9 Jan 2005 10:08 PM

Holy Hospitality

Sermon preached by Deacon Sue Mosher, 9 Jan 2005

Experienced travelers know that you need to take refreshment and inspiration where you can find them. But even with as many frequent flyer miles as I’ve logged, I did not expect to find a catchphrase for today’s sermon on the wall of Boston’s Logan Airport a couple of months ago as I was on my way to the Revival conference held by the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship. Yet, there on a poster advertising an expensive watch were the beautiful face of Audrey Hepburn and the slogan, “Elegance is an Attitude.”

Suddenly, the carefully prepared notecards and props that I was carrying for my Revival workshop on “Jesus and Hospitality” focused into a single, simple sentence: “Hospitality is an attitude.” And I began a search for a face or another image to go on the matching poster in my mind.

I want to share some such images with you this morning as we consider why and how we might cultivate hospitality as a spiritual discipline, right up there with worship and prayer. As many of you know, I chaired the Welcome & Membership Committee for about a year and a half, and I’ve been a greeter here for many more years. Those experiences and the reading and conversations I’ve had about church growth have convinced me that hospitality is not just a matter for committee work, but can – and should -- become a key spiritual part of our daily lives.

That term “spiritual discipline” may not be familiar to all of you, but it’s a useful expression that describes a habitual activity that attunes us to the spiritual life. Some spiritual disciplines like meditation and study demand time set aside, while fasting and confession may be totally alien to us or at least not habit forming.

Hospitality, on the other hand, when it becomes habitual, allows us to take on the world with a different attitude. This spiritual practice, though, goes well beyond the mints on the pillows for an overnight guest or a beautifully laid out table of after-church snacks. Hospitality is what happens when one individual makes room for another. Or in the words of a Benedictine abbot in Michigan, Daniel Homan: Jesus told us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Hospitality is how we do that.

So whose face should go on the “Hospitality is an Attitude” poster? Martha Stewart is out of the question, of course. And as appealing as it might be to have “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” with Holly Golightly, played by Audrey Hepburn, lunch and dinner might demand a more down-to-earth companion.

Perhaps the face on the poster should be a Thai face. On the hills above the beautiful beaches that had been overwashed by the tsunami, the Thai people shared their rice and whatever else they had with the stunned foreign tourists. An ingrained attitude of hospitality brought order to chaos and terror, for which many will be forever grateful.

Something similar happened in Nova Scotia after 9-11, when thousands of people were stranded on their way back to the United States, where the airports were closed. The people of Halifax and the surrounding towns opened their homes and their hearts in ways that were totally unexpected.

Have you noticed that those who excel at hospitality are often those who themselves have traveled extensively? No one knows home like a nomad. The tradition of providing food and drink and a place to rest – with no questions asked – is an ancient one. And so, another pair of candidates for our hospitality poster might be Abraham and Sarah, who welcomed angels unawares and were rewarded with the astonishing news that Sarah, even in her old age, would bear a child.

The Orthodox church – Byzantine, Greek, Russian, and other rites – has excelled at telling stories like this in the images we know as icons. There is indeed an icon known as “The Hospitality of Abraham,” but strangely enough, over the centuries, the host and hostess were edited out of the picture. By the time of the 15th century Russian icon master Andrey Rublev, the story had zoomed in on the three angel visitors seated around a table set simply with a dish that might be a large cup. Orthodox theologians found in the gestures among the angels parallels with the relationships that, in their belief, defined the three persons of the Christian Trinity and indeed, this icon came to be known as the “Old Testament Trinity.”

But this icon speaks to me not of theological nuances, but of an invitation. The dish seems untouched, as if the three are waiting for their table to be completed. The open side – the side toward us, the viewers – is empty, and there is plenty of room ... just as there is room for all at the communion table that Richard will move to in a few minutes.

I find this table image to be such a powerful one to keep alive my attitude of hospitality – being both a grateful guest and a gracious host – that I keep a copy on my desk. If you want to take a closer look, I brought along some pocket-sized copies that you can take home with you.

Historically, the next great hosts after the nomads were the monks. In our responsive reading this morning, you heard part of the rule written to guide the Benedictine monasteries of Europe in their treatment of guests. Even earlier, the monks of Ireland – long before they were absorbed by the Roman church – made hospitality their way of spreading the word about Christianity. With open arms and open hearts, they invited people to take part in the life of their community and see for themselves what a life built on Christian principles could be like.

