(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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I visited a church a few years ago whose members were nice enough as they pleasantly greeted me and Keith. As we toured the building after the service, we came across a small, drab social room lit by bright, white florescent lightbulbs. (I find such lights horrific – the kind of harsh lighting found in warehouses and prisons.) Centered in the middle of this room was a card table on which a lone coffee urn was placed. Powdered creamer, sugar packets and styrofoam cups were arranged beside it. What particularly struck me was a small basket in front of the urn with a small sign on it that said, “Coffee. 50 cents.” This comprised the church’s hospitality – no snacks, no hospitality volunteers, no members to greet newcomers. Needless to say, Keith and I were the only ones in the room. For that matter, within ten minutes after the end of the service, the church was virtually vacant. Those who attended had quickly scurried for the exits.
I’m particularly obsessed with being a good host – someone who likes to create inviting, warm and generous get togethers. They need not be over the top ostentatious, but they should be, in my opinion, events that convey care and appreciation that guests have chosen to visit.
Spiritually, I’m also convinced that hospitality is not just a matter of being nice to a guest. It is, instead, the means by which relationships are formed, enlightening conversations take place and a frame of mind fostered that encourages people to stay, learn, and plan work. When someone is a good host, she or he extends themselves sacrificially for the benefit of another. When many of you have hosted me, you gave a gift of yourselves – your time, your home and your food – with no expectation that I reciprocate. For me, that’s the essence of being spiritual – to sacrifice oneself for the greater good of others – and for the world itself.
As a great human teacher, Jesus was also particularly in favor of sacrificial hospitality. Religious hypocrites condemned him for attending parties where he drank wine, ate good food, and enjoyed the company of diverse people – particularly those on the margins of society including criminals, non-Jews, and prostitutes. He taught by example that social events are a way to show love and, more importantly, a way to encourage positive change in the host and the guest. His parables frequently used parties as symbols of the goodness and love we are to extend to others – and as I said – especially to the people who are different from us. A good host, he implied, is almost like god – someone who loves generously and unconditionally.
Other world religions believe the same. For Jews, the Torah teaches to welcome and serve strangers as if they are dear friends – since Jews have experienced a long history of horrible mistreatment as strangers. They must intentionally do the opposite.
The Koran says Muslims are to show lavish hospitality to family, friend and stranger equally – with special care shown to orphans, widows and the poor.
The Hindu Upanishads or Scriptures take these teachings one step further. A guest or stranger is to be considered a representative of the gods. How we act as hosts is thus a mark of how spiritual we are.
So, as many of you know, I place a high priority on hospitality at the Gathering at Northern Hills. Our social hour is not just a time to chat with friends. It is a spiritual time during which we practice our ideals – to be more understanding, serving, and open hearted. What happens in the Quimby room is at least as essential to the work of this congregation as is what happens in this Sanctuary.
Time and again I see so many of you spend extended time talking to and welcoming guests and visitors. You are also diligent and sacrificial serving as hospitality hosts – something which we ask of every able member. Coffee and snacks are just not just elements of an after-service meal. They’re our symbolic wine and bread communion representing who we are and what we do. We welcome, we come together, we give, we serve, we improve ourselves so we can then improve the world.
Interestingly, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr agreed. He was particularly focused not on just creating a more racially just society, but on creating a holistic, world-wide version of Jesus’ overall morality. That meant, for King, to build a beloved community that serves and loves all people equally. It was his vision of heaven on earth – a picture of paradise that humanity, not god, must dedicate itself to create. To do so, Dr. King believed we must conquer three things that work against any beloved community: exclusivism, materialism and militarism.
Encouraging the opposite of those three forces is therefore the theme of my August message series. How do we practice the antidote to militarism and thus become a more beloved church? By emphasizing non-violence in all we say and in all we do – the subject of my message in two weeks.
How do we serve and love people, and not money or things – and thus be less materialistic? By being simple in wants for ourselves, and generous in serving and meeting the needs of others – what we’ll look at next Sunday.
How can we prevent appearing exclusive and instead highlight our inclusivity? We must practice, Dr. King believed, not just nice hospitality, but radical hospitality – the subject of today’s message.
To that end, the word radical is defined as “believing there should be great social or political change.” I believe that for the Gathering at Northern Hills to advance its purpose as a beloved community, it must advance it’s level of hospitality. In many respects, our hospitality is reactive – we warmly welcome all who peacefully come here. To raise it to the next level, I believe we must discern and then implement ways to instead be proactive in our hospitality.
Jesus told a parable, a story intended to teach, about a wealthy man who asked his servant to invite other well off persons like himself to attend a large and lavish banquet. It was to be his way to love others and make new friends. The servant reported back, however, that all of those he invited had made excuses of self-importance and were too busy to attend. They essentially acted like elitist snobs in turning down the invitation.
