A Sermon by Geoffrey D. Stewart (c) 2012
It was a greyish blue overcast day in my hometown of Anchorage, Alaska, many years ago. I could somehow tell that the lady in front of me, one of the only customers in the restaurant at the time, was not having a good day. She kind of shuffled her feet and kept her head down and her shoulders slumping, looking more at the floor tiles in front of her than around her. With her crocheted pull-over cap, and early 80’s leather and sheepskin jacket she had a slightly old-fashioned air for 1991.
I would later learn to recognize the style as the kind of thrift store chic that is the work of many hours combing through a lot of other peoples, ocassionaly well cared, cast offs to find the real gems. It is a style that is equally popular with both the bohemian and artisticly eccentric, and my fellow members of the very poor…
She asked a few questions about the menu and combination possibilities, and spent a few moments wrestling with her decision. She pulled a palm-ful of coins out of her pocket, counted it all into exact change for a hamburger and a small fries. I got her order together, and then before wishing her a good day, on impulse, I offered her a free small drink with her order.
Her face lit up as she said yes, and thanked me for the small cup. She smiled widely and there was a change in the way she carried herself. as if some secret burden had been lifted by a cup of soda the size of a specimen cup.
I learned a great truth that day…
Sometimes it is the smallest of our actions, or kindnesses, that can have the most powerful impact on another persons day, and our own.
Since Then, my entire adult life I have worked in guest service, customer service, and food service jobs. When I finally figured out, in my mid to late 30’s that what I really wanted to do with my life was to someday open up my own coffee house; I persued an Associates degree in Restaurant and Hospitality Magagement with the Orlando Le Cordon Bleu School.
In looking at the topic of Hospitality I’ve been appreciating how central a theme this particular virtue and practice has been to my own life.
As the good Reverend Lortie mentioned in today’s reading, “Radical Hospitality” is one of the big buzz words right now in religious community building. Churches of every shade of the Christian and the Liberal Religious spectrum are abuzz about it. All of them are trying to find new ways to be welcoming and inclusive, as we encounter and address the societal and technological changes ushering all of us into the 21st Century. Unitarian Universalism is not isolated from this, and as our communities look at how ideas of Religious Identity and ways of being in Beloved Community, are changing, there is a lot of discussion and discernment going on around the topic of Hospitality.
I have no problem with idea of Hospitality, although I did run into some confusion with understanding the Radical part. I was thinking of Radical in terms of the common dictionary meanings of something that departs greatly from the usual or customary. Something that favors or affects fundamental or revolutionary change in current practices, conditions or institutions.
Although I did find myself on more familiar ground when the dictionaries reminded me of the word Radical’s use in slang as a synonym of excellent or wonderful. Then when I discovered that the word Radical can also refer to something the is ‘Arising from or going to a root or source’… that was when things came together for me.
Hospitality is, an all senses of the word, a Radical act and spiritual practice in our daily lives.
I am, perhaps, biased in this opinion.
In addition to being a Unitatian Universalist, I am also a Contemporary Pagan and Polytheist. In my own spiritual journey I look not only to the Worlds Religions, but also the the Religions of the Ancient World and centuries long tradions of Western Mysticism and Occultism for inspiration and guidance. In my daily life Hospitality is not just the field I work in, it is also the fertile ground that I grow from Spiritualy and Religiously.
In Polytheistic worship and practice, the Gods are called out to with poetry and praise. Called upon by their names and attributes, and invited to come and join the worshipers in celebration of the relationship between worshiper and Worshiped, and of the special events in our lives. Offerings are made, of poetry, of song, of incense, and of water or wine and food. The gods are given their portions and those worshiping also partake of the food and beverages. A Polytheist shares what bounty and blessings he or she has with both their fellow worshipers and with the Divine, and thus the offerings and blessings are multiplied in love and respect and fellowship.
Worship is seen as being in some form of active and ongoing and MUTUAL relationship with that which is Divine.
