By Rev. Laurie Lynn Newman, February 9, 2020
Some years ago, when dealing with a fussy toddler and an active first grader, I often felt pressured, getting dinner on the table after work. The last thing I wanted with hungry kids clamoring, and multiple pots simmering, was to have the interruption of an unexpected doorbell ringing. So, we added something to our front and back doors–Signs that in bold letters say “NO SOLICITING.” I do not know how many salespeople those signs repelled. Over the years, though, the signage has not inhibited lobbyists from a variety of causes from ringing the bells. My yellow house sits on the corner of the block. Sometimes people come to both the front and the back doors when they do not realize they are hitting up the same household. That happened recently. A woman came by the front door at an inconvenient time. I listened impatiently and then told her, that I was not interested. Moments later, a man rang the back doorbell, championing the same cause. I pointed to the “NO SOLICITING” sign, and he said, “But I’m not soliciting.” He then launched enthusiastically into his pitch. I still did not listen with much patience.
Since that interruption, I have thought about something I learned from Benedictine sisters in Beech Grove, Indiana. There, the nuns practice the rule of St. Benedict’s rule toward welcoming the stranger. The idea is that any stranger may be Jesus, and so the greeting is this:
“How happy we are that you arrived at this most inconvenient moment.”
Welcome. . . From a spiritual perspective, hospitality is about more than an open door. True welcome acknowledges the gifts a guest brings. Spiritually, hospitality is not simply giving charity, but also giving our attention. Not a handout, welcome.
In the Divine welcome, the guest and the host BOTH reveal their most precious gifts.
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.” These words from Matthew have a powerful message for us today about hospitality. I speak of hospitality, not the Martha Stewart, everything-in-its-perfect place sort of welcome. Nor is it simply welcome out of kindness. Hospitality recognizes our human need for connection and care. In this sense, we welcome and give, not out of abundance, but out of need. In Matthew 25, the disciples are puzzled by Jesus’s parables, and they ask, “Lord, when did we see you?” Jesus says, “Whenever you fed the hungry, you fed me. When you visited the sick and in prison, you visited me.”
In Tanzania, one of the world’s poorest countries, the custom is for families to eat outside, so that they can welcome to a meal the stranger who walks by. That is hospitality!
In an interview with NPR, a man from Kenya said that “to be human is to help another.” That is very different than a cultural message that says, “You had better learn to take care of yourself because no one else is going to do it.”
Individualism and isolation have been growing in the United States. A few years ago, write Niobe Way, addressed the “friendship crisis.” She noticed that isolation seems to be especially affecting teenage boys, and sometimes leading to violence. In a mass shooting in Santa Barbara, a couple of years ago, 22-year old Elliot Rodgers, killed himself and six people, because he wanted to take revenge on humanity for his “loneliness, rejection, and unfilled desire.” Research on adolescent boys over the past 25 years makes the direct link between not having close friendships— and going off the rails: committing suicide, doing drugs, and “taking it out on others.” Isolation, the boys report, makes them feel inadequate, envious of others with better connections, and angry. This, in turn, leads them to thoughts of self- and other-directed violence. In the Oregon legislature and other states, there are efforts toward tighter gun control and better treatment for the mentally ill. But, Way points out that the roots of this horrifying trend go deep. Adults are also more isolated. Ironically, in an age of smartphones, we are both more linked to the world, and lonelier. There are too many stories of violence perpetrated by lonely, isolated people. Sometimes, we have prized independence over human connection.
Our social connections are not simply feel-good issues; they are life-or-death issues.
How happy we are that you arrived at this most inconvenient moment!
Hospitality, welcoming the stranger, means we are seeing their humanity. We discover that one big thing that makes them the same as us, rather than the many things that make us different. Long before the internet, in 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “What we are facing today is the fact that through our scientific and technological genius we’ve made of this world a neighborhood. And now through our moral and ethical commitment, we must make of it a brotherhood.” [And, sisterhood.]
In each of us, there is some inner homelessness—a longing that is a basic, human desire to connect. It seems to be getting more and more difficult to do that, particularly as polarization around our differences make us less patient, and more distrustful. We extend hospitality by turning to one another. The words from Matthew point to our building the beloved community, by prioritizing our common humanity.
Giving a “cup of cold water” is not simply an act of kindness. It is not about being “nice.” It is the topsy-turvy upset of power and hierarchy: when we give to “one of these little ones” we meet Jesus.
People show up to a church for all sorts of reasons. . . Have you ever considered this? Sometimes, people come to church to meet God and the first person they may meet is YOU!
In the human family to which the Divine invites us, guest and the host BOTH reveal our most precious gifts. And, the holy is in our midst.
In the book My Grandfather’s Blessings, Rachel Naomi Remen wrote about her friend inviting her to come to a luncheon to meet with his Holiness the Dalai Lama. This was in San Francisco, and held at an exclusive hotel, full of a throng of the most powerful and wealthy people in the country. The noise level was intense. She had the idea that anyone speaking to her was looking over her shoulder to see if someone else more important was there. Her colleague had brought with her three photographs of something she had developed for working with people with cancer. She had hoped to show these to His Holiness and ask him a single question. These pictures were quite large and had been mounted on heavy poster board. She was carrying them in a string shopping bag, and as the line advanced, to see His Holiness, she began to try to unloose them from the bag. In the press of the crowd, this was difficult. She was still struggling to free them when she found herself standing with His Holiness. At last, she managed to extract them and let the string bag fall to the floor.
She spoke to His Holiness of this work and they looked at the pictures together. Their time was completely unhurried as if they were alone in the room. As their conversation drew to a natural and gracious close, he smiled. He stooped and picked up the string bag at her feet. In the most seamless way imaginable, he opened it and held it out to her so that she could easily replace the pictures in it.
It was not so much what he had done, but the way in which he had done it that stood out. In this tiny interaction, she felt something purely joyful in him go forward to meet with her in the problem. In that moment getting three large stiff pictures into a flexible string bag was not her problem or his. It was not even a problem. It was an opportunity to meet. The woman said that for some inexplicable reason, a place in her that had felt alone and abandoned for all of her life felt deep comforted. She had a wildly irrational thought: “This is my friend.”
We all have that opportunity: to welcome, to notice, to see the humanity in the other, and the Divine. What if—across economic, political and racial lines–we met strangers as friends? How would your life be different if you intentionally welcomed the interruption of others into your life? What would the world be like?
Activist Daniel Berrigan wrote about hospitality in his poem about sharing bread:
Sometime in your life,
hope that you might see one starved man,
the look on his face
when the bread finally arrives.
Hope that you might have bought it or baked it
or even kneaded it yourself.
For that look on his face,
for your meeting his eyes across a piece of bread,
you might be willing to lose a lot,
or suffer a lot,
or die a little, even.