The kindness of strangers

On Wednesday 22 September 2021 Rev Sue preached this sermon. Worth taking another look!

I wonder, do you, like me, have a quick check list every time you walk out through the front door. Phone, keys, money – how many times have I raced up and downstairs looking everywhere twice because one of those mysteriously wasn’t to be found. Eventually, I’ve given in to my disorganised brain and invested in this – it’s called a tile. If I press this little button my phone will make a noise, and I can locate it. It works the other way round, too – if it’s my keys that are missing, I can beep them from my phone, or, in the worst-case scenario, it will show me on a map where I left them!

Imagining myself in the place of one of the disciples I would not like to have been sent out without any money or food, or even an extra fleece in case it turned cold. I would feel very vulnerable. Because if you have no money or food, you are reliant on the kindness of strangers. In Jesus time that would have been a less risky business than it would be today. People who prided themselves on their good manners would welcome travellers to a meal, provide water for washing and new clothes if need be. Only after the stranger had finished his supper would it be polite to ask who he was, and where he had come from. The host would offer a bed for the night, food for the next day’s journey, and might walk with the traveller to the edge of the town to make sure he came to no harm and was going in the right direction.

It would, of course, be much riskier from both sides in our society. When I was in my twenties hitch hiking was commonplace – it was easy to travel throughout the country for nothing, and people would cheerfully give lifts and have the isolation of long journeys relieved by conversations with passengers. Now, it is more dangerous for all, because far less well-meaning people are willing to give lifts, so the motives of those who do stop are more likely to be questionable. Conversely, ordinary people are far less likely to feel safe hitching, so those on the road are more likely to have doubtful characters. And so it is with hospitality. When entertaining strangers is not a social norm, the giving and accepting of a welcome into a home is far riskier. In the UK we seem to be particularly uncomfortable with the idea – people who have travelled in America have often come back with stories of surprising generosity.

I think that we have become less hospitable, not just as individuals, but also as a nation. 49 years ago, Idi Amin, the despotic President of Uganda, ordered the 80 000 people of Indian descent to leave the country. He gave them just 90 days to leave. Over 27 000 came to the UK. 1972 was not a good time to arrive in Britain as a refugee. It was a time of high unemployment and limited availability of housing. People were becoming anxious about the number of recent immigrants, and the National Front was stirring up racism and violence.  But many people rose to the challenge of providing a welcome. The WRVS in particular rose to the challenge of finding warm clothes, bedding and electric heaters for people who had never before encountered cold weather. A generation and a half later the families of those refugees are well integrated into British Society, and have produced many influential people, who have made significant contributions to British life.

Now we have an official policy of a hostile environment. The government is considering a bill which not only make it a criminal offence to cross the channel in an irregular fashion – it would also be a criminal offence to go to the aid of such a boat which was sinking. Anyone who chose to come to their aid would risk prosecution and imprisonment. Can you imagine the feelings of the captain of a vessel who must choose between law breaking and saving lives? We cannot, of course, accept without question everyone who wishes to settle in this country, but we can treat them as human beings. We have put up for too long with a policy which forbids asylum seekers from working, forcing them to rely on charity for the basic needs, housing unaccompanied children in hotels. Families fleeing from the military in their country of origin find themselves in disused army barracks.

The Old Testament makes it clear that orphans, widows and strangers should always be treated with generosity and compassion. I hope that we as a nation will soon begin to take that message on board.

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