Monday, November 5, 2012

Sermon for November 4, 2012

Faith in the Public Square: A Theology of Hospitality
Isaiah 58:7

When I think about hospitality, about Grammy Braddock. That woman always had people in her house. It was inevitable – she had 16 children. Every Christmas Eve we would go to her tiny apartment at the senior living complex. Every room would be stuffed with Braddocks. Our family overflowed into the sidewalks and parking lots. She never had much money, but she always put some food out – mashed potato salad with green peas sticks in my memory for some reason. And she always had gifts for her 55 grandchildren – a pair of mittens or a box of chocolate covered cherries. When we arrived, she would go into her bed room and pick something from her stockpile of gifts, wrap it up, and hand it to me as if she had seen this box of mints in the store and thought only of you.

When I think about hospitality, about Grandma Hudson. She had more money than Grammy Braddock and lived in a bigger house. It was also stuffed with people – and animals. Holidays were not just for the family. Friends would come over. Friends of friends would come over. Friends of friends would bring their pets over. Sometimes we would bring our elderly neighbor to my grandparent’s house, just so she wouldn’t be alone on the holidays. My grandmother welcomed anyone in and treated guests as part of the family. Even her annoying neighbors had a spot at the table.

My parents also had the gift of hospitality. I remember a bike rider stopping by our house in CT. He was on a long distance ride and he needed a place to pitch his tent for the night. My parents offered our yard. They all stayed up long into the night talking, eating, and laughing with this visitor. His trip became a yearly event – the biker in the back yard. I also remember how my parents hired unemployed guys to do odd jobs around the house, knowing full well that my father and brother and me could do it ourselves.

I remember the older woman who lived down the street. Mildred would walk by the house every day, deadhead my mother’s flowers by the mailbox, and then scream for my mother to come out of the house. “Debby. Deeeeebyyyyy!” she would screech. When my mother appeared, the Mildred would ask “Is your dog tied up.” Mildred was deathly afraid of dogs. Of course, all of her screaming would make Natasha, our 200 pound malamute, go wild --lunging for the mailbox until her chain yanked her back. Mildred became a member of the family – the strange spinster aunt who trembled and cried a lot.

I like to think that I have inherited the famous gift of hospitality, but something may have gone wrong. I remember a dark, windy November night out in Western New York. Zoe was just a baby. Chris and I sat down for dinner in the parsonage when we hard a knock on the door. I opened the door to a young, scruffy man with severe Tourette ’s syndrome looking for odd jobs and a few bucks. There was no work to do – all our leaves had long ago blown over into the neighbor’s yard. We invited him in for dinner. Unfortunately for him, I was on my latest diet kick, and had cooked a disgusting casserole with turkey, artichokes, and cottage cheese. He ate it without complaint and, but politely declined seconds. However, when Chris offered him a peanut butter sandwich, he inhaled three of them down.

I imagine you have a hospitality story. Maybe it is about a time you were treated kindly -- a meal, a warm embraces, reassuring eye contact, a kind smile, gestures respect and acceptance. Your birth story is a hospitality story. How were you welcomed into this world? Hopefully, you received hospitality in the form of nourishment, nurturing, and joyful reception, all of which led to a profound sense of safety and security. That kind of deep welcome gives people space to meet, to express ourselves spontaneously, and to be ourselves. As I have mentioned in other sermons, this kind of welcome is what’s supposed to happen in the public square. Strangers make room for diversity, for difference and disagreement, for new thoughts and new insights.  And as Christians in the public square, we make room for uncorrupted love., heartfelt tolerance, and sincere questions, and delight in our commonalities.

Maybe you have a different hospitality story. Perhaps yours is a story of rejection. The word hospitality actually comes from a Latin word, meaning “guest.” “Hospitality” is also connected to the Latin word hostio, from which we get the English word “hostility.” It means to give retribution or to pay back. A hostio is a victim – one who is treated with hostility. Hospitality and hostility – they come from the same root. The first pays a stranger with kindness. The second pays back a victim with revenge. Our attitude is what determines whether a stranger ends up as a friend or an enemy. We hear plenty of hostility stories. Many of us have lived them. Some of us have starred in them. The point is, we offer and accept genuine hospitality to the degree that we have experienced such in our own lives. The process can be formative or de-formative.

Hospitality has the power to heal democracy because hospitality requires us to open our hearts to the “other.”  The challenge faced in our individual lives and in our homes is the same challenge faced in the public square. It’s the challenge of letting strangers be who are and what they are, and allowing them to open us up to another reality. Hospitality demands that we have courage to engage the most strange, the most unusual, and the most bizarre that we encounter. In other words, hospitality provides safe space for deep democracy to take root – a system where there are no strangers, no outsiders, and no closed hearts.

When I think of hospitality, I think of the story of Chinue Sugihara.  Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat in the 1940’s, stationed as a border guard in  Lithuania. The Japanese authorities ordered him not to help the Jews. Jews who fled from Poland into Lithuania needed permission to pass through the Soviet Union and Japan in order to continue to other destinations. One day not long after he took up his post, Sugihara found three hundred desperate people, some who had walked all the way from Poland, standing outside his consulate, begging for his help. He had already been officially forbidden to help any Jews seeking to escape the Nazis. He knew to act was to endanger not only his own life, but also the lives of his family. Sugihara made a decision after consulting with his family and listening to his five-year old son ask, ‘If we don’t help them, won’t they die?’”

Before his arrest and deportation Sugihara issued more than two thousand exit visas. At one point his hand was so worn from signing these documents he had to put on ice packs to continue. In fact, even after being dismissed from his post, even after his family was ordered to an internment camp, even while riding on the train to his imprisonment he continued to write those exit visas, one paper at a time. And now it is said that there are 50,000 Jewish descendants of Sugihara. One man made a huge difference with his act of creative resistance, with his dedication to radical hospitality. How inclusive will we be? How will we, as Americans, find it in our hearts to welcome more people into our democracy?

It’s not an easy question. We all have areas in our lives that we are not willing to examine. I imagine the same is true with our public and political habits. We don't always realize that we are being inhospitable to people who are different than us. Exclusion can be very unintentional. But that doesn't mean it isn't real, or that it doesn't need to be reckoned with in our institutions, from our homes and our churches. The idea of welcome goes beyond shaking someone's hand or offering a drink. True welcome means realizing that we are made better when we allow the backgrounds of others to help shape everything we're about. And as Christians, we have a faith that helps us ask some important declarations when we meet those who are different. We say:
"You and I are equally dependent on God."
"You and I are both made in the image of God."
"You and I have the same dignity."
"You and I can learn from each other."
"You and I need each other."
"You and I can be safe with one another."
"You and I can enjoy each other."
"You and I can listen to each other."
"You and I can  be reconciled to one another."

 Ysaye Maria Barnwell of Sweet Honey In The Rock puts the issue before us across time and categories. Her song calls to attention how too many of us see others in categories. She asks us whether they are worthy to share space as neighbors and family members. I can’t sing it, but I can pray it. Would you pray with me?
Would you harbor me?
Would I harbor you?
Would you harbor me?
Would I harbor you?
Would you harbor a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a heretic, convict, or spy?
Would you harbor a runaway woman or child, a poet, a prophet or king?
Would you harbor an exile, or a refuge, a person living with AIDS?
Would you harbor a Tubman, a Garrett, a Truth, a fugitive or a slave?
Would you harbor a Haitian, Korean, or Czech, a lesbian or a gay?
Would you harbor me?
Would I harbor you?
Amy Oden, And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity (Abingdon:2001).,%20Process.pdf

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