Nearly late, I slid into the seat next to her just before the speaker began. We smiled and introduced. Joan was from just outside Houston so she’d driven in to the meeting early that morning, avoiding the traffic. I told her about my flight, the weather, the plane repairs, missing the connection, and the short night in the hotel before arriving at last, thankful but a little tired. As I stretched and pulled out a pen and a notebook, she pulled out her card, wrote her cell number on the back, then shook her head with a smile, “Delays happen a lot with all the popup storms and everything else going on. Of course, you must call me if this happens to you going back. Your room is ready at my house. Call me and I will come pick you up.” It was a moment, a little one, even, and the cynic in me might think she was just being polite but her tone seemed to suggest it was real. We were different from one another, in age, ethnicity, city, and experience. She did not know me from Eve, and I still think she really meant it. Of course after the conference my flight was not delayed and I never saw her again, but small kindnesses like it remind me of all the big times.
How important it is to know you have someone to rely on, someplace you could go if you had nowhere else, you’ve got a friend. Our holy writ and that of so many spiritual traditions command us, “Show hospitality. Care for the stranger.” I used not to think about that very much, honestly. For what does it mean in a majority culture where hospitality is an industry–a major in college, and where family and work life may include a maze of hotels and hostels, and where home and hearth might be a restaurant or coffee shop, a bar or bistro where we can collect in community-like settings, where those with means can sit and share food and connection, however known, and of course, enjoy free WiFi. Recently, a friend was talking about being in a very posh French restaurant on Valentine’s Day when at a nearby table sat a man, woman, and teenage child. The dad and child were on separate I-pads from which they barely elevated their eyes during the entire meal and the woman looked vacantly at her phone and down at the floor.
Hospitality, a welcome, a true life-giving connection is not free (unlike public WiFi) and the effort it requires can be challenging enough in our own families, let alone with strangers in this world we now occupy. “Show hospitality. Care for the stranger,” say the old writings– because why? Because in the old days, the life of the individual is literally impossible without it, such that in the book of Exodus, God commands the Hebrews, “You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you too were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”
And in the Jesus narratives, the stories told about him and by him are centered in the practice of table fellowship, demonstrating a radical and edgy hospitality that presses against the legalities, flipping end over end the rules about who can be excluded, who will get thrown the crumbs, who is locked outside and hungry, who is told they were not worthy, and culminating in that most challenging of all the Jesus stories to my mind, Matthew 25:31-46 where the righteous and the unrighteous are separated at the final judgment, and not by how religious and pious and perfect they are. All are judged by only one standard, whether or not they did right by each other in this life: did they (we) feed the hungry, slake the thirst of the parched, visit the prisoner, heal the sick, and welcome the stranger, for, as Mother Teresa put it, when we do (or do not) do these things for another, that one is God in the “distressing disguise of the poor.” Whatever you have done for them, says God, you have done for me. So central is the practice of hospitality to our religious heritage that it is a center piece of Judaism in the Seder meal and in Christianity, in communion. What in the earliest church was called the agape meal, or the meal of unconditional love where, for everyone born, there was a place at the table.
Here’s the really interesting part–it is essential to note that those old stories, those old exhortations to hospitality, and our practice of it today, to the degree we do it, are all opposed to the narrative of the empire built on materialism and oppression. In the Hebrew Bible the archetypal character who represents the empire and its unrelenting culture of control is the Pharaoh who drives the enslaved people to make bricks to build the pyramids–with a higher quota and less time and material. Personhood is devalued. They are only commodities, collateral damage. In Exodus 5:17-18 read these words shouted by the reps of the empire to the people, “You are lazy, lazy. Go now and work; for no straw now shall be given to you, but you shall still deliver the same number of bricks.” The profit from their labor flows upward—from the base to the top. It is stunning when you consider it as a spiritual metaphor–that picture of a pyramid—control exerted by few in power at the top and the suffering of the wide base of the enslaved people working to build it. The Exodus stories describe their cries of suffering rising up along with the profits of their labor. A commentary on materialism to our present hour, for remember that chilling quotation from Margaret Thatcher, “There is no such thing as society; there is only the market.”
In contrast the scriptural stories are filled with images of a God who, in the wonderful words of theologian Walter Bruggemann, works in creation for the “empowerment of the disqualified.” Whatever you have done for those disqualified by the empire, you have done to me. And if you created an image that is contrary to the pyramid, it looks like the front of your bulletin, the circle being drawn wide and wider and wider still, no corners. Not a pyramid, but a welcome table. We are called out of slavery and into belonging and hospitality.
Because this image is so contrary to the wisdom of the empire which is profit driven and violently controlled to keep some in power and to keep others oppressed, then it may be that, increasingly, the sharing of radical hospitality may require of us a greater earthy commitment—the expansion of our willingness to offer what we have to the stranger—what we have of food, shelter, protection, recognition, and belonging—as well as continuing our relentless work in the world for justice and equal rights. I ask myself as a spiritual person how far I am willing to go as this question increasingly becomes a mark of my integrity as a human being? How far am I willing to go in my civil disobedience? How far are we willing to go as a congregation to practice radical hospitality? Deep commitments and a variety of actions are required in times like these.
I’ve been thinking about that term “shelter in place,” used when there is a storm. And that leads me to new member Sunday, and to our welcome of these new friends among us as we “practice” what hospitality means. When we make our promises to one another—new and old members alike—what are we saying? When we renew our vows as members, to provide a “shelter in place” here…when we lay our hands on one another’s shoulders and pray down a blessing, it is an awesome thing we do. For as we assent to that Compact, we take it again into our selves like the bread broken and the grapes crushed and then to pour it out in welcome to “those of differing understanding” and we promise we will follow the way of Jesus even imperfectly in personal involvement with each other, and act for the welfare of all.” When we sing, “They will know we’re God’s people by our love…” How will they know? How will they see our love but enfleshed, emboldened, our hospitality offered as we work with each other, side by side, and teach our children—not top down, or bottom up, but side-by-side, welcome table, relentlessly pressing toward equality, and pressing hard sometimes against the barriers to access and welcome.
I heard again, as if for the first time, the questions we our new members to answer: What I’m seeking here? How about you? What are you seeking here? And what strength do you bring to the table? And what do we bring of our brokenness, too? Perhaps it is not just our talent or strength that the community needs, but maybe the vulnerability, too, and the baggage. Yes, welcome to us, all. All y’all. It’s kind of funny to think about, but what if we ponder, at least in our hearts, if not aloud, new and old member questions that read this way: What I’m seeking at UCG, what strength or quality I bring, and what brokenness am I dragging along like a big tarp of compost that I need you to help me work with? Because together, in the mystery, I believe we can turn our compost into a community garden. When you and I practice our promises to become the people of love, then we are living the “empowerment of the disqualified” in ourselves and in one another. And what if when we put our whole selves in like the hokey pokey then we refuse to hate, judge, fear, and exclude others, too, then that is another way we resist the values of the empire. No matter where you are on life’s journey, no matter if that means you’ve fallen off the road, or you’ve made the road clear for others, you are welcome here, and sometimes that is easy and sometimes not and sometimes we will get it right and sometimes not, but we get a new chance every time we have new member Sunday to renew our resistance to the empirical idea that some people don’t belong. We can choose to be living proof that the empire’s narrative is false. For there is a place where we matter to someone, where we have this place to go when we have nowhere else to go. Where there are people. The ones who see all the really ragged parts of me, and still, somehow, in the mystery, there are always folks who will say, “Come and sit by me.” Welcome home. May we draw the circle wide. Amen.