Radical Hospitality

This sermon was delivered November, 2015 in Huntington, NY


“Come, come, whoever you are.

Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.

It doesn’t matter.

Ours is not a caravan of despair. come,

even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.

Come, yet again , come , come.”

These words by Rumi have been adapted to music in our hymnal and lift up the radical hospitality our congregations strive to embody.  Whoever you are, come yet again come.  In the hymn, as published, we don’t sing the part about broken vows and I have to wonder, why not?

What was it about this line that made it difficult to adapt to music or unpalatable to our sense of how to be with one another.  I often point to the full poem when talking about covenant because it is near impossible to make promises and never break them.  And absolutely impossible to bring over 200 people into community together and never, not a single time, make a mistake.  While there are rare circumstances that warrant asking a member of the community to leave, we primarily focus on coming back into covenant.  Ours is not a caravan of despair, come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.  Come.

How do we embody this musical theology? Who is allowed here and how are they welcomed?  Do we bring people fully into community or do we, as the people in the story did, choose not to engage until they are so uncomfortable that, like Nasruddin, they leave?

Last month, along with Rev. Jude, I attended the fall conference of the Liberal Religious Educators Association, during which I encountered some new thoughts about radical hospitality.  In essence the take away was this – it is not enough to be accepting.  It is not enough to make room for someone who is not like you when they show up at the door.  To only accept someone’s difference is to ask them to assimilate, to blend in. Rather than offering acceptance we must offer affirmation.  We must meet people where they are, not just making room for them to fit neatly in the spaces we’ve carved out, but to make room for what they bring.  What can we learn?  How can we examine our practices from a new point of view? Is there room for everybody at the table or is the seating limited to those who wore the right coat?

Radical hospitality is about making room – not just when it’s convenient to do so but when we are called to do so.

What does it mean to a Unitarian Universalist to be called to hospitality?  What or who is calling us?  For some it comes from recognizing the immediate need to intervene to stop impending environmental disasters, for others it may come from God. For some the call comes from a knot in our stomach when we see injustice, when we are faced with the worst of what humans can do to one another. I have heard some UU ministers refer to the seven principles as a way of being called to action, to hospitality, to justice work.  The calling, wherever it comes from, is there.  The question is will we answer?

The past few weeks I’ve been polling people about radical hospitality.  The first time I encountered the phrase I wasn’t sure I understood what it meant. What was that made some hospitality radical and other forms of hospitality average?

In general people agreed that what makes hospitality radical is when it is not easy to be hospitable or when there is some kind of associated risk.  I asked on Facebook, “How do you practice radical hospitality?  What is it?  How is it different from regular hospitality?”

Some answered that it is giving when you have little to give.  Others said it is putting trust in a stranger.  My friend Robin, a liberal Christian, had this to say.

Regular hospitality is opening your home to acquaintances who need a shoulder to cry on.  It’s keeping your heart open to see past people’s foibles. It’s working to share your life in such a way that you can work toward creating a better world.

Radical hospitality is opening up your home to the stranger.  It’s opening your heart to the “unlovable”. It’s allowing your life to be totally disrupted when you are called to do so.

There’s that call again.

How will we answer?

A week ago I met with several congregational leaders and some district staff to do what the district calls a start-up workshop.  It’s designed for lay leaders and new ministry staff to come together and talk about the history, vision, mission of the congregation and how the work of ministry will be shared.  I learned that HiHi, our program to provide winter shelter to the homeless, started here a decade ago in response to some tragic deaths in a nearby park.  Some people with nowhere to get out of the bitter cold had died in the night.  This congregation responded.  There is no doubt in my mind that you felt called to action and it was probably pretty inconvenient.  It may have even felt risky.  Here we are, ten years later, getting ready to house homeless for another winter.

Another person on my Facebook survey, said radical hospitality is not just letting the stranger join you, but you joining the stranger, a subtle but major difference.

How do we join the stranger?  How do we go from acceptance to affirmation?