For me as for most Polytheists, as long as you are engaging in whatever the agreed upon practices of hospitality and offering are for you particular group and faith, your actual beliefs about what the Gods are not that important. Whether you see them as Beings on some other level of reality, or if you see Them as inspiring Ideas and personifications of what we might now-a-days call the Web of being… that does not matter. How you understand Them does not matter. It is the respecting of The Gods, and your fellow Worshipers, and the act of being hospitable and gracious and in Right Relationship, in worship and in your daily life… that is what matters.
As a U.U. Pagan, I also take some inspiration today from the fact that for myself as for many Polytheists… there is no challenge or disrispect implied in Worshiping differently from ones neighbors. Indeed, for many Polytheists, when in another land or house it is simply being a good guest and not at all disrespectful, to honor or at least be respectful of the Gods of that land or house.
You can look at the history of the Ancient World and see how this form of religious pluralism was the assumed rule, and not the exception. It was thought only natural that people of widely different beliefs and faiths and philosophies and experiences, could live and work together.
When Francis David, a 16th Century Unitarian Christian Preacher and Martyr, stated that “We need not think alike, to love alike”, he was articulating in a new way and for a new faith, a surprisingly ancient ideal.
We can look to the sacred stories and folk-tales from around the modern and ancient worlds to see examples where Gods, or Their Messengers, or Cultural Folk-heroes travel in disguise and seek shelter and rest with the common people. In these stories the goood and thoughtful and generous hosts are rewarded, and the miserly and inhospitable are punished.
Now it might be tempting to say that these stories and myths are simple superstition. Excuses to encourage the much needed custom of hospitality in a world where travelling far from home was a much more dangerous and difficult enterprise than it is today. I would disagree.
I would say that these stories counsel us to be hospitable and to welcome the stranger; that they say to us that this stranger could be a blessing, that our relationship with them could go from one of stranger being hosted, to beloved friend being welcomed back again and again.
I would also say that this is an idea and practice that the society we live in has lost. We live in a culture that all too often tells us that we are not good enough. An overculture that says we are not worthy unless we buy this product or follow that faith or this philosophy. We live in a world that sometimes feels like it is drowning in fear and anger. A world that says we should just take care of ourselves, and not waste our time worrying about someone else. All to often we are told that the stranger is to be feared. That we are all in this alone.
As Unitarian Universalists we reject those ideas. Whatever the routes of our spiritual journeys, what ever religions or philosophies we draw our inspiration from, we have chosen to open ourselves to our many Sources and to look to the Principles of our association for guidance in our lives and in our beloved communities. All in our quest to create beloved community for everyone, everywhere.
Earlier I mentioned that Hospitality is, an all senses of the word, a Radical act and spiritual practice in our daily lives. To be truly welcoming, not for reasons of financial or social gain, but because it is the right thing to do, departs wildly from the custom of our times. We can seek excellence in being hospitable to others. We can reach out the hands of Friendship and Welcoming from our beloved community to other people and other communities, and in doing so we can create profound changes in society and in our institutions.
Then there is that last definition that so spoke to me… “Arising from, or going to a root or source”. It is not just that the practice of Hospitality is a long forgotten or set aside ideal from the Ancient World. Hospitality is a root value or virtue. The practice of spiritual and practical hospitality forces us to dig deep into the best of what we are capable of being.
Welcoming the stranger calls us to courage. To be open to new ideas, to new ways of doing things. To be willing to be challenged, to be willing to be changed. Sometimes, to open ouresleves to the possibility of being hurt or dissapointed. Because courage isn’t about not being nervous or afraid; Courage counsels us to go on doing what needs doing or what is right, despite being nervous or afraid. Hospitality impels in us a courage that can both transform the stranger into a beloved friend and ally and open up our lives to amazing new expereiences and possibilities.
Hospitality calls us to set aside our chores and cares for a time and to listen to and engage with someone else. To Listen to what they say and where they are comming from mentally and spiritualy. To be willing to learn a bit of their literal or spiritual language in order that we may truly share with one another and grow in our spiritual journeys.
Hospitality also asks us to be willing to share deeply and honestly of ourselves, to speak from the heart and to try and share the best of what we have and are with someone else.
Hospitality also asks us to engage in some serious discernment, to take stock of what we have to share and who we are. Not only the content of our cupboards but the content of our souls. What we will welcome? What we will we accept? What are we unwilling to welcome or accept? This discernement causes us to take a serious and hard look at the line that seperates “us” from “them”. It also forces us to ask how “they” can become one of “us”, or if they can.
