River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation

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Hospitality: A Virtue of Biblical Proportions

River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, March 19, 2000

Rev. Scott W. Alexander

My heart shall never forget the act of unrestrained hospitality. It was the summer of 1988. Collins and I were, in effect, homeless - having sold our home in Plainfield, New Jersey, but unable to quickly establish the new home we had hoped to up in New England. It was a time of great stress (and more than a little anxiety and emotional upset for us). It was then, in the midst of our turmoil and rootlessness, that our friends Joan and Dot, two wonderful older women from Plainfield, invited us to come and stay with them. When we arrived at their home, they not only opened it wide and welcomed us, they insisted (and this is the part I shall never forget) that we sleep in their bed...in the master bedroom (while they moved themselves down to set up camp on a foam mattress in their basement "rec" room). No matter what Collins and I said about our preference to sleep downstairs, they simply would not hear of it, they made us sleep in their bed. I later learned that such insistent hospitality is a part of the Southern African American culture from which these two beautiful women came. So for the duration of our visit, we slept in their bed, and I assure you Collins and I have never felt so safe, so welcomed, so valued as human beings as we did in the unfettered embrace of Joan and Dot's hospitality.

This reminds me of something similar that my own Mother - bless her heart -- did years ago. One Christmas morning I was flying home to Milwaukee from New England with a seatmate who was on her way to Rochester...New York. The travel agent, however, had put her on this plane to Rochester...Minnesota! By the time we realized her predicament the plane was landing in Milwaukee where my Mother was picking me up. When we deplaned and explained the situation to my Mother she insisted we stay with the woman while she checked with the airline to see if she could be routed back to where she was going, and when it seemed certain she would be stuck in Milwaukee until the next day my Mother said, "Well you must come home with us for Christmas, we'll bring you back to the airport in the morning."

Hospitality. Some may think that hospitality is a small, inconsequential matter, best left to the trivial likes of Emily Post, Amy Vanderbilt or Miss Manners - but I believe it is rather a deeply important religious virtue we must cultivate and practice in our everyday lives...and so do Jewish and Christian scriptures. Hospitality is mentioned no less than 65 (!) times in the Bible, and is consistently understood (in those pages...trust me...I looked up every reference to it) to be a deeply important matter of both ethics and the human spirit. In ancient biblical times, hospitality toward the "alien" or the "stranger" was considered to be an essential part of the laws of God. In both Jewish and Christian thought, God demands that we welcome and care for strangers. All throughout the Bible, the reader is enjoined and encouraged to be genuinely hospitable. If a stranger comes to your town and needs a place to sleep for the night, welcome that person into your own home, for you yourself might someday need the refuge of persons unknown to you. If someone who is "alien" or "foreign" to you is in need of a meal, welcome that person to your table, share what you have to eat with the stranger, for someday you will be in the same situation and will need the hospitality of others. In ancient times (when, of course there were no such things as Holiday Inn or Burger King) hospitality to travelers and strangers was a practical matter of basic survival and humanity. And so (in Jewish and Christian culture at least...and I suspect - though I have not researched this - Islamic culture and the other religious cultures around the world) hospitality was understood as a virtue of biblical proportions...a essential part of the law of God.

"Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers," says Hebrews 13, "For by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it." Similarly, the book of Leviticus instructs, "You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt." Next month -- when Jews all over the world gather around the Passover Seder table - a door to the outside will be left ajar, and there will be a cup full of wine at the table waiting the prophet Elijah (who represents all strangers). Hospitality has endured down through the centuries as a core virtue of Judaism.

