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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Radical Hospitality: An Ethic of Welcoming

Presented by Guest Preacher Rev. Bruce T. Marshall, with Carol Carter Walker, Worship Associate Erica Shadowsong, Director of Religious Exploration

Radical Hospitality: An Ethic of Welcoming

Dr. Bruce T. Marshall

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

May 27, 2012


Reading from Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love

by Daniel Homan and Lonni Collins Pratt

            One of the discount stores in our area makes a practice of hiring many disabled persons. Some of them are physically disabled, others are mentally disabled. These special employees tend to be given the task of putting your new sweatshirt, socks, and cabbage into bags. Watch the people in those lines. Some are comfortable with the interesting and different people at the end of the line waiting to bag their underwear. Others do everything they can to ignore them.

            Imagine you are in line behind a very nice older woman who is clearly uneasy with the young man bagging her purchases. It happened to a friend the other day.

            The guy bagging was probably thirty-five, but mentally closer to twelve or thirteen. He was blonde and short with a wide smile. He had a scar across the left temple that was at least three inches long. He probably had not been born with his disability. He wore a name badge that read, “Kevin.”

            Kevin greeted the woman and said, “Are you in a hurry today?”

            She did not look at Kevin. She looked at the woman ringing up her order and managed a faint smile. She said, “The lines are rather long this morning.” The woman nodded and kept dashing things through the scanner.

            Kevin tried again, “You have a lot of pop here. Are you going to have company?”

            The older woman turned toward the person behind her in line, as if looking for help; she had a frantic look in her eye. She was not mean-spirited; she simply had come of age in an era when such a young man would have been institutionalized, rather than commenting on her purchases.

            Our friend standing behind her smiled and said, “You do have a lot of pop.”

            “My grandson is turning fourteen,” (the woman replied).  “It’s for his party.”

            “My sister had a birthday party,” the disabled young man said. He drooled and it landed on a liter-size bottle of green pop and rolled off. The woman at the register glanced from the drool to the boy and kept working.

            “I’ll bet that was a lot of fun,” said our friend.

            Then the woman buying pop for her grandson’s party did a courageous thing. It was so brave you wanted to cry for her. She turned toward Kevin, took a breath, and looked him in the eye. She said, “Did you enjoy the party?”

            Kevin nodded. “I like parties. My sister says she gets two birthdays a year because I’m such a pain in the butt, so she gets mine.” He grinned. “But she don’t mean it because she always takes me to the show for my birthday and I get the biggest bag of popcorn.” He looked up from his bagging and said, “I love my sister.”

            The woman blinked back tears. Kevin was only twelve inches from her and he was a real live human being now, and she didn’t even want to escape him any longer. She touched his hand and said, “I am certain that she loves you, too.”

            “Yup, that’s why I get the biggest bag of popcorn,” he said.

            Right there in the check out line, day after day, are encounters between people like the old woman and Kevin...The result is magic. Humans understanding other humans a little better. Hospitality happens even at a discount store.

Sermon: Radical Hospitality: An Ethic of Welcome

            Let’s travel back in time about 1500 years: to Europe at the beginning of what has become known as the Middle Ages. Specifically, let’s go to Italy, about the year 500 CE. Here we find a  young man named Benedict who grew up in the central Italian region of Nursia. Benedict was the son of a Roman noble and was expected to follow his father’s career path. To that end, he was sent to school in what was then considered the center of the civilized world, Rome.

            But his heart wasn’t in it. The fast life of the city did not suit him, and he felt no passion for a future as a prosperous Roman official. Benedict abandoned his studies, left Rome, and journeyed to a remote region where he took up residence in a cave. There he lived alone, dedicating himself to a life of prayer, having little interaction with others. And yet, even though he was isolated from the city and from the centers of power, word spread that Benedict was a man of unusual spiritual sensitivity and knowledge. Others sought him out for advice, for instruction, or just to be close to him.

            Some of his visitors would come and go but others stayed, forming a community that sought to follow the way of life practiced by Benedict. These communities became monasteries. Eventually, twelve monasteries were established by followers of Benedict, who is regarded as the founder of Christian monasticism in the Western world.

            Monasteries played several key roles in society during the Middle Ages, a period of about 1,000 years running from 600 to 1600 CE. They were not only places where men withdrew from society to undertake a life of prayer, monasteries also became centers of learning. They amassed large libraries and protected those volumes during a time when education was not widely respected. Some monks became experts in specific realms and young people came to study with them. And so monasteries evolved into the first universities. The monasteries also became centers of service, with the monks making themselves available to the wider community during times of need. During the plagues, for example, when much of the population was too sick to plant and tend the fields, monks took over and supplied the surrounding towns with food. 


            Monasteries also became places where travelers paused after long days on the road, for rest and renewal. This was a wild and wooly era, particularly in remote regions, and travelers were subject to many dangers. Many a voyager set off on a journey and was never heard from again. The monasteries promised safety, a place of protection from dangers of both the natural world as well as the threats of robbery, kidnapping, murder.  According to the rules of the monasteries, monks were expected to offer hospitality, even to the stranger. As the rule of hospitality was expressed, “Let everyone who comes be received as Christ.”