Being hospitable also encourages our compassion and calls us to humility. We have all at some point in our lives been someone elses guest, been someone else’s stranger. We have all, at some point, been deeply touched by a sometimes small kindness or act of thoughtfulness done unto us. Remembering those times, we can look at the newcommers and strangers in our lives in a very different light.
Hospitality, when we do it right, nourshes our own bodies and souls as much as it does those of our guests.
These are just a few of the many blessings that can blossom from the roots of Hospitality.
But, you may wonder, what about here at 1U? Aren’t we already a welcoming and friendly bunch of folks? Aren’t we already doing a great job? I see members and friends of 1U saying hello to new faces, I see folks trying to connect newcomers with the R.E. Classes and Affinity Groups and people of our Church community that they might mesh with, I see people being welcoming and friendly and polite.
I’d say we do a good job, but I would also say that if we are truly practicing the art and virtue of Hospitality that we should be asking ourselves is a good job good enough? What about seeking the excellence? What more can we do?
Well, at this point I know that Beverly Alig and Trichia Mosher would want me to remind you all that they are always looking for new hands and faces to join the two different volunteer teams that serve as either Usher’s during the Services, or as Greeters in Gore Hall and the Sanctuary each Sunday morning. Certainly Cathy Spoone and Mary Montanus would like me to encourage folks to speak to them today about lending a hand in setting up the food and drink offerings they coordinate and prepare for Social Hour each week.
I encourage any of you to do those things… my own journey in this congregation was nurtured and nourished by my time spent working as both an Usher and Greeter, and I’ve helped with special meals and events here at Church and been blessed by those experiences.
More than that, I would encourage you to keep asking yourself… what can I do to make for a more welcoming 1U? What do I need in this moment? What do have to give in this moment? What does this guest, or unfamiliar friend or member of the church, need from me in this moment? What blessings or challenges might they have to offer?
Engaging in Hospitality as a Spiritual practice does not need to be a large or involved project or some huge time commitment…
Perhaps the next time you are doing some baking it could be baking an extra plate of cookies or an extra loaf of glutten-free or vegan banana bread and dropping your offering off in the Gore Hall Kitchen before services…
It could mean being willing to be a few minutes late to that next Comminttee meeting or Religious Education class to share just a few more moments of conversation with someone new. It might just mean inviting them to join you as your guest at that meeting or class to expereince first hand a small part of everything we at 1U are about…
Maybe the next time you are looking at the flowers in your garden you might think of bringing some to Church, to place in one of the vases we have here to decorate one of the Welcome Tables in Gore Hall or the Sanctuary…
Sometimes it might be engaging in a discussion with some visitor who has very different views and experiences than your own, rather than trying to shepherd them to a like-minded member or friend of our Church…
Simple acts, and small moments. Yet, as I mentioned at the begining of this Sermon, small acts and simple moments of kindness can touch the hearts and lives of others in ways we often cannot know or understand.
We live, as I mentioned earlier, in a world that often seems to be drowning in anger and fear and violence. Where news of some new tragedy splashes across the headlines, seemingly every day. A world where it sometimes feels like we are constantly exposed to voices of fear and extremism and hate. It can be very tempting to turn away from such a world. To hide… either behind a computer or television screen; or in some safe and welcoming place… be it our own home, or our congregation, or some other group or place of sanctuary.
In such a world, what could be more of a departure from the comon customs of out times than to vigilantly question the fear and supsicion and hesitancy we may feel of the strangers in our lives? What could be more revolutionary a change to our culture and it’s institutions than welcoming those who are different from us? What could be more excellent than to offer the hands of welcoming and friendship to others?
Radical Hospitality. Hospitality is not just a Radical act or practice. It is one of the virtues deep in the roots of all of our many Sources. The practice of Hospitality is like a vine, connecting our Principles to one another. By digging deeply into this practice we can build the Beloved Community. We can transform our guests and the many strangers in our lives into friends and allies. Most importanlty, Hospitality can transform us into Strangers worth Welcoming.
May It Be So.