sat for an hour in the class. He confessed after the shooting that he was impressed by how nice the people were to him. Some people, I am sure, were ready to welcome him to the family. I imagine somebody could have said to him what we say all the time, “You visit the first time you come, but after that you are family.” Reports are that he said before killing them, “They were so nice to me I actually regretted having to kill them.”

The question has been repeatedly asked, “How could he come and sit in on the class and no one knew he was up to something?” But that is an easy question to ask after the fact. That is what armchair quarterbacks do.

Before I deal with that question just let me remind you of who we are. I am talking about the Church in general and the Black Church in particular. We are a people called to do the most radical form of loving known to humanity. No one is really called to be as loving and as accepting of folk as Christians are. We are called to not just love our friends, but also our enemies. We have been called not to just care for those we know, but we have been called to entertain strangers. Entertaining or caring for strangers and being accepting of people who differ from you are commands common in both the Jewish scriptures and the Christian bible. God is serious about us ministering to strangers!

And I believe that is because God knows that bigotry and hatred only grow when people keep themselves apart. If I remain a stranger to you, you can never know me. You cannot respect me. You cannot really love me, if I am a stranger to you. God commanded Israel ‘to love the stranger because you too were strangers in Egypt’ (Deut 10:19). Among us there are always strangers. And you know the definition of a stranger, don’t you? It is something or somebody that is strange! And when you think about it we all can be strangers to each other. We do not all look alike. We do not all talk alike or think alike or act alike or eat alike or dress alike or live alike or love alike! In the world we have to deal with this ‘stranger’ thing!

And to you some people might seem strange, but those are the very people God has assigned us to minister to. And you know why? People may be strangers to us, but they are never strangers to God. With God no one is a stranger! God knows and God loves everybody! And if you are a child of God your mission is to eliminate in your life as many strangers as you can!

It would be easy to become overly paranoid about entertaining strangers with all that has happened. The church has been commanded and commissioned to reach out and receive strangers, but the church has to accept the fact that in doing our work we do face stranger danger. And the dilemma we face in dealing with the stranger is we must decide to either make disciples or be paralyzed by the danger of the mission. Either we ‘welcome’ or we become ‘wary’.

The ministry of Christ is risky business. Entertaining strangers could become downright dangerous. We do not always know who is joining the church. We did not know who you were and you did not know who we were when you joined. We took a chance on each other. We did not know where you came from. We did not know if you had a gun. We did not know if you cussed. We did not know if you went ‘off’ on people. We did not know what kind of medication you were on or if you were even taking it. We just let you in!

We face stranger danger whenever new people show up! And new people face stranger danger, also, joining some of our churches! Everybody in here was strange to the rest of us at one time. And if the truth be told, some of us are still strange! We do not talk to people. We think everybody is out to get us and all people want to do is talk about us. We come to church and go home. We do not work in the church. We do not really know the people in church. We do not socialize. We are in church, but we are strangers!

We face stranger danger because we do not know each other. The young man said that he could not believe how the people treated him. He did not know black church folk and he, therefore, out of ignorance thought they were going to treat him like he was going to treat them. Stranger danger happens because we simply fear each other and we fear each other because we do not know each other!

But the question was asked, “How could he sit there for one hour and no one discerned his motive?” It has a lot to do with our accepting the stranger in the church. We in the church do not think the worst of people but we think the best of people. We do not think there are people intent on doing us harm. We do not think that a person would intentionally come to God’s house to do us harm. We are not into metal detectors and full body searches when people come to church. We want people to feel welcomed and relaxed when they come. We are not thinking folk have guns. We are not suspicious of strangers. After all, are not they coming to get more Christ in their life?

The incident in Charleston will challenge us. The truth of the matter is the devil has always known how to use the ministry against us. What you mean, Pastor Holmes? The very things we have been called to do by God the devil will use those things to bring confusion. Giving and supporting are universal principles that all believers in God should never struggle with. God has colored our relationship with Him with love and has made his abiding attribute to us his giving. Yet, we have more confusion in the church around giving and loving than we do any other principles of our faith!

The devil does the same thing with this ‘stranger’ business. He wants to bring confusion and make us suspicious and skeptical of each other. “Watch everybody who comes in the Church! Get scared and uptight, so much so, that you screen people and take them through changes before they come into the church! Stop helping people! Keep the doors locked! Make the church a club only opened and available to your kind and your color! Let’s turn in on ourselves and trust no one, especially the stranger!” That is what the devil wants.

