Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Theology of Hospitality (10-14-07)

The Theology of Hospitality
October 14, 2007
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro
Rev. Jane Page
Hospitality – (according to one online dictionary) – “the friendly reception and treatment of guests or strangers” – from the Latin word hospes – meaning guest.  That word is also the root word for “hospital” – a place where I spent much of this past week while my mom was a guest. 
Rev. Bill Verstree has a definition that is a bit more spiritual.  He says that hospitality is:  The divine enablement to share with others our home, our lives, our personal space and resources without communicating a need for performance or an expectation of return. 
I’ve been reading a book this week that was loaned to me by my mother-in-law, Sharon Brock.  It’s called The Kite Runner and it’s by Khaled Hosseini.  It’s a very good read.   There’s a passage in this book which exemplifies the importance of hospitality in some cultures.  In this passage, the main character, Amir, has returned to his homeland of Afghanistan after living in America for maybe 15 years or so.  He returned when the Taliban were in power and had a driver to assist him on what was an important family mission.  On the way from Pakistan to Kabul, they stopped in a village where the driver knew someone who would let them spend the night.  The villager, Wahid, welcomed them into his home with open arms and invited them to sit and enjoy a meal.  Wahid’s wife came in soon with two steaming bowls of shorwa and two loaves of bread.  “I’m sorry we can’t offer you meat,” Wahid said.  “Only the Taliban can afford meat now.”  Amir answered that the food looked wonderful and it, indeed did taste wonderful.  Amir offered some to his hosts and to their children – but Wahid said his family had eaten earlier.   Amir saw that Wahid’s three little sons were staring at this gold watch as he ate.  They followed the gleaming watch it as it moved from the plate to his mouth.  After dinner, he asked permission to give the boys a present.  Wahid said – no, but Amir insisted and Wahid agreed.  Amir handed the watch to the youngest son and the boys all softly said, “Tashakor” – thank- you. 
“It tells you the time in any city in the world,” Amir told them.  The boys nodded politely, passing the watch between them, taking turns trying it on.  But they lost interest and, soon, the watch sat abandoned on the straw mat. 
When returning from an evening walk, Amir heard voices inside the house.  The woman’s voice said “……nothing left for the children.”  Then Wahid’s voice – “We’re hungry but we’re not savages!  He is a guest!  What was I supposed to do?”  More talk was heard about finding something tomorrow.  Amir tiptoed away.  He understood then why the boys hadn’t shown any interest in the watch.  They hadn’t been staring at the watch at all.  They’d been staring at his food.  Amir and his driver said their good-byes early the next morning.  Just before he climbed into the car, Amir thanked Wahid for his hospitality. 
The extreme hospitality of the middle-east was an outgrowth of the harsh landscape that necessitated cooperation and charity for the survival of nomads.  And like many other group survival activities, these values became a part of the area’s religions, including the big 3 -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  One of our members shared her recent experience in another Muslim country, Morocco.  She said:
I thought the terrain was unattractive (I don't think I saw anything green the entire time I was there), and I was somewhat shocked at the role women played, even though I thought I would be prepared for the difference. But maybe the biggest shock was the way I was treated by the family with whom we stayed. In spite of their busy schedules, they gave us lavish meals and filled every request we made. When I thanked them for their hospitality, the wife told me that the Koran teaches that hospitality must be given to all travelers, even to the point of giving one's life. And I thought Southerners had a market on hospitality.
In the Koran, as well as in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the mistreatment of strangers is a sure way to incur divine wrath.  (Now I also know that one can find scripture that seems to support the MIStreatment of foreigners or “the other” – but I’m choosing to ignore those today.  And because I’m a Unitarian Universalist – I can.) 
All three of these traditions contrast the behavior of Abraham, who honors the strangers approaching his tent, and that of the Sodomites, who demand the same strangers be turned over to them to be raped. In the biblical account, Abraham rushes from the door of his tent to meet the three visitors and prostrates himself and insists that they recline and let him wash their feet. Then he prepares a feast for them.  As far as Abraham knows, these are just strangers – but it turns out, according to this old story, that they were angels with news that his wife Sarah would bear him a son. 
Abraham’s nephew Lot—called Lut in the Koran—also rises up to greet the visitors and urges them to stay at his home. When the men of Sodom riot outside his house, demanding that the strangers be delivered into their hands, Lut opposes them with these words from the Koran.  "Guard against (the punishment of) Allah, and do not disgrace me with regard to my guests;” Those of you familiar with the story know that he even offers his daughters to the rioters in exchange.  Fortunately, due to his hospitality to these strangers, he and his family escape the judgment of destruction visited on Sodom that is described in both Islamic and Hebrew scriptures.  If you read the entire context of this story of Lot and Sodom and also study how it is referred to later in Hebrew, Islamic, and Christian scriptures; we see that the REAL sin of Sodom is inhospitality not homosexuality as some would have us to believe.  These rioters were not a group of gay men looking for love.  They were a bunch of angry, xenophobic men looking to harass, humiliate and abuse these foreigners who dared to venture into their community. 
