Worthy Hospitality

“Worthy Hospitality,” Bob Ryder

Ephesians 4:1-12 (fragments) – I beseech you to lead a life worthy of your calling, with humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain unity in the bond of peace.  Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift – some as apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

From the moment Susan and I began working for NCC, this congregation has made us feel welcome and comfortable.  We left Iowa with a house still on the market, and when it took a few months to sell after we got here, NCC raised some money as a Christmas gift to help tide us over.  We arrived in need of a place to live that would welcome two pets, so Betty and David Rademacher rented us a lovely little house with a fenced yard just a few minutes away – kinder landlords you could never hope to find. Before that, John and Peg Kirk had us as guests in their home for a short stretch until Betty and David’s rental was available.  We left 2 full time jobs to share this one position and needed some extra income, so John hired me on for manual labor to help him take down an old barn that had come to the end of its lifespan.  It was hard, dirty, sweaty work – one of the best jobs I ever had.  John and I got to know each other pulling nails and sorting old timbers – some to be sold and some to burn on a fire pit, and we did a lot of reflecting as we imagined all the human interactions that took place within sight of that old barn as it stood watch over McLean County for more than a century.  Part of that barn still exists, as my parents bought some of the exterior lumber to remodel a room in their New Jersey home.  Likely it’s still there watching and listening as some 21st century family works out their own humanity and makes their way along the current of history. The hospitality of this congregation played a small but essential part of that current.

From Iowa, Susan and I brought with us our open-minded yet still somewhat conventional understanding of Christianity, and in this respect too, New Covenant Community made us feel comfortable and welcome to explore new scholarship enabling our thinking about the sacred to evolve.  That’s no small gift for a community to give, and one reason I believe there will be a long line of interested candidates hoping for the chance to be your next pastor when Susan and I move on.  In a Lenten book group that met our first spring here, a dozen of us read Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel “The Last Temptation of Christ.”  I was intrigued by the notion of Jesus’ having an identity crisis wrestling with the gargantuan challenges of being simultaneously human and divine.  I speculated aloud during one of our discussions about the conflict and confusion he must have felt, and surmised that Jesus must have experienced himself finding his way as he went.  Betty Rademacher was part of that group, and replied that she was persuaded by an interpretation of Jesus’ life that interpreted him as knowing precisely what he was doing and going about his work with confident intentionality.  This led to more book groups going forward reading the work of Jesus Seminar scholars and paving the way for decades of learning and growth by many who have been part of this community along the way, welcome and comfortable to develop their faith free from rigid orthodoxy taking science and history seriously.

With the right combination of imagination, discipline and luck, we get a chance to cultivate our spiritual potential as we navigate the currents of our moment in history.  The lucky part is finding a community of neighbors, friends and family to make us feel welcome and comfortable as we work out who in the world we’re supposed to be.  We figure out what interests us, get encouragement to pursue our opportunities, and learn to share resources and encouragement for others along the way. We find partners for practicing generosity as we learn to set aside some of our own needs and preferences for the greater good.  We learn to respect others’ rights, and to apologize and change our behavior when we violate their boundaries or neglect our responsibilities to them.  We learn resilience and forgiveness when others violate our boundaries or neglect their responsibilities to us.  We learn humility and gratitude, forbearance, perspective and courage – all necessary commodities cultivating our potential to become better versions of ourselves.  I have seen it happen time and time again, from those first instances helping me and Susan get established, to Mark Wyman working with Congolese immigrants, to a group of several in our congregation helping another immigrant family find housing and work and assistance caring for a special needs child, to just this past Sunday when Akierra took the microphone during joys and concerns to thank Susie and Carys for helping her write her piece for poetry Sunday.  There have been so many acts of kindness and patience and generosity and grace – so many worthy acts of hospitality over the years – it humbles me to have a place in such congregation.

I make myself go back to that now and then – back to that foundational hospitality – when the sometimes tedious process of coordinating conflicting schedules and negotiating diverse agendas and balancing multiple roles and herding independent cats takes its toll.  Occasionally, in a jaded tone I’ll ask myself, “What is going on here?”  Usually I’m restored quickly enough when I remind myself, “Hospitality.” That’s our thing in my view – cultivating sacred hospitality.  Even when we find ourselves pulling in different directions – it’s about patience, grace, making others feel welcome and comfortable.  My go to mental picture for what this congregation is at its best is an oasis: a place, a situation, an experience where we cultivate hospitality to heal, learn, and mature into our potential; a community where we to infuse our humanity with spirituality.