            This morning I would like to offer some thoughts on hospitality. In our day, the term tends to be used mostly in the context of social occasions. The person in charge of hospitality brings the cupcakes and makes the coffee. But the roots of hospitality take us deeper. The root word for “hospitality” also gives us “hospital” and “hospice,” both of which offer healing and comfort. Hospitality is about entertaining, but it also involves offering comfort and safety, openness and acceptance.

            The title of this sermon—as well as the title of the book from which I am drawing—is “Radical Hospitality.” In our present-day usage, “radical” usually means “extreme.” “Extreme hospitality” might suggest opening doors to everybody, without boundaries, without limits. But that’s not what this is about. If you trace the origins of our term, radical, it means, “having roots,” or “going to origins.” To be radical, then, means returning to the roots. This morning, then, let’s think about what it might mean to practice a hospitality that draws from its roots.

*   *   *

            Let me suggest an image: a table—a long table where people gather to eat. This doesn’t have go to be fancy, with expensive china and chandeliers hanging above. In fact it’s better if it not be so imposing. Maybe a picnic table outdoors on a warm day.

When I was growing up in central Illinois, we often had summer dinners outside. It gets hot in that part of the country, and we didn’t have air conditioning. By the approach of evening, the day’s heat was still trapped inside the house, but outside, cooling breezes began to set in. My mother and father, sister and I, and my grandmother who lived upstairs: we gathered at the picnic table outside for dinner.

            Dinners outside were a little different than those inside. The air was fresher, you could breath deeply, conversation came more easily, and it often continued after the food was gone. Somehow, we could be more ourselves.

Usually, it was just the five of us at the picnic table outside for dinner but sometimes, there were visitors: relatives, a friend, someone new to town that my parents thought to invite over. To accommodate the visitors, we brought out more tables, set them in a row, making room. I remember one such occasion when a visiting relative from Germany had his first encounter with watermelon. His surprised comment: Ich habe nie etwas so nass geschmeckt. “I have never tasted anything so wet!”

What I’m envisioning for this imaginary meal is a long table with plenty of room. We’ll set places for each person we expect to join us. And we’ll put out a few extra place settings for those others who might arrive unannounced, without an invitation, whose names might not appear on the official guest list. Isn’t that a little frightening, to include strangers—those we don’t know, who might be disruptive or dangerous or who might not share the same social graces as we do?

Well, yes, it can be uncomfortable: strangers, at our table. In our lives today, we are taught to fear strangers. All you have to do is turn on the TV news or read the paper:  strangers try to blow up airplanes, strangers compete with us for our jobs, strangers want to take our money and harm our children. We devote a lot of energy trying to protect ourselves from those who aren’t like us. So here we’re welcoming them to our table?  

But remember, this is radical hospitality, hospitality that returns us to the roots. And the roots of hospitality involve not just inviting friends and family, and not just those who share our outlook and values, but also strangers, outcasts. For those of you from Christian backgrounds, you might recall that Jesus was accused of inviting to his table people from the margins: sinners, tax collectors, those who would normally not be  welcome at a dinner party. And in the monastic life, hospitality to the stranger has been a crucial aspect of the discipline, a means of developing spirituality. Because it teaches openness, forces us to stretch, keeps us from getting stiff. If we wall ourselves off from the stranger, Benedict taught, we also keep out God.  

At the college I attended, there was an ethic of welcome. When you encountered a stranger on campus, you offered a greeting—possibly a simple “Hello”—but you didn’t just walk by. Partially we could do this because it’s a small school; you pretty much knew everybody there. Also, it reflected the Quaker roots of the college for the Quakers make it a practice to extend welcome to strangers. Other than that, I don’t know how this developed. We weren’t told to do it; there were no rules dictating, “Thou shalt greet strangers.” It just happened.

In radical hospitality, we greet the stranger, we invite him or her to our table, even though it can be uncomfortable. We honor that person’s worth and dignity—and our own, as we seek to become open to who he or she is, what this person’s stories are, how life looks through his or her eyes. We stretch ourselves to accommodate this stranger’s view of the world.

In offering hospitality to the stranger outside of ourselves, we might also become open to the stranger inside ourselves. You know, the stranger inside who does things you don’t quite recognize. Maybe you find yourself becoming unexpectedly angry when the specific cause doesn’t warrant it. Or you leap to conclusions about another person with little evidence. Or there is that part of you that is so so critical of yourself. And the part of you that does things that, later upon looking back, you think, “That wasn’t really me. That’s not who I am.” Rather than hiding that stranger in the attic like a crazy relative no one wants to acknowledge, you bring him or her to the table, invite that stranger into dialogue. Even the stranger inside deserves to be heard, is worthy of hospitality.

*   *   *

What’s on the menu at our imaginary meal? Fancy and exotic foods, expertly prepared? Possibly. Nothing wrong with that. But it could just as easily be humbler fare. Serving bowls filled with soup at the center of each table, bowls of bread positioned on either side. Or rice and beans. Or a pot of stew from which all help themselves. What’s important is not the expense of the meal but the care with which it is prepared and how it is presented: as an offering to each guest.

