The Kindness (and Cruelty) of Strangers

God’s grace and peace be with all of you.

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” says Blanche DuBois at the end of A Streetcar Named Desire, as she is led away to be committed to a mental hospital. The line is both tragic and true; Blanche has always depended on the kindness of strangers, and that is exactly what traumatized her to the point of a mental breakdown.
Depending on the kindness of strangers is a risky proposition. You have no guarantees that those strangers won’t take advantage of you, won’t hurt you intentionally or unintentionally. To depend on the kindness of strangers means risking that you won’t get what you need, or that you might end up worse off than you were to start with.

In our gospel reading today, Jesus tells his disciples to rely on the kindness of strangers. He sends them out to heal the sick, raise the dead, proclaim the good news. He tells them, “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey… Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave.” Go out, Jesus says, and depend on the kindness of strangers. Don’t take any money, don’t take any supplies, or even a change of clothes. When you come to a town, find somebody who will take you in, and stay with them.

 

It’s risky to rely on the kindness of strangers, and Jesus makes no promises about his disciples’ safety. Jesus doesn’t say, “When you go to a town, someone there will take you in and take care of you, so don’t worry.” Instead he says, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.” If you depend on the kindness of strangers, they might take care of you—but they might not. They might welcome you, or they might not.
Jesus goes even further, telling his disciples, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves… Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me… Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to the death; and you will be hated by all because of my name.”

I can’t imagine this pep talk went over very well with the disciples. Jesus isn’t just asking them to depend on the kindness of strangers; he isn’t just warning them that they might not receive a warm welcome. He is flat-out telling them that they will be persecuted, hated, and killed because of him.
Discipleship is never easy. Every one of the gospels makes it clear that the life of a disciple is a hard one. After all, if it were easy, everyone who came to hear Jesus preach would have become a disciple. If following Jesus was easy, then he wouldn’t have to say, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” Indeed, at least at this point in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus has just twelve disciples to send out “into the harvest.”

Discipleship is not easy, and Jesus warns his followers just what they are getting into. They will be forced to depend on the kindness of strangers. They will be hated, persecuted, killed. They will be like sheep in the midst of wolves. This is not work for the faint of heart.

 

The truth is, the world is a scary place. It’s a violent, cruel, unjust place. We have all too many examples of that. This past week, a jury acquitted the man who shot and killed Philando Castile while Philando’s daughter was in the backseat of the car and his girlfriend broadcast Philando’s death to the world. For too many people, especially for black people in this country, this verdict sends a message that their lives do not matter, that their deaths do not matter, that there is no justice for them.
Can we expect Philando Castile to depend on the kindness of strangers? Can we ask his girlfriend, his daughter, to depend on the kindness of strangers? Can we ask his mother, his friends, the students at the school where he worked, to depend on the kindness of strangers?

The world is a violent place. One year ago this week, a gunman went into a nightclub in Orlando, Florida and killed 49 people. Pulse was a gathering place for LGBTQ+ people, and particularly on that night last year, was full of LGBTQ+ people of color. These were people who had come to have fun, to be themselves, to spend time with their friends and peers. And they became victims of the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in US history.

Should the people at Pulse that night have depended on the kindness of strangers? I think many of them did. They depended on the kindness of the people around them. They depended on the kindness and safety that a place like Pulse offered them. None of them expected that someone would come into that space and commit a horrendous act of violence.

 

The Pulse massacre took place on June 12, 2016. If we turn the calendar back another year, we find another tragedy: two years ago yesterday, Dylann Roof walked into Mother Emanuel AME Church and shot nine people. The Charleston church shooting strikes especially close to home for us. Dylann Roof was a member of an ELCA congregation. Two of the nine people he killed had been students at an ELCA seminary.
The victims at Mother Emanuel had been holding a Bible study. They welcomed Dylann Roof into their space and let him sit with them, participate in the Bible study with them. He was a stranger, but they showed him kindness. He killed them because they were black.

 

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves… Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name.”

The world is a bloody, unjust, cruel place, and all too often, we are the ones who make it so. We commit violence against one another, betraying our brothers and sisters to death. We support and enable systems that maintain our own privilege, our own comfort, even at the expense of others. The prophet Jeremiah’s words convict us: “Thus says the Lord: they have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” So too the words God speaks through Amos: “I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate… Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

 

The world is a bloody, unjust, cruel place. We see it every time we check the news, we experience it in the tragedies of our own lives, we hear it in the words of Jesus we read on Sunday morning. “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves,” Jesus says.
We might want to give up. We might want to tell Jesus, “We don’t want to be hated and betrayed and killed on your account. We don’t want to go out into this world of wolves. We don’t want to look in the mirror and find out we ourselves are wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
As far as Jesus is concerned, giving up isn’t an option. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” There is too much work to be done, and no time for excuses.
The laborers are few; so ask the Lord to send out laborers. Only you’d better be ready to discover that the laborers God sends out… are all of us. We are the ones God sends. We are the ones who have to depend on the kindness of strangers. We are the ones who have to risk being rejected, hurt, even killed by a bloody, unjust, cruel world.
Jesus knows. He knows what kind of world we live in. He knows that his own life and ministry will lead to the cross, and yet he goes anyway. He asks the same of us. The world is a bloody, unjust, cruel place. And yet there is so much work to be done. The sick need to be healed, the lepers need to be cleansed, the dead need to be raised to new life. This broken world needs to hear the good news.
Yes, the world is an unjust place, where innocent people are convicted and guilty people are let go. Yes, the world is a violent place, where nightclubs and churches and baseball practices can become scenes of horror. Yes, the world is a cruel place, where we betray and kill each other again and again.
Jesus knows what kind of world this is. And he sends us anyway. He sends us because this world needs to hear the good news of the kingdom. This world needs the proclamation we have to offer: that the kingdom of heaven has come near. That God’s dominion, which has come near to us, is a kingdom of justice and peace. Jesus sends us into the world because the world needs to hear the good news proclaimed by people who are willing to depend on the kindness of strangers, come what may. Amen.

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