There are lots of valid ministries.  Hospitality, I think, is ours.  And if that sounds tame – in case hospitality doesn’t seem like an ambitious enough ministry for a congregation to take on – understand, it’s not easy.  What is the commandment to “love our neighbors as we love ourselves” if not a summons to hospitality as a way of life?  What is advocating equality for LGBT neighbors, what are programs like “Not in our Town” or “The Immigration Project,” if not expressions of sacred hospitality?  When I get stressed out and feel my perspective unraveling, I call to mind my intention that what we share here is part of the support we need to become conduits for justice and grace as we navigate the week ahead.

Hospitality is no quaint or meek thing.  We’re living through one of those moments in American history when demagogues are dragging the soul of our nation in exactly the opposite direction, sewing divisiveness and suspicion, animosity and blame as weapons to maintain political power for its own sake.  It was an expression of hospitality demanding something better for our country when members of NCC joined myriad others from around the nation in protest at the Women’s March.  It was an act of hospitality when counter-protestors confronted the Klan in Charlottesville and held their ground when surrounded by a mob bearing torches.  (Okay, they were tiki-torches, but I’m just saying…) Jesus was challenged and hated because he practiced hospitality with those ostracized by the rest of society – visiting their homes, healing their illnesses, making them feel welcome and comfortable.  If what we share inspires that kind of perspective and behavior among us, my time and effort is well spent.

Sacred hospitality isn’t easy, and it’s a lot God asks of us to be practitioners.  Making someone feel welcome and comfortable in your life takes effort and resilience, patience and dedication.  The alternatives are what’s easy – bitterness, being vindictive, self-centered or apathetic, suspicious and judgmental – anyone can do that. Forgiveness, generosity, transcending self-concern as the main frame of reference for how we relate to society – that is blessed difficult.  That’s part of how you know its worthy, precisely because it is hard.  If hospitality were easy, everyone would do it. What we practice behind all the activities and agendas and ambitions is a worthy hospitality, and it makes a difference in our community as we take it with us into our routines and responsibilities each week.

With all that in mind, we will soon be making a decision about whether to continue practicing hospitality here in this building that has stood watch over ISU and Normal for half a century, or begin looking for a new location. This has been under consideration for us for a while. As we’ve considered the ins and outs, some have felt strongly we ought to move and others have felt strongly we ought to stay put.  And of course, that’s fine. We’re a collection of smart and imaginative people quite in touch with our individual values. Whatever we ultimately decide, though, my hope is that our calculation is based on where we think NCC can best offer hospitality to the wider community.  At what address can we best make Jesus’ open table as accessible as possible to others who’d find our approach to faith attractive? As the Steering Committee looked at that question from different angles, it came up a number of times that we might need to move as a matter of survival.  The reasoning goes that we only average 40+ in worship, we have budget pressures, investing in the maintenance of this building is well past the point of diminishing returns, and we just need a place that will attract more people so we can afford adequate space and staff.  I hope if we decide to relocate, that isn’t why. It’s not much of an invitation to put out a welcome mat because we need your donations.  Whether we decide to move or to stay, I hope our decision is based on trying to be in the best possible space to share what we have with the wider community.  I hope we cast our vote for hospitality.  It’s hard to imagine who’d I’d be if I hadn’t found my way into this congregation.  I’d be much the poorer for missing what we share here.  And who would we be if we don’t do what we reasonably can to share it with others?

Bear with me as I wrap up with one more thought from Susan’s and my origin story.  Within our first month or so here we had an “installation service” in which denominational representatives came to celebrate with the congregation.  There were messages wishing us all well from the Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterians.  There were prayers, words of advice, a bit of pomp – it was optimistic and lovely, as you’d expect.  I barely remember a detail of what was said save for one thought Jim Pruyne offered in what’s called the “charge to the congregation.”  Jim was the last person to speak, and when his turn came, he walked up to this very lectern, looked at the congregation for a brief moment, and said to us “Love one another.”  Then he sat down.  That was it, three words – pretty ingenious.  I’ve never forgotten.  Isn’t that the essence of what any congregation should be about?  Where we love one another is only as important as how it enables us to welcome others  and make them feel comfortable to share it with us. Amen.