The Christian scriptures also provide ample reinforcement for encouraging hospitality as noted in our Story for All Ages and in the Reading prior to our meditation time.  (Note to Reader:  Story for All Ages was “The Good Samaritan” and the Reading was Matthew 25: 35-40).
Two more New Testament verses that are often cited are from 2nd Peter and from the letter to the Hebrews.
2nd Peter 4: 9
Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms.
From Hebrews 13:2
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.
And other religions have corresponding teachings as well.  But for many years, the word hospitality has been one that we in America connect more with “industry” rather than spirituality. 
The so-called “Hospitality Industry” is big business here.  (Statistics from 2006 Lodging Industry Profile:
  • Resident and international travelers in the United States spend an average of $1.8 billion a day, $75 million an hour, $1.2 million a minute, and $21 thousand a second.
  • Tourism generates $654 billion in sales (excluding spending by international travelers on U.S. airlines).
  • The tourism industry pays $104.9 billion in federal, state, and local taxes.
In the United States, tourism is currently the third largest retail industry, behind automotive and food stores. Travel and tourism is the nation’s largest services export industry, and one of America’s largest employers. In fact, it is the first, second, or third largest employer in 30 of the 50 states. Nationally, lodging and restaurants are the number one employers of people outside of the government.  In fact, about half of all the American employees have worked in the hospitality industry at one time or another.  As is the American way, we have commercialized what is for many religions, a sacred responsibility. 
Here’s a little local history regarding hospitality for you.
When I was growing up here in Statesboro in the 1950’s, the community touted itself as “The Tourist City.”  That was on the phone books and the placemats in the restaurants and lots of other advertising.  Now that may seem strange to you folks who have arrived here in the last 30 years or so.  But for many years, one of our main sources of income in Statesboro was you Yankees traveling from New York down to Florida via Highway 301.  This was before the existence of Interstate 95 and 301 was a major north-south route.  We were taught that we should be nice to all of the Yankees when we encountered them in a restaurant or gas station – because their money was green and good.  And they were too as long as they kept moving.   Now, of course those of you sitting here that moved here from the North would not be considered Yankees by my dad.  He said that Yankees were the once that visited and left.  You are the ones that stayed – also known as Damn Yankees.
In any case, we were taught that we were to be polite and show good Southern Hospitality. 
The South has been known for good hospitality and good manners through the years.  And sometimes I think it’s a manipulative strategy.  But it feels good.  And the results are usually pretty good too.
Take Savannah – known for her charm and hospitality.  As you may know, during the Civil War General Sherman marched his troupes through Georgia burning and destroying property along the way.  He actually came through Statesboro.  The only men left here to defend the town were some really old guys – but they took their rifles to the outskirts of Statesboro to take their stand.  Well, the result was that Sherman burned down our courthouse.    Now Savannah took a different strategy.  They sent a delegation out to meet Sherman and his troupes --- told him that he was welcome and that they looked forward to providing him and his troupes with good lodging and good food and drink while they were in Savannah.  The result was that Savannah was given by Sherman to President Lincoln as a birthday present – and all the buildings were left standing – and the troupes enjoyed their stay. 
But of course great hospitality can be found on both sides of the Mason Dixon line.  For most of our lives, many of us have considered our country to be a most hospitable place.  Our statue of liberty serves as a symbol of that hospitality.  She holds her lamp high and says:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
But something happened on Sept. 11, 2001 that seemed to change all of that.  After America was attacked, I thought at first that we seemed to be coming together.  It was good to see that folks were beginning to see beyond ethnicity and class and work together.  But then our fear of foreigners seemed to be heightened and that fear was encouraged.  And that fear was used to take away basic rights for our citizens.  And new hostilities were shown to our visitors.  Hospitality definitely took a back seat. 
A recent example was when Columbia University invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak.  Now personally, I think Ahmadinejad is either extremely naïve or ignorant about lots of stuff – or he’s very manipulative.  But that became apparent just by letting him speak. 
However, because of what appeared to the international community and especially to Middle Eastern cultures, I’m sure, to be a very RUDE introduction by Columbia’s President, Ahmadinejad ended up looking like he was the one taking the high road. 
It seems to me that it’s time for us to return to that very old value – but that very good value of hospitality.  And of course, I’m not the only one.  Daniel Homan and Lonnie Collins Pratt have written a book entitled:  Radical Hospitality:  Benedict’s Way of Love.  In conversation with a post-9/11 America that was overcome with fear and increasingly wary of the stranger, these authors offer an alternative response rooted in Benedictine monasticism. 