And this virtue (and many more from Jewish tradition) was incorporated into Christianity. In the 14th chapter of Luke, Jesus tells a parable about a banquet to which (instead of the expected family, neighbors and friends - "the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind" are invited, "And you will be blessed [for this selfless hospitality]," says Jesus, "Because they [the unfortunate strangers] cannot repay you." "Maintain constant love for one another," says Paul in his first letter to Peter, "Be hospitable to one another without complaining...be welcoming and kind to the poor and the alien." And the Bible doesn't just have positive things to say about hospitality, for it also sternly warns about the serious negative consequences of inhospitality. "Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan and the widow of Justice," intones the book of Deuteronomy, "If any place will not welcome you," Jesus says to his disciples as they prepare to venture out to share their new message, "shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them." But the ultimate biblical story which warns of the consequences of inhospitality is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Now Jerry Falwell, bless his little homophobic heart, will tell you that the story of those two doomed cities is a lesson about the dangers of homosexuality, but nothing could be further from the truth. If you read the story as it is literally written in the book of Genesis, Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed because the people of those cities were inhospitable. The text (Genesis 19) tells us that the men of Sodom (both young and old) were "inhospitable" to two foreigners ("aliens") whom they sought to turn out of the city's gates who were really angels whom Lot has invited into his home (for food and rest). God is so displeased with this inhospitality that he tells the righteous man Lot (and his family) to flee the city, and tells them not to look back at this sinfully inhospitable place (which, of course, as you all remember, Lot's unfortunate wife disobeys and is turned into a pillar of salt). The text tells us, "Then God rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire, he overthrew [that is destroyed] those cities and all the inhabitants of those cities." And you thought hospitality involved nothing more serious than the little domestic pleasantries which Miss Manners or Martha Stewart muse about!

The point which runs through all these scriptural stories and injunctions is clear...hospitality (providing welcome and care for of others, especially strangers) is a virtue of biblical proportions. Both Jewish and Christian scriptures are clear...in the conduct of our lives as individuals, we should discipline ourselves to be kind, generous, solicitous and welcoming of newcomers, aliens, strangers - persons from beyond our immediate family circles who need our protection, warmth, resources and shelter. Hospitality is (if you will) a SPIRITUAL PRACTICE we are called upon to do because of our essential human connection with others, especially (ancient scriptures tell us) those whom we regard as "strangers." Several times recently, I have observed from this pulpit that a central, guiding religious notion (of our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition as well as most of the other great faith traditions of the world - including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism) is the moral duty of persons to EXPAND THE SENSE OF KINSHIP they have with life and persons which lie beyond the natural and narrow circle of human concern we all naturally draw tightly around ourselves. The disciplined religious life is all about INTENTIONALLY EXPANDING our circle of connection, compassion, and concern. Hospitality, then, is far more than Miss Manners urging us to be polite, appropriate and gracious at dinner parties. Hospitality is a compassionate, open-hearted religious response when we see some alone, frightened, hungry, cold or afraid person...it is the spiritually bold act of welcoming, caring for, and protecting strangers in our midst. Hospitality is a virtue of the human heart which is desperately and constantly needed in a very difficult world. We all need to work at spiritually growing ourselves into caring, hospitable human beings.

And what is true for individuals, dear friends, is also true for INSTITUTIONS...most especially religious congregations. In my view, hospitality is a quality of the heart which religious congregations (of whatever stripe) need (in natural, ready abundance) if they are to honor their essential mission in the world.

As most of you know, in response to our steady and significant growth over recent years, we as a congregation are presently engaged in the process of deciding (through a lengthy, open and democratic strategic planning process) what kind of church it is going to be...and what our future as a religious organization is going to look like. We face key decisions about our mission, our program, our building and our organizational structure. The crucial questions we now face include (but are surely not limited to) the following:

  • What kind of church are we going to be?
  • How large a vision are we going to have for ourselves and our future?
  • Are we going to do whatever is necessary to ensure that there is enough room (here or somewhere else) for everyone (adults and children) who wants to come to this gathered community and this religious faith, or (either intentionally or passively) turn people away to go to some other place for their spiritual development?
  • Are we going to find the way (either here on River Road or elsewhere) to build the extra offices, additional classrooms and more meeting spaces we clearly already need (never mind any future growth), or find some other solution to our over-crowding (like eventually going to three services and Sunday School sessions each Sunday or create a second campus or new congregation nearby)?
For months now, people have been asking me how I see our situation, and what I (as the minister of this wonderful, strong and growing congregation) want. Well...I have been listening carefully to all that has been said at the congregational forums (and have thoughtfully considered all the e-mails and letters written to me and the Board about our institutional future), and have been seriously reflecting on all the different perspectives...and so now, in just a few concise minutes, I am going to tell you precisely what (in the light of our process to date) I now dream for our congregation...and what I believe is not only possible for us, but spiritually imperative.

ABOVE ALL ELSE, NO MATTER WHAT ELSE WE DECIDE, I WANT THIS CONGREGATION TO BE HOSPITABLE. I want RRUC to decide to do what is institutionally hospitable...period...end of sermon. Well, OK...not quite the end of the sermon, for I want to spell out precisely what I think hospitable decisions would look like.

