The Sacrament of the Stranger



Jesus was in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, when he turned to one of the minor themes that always confused Peter. “When you are in the market place, greet the people you don’t know. Say hello to the stranger, the orphan, the widow.”  Peter murmured and made a note to ask the master why this ridiculous turn. The law held no such command, and it violated common sense. 

Who knows what the stranger is doing, plotting, planning, whose side he’s on, how pure she is, what her intentions are? Common sense says, Greet those who matter or who might. Stay where it is safe and honorable. The marketplace is no place to get friendly.

We forget the dangers of the past, safely ensconced in the florescent lights and white tiles of the mall or the supermarket, how the market represented a place of familiarity and danger. People gathered from fields and towns together to buy and barter and sell. A place unregulated by mall cops and set prices. Traveling can only hint in our age of law and order at how unsafe a space could be for commerce. 

Yet, it is here that Jesus tells his students to greet strangers. The motif doesn’t end there. His followers will take that theme into their homes and along lonely roads. The saints and writers listed above are no complete list of the tales of wayfarers at the door or beggars along the way.

Unlike tales of warning, such as Beauty and the Beast, these tales were mostly of shifted perception and let to gifts and sacrifices for the stranger rather than curses. In these moments of gifts and roadside hospitality, the stranger is not merely the recipient of greeting, but rather Christ himself come to call the disciple to a different way of life.

A dark night and a difficult choice about letting in the unwanted unknown person in rags. Eventually, the stranger is revealed to be Christ, and the protagonist is changed.

Stories like this abound in the Christian tradition. Saints Francis, Brigid, and Alban, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, even Flannery O’Connor all tell stories of strangers revealing Christ. This motif of the stranger points to a profound insight that hides in the open tradition of the church. 

The stranger becomes a sacrament, a moment where the presence of Christ is known. Like the Road to Emmaus in Luke 24:13 and following, the act of welcome and offering becomes a revelation of the new creation and resurrection of Christ. Emmaus may be the epitome of this doctrine, but it is not the only example. 

The Sacrament of the Stranger is far more biblical than Confirmation or Last Rites, yet we seldom hear about it in catechism. In the stranger, Christ is known. In loving the stranger, either through charity or hospitality, Christ is made known. 

Now, a debate lies between two factions in the church about the nature of sacrament. Does a sacrament cause grace? Or, as we say in the Episcopal catechism, is the sacrament only “an outwardly and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace”? This question is a key to our understanding of the nature of God’s interaction with the world. 

Is there a way to make God’s forgiveness and peace and salvation flow into a life? Or, is grace present and we mark it by these sacramental acts? Either way the stranger is a sacrament or least a potential one. 

The stranger’s presence is the possible revelation of God’s grace because we may see God if we are able or God is revealed to us. The stranger also affords us the opportunity to act in concert with God’s grace and reveal God in our action, causing grace to flow through us. 

We become both recipient and giver of grace, “from the believer’s heart with flow streams of living water.” 

This is why we must take care, as a people of faith, in how we treat the stranger. We live now in an age riven by fear and violence, especially toward those that are different from us. As a husband and father, I understand in visceral ways the violent protective response. A deeper question, the student of Jesus question, asks why the stranger makes us afraid as human beings, fearful enough that we are willing to act in violence.

For we are not mere human beings. We are followers of Jesus the Christ who know that every encounter with the stranger is not a moment to be feared, but an opportunity of grace, a moment of sacramental potential.

The politics of our age constantly call us toward chaotic violence in response to perceived threats. This politics of fear is pushing faith out of the public dialogue and the ethical reflections of our public figures. This worries me as a pastor and priest. All of us who would claim Jesus as Lord must return to a deeper sense of life and meaning and purpose that is rooted more deeply than fear.

We must approach the stranger with a greeting, trusting in our Lord’s command more than we trust the news feed and commentary of our age. Or we may find ourselves at heaven’s door and hear from within, “Away from me, for I never knew you. For I was a stranger, and you never greeted me. I was hungry, and you sent me away.”

I was hiking in Organ Pipe National Monument a dozen years ago when a cattle rancher pulled over to check on me and offer advice, along with a refill of water from his truck. We sat together and then walked for a while, me in a backpack headed for a camping site I had marked on a map, and he looking for two lost cows someone had spotted in the area. 

As we went, he started picking up loose debris, an empty water bottle, old shoes, a pair of women’s panties wrapped around the top of a cactus. He explained about the migrants and immigrants who left them as markers or just waste. He spoke with tears about the hardships of crossing the deserts without the gear on my back and the detailed maps I carried. He talked about the coyotes who would take their money and abandon them or sell them into contemporary slavery. He wept over a curled mustache and a lip of Skoal tobacco. 

It was the first time I had heard of most of this that in the decade hence became front page news. He wept for the stranger as we walked. His grief became a sacrament and sign of grace. He hated the injustice and violence and drugs and gangs that raped and pillaged the poor. He carried a pistol and told of being followed as he worked his land a few miles away. This rancher in a white Ford pickup embodied something of the kind of grace that seems most biblical to me. It was fierce and honest and dangerous. Like love.

When we speak of love, we often don’t think of the stranger. We think of our friends, people like us, family, a spouse. But we are called into a life that is in search of God and the Way of Jesus, a sacramental life.



The Rev. Daniel P. Richards