Homan, a Benedictine monk of St. Benedict's Monastery in Oxford, Michigan, and Collins Pratt, a friend of the monastery, propose that hospitality is ground zero in the struggle for our post-modern, post-9/11, post-post souls. Their invitation to undertake this way promises not the quick fixes of a "Chocolate Jesus" (p. 34) who satisfies our every craving, but a life rooted in the difficult and rewarding practice of greeting the strangers among us and embracing the foreign places residing in our own hearts.  
One reviewer of this book states:
Hospitality might seem a weak, even quirky recommendation for spiritual renewal in a world beset by uncertainty, tumult, and terror. After all, in American society hospitality has come to mean mints on pillows and instant customer satisfaction. As Homan and Collins Pratt comment, "the missing virtue of our era has been turned into a social grace that neither disturbs nor transforms" (p. 13). Far more than proper table manners or correct dining attire, Homan and Collins Pratt remind us that hospitality rests at the heart of Jesus' command to love one another and his practice of table-fellowship.
I think that genuine hospitality must begin with us welcoming our own selves into this world; knowing that we are inherently worthy and that we can make a difference.  And then – doing that – radiating that acceptance and love to those we know and to those that we don’t know – to the stranger – to the other.  Practicing this radical hospitality means making space for the stranger in our hearts and in our lives.
Radical hospitality is not a new spiritual practice that we can buy into to assuage our consumer passions, but the same old challenge given by the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the Koran, and many other religious teachings throughout our history.  It’s the challenge to break down barriers, to build bridges, to tear down walls – not build them up, to truly relate to those that we meet in our daily lives – and to do for others without expecting anything in return. 
Theologically speaking, the purpose of hospitality is to prepare a welcoming space for encounters with God or the Divine – to provide a setting for true transformation in our lives.   Faith communities are rediscovering the theology of hospitality.   In this time when fear of the stranger is stressed through every newscast, we need to reclaim the wisdom that is as old as Abraham.  These congregations no longer lukewarmly welcome visitors, but enthusiastically expect them. Instead of simply trying to fit them in, these congregations plan for the visitor.  Do we do this at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro?  Well, I should hope so – that’s what Unitarian Universalism is all about.  I asked those of you on our listserv to respond to this question:
From your experiences at our fellowship, do you believe our congregation honors and values hospitality?  Please explain your response.  Those of you that responded were very positive about the reception that you had received here.  Of course the folks that RESPONDED are the ones that stayed.  So I’m not sure my little research project was very valid.  In any case, I do think that we are trying.  Here’s how one of our member’s described our efforts:
We strive to make people welcome without adding the burden of response.  Our hospitality exists beautifully as a present thing, with some roads branching ahead made clear and welcome -- but to go down any road is always a choice, not a pressure. What I'm trying to say is our hospitality is a gift outright-- no strings attached. 
Others reminded me of the importance of greeters and folks to acknowledge and be welcoming to newcomers during the coffee hour.  One member reminded me, however, that this welcoming acknowledgement is valuable for all of us; not just those who are visitors. 
Our fellowship prides itself on being inclusive and welcoming.  Yet – I think we can do better.  I refer you back to the Story for All Ages that we heard earlier.  In this story – the Samaritan was the one who was seen as offering hospitality.  Now the Samaritan was the “oppressed” in Jesus’ day.  He WAS the other.  Yet he offered his hospitality to the oppressor.  So often as Unitarian Universalists, we work hard to welcome and connect with those whom we perceive to be oppressed in some way.  But we do little to show hospitality to those we may perceive of as oppressors.  If we do not do this, how can we hope for any transformation of them or of ourselves. 
I recently had the opportunity to serve on a panel sponsored by the Georgia Southern chapter of the NAACP that was on homosexuality and religion.  I was sitting between two students:  one who indicated he represented the Christian viewpoint that homosexuality was wrong and a gay student who was also a Christian.  I knew the gay student and actually was there mainly to be supportive of him.  The other two students on the panel were Muslim.  At one time I would have seen this as some kind of debate that we had to win.  But – thankfully, I’ve grown.  And my true hope was that I could help these young people see that we could have differing views, yet treat one another with respect and with hospitality.  Both of the young men that I was sitting between were well-prepared, but nervous.  And of course I continually encouraged my gay friend.  But I also found myself putting my hand on the back of the other young man when he got a little confused and nervous and encouraging him – telling him that he was well-prepared and doing fine.  And though I did not agree with his condemning views, I connected with him in some divine way through that encounter.  Hopefully, he connected with me as well – and maybe widened his perspective – perhaps his heart was stretched a little; or maybe not – and that’s okay too.  Because my encounter with him stretched MY heart. 
As Homan and Collins Pratt write:
"Here is the core of hospitality: May I know you better? Will you come closer, please? No it will not be easy, but make no mistake about it, your life depends on this saving stranger coming to you and stretching your tight little heart."
May it be so for me and for you! 
© 2007 Jane A. Page, Statesboro, GA.
All rights reserved.

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