First and foremost, of course, I want us to be unmistakably warm and hospitable to all who come in our doors on Sunday morning. Everyone who is a part of our Sunday morning team -- our greeters, ushers, membership table folks and RRUC staff members -work hard to ensure that everyone (newcomer and old timer alike) is greeted and welcomed warmly and sincerely. Obviously, as a religious institution committed to the people-orientated values of our religion, we need to continue to cultivate our immediate hospitality toward all who discover us and seek to be with us on Sunday.

And speaking of Sunday hospitality, I want to take a moment now to name and honor the one person who is tireless around here each Sunday in exuding and making real RRUC hospitality, staff member Charles Spencer. I think of Charles like a kind whirling Sunday dervish (who diligently labors away both in the kitchen and Fellowship room) to make sure that we are all greeted with a hot beverage and tasty cookie (not to mention his smile) before and after service. Every Sunday I see him chatting up adults and children alike (providing his ministry to parents by NOT letting kids take twelve cookies at a time!) Charles, I want to thank you for all the many ways in which you embody the virtue of hospitality we so seek to nurture here.

But Charles, of course, can't do this by himself. We ALL need to share in the wonderful work of creating a HOSPITABLE RRUC ATMOSPHERE -- by greeting newcomers who are standing nervously around with their yellow mugs and keeping an eye out for folks with the temporary name badges (I think part of the reason we do so well with this hospitality already is that we know how awkward it is for anybody to try to find their way into a new group).

But institutional hospitality is, of course, much more than the personal welcome we extend to old friends and newcomers alike. As we plot our institutional future, I want us to make the bold decisions that will make everyone who comes to this place for spiritual and religious nurturing (long-term members and newcomers alike) feel welcomed, safe, supported and embraced. Whether or not this church continues to rapidly grow (as it so obviously has over recent years under Bill Murry's leadership, and then John Burciaga's interim year and now mine) is largely an irrelevant question to me. I and the rest of the staff are not focussed on pushing church growth or institutional aggrandizement. But because we are so enthusiastic about River Road Unitarian Church and the noble faith around which this community has been gathered, we ARE focussed, however, on evermore "doing church right" around here: on creating the finest worship, the best music, the richest adult education, the warmest fellowship and most superlative Sunday School possible. And if these (positive, people-centered) efforts keep long-term members coming around here in big numbers (and attract more and more people to our community), then I say so be it and God bless it! But let me say it one more time so there is no mistake about it...growth is not the goal - being the absolute best and most hospitable religious community we can be is!

Here's what I want. I want us to continue to hospitably welcome (by the expansiveness and vision its institutional decision-making) any and all who wish to be a part of this community of faith. Now sure there are EVENTUAL limits to how many people we can accommodate in this building on this site (even if we bump a few walls out here and there which is altogether feasible and likely)...but I believe we can easily grow to 1000 adult members and 500 children before it might be necessary for us to look beyond this site for solutions to our growth...we have not yet MAXIMIZED our facility and our capacities of welcome!

Now...as we continue our hospitality, I don't yet know precisely what those hospitable decisions might best look like...that's what we're struggling (all of us together) to identify and choose...but what I do know is what a spiritual disaster it would be for us to (either consciously or unconsciously) make decisions (at this dynamic moment in our congregation's history) that are (in effect) IN-hospitable or un-welcoming of newcomers who are coming in the doors. I passionately believe that, metaphorically speaking at least, like the doomed communities of Sodom and Gomorrah, religious communities that choose to become inhospitable (by either conscious or unconscious means) are eventually destroyed...destroyed from within, by their own spiritual unwillingness to open their hearts to strangers, and welcome all who seek the shelter and challenge of their faith.

As I have already alluded, it would be presumptuous (and downright inappropriate) for me as your minister to tell you precisely what I think we ought to decide and how precisely we must proceed as a congregation. The whole point of the careful, open, and democratic process the Board as created is to enable us (all together...staff...leadership...and voting members of the congregation) to move toward concrete decisions about our institutional future. But I do want to share with you some of the kinds of decisions that strike me as being GENUINELY HOSPITABLE (and thus of high moral and spiritual value) as we move toward shaping our future.