This is where curiosity comes in.

Greeting the stranger with curiosity, means getting to know who they are, rather than talking about who we are.  Often in our congregations we greet people with an expectation to share with them what Unitarian Universalism is, what our Fellowship does, maybe even what it is we do personally outside of this community.  This approach to hospitality isn’t a bad one.  It’s the mode of the greeter, or the community member, being the one to share information.  This style of being the one with the information to give is hospitable.  It is making space, sharing and through that sharing extending an invitation.

If we adopt curiosity as our approach we do that subtle shift from letting the stranger join us to us joining the stranger.  Now our role, while still one of welcome, is about getting to know the new person.  “What brought you here today?  What do you do for fun?  Do you have any hobbies?”  All good questions to open a deeper more meaningful exchange where space has been made to affirm the gifts this newcomer brings with them into community.

This feels like a safe place to begin the practice of radical hospitality.

My friend Joy uses this curiosity as motivation to pick up hitchhikers.  This is not something I personally want to do.  Practicing radical hospitality will look different for each of us.  We each have to weigh the perceived risks, the inconvenience, and our emotional and physical abilities to see what way radical hospitality will manifest in our lives.

In my search for more opinions and examples of the radical nature of hospitality, I asked people to share a time they felt they had received hospitality that was above and beyond any expectation; hospitality they consider radical.  Oddly enough someone listed being picked up when they were hitchhiking as one of the examples – evidence that Joy’s hospitality is both needed and appreciated.  The story that really spoke to me was from Robin about her congregation:

One Sunday morning a couple of winters ago our church organist was in her office before anyone else was in the building.  All of a sudden a guy opened her always locked door and gave her quite a scare.  Once over her shock, she talked to him a bit and found out that he’d snuck in during the week and had figured out how to dislodge the latch on the door so that he could get in and sleep there at night.


By then another woman was in the kitchen preparing coffee and found some rolls and peanut butter to feed him.  He stayed through the church service, after which a man in the congregation spoke to him and found out he was a homeless wanderer, just staying in town a few days until he found a place to stay.


This was a small town with no shelter facilities for men. So the man from the congregation took the guy home, fed him, let him sleep there, and then drove him to the next city the next day to help the guy find lodgings.

Another congregation was in the news last year for a very similar incident.  A homeless person had let themselves into a church in Palm Beach, Florida and was eating cookies in the church kitchen. Unlike Robin’s church, this congregation called the police and had the man arrested, pressing charges for stealing the food he had eaten. I suppose the perceived risks just felt too high.

Hospitality is a word with a spiritual history.  Hospital, hospice, hospitable, and hospitality all come from the same root word meaning generous, caring, and sustaining. The first hospitals were housed in Monasteries and open to strangers in need. The most famous of these monasteries was that of St. Benedict. Benedict created a book of rules to live by, called The Rule of Benedict, which is still in use today by many Monasteries. The foundation of the rule is listening. Benedict writes, “Listen with the ear of your heart,” (Sewell)

One Sunday, several years back now at my congregation in Arkansas, two men entered the building dirty, dazed, and reeking of alcohol.  Our religious educator at the time was a champion for the underdogs and sympathetic to the plights of the disenfranchised.  She and I both watched as the foyer of congregants stared and the lay leaders started whispering to each other.  This was after the shooting in Knoxville, TN and UU’s in the south were jumpy about strangers who looked like they didn’t belong.

The educator made her way to these men, shook their hand and asked them if they would like a cup of coffee.  She sat with them during the service.  The service that morning was lay led and involved a call for people to come up to the pulpit and share a poem or song that was meaningful to them.  The drunken man had barely been able to sit upright but took notice of this and become fidgety. She asked him quietly if he wanted to go up and he nodded.  Oh boy, she thought.

She later told me she knew if he tried to go up alone certain members of the congregation might actually stop him.  So at the very end when he finally stood, she stood with him.  She put a hand gently on the back of his shoulders and walked to the pulpit with him the way one might walk a small child.  She stepped back and stood quietly next to him as though to shield him from interruption.