The host was upset but he quickly realized that people like him were too dependent on their wealth and power to seek something as simple as friendship. So he thought of a new and daring way to express his love and make new friends. He asked his servant to go out into the city streets and invite the not self-important people – the poor, crippled, sick and homeless. In this way he not only was able to express love to others, he did so to people who could not repay him. He found and invited humble folk who were authentic and open to receiving and giving love.
While Jesus was primarily teaching about humility and how those who have little are the most aware about the value of love and friendship, there is another lesson as well. If one is to truly practice the ideal of being hospitable, one must do more than just offer nice hospitality to those who choose to show up. One must intentionally invite people to attend – especially those who do not depend on status, power and money for their supposed security.
For me, offering radical hospitality answers the question many spiritual people ask. What would the great prophets of history do in today’s world? Who would Jesus invite to a party? Who would he exclude? Who would the Torah say to deport – or kick out of a party? How would Mohammad, the Buddha or the Brahmin serve their guests? The answers are simple. They would take the radical step to invite, welcome and serve not the wealthy, arrogant, small minded elites who think they already have everything they need. The great spiritual prophets would invite the homeless bag lady, the immigrant child separated from her family, the black single mom working two jobs to support her family, the addict looking for a new high, the gay teenager shunned by his peers. In other words, those who hunger for authentic affirmation.
For us, as we desire to strengthen this beloved community, I suggest we consider taking equally radical steps to increase our inclusivity. For us to be radical in our hospitality, we can follow what Jesus taught. Like the host in the parable I just described, I suggest we focus on finding new relationships with people from whom we expect nothing in return. Indeed, one of the best ways we can understand others, particularly those who may be different from us, is to be their friend.
Sue Cline, who currently is the leader of our Service Planning Team, recently suggested to the team that our congregation stop trying to integrate Sunday services because many black and white Unitarian worship practices and religious beliefs may be too different. Instead, she proposes that the Gathering at Northern Hills invite members of a predominantly African-American church to become our friends – not by attending our services but by inviting them to a dinner party. Our purpose, like the man in Jesus’ parable, would be to simply make friends, be hospitable, and show love.
Any dividends that result – like cooperation between the churches or attendance at each others’ services – those may or may not happen. Our goal is to build a beloved community of caring friends not for the sake of increasing our numbers here, or making GNH integrated, but for the sake of fostering mutual understanding and love.
Experts say that while all humans, no matter their race, tend to practice what is called “homophily” – to mostly associate with people of similar background and interests – the beneficial results from black and white friendships are significant. At a time when a huge majority of both white and black people have no close friend of the other race, the greater spiritual issue is not about integrating Sunday mornings but instead integrating people’s personal lives. To be someone’s friend, to trust in someone as a confidante, to be their supporter or their gentle critic is, as we all know, a valuable asset. Inviting a black congregation to join us for festive meals, with the intention to build relationships, is a tangible way to practice radical hospitality – something that gets at the heart of being a beloved person or community. We are not loving to get something in return, we are loving because it defines what is good and true.
As a practical matter, I encourage you to share your thoughts about this idea with Sue Cline, or me, and offer your help in making such purely relationship building dinner events happen.
Our congregation is in the process of discussing a Black Lives Matter banner. I empathize with the opinions of people on both sides of the issue. But I also know that a banner is only one means to great end. Ultimately, I believe we all seek a vision of a universal beloved community. In one of Dr. King’s earliest speeches, he said, “Our ultimate aim is to foster and create the ‘beloved community’ in America where brotherhood is a reality. . . Our goal is genuine intergroup and interpersonal living…”
As a Minister, Dr. King understood the greater spiritual implications of what he advocated. Indeed, all of his beliefs were guided by his Christian understanding of reconciliation. The enemy of black people is not the white person, he believed. It is, instead, misguided views about human sisterhood and brotherhood. A beloved community is so much more than systemic racial integration. As Dr King said, “Desegregation will only produce a society where men are physically desegregated and spiritually segregated…It leaves us with a stagnant equality of sameness rather than a constructive equality of oneness.”
I could not agree more. Dr King understood better than most that no matter one’s religious beliefs, wealth or station in life, human oneness is a deeply spiritual ethic. It goes far beyond banners, desegregation policies, and government policies. It is about hearts knit together. It’s about looking into the face of any person and seeing not gay, poor, other-abled, latino, Black, white – but simply seeing a kindred soul with the same yearnings, dreams, and, yes, flaws – as all others.
If we love, we must reconcile. If we love, we must feel empathy and understanding. If we love, we must stay togthery. These statements are nothing new – but they are so often forgotten in our mostly self-focused rush to assert our own agendas.
Our desire to be a beloved community means we must stay not only united, but remain committed to gentle speech and lack of judgement for one another. If we fail in ourselves being a beloved congregation by allowing issues to divide us, or having some leave, then we will fail in ever becoming a beloved community that widely includes people of color and other marginalized persons. We must be what we want the world to be – members of one human family that work together, share together, serve together, and love together. Let us find ways to be radically hospitable to better practice those ideals.