Sunday, September 25, 2011

Radical Hospitality

This is my sermon from September 25, 2011, delivered at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church -- Unitarian Universalist.

[Listen to the Sermon]

Just a few moments ago we sang, “Come, come, whoever you are.”   Did you feel the energy in the room?  Those words may have come from a Sufi poem, but that’s our song, isn’t it?

(Singing)  Come, come, whoever you are
wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving,
ours is no caravan of despair,
Come, yet again, come.
That’s us, right? 
And last week we sang about gathering ‘round the “welcome table,” and how there’re all kinds of people and no fancy manners there.  Everyone is welcome.  We’re a welcoming congregation, after all, right?  Anyone is welcome here.  Everyone is welcome here!

That’s us.  That’s what we aspire to.  That’s what we aspire to be.  No caravan of despair – there are enough of those around us these days; a welcome table where everyone is invited.

Did you know that according to anthropologists you can tell a lot about a people – a community, a clan, a nation – by the rules they’ve established about eating.  Commensality.  That’s the word for it.  Commensality.  And more accurately it’s about the  rules for who can eat together, and under what circumstances.
When I was growing up my family and I were faithful watchers of the PBS series Upstairs, Downstairs.  The show depicted the goings on of the Bellamy family in Edwardian England (the people “upstairs”) as well as among their domestic servants, led by the indomitable Mr. Hudson (the people “downstairs”).  And oh you’d better believe that there were rules about who could eat together.  These people knew their place or, rather, their places since they most definitely did not share the same place.

And while I haven’t seen it yet (or, for that matter, yet read the book it’s based on), I’ve understand that the same thing comes through in the recent movie The Help.  There is a place for everyone, and everyone has their place.
I came across this concept of commensality in the writings of John Dominic Crossan, a Catholic theologian and perhaps one of the most well-known members of the so-called Jesus Seminar.  Crossan says that we can tell a lot about Jesus’ concept of the Kingdom of Heaven by looking at the way Jesus ate.  And according to Crossan, the way Jesus ate needs to be called “open commensality.”  (So, can I say that Jesus was an early proponent of, “open sauce”?)

Jesus ate with anyone. Everyone.  Tax collectors, prostitutes, and Pharisees.  The elite and the neglected.  Anyone who’d eat with him, Jesus would eat with them.  This, says Crossan, is what it’s really all about.  This is what that Kingdom Jesus kept talking about looks like.  All kinds of people at that welcome table, and no fancy style keeping folks apart.  Come, come, whoever you are. 

And we feel good, listening to this, because we know that TJMC is such a place. 
But what if you’re a Republican?  How welcome would you feel here, really?  Or if you’re a believing Christian?  Or an immigrant with rudimentary English skills?

I’m not asking these questions to try to make any of us feel bad, or to suggest that we’re a bunch of intolerant heathens (although a lot of us would probably resonate with the “heathen” part).  I ask these questions, and the myriad I could add, because I want to encourage us to stop.  To stop and look at ourselves as we are, and not simply as we wish we were.
Not everyone is welcome here.  There are a whole lot of folks who would feel downright unwelcome.  Who’d feel uncomfortable.  Out of place.  Wounded by some of the things we say and do here without even thinking, the assumptions we make.  And, to be brutally honest, that’s natural.  It seems to be human nature to feel most comfortable with folks who seem the most like you.

So this is exactly where the idea of hospitality comes in.  Anybody can welcome a friend into their home; anyone can make a member of the family feel welcomed.  Hospitality, though, is different, and it’s a lot harder.  A lot harder.

The root of the word “hospitality” is the Latin word hospes which means “stranger” or “guest.”  Even in Greek, the word for hospitality is philoxenos which means love (philo) of stranger (xenos).  The practice – the spiritual practice – of hospitality, then, is all about offering a welcome to the stranger, or The Other, the person who is not part of our circle.  The truly hospitable welcome table will have not only all the folks you’d expect to see there but the ones you wouldn’t, as well.  In Jesus’ day it was radical that he would eat with “tax collectors” and “harlots.”  I remember the day I was shocked to realize how often he ate with the Pharisees!  Hospitality – true, radical hospitality, the kind that’s worth our time talking about as a spiritual community – has to reach out to those beyond our circle with as warm a welcome as to those within it.
And there’s another dimension that etymology reveals or, rather, maybe it’s just an expansion of this first point.  The word hospes means “stranger” but in some circumstances it also means “host.”  In the same way, xenos means both “stranger” and, sometimes, “host,” so philoxenos means both “love for the stranger” and “love from the host.”  There’s a blurring of the lines, a dulling of the distinctions, when hospitality ripens in its fullness.  There is, as we heard in our reading a little earlier, an “anemic” form of hospitality – or, I would say, pseudo-hospitality – in which, “the host is always the host, the guest is always the guest, and there is no doubt in anyone’s mind who is in charge.”  There is a fa├žade, but no real substance. 