The man said he hadn’t thought of this in years but suddenly remembered a song his mother sang to him as a child.  He sang it and he wept.  I don’t remember the song; I remember it being something gospel and I remember the tension I could feel in the room while he sang. Still, several of us noticed what had really happened that morning.  A way had been made for a man; a stranger, a drunk, someone who definitely had on the wrong coat, to have a spiritual experience.  Our educator had midwifed the entire congregation into experiencing that it really can be okay to let anyone come in.

Come, wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving, come.

In our religious homes we try to be our best selves.  Yet, even here we struggle when presented with something that surprises or frightens us.  In our need for our own place of refuge from the world sometimes we struggle in offering hospitality to those who disrupt the way we want our Sunday morning experience to go.

In a book by Arthur Paul Boers, Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior, Boers’ touches on the ways religious community can struggle with the practice of hospitality.  Boers writes,

 For one life-changing summer, my wife and I lived in a Catholic Worker community in inner-city Detroit.  Our home was an emergency shelter for women, children, and families.  As well as attending to the shelter’s needs, we helped at a soup kitchen in the neighborhood.

Every Sunday, there was a worship service in the house, and the Eucharist was celebrated, followed by a potluck meal.  This event attracted service-oriented believers from across the city, peace-and-justice activists, shelter guests, and soup-kitchen patrons. .  .  .


One regular attender, whom I’ll call “Donny,” was a homeless man who measured over seven-and-a-half feet tall.  .  .  .  He would have loved nothing more than to lead the service, but because of mental problems his skills were limited.  Besides, this was Roman Catholic Eucharist, and only a duly ordained priest could preside.


During the Eucharistic liturgy, Donny had an annoying [and distracting] habit of repeating the last phrase of everything the celebrant said.  He had heard the liturgy so often that he had [it] practically memorized it.  Sometimes he tried to say the prayers and formulas before the celebrant did.


But how does a community committed to compassion and hospitality deal with such a problem?  Donny was not mentally equipped for extended reasoning or careful conflict resolution.  .  .  .


There were temptations for the group.  Some no doubt wished that Donny would disappear.  Some wondered about silencing or evicting him.  Resentment and annoyance would have made it easy to resort to criticism, avoidance, name-calling, or labeling.  .  .  .


The community wrestled with the issue for a long time.  The solution was brilliant. Donny was given one phrase in the service, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”  This was his line and no one else’s.  At the appropriate moment, the celebrant elevated the loaf of bread in silence and waited for Donny to say his line, which he did with gusto, enthusiasm, devotion, and even panache.


Donny got his wish for a meaningful leadership role in the service.  He did so without distracting from the ceremonial solemnity for the rest of the worshippers.  During the remainder of the service, Donny sat quietly and contentedly, a rare accomplishment at any time in his life!


Donny stood out for many reasons: a freakish physical stature, mental illness, extreme poverty, membership in an oppressed race.  It was not easy for this alternative Christian community to know how to include him.  Yet its brilliant solution was good for everyone.

It strikes me that curiosity was once again a guide toward radical hospitality.  When we approach situations and individuals with an openness and a curiosity of how to best be in community together, a way is made for affirmation, for us to join the stranger, for an experience to teach us all how to be with one another.

I want to live my life like this; to live the theology of Rumi, to be radically hospitable, to be firmly footed in the work of the Holy which is common and often broken.  I want to be part of a Faith that says Come anyway.  Come in.  Come sit at the table in your dirty clothes caked with mud.  Ours is no caravan despair.  Come, yet again come.

(sermon delivered at UUFH in Huntington, NY,  Nov. 9, 2014)
*The story referenced early in the sermon is Mullah Nasruddin Feeds His Coat and was used as our Wisdom story during the time for all ages.  You can access it here.

*Sewell, Marilyn J., Radical Hospitality – for her full sermon on the subject click here