Like any discipline – spiritual or otherwise – hospitality involves certain skills that must be learned and practiced. Three skills are key to cultivating hospitality as an attitude. We must:

  • Listen attentively;
  • Give the other person space;
  • And speak with spiritual generosity.

Good hosts are good listeners. If we happened upon Abraham and Sarah’s caravanserai, we might experience not just Abraham’s generosity and Sarah’s cooking, but an invitation to tell our story. Or, picture the weary medieval travelers, who enter the hall of the local lord or petty landowner to find a roaring fire, meat, bread, drink, and – when they had refreshed themselves – an invitation to tell the story of their journey.

As Benedictine abbot Daniel Homan and Lonni Collins Pratt write in their book, “Radical Hospitality: Benedict's Way of Love,” listening is a gift we can give to anyone and everyone. It takes only a few moments of our time to really listen – without judgment, without problem solving, and without trying to think of what clever thing you’ll say in response.

Henri Nouwen, the Dutch Catholic priest we heard from in the first reading, links hospitality with healing, writing that, “Healers are hosts who patiently and carefully listen to the story of the suffering stranger.”

At some point, we are all strangers and all suffering. How blessed it is to be truly listened to in those moments, not understood, not helped, but just listened to. And how blessed, if sometimes uncomfortable, it is to be such a listener. The act of listening validates the stranger as a person and is the first step toward moving from strangers to a new relationship of colleagues or friends, or simply people sharing the road of life for a moment. You can practice this kind of listening at home, with your family, maybe the next time your spouse or your child comes home. Put down what you’re doing and hear the story of their day.

As you search for your own poster image of hospitality, you may want to remember times when you have felt truly welcomed as a guest. As Nouwen suggests, “When we think back to the places where we felt most at home, we quickly see that it was where our hosts gave us the precious freedom to come and go on our own terms and did not claim us for their own needs.” The second basic skill of hospitality - giving someone space, in both a physical and a spiritual sense – means inviting them into our world on their terms, not ours.

A corollary of that idea is that you don’t need to wait until you’re the perfect host or hostess. Lauren Winner is a Jewish convert to Christianity, living in Charlottesville, Virginia. In her witty book, “Mudhouse Sabbath,” she highlights hospitality as one of eleven practices where Jewish traditions can enrich the spiritual lives of Christians. She confesses that it takes both intentional effort and a bit of ego sacrifice to make space in your life for another person. “To be a hostess,” she writes, “I’m going to have to surrender my notions of ... domestic perfection. I will have to set down my pride and invite people over even if I haven’t dusted.”

Daniel Homan and Lonni Pratt – coming from the Benedictine point of view – affirm that making room in our lives for other people is a continuous process, a matter of daily existence. “In genuine hospitality,” they write, “we work to make our entire existence a welcoming table.”

The third basic hospitality skill, speaking with spiritual generosity, has two aspects – careful use of language and a move away from ambiguity about your own spiritual life. First, good hosts watch their words. For example, many articles on church hospitality suggest that we don’t have “visitors” on Sunday morning, with its connotation of someone who drops in perhaps just once, but that we have “guests,” whom we might invite for an extended stay.

A related issue is to avoid religious or denominational jargon. Jim Adams, the former pastor of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill and president of The Center for Progressive Christianity, in his handbook for church growth “So You Think You Can’t Stand Evangelism,” urges those who want their churches to grow to speak in terms that reflect spiritual generosity, rather than stinginess.

Jargon and non-inclusive religious language can sneak out of your mouth if you’re not paying close attention to what you say. One of the wonderful experiences of the Revival conference that I attended in November was the opportunity to spend time in a small group with new people that I’d met there. Caught up in the warmth of our last group meeting, I was telling a story about the very diverse and welcoming Anglican church that Robert, Annie, and I had attended in Moscow, and I used the term “Body of Christ” to describe what it was like to be worshipping with people from a dozen denominations and at least twice that many countries. I was caught off-guard when one member of our Revival group said she didn’t understand that phrase at all and that, as someone who didn’t consider herself a Christian, it made her feel uncomfortable and excluded even just to hear it in conversation.