First, let me lift up several hospitable decisions we have already made:

BRINGING IN A TRAILER to provide desperately needed extra classrooms for our growing Sunday School WAS A HOSPITABLE DECISION...

FINDING LYNN THOMAS STRAUSS, THE HIGHLY QUALIFIED CANDIDATE FOR OUR SECOND MINISTER (who can strengthen and expand our people programming and services around here) WAS A HOSPITABLE DECISION)...

PURCHASING 50 NEW CHAIRS (which we are now in the process of doing) for overflow Fellowship room seating for busy Sundays WAS A HOSPITABLE DECISION.

And then, there are some other decisions we might soon make which are (by their very nature and spirit) hospitable and welcoming:

SOMEDAY BRINGING IN A SECOND TRAILER (to provide more temporary classroom and meeting space for all the many Sunday school children and adult groups who seek a space of their own on Sunday) WOULD BE A HOSPITABLE DECISION.

SOMEDAY BUILDING MORE BUILDING ON THIS SITE (bumping out our Fellowship room (we already need a room two-to-three times the size of the one we have), building more classrooms, offices and meeting spaces to accommodate the growing number of people who are coming around this place for spiritual nourishment) WOULD BE A HOSPITABLE DECISION.

SOMEDAY CREATING 15 TO 25 MORE PARKING PLACES ON OUR GROUNDS...I am sure that, balancing our environmental concerns for those we have for people, that we can find a way to create more parking here at 6301 River Road without doing damage to our beautiful woods...THAT WOULD TRULY BE AN HOSPITABLE DECISION.

SOMEDAY GOING TO THREE SERVICES AND SUNDAY SCHOOL SESSIONS EACH SUNDAY (in a year-and-a-half maybe...when and if our numbers grow to the point where we simply cannot fit everyone comfortably into the two Sunday sessions we now provide) WOULD BE A HOSPITABLE DECISION.

SOMEDAY HIRING MORE STAFF (to coordinate and support volunteers...to initiate a community arts program...to support our social justice taskforces...to establish a community-wide senior center - just a few of the programmatic expansions requiring additional staff which members of this congregation have been dreaming about recently) HIRING MORE STAFF TO HELP US DO OUR RELIGION MORE ACTIVELY IN THIS WORLD, WOULD BE A HOSPITABLE DECISION.

Well...I think you get the idea. Hospitable decisions are any and all decisions we make which ensure we PERSONALLY AND INSTITUTIONALLY welcome all who come to our doors and knock. Conversely, inhospitable decisions are any and all decisions we make which (explicitly or implicitly) say to newcomers, "Sorry, I know we have a really attractive congregation with a lot of great services and programs...but there really isn't any room for you, and its too difficult or costly for us to make the adjustments around here that would make that possible...so why don't you go to some other Unitarian Universalist church in the area." Any such message, I believe, would gravely and tragically diminish this institution, and slowly work to poison it from the inside out.

In the end, there is only one reason why this church (as an institution) must be forever and passionately hospitable. It is not because we need more people to sing in the choir (though we are always glad -- aren't we Clif? -- when new voices come and blend into who we already are). It is not because we need more people to fill this room (though there is something magical and energizing about an absolutely full auditorium on Sunday, isn't there?) It is not because we need more pledge units, or more children, or more committees, or - heaven forbid -- more cars in the neighborhood on Sunday morning - (though every institution surely needs a constant influx of new blood, personality and energy if it is to remain vital). So if we don't actually need more people, why be hospitable, why welcome more and more strangers? Well, first of all, because the Bible is right (on this spiritual point at least) that being welcoming (seeking kinship with an ever wider circle of humanity) is not only the right thing to do, it's a blessed thing to do. But more than that, I believe (and if you hear only one thing I say this morning hear this) we should be hospitable (to strangers, visitors and newcomers) because we know - deep to our institutional bones - that the mission of this church is to actively serve and strengthen our Unitarian Universalist faith, and share it with others and the wider world that it might transform persons and life in positive, saving ways. I don't think this is complicated! The reason we must ever expand and deepen our hospitality (beyond the good and comfortable community we already are) is our conviction that Unitarian Universalism has a message that powerfully and uniquely helps to create human health, liberation, justice, decency and joy - both in individuals and society at large.

I pray you, dear River Road friends...let us choose the blessed path of hospitality...let us open our hearts and welcome stranger and friend alike. Dear God how can we do anything less?