This might be helpful in describing the difference.  (This image also comes from John Dominic Crossan, who was trying to describe Jesus’ open commensality.)  Imagine that you’re at home one evening when you hear a knocking.  You open your front door and discover a homeless family that’s recently been living under a nearby bridge with some other folk.  They tell you they haven’t eaten all day.  Do you:

a)      Invite them to go around to the back door where you meet them with some food?

b)      Invite them to go around to the back door where you invite them in to your kitchen for something to eat?

c)      Invite them to come in and join the dinner party that’s going on in your dining room?

d)     Invite your guests to take all of the food and beverages and go down to the bridge to share the party?
Let’s set aside for now the deeper systemic issues that are unaddressed in this example.  I know a lot of you want to go there.  I do too, honestly.  And I’ll admit both that I want to go there because I think we need to address those systemic issues, and because this other thing – this issue of hospitality – scares me.

Because, to be honest, I’ve got to confess that I kind of like the idea of keeping the host the host and the guest the guest and leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind who is in charge . . . especially if I’m the one in charge and the guests are the kind of people I feel kind of uncomfortable around.  After all, I get to reap the benefits of my hostliness (if I can coin a term).  I can feel good about my generosity, my hospitality, my inclusivity, and whenever things get uncomfortable I can ask people to leave and let things get back to “normal” for me.

A while back I posted an article on our congregation’s FaceBook page about another church – in Winnipeg – that had voted in 2000 to suspend its Food Pantry program because, and I’m quoting the headline here, “it is attracting too many poor people.”  A minister of this church is reported to have said, “It’s attracting a lot of street people that makes it uncomfortable.  It’s creating social unrest in the church”

Now, I have done some checking and it seems that this may be one of those things that fly around the web without taking the full context of the situation into account.  Be that as it may, as an illustration it just couldn’t get any better.  I do have some other ones, though:

I know of welcoming congregations that have gotten quite uncomfortable when people who were deemed too “flamboyantly” or “politically” gay started showing up.  And congregations that started to freak out a bit when their diversity initiatives actually started bringing in real numbers of people of color who wanted to do things a little differently. 

Let’s face it – as long as things continue to look and feel pretty much the way they always have, then diversity is a great thing.  As long as I get to retain my self-identity as host – and the whole backpack of privileges that go along with it – then I’m eager to welcome anyone as my guest.

But that’s not what it’s about.  Not by a long shot.  The call of the welcome table, the imperative of the spiritual practice of hospitality, is for me to step down from the seat at the head of the table and offer it to the stranger who is in front of me.  The invitation is for me to shed the roles and labels I’ve collected and to stand face-to-face with this other person in our common humanity.  That’s the Beloved Community.  That’s the Kingdom of God.  That’s the world we dream of.

And that’s really, really hard.  And scary.  Yet it can happen.

Earlier this month I took part in our monthly Food Pantry and I was struck by something I thought of as really beautiful.  There weren’t a whole lot of church people there as volunteers.  There were some, to be sure, but a lot of the volunteers were women and men, and even a child, who’d come to receive a bag or two of food.  These people were giving as well as receiving, as were the people from the church community.  In fact, it’d have been a challenge to a casual observer to say with certainty just who was from the church community and who was from the wider community because we were, in that moment, just one community.  There was a blurring of the lines, a dulling of distinctions.  Only “us” there.  I can’t wait to go back on October 7th to experience this again.

(Singing)  “All kinds of people ‘round that table.  All kinds of people ‘round that table one of these days hallelujah.  All kinds of people ‘round that table.  Gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days.” 

As we continue to “cultivate connections” this year let’s remember that it’s not just the plant that undergoes transformation.  The soil changes, too.  The entire ecosystem evolves.  Everything changes, and that’s just the way it should be.

In Gassho,

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