That awkward but very helpful wake-up call led me to search for a new phrase. So far, “family of God” is working very well. I find it useful in such situations to remember what plain, everyday language Jesus used in his parables. I suspect he wouldn’t have been caught dead using an acronym.

Spiritual generosity can also be a hard sell sometimes. A Unitarian Universalist church leader in another part of the country recently told a story about a growth workshop he was giving. One member of his own congregation described church growth as a pot of soup: When more people come, you just pour more water in and dilute the experience for everyone. Not a very hospitable image, is it?

Take instead, the image of Jesus feeding the 5,000 with just a few loaves and fishes. The central message of this story is not, I think, that Jesus could perform miracles, but that God’s abundance is more than we can ever imagine. There is enough to go around, and we should be generous and grateful. Perhaps an even more radical message of the Feeding of the 5,000 is that Jesus – at a time when who you ate with helped define who you were in the social hierarchy - managed to get his diverse group of followers to sit down and eat with each other. What better image of hospitality than a picnic open to all, bringing new friends from diverse parts of society together, with more than enough food to go around?

The second aspect of speaking with spiritual generosity is not to be neutral, not to be ambiguous about your own spiritual life. As Henri Nouwen put it, “No real dialogue is possible between somebody and a nobody.” Real communication starts when you can express your own ideas, opinions, and lifestyle clearly. The trick is to find a balance between receptivity and confrontation. This is perhaps the hardest work that any of us can do to cultivate an attitude of hospitality. We need to develop our “spiritual personalities” to the point we can engage with our guests, yet still leave them space to be themselves.

So, what can we to expect to gain if we work on these three areas and make an intentional effort to become more hospitable? Church growth handbooks, of course, maintain that a congregation that isn’t welcoming is one that won’t grow, and I believe that’s true. But we are only human and before we make any effort, we usually want to know whether we will get something personally out of it. Therein lies the real secret of hospitality – the one in the story of Abraham and Sarah, in the monasteries, on the sides of many mountains, and in our own past experiences as host and guest.

Henri Nouwen reflects on the almost endless stream of Biblical stories of hospitality to say, “Old and New Testament stories not only show how serious our obligation is to welcome the stranger in our home, but they also tell us that guests are carrying precious gifts with them, which they are eager to reveal to a receptive host.”

Precious gifts! The announcement of a baby to be born to Sarah and Abraham. Precious gifts! What did the Magi – some of the most unexpected strangers of all time – bring to the manger? They brought precious gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – but they also brought their wisdom and their hope. No matter with what difficulty weary and worried Joseph and Mary might have welcomed them, these three sages graced the stable with the gift of affirmation, the belief that something special, something wonderful had taken place under the light of the star that would change the world forever.

Jean Stairs, in her book “Listening for the Soul,” calls hospitality “the virtue that allows us to break through the narrowness of our fears.” And what do we find when we break through? Nothing less than an encounter with the holy. As you heard in the Rule of St. Benedict, “Salute all guests ... in honor of Christ, who indeed is received in their persons.”

And so the search for an image to grace our “Hospitality is an Attitude” poster inevitably comes to Jesus himself, who played both host and guest, often both within the space of a few minutes: The Babe given shelter in a manger within days is welcoming the wise travelers – the strangers who bring precious gifts. The wedding guest at Cana turns the tables and provides the wine. The weary traveler invited to join his companions for dinner at a table in Emmaus is suddenly recognized, acting as host and breaking the bread, as the beloved teacher who was crucified and yet lives again.

God’s promises in Isaiah to “provide a feast, a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy rich food and pure choice wines.” As we shall be served on that holy mountain, let us open ourselves to the possibility of a banquet waiting in our daily lives. Greet the world – especially the stranger – as if the spirit of God is shining through their eyes, and you cannot help but meet God along the way. Listen to the stranger’s story, and you will hear God’s voice. Lay a table for the guest, and you yourself will thirst no more. Laugh with the guest, and you will hear the angels sing. Amen

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of God has risen before you.
Lift up your eyes to receive God’s blessing
and bear it forth into all the world.


The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 53: On the Reception of Guests
Matthew 25:35
“Creating a Free and Friendly Space,” from Reaching Out by Henri Nouwen
Matthew 2:1-12

Posted by Sue Mosher at January 9, 2005 10:08 PM
Posted to Sermons