Strangers: Hebrews 13:2, kindness, mercy, generosity
Last week I was preaching the first part of Hebrews 13, including this verse:
“Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)
I should have known I’d get a chance to practice this week. I got a practictude* check.
I preached Hebrews 13:2 on Sunday, on Thursday, the janitor of our church sheepishly knocks on my door and asks me to come to the front. Apparently our secretary had stepped out for a quick bite, and while she was gone, two rough looking homeless guys showed up and needed some help. Our poor janitor was caught off guard as they walked in and started looking around, being a little “pushy” as they sought help. So she came back to my office a little scared and very glad that she wasn’t alone in the building that day!
As I walked back up front with her, I was a little frustrated at the timing of this event. My Easter sermon wasn’t ready yet, and I knew Friday wasn’t going to offer much time for studying. I had carefully carved out several hours on Thursday afternoon for study, so I had already determined that I would get this encounter over with quickly, and get these guys out the door.
These two guys were a sight. Obviously they had been on the streets for a while, and according to their story, they had been hoofing it for a couple of weeks, having left Salt Lake City over a month ago, in an attempt to reconnect with family in Eugene, Oregon. Here in Salem, they were just 65 miles from their destination.
However, they hadn’t been able to hitch a ride to Eugene. The rains had been heavy the last couple of days, and they desperately wanted to get home. So as they stood in our church foyer, a little wet, very hungry and very stinky from days without showers or laundry, they were asking for a ride home.
I knew I didn’t have 3 hours to take them to Eugene back, I had kids to pick up and family commitments that made that impossible. So after I talked to them a while, my secretary returned, and I had her look up pricing for tickets on the bus, or train, to get them home. It took another ten minutes, and we finally found a bus that could get them home. The bus station is about 20 minutes from our church, so I loaded these two guys up in my car and drove them back downtown to purcahse two tickets.
It was rough inside my car. The smell from these two men was strong, almost overwhelming, and the torrential rain made it unwise to roll down the windows. But as we drove to the bus station, I quietly asked God to give me words and I did my best to turn the conversation towards Christ. We talked about Easter, it’s meaning and they both shared their stories of religious encounters. I tried to steer the conversation towards relationship with God, not religion about God, as we pulled into the Greyhound terminal.
I purchased two, non-refundable tickets to Eugene, for a total cost of $46. As we walked out, they were both so relieved and so thankful for the help. They were eager to get back home and glad that someone finally was willing to help them. I remembered that they hadn’t eaten all day (it was now almost 2:30 in the afternoon), so I called my buddy Mike who runs a hotdog stand on the streets downtown. He was still open and just two blocks from the bus station. I sent the boys his way, and Mike fed them for me.
The point is simple: It really didn’t take much to minister to these guys. It did take a little time, and a little over $50 after I purchased their tickets and fed them, but after spending 1 1/2 -2 hours with Roger and Chris, I can tell you that it was time, and money, well-spent. A lot of people come to our church looking for a handout. As soon as you talk to some for a just a couple of minutes, you know the need isn’t legit, and you send them on their way as kindly as you can. In 15+ years of pastoral ministry, I’ve been cursed-at, yelled at, preached at and condemned by people who wanted help and we didn’t — or sometimes we couldn’t — give it.
I’ve also been blessed to be able to provide help, like we did for Roger and Chris. Sometimes, even after you’ve tried to carefully determine the actual need, you realize later that you were scammed. Like the guy at my Seattle church who came by, did a couple of hours worth of work on the property for $50 so he could get his bus ticket to LA, only to see him the very next day at the church across the street doing the same thing! It hurts to get burned, but that doesn’t give us permission to disobey the command given in Hebrews 13:2.
Giving Roger and Chris 90 minutes of my day was tough. The rest of my Easter preparation had to come at weird times, and had to be snatched out of other hours of the week. But at the end of the day, I was blessed by my encounter with these two young men. I was blessed to have talked with them about the Lord. I was blessed by their thankfulness over a non-refundable bus ticket, and a warm lunch by the best hot-dog vendor this side of Chicago. (By the way, if you’re even in Salem, make sure you look me up and we’ll go hit Dogzilla Hot Dogs together!) And who knows, maybe someday I’ll get to heaven and meet Roger and Chris…two angels God sent the Thursday before Easter to test my obedience!
The point is clear: Do good to people, even those you don’t know. Take minute or two (or 90) to help someone who has a need. Take time to listen and to engage, and not to see everyone you don’t know as a threat or a scam artist. Yes, we need to be careful, and yes — there are far too many people with a “need” that are just trying to scam a few bucks or trying to avoid work. But don’t let that be an excuse for you and me disobeying God’s Word on this matter.
Jesus is calling His children out of the comfort of the boat and out on the water where He is building His Kingdom — are you willing to obey His command and serve a stranger today?
Go ahead and take the plunge — Life is better on the water!
*Practitude: When you get a chance to practice what you preach. It’s an opportunity to test that your attitude reflects what you practice. Having an “Exactitude” is slightly different and causes my wife and I to scuffle at the dinner tab