But that is not what the Lord has called us to do. God says entertain the stranger because in doing so you have entertained angels unaware. This incident can narrow the church or it can open us up to strangers as never before. Let me share quickly a few things we must do to face the challenge of this incident. The reason we must not allow this incident to change us is because no matter the danger in the stranger the reward is worth the risk. Saving a soul is worth even losing yours! Paul said the reason you keep helping folk is because the possibility of ministering to an angel is worth the risk. That is why we ought to be witnesses. We do not know who people are or what they are about until we entertain them, encounter them, or engage them. And if you are going to entertain, encounter, and engage strangers, you must be in their presence. You have to get close. In life with every relationship, you are going to have to take some risks. There is no relationship to be had without risks. You want to love someone? You have to take the risk. You have to get close.

You have to risk getting it and a part of the risk of getting it is you may get hurt! The alternative, though, is to do nothing. If you do not want to risk getting hurt, if you do not want to risk possibly encountering a devil, then do nothing. You will never encounter a devil and you will never get hurt if you do nothing. But in the kingdom you have to take some risks. When you are helping people getting hurt is always a risk!

When the young man came into the church I imagine folk were genuinely glad to see him. They may have even been excited that he was in bible study trying to get right with God. No one searched him. Why should they? “He’s maybe coming to join”, some thought. The reward was far greater than the risk. And that is what drives us and sometimes gets us more focused on soul-winning success than on our own physical security.

Choosing or discerning between angels and devils is not always an easy thing for those of us in the church! It was not always easy for Jesus. Even Jesus had issues with folk in the ministry who were not what they showed themselves to be. Jesus had his Judas, but I believe Jesus kept him around for a reason. Sometimes the hope for change in people and the reward of reaching out are worth the risk of somebody doing something mean and evil to hurt you! That is life and that is true with every relationship. The reward is far greater and worth the risk!

There is stranger danger. We said reward is worth the risk, but lastly if you want to deal with strangers in ministry and in your life, be prepared to be fooled. Understand this: The devil’s deception is as powerful as the disciple’s discernment. Deception can cancel and conceal discernment. Jesus said, “For there shall arise false Christs and false prophets and shall show great signs and wonders in such a manner that they shall deceive, if possible, the very elect” (Matt. 24:24). The devil’s deception is as powerful as the disciple’s discernment. That is what Paul meant when he said to the church in Corinth, “And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.”

Now, Satan can masquerade. He can change his appearance to look like one of us. He can talk like we talk and can even look like we look. He may even quote scripture. He may even act like a believer and show up in the church. And, believe it or not, you cannot always tell if people are the real deal. Sometimes we do not know the angels from the devils!

But let me tell you why we cannot worry too much about deceitful people. Their deceit, Jesus said, will always find them out! Jesus said if they are not right they are going to get what their actions deserve. Every lie will be discovered. Every trick will be found out. What is done in darkness will come to the light. We are not perfect and we are not omniscient. We do not know everything and we do not see everything. But with the God I serve, I must agree and that Carlyle was right. ‘No lie can live forever’. Lowell was right when he said, ‘Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne; Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.’ Deceitful people will get theirs.

I may not know sometimes if a devil is really an angel or if an angel is really a devil, but there is one thing I do know. Whatever you are and whoever you are it will be revealed. Somebody wanted to know: “Why can’t we know when the enemy is in our midst? If we had the right discernment we would know.” You cannot know because you are not God. Your knowledge and your spirit are not perfect.

And besides, our job is not to judge anybody. Our job is to love folk! We cannot save anybody, but we can love folk! We do not know who we are talking to and we cannot see inside a person’s heart or head. All we can do is do what God told us to do. Love the stranger. Love even the devil so that when he comes to kill you even he will have a hard time doing it.

Do not judge because we do not know whether we have been in the presence of a devil or an angel. Paul said you may not know it, but you have blessed some angels and you have blessed some devils, too! Paul said you were not aware who it was. You blessed some angels and did not even know it. The logical deduction of the statement is you have also blessed a few devils and did not know that either!

Do not qualify people based on your human judgments. Just be in the blessing business. And if you do, I imagine you will bless some angels and you will bless some devils too! But guess what? That is exactly what God does! He rains down blessings on the Just and the Unjust! He gives mercy to the Good and to the Evil! It is called GRACE!

Sinner or Saint! It is called GRACE! Devil or Angel! It is called GRACE! Male of Female, Black or White, Straight or Gay, Citizen or Immigrant, Stranger or Friend! It is called GRACE!

Never give up on the stranger! We have stranger danger, but we have some Jesus joy when folk get blessed through us. The reward is greater than the risk! Luke says, “Heaven rejoices over one sinner that repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance!”(Luke 15:7) The reward is worth the risk!

So, go on and entertain the stranger! Do not stop loving the stranger! Do not hate anyone, but love until your cup runs over! Give until you have no more! Then watch God give you more! Stay faithful until you are no more! But whatever you do, never stop entertaining the stranger! Yes, we have stranger danger, but the reward is worth the risk!

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