I expect everyone who has ever held a dinner party has had the experience of getting so consumed with preparing the meal that by the time the guests arrive, you’re done. You’ve used up your energy, and you’ve used up your spirit so you aren’t altogether there for the event itself.

            Hospitality involves putting yourself into the proper state of mind to receive your guests, to be open to them. In the monastic life, there is emphasis upon the care with which you do little things. Because little things shape our lives. In preparing a meal, for example, it’s about how you cut the carrots. Are you present for that moment or is your mind racing ahead to the next thing you must do? Or putting out the place settings: do you arrange each carefully, thinking about the person who will be sitting there. Or do you rush through, getting this task over so that you can move on to the next one—and the next—and the next?

If preparing for the meal is mostly a matter of getting it done, then chances are the meal itself will be mostly a matter of getting it done. You can’t offer hospitality because you are not fully present. That’s another characteristic of radical hospitality—hospitality that draws up from our roots: we are fully present. What’s important is right here, right now, right in front of us.

            At the table we have set and where we have gathered guests—both invited and uninvited, there will be a great deal of talking, sharing stories, and laughter too. I hope there’s plenty of laughter at this dinner we are creating. But there will also be listening. At the heart of hospitality—of radical hospitality—is not talking but listening. Offering the gift of attention. Creating a space for your guests where they feel safe and accepted—in which they don’t have to prove anything: not how smart they are or how accomplished or witty or sophisticated or young. A space in which they can be who they are.

            We listen to each person’s story. We hear of the struggles, the good times, the bad ones. We become acquainted with his spirit, her strength, his uniqueness, her passions.  

“A friend tells of his son Paul who was, at the age of eleven, taken to meet his great-aunt in a nursing home where she had been moved from out of state. Aunt Margaret was in the advanced stages of dementia. She was, however, thrilled to see Paul. She touched his face and stroked his hair and held his hands while she told him stories that were eight-five years old, stories of being a girl almost a century ago.

            “As she talked and talked, the father grew concerned that his son’s lesson in respect and kindness was going to be ruined by her endless ‘when I was a girl’ chattering. He interrupted with an excuse and got Paul out of there. On the way to the car he tried to explain dementia to his son. Paul stopped him and said, ‘Dad, you don’t have to make excuses for Aunt Margaret. She was just remembering who she is.’”

            She was just remembering who she is. Isn’t that why any of us tell our stories, sometimes over and over: to remember who we are? So by listening, we offer the gift of this other person’s self. Maybe this too is scary: we are afraid of being overwhelmed. Maybe we will be captured by what that person asks of us. And certainly that happens, which is why we have to set boundaries, sometimes say no. But really, what most people want most deeply from us isn’t very much. It’s simple caring, attention, assurance that they matter, remembering who they are.

            Which is why listening is an important art of hospitality. There is much in life that is dehumanizing, abusive, just plain mean. Listening helps us overcome that because in offering your attention, you value that person. Maybe that’s why, when someone listens—really listens to us—we feel better. We feel better about ourselves. We feel better about the world. As the authors of Radical Hospitality  put it, “There is nothing more human than our desire to be heard. It is our cry for permission to live.”

             And so the gathering at this table we have set comes to an end. The guests bid each other farewell, they go their separate ways. We hope that they have had a good time, that they have experienced at least some of the benefits of hospitality. During our time together, perhaps they feel a little less isolated, more whole. Maybe someone’s life has been influenced for the better. And maybe in gathering these people together and offering your hospitality, you have helped, just a little, to change the world.

            Because, of course, we’re not just talking about a meal here. We’re talking about approaching our lives with attentiveness, openness, care—and in so doing bringing change to our society, radical change, change that comes up from the roots. Radical hospitality is about creating a society of love and justice; it is about changing the world.

*   *   *

I have one more story. Every major religion has a monastic tradition, and these offer similar insights, similar truths. This is a Jewish story from the Jewish monastic tradition.  

            “There was once a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. It had been a great order, but now all its branch houses were lost and there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.

            “In the deep woods surrounding the monastery, there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. ‘The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again,’ they would whisper to each other. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.

            “The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. ‘I know how it is,’ he exclaimed. ‘The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.’  So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. ‘It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years,’ the abbot said, ‘but I have failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice that would help me save my dying order?’

            “‘No, I am sorry,’ the rabbi responded. ‘I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.’

            “When the abbot returned to the monastery, his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, ‘Well, what did the rabbi say?’

            “‘He couldn't help,’ the abbot answered. ‘We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving—it was something cryptic—was that the Messiah is one of us. I don't know what he meant.’

            “In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any significance to the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us?  Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery?  If that's the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot?  Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation.

            “On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred!  Elred is crotchety. But come to think of it, even though he is thorn in people’s sides,  when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for being there when you need him. He just appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn't mean me. He could not possibly have meant me. I'm just an ordinary person. Yet, supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah?

            “As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

            “Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did, without even being conscious of it, they sensed this aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the old monks and seemed to radiate from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.

            “Then it happened that some of the younger people who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of spirituality in the realm.”

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