Cosmic Hospitality

I entered the Buddhist zendo, my inner introvert fully engaged.

First of all, I didn’t know what to wear. Some zendos are casual, come-as-you-are, like the one I had just left before my move to Texas. The only color you might reconsider would be black, which was considered a bit morbid. Some zendos are a bit rigid on attire so I checked out the Website before heading out. I saw the colorful cushions and realized thought: OK… any color but black. When I arrived, all those colorful cushions were stacked in the corner, replaced by black ones, which matched everyone’s shirts, and pants.  I had chosen to wear blue, subdued, but still, very, very blue.

As I walked in the room, nobody looked at me. Buddhist communities can be quite insular this way, and I expected to just find my own way to a cushion and sit down. Then I noticed two women looking my direction: I had been spotted.  As I removed my shoes they kept looking in my direction and talking. I could tell they were trying to figure out what to do.

“Don’t mind me,” I wanted to say. I’m just here to sit.

Finally, one of the women came over to me, and curtly said, “would you please follow me.” I followed her into a back room, where she closed the door. Not what one might expect when walking into a religious community, but OK.

 “Ummm. Well, today is a special event,” she said, looking at my shirt. “I don’t really have time to offer you an orientation.”

“I’m not sure what that means,” I said. “Would you rather I away?”

“It’s just, well, we have a special guest zen master.”

“I know how to sit quietly,” I said. “I’ve just moved to town and I’ve sat before.”

She continued to give me an evaluative gaze. “Well, OK. You know what to do.”

I guess I didn’t, for the first thing I did was sit down on the wrong cushion. Just as I was settling in for the first 30-minute session of sitting, a quiet voice came up behind me, breaking the rule of silence.

“Oh, could you sit somewhere else,” he said.

I eyed another spot. “Not there.”

I eyed a third spot, “That’s good.”

I now eyed the door, but the bell had been rung and the group was filing into the room through the small door, followed by the zen master blocking my exit. There was no escape.

After two rounds of sitting and walking meditation and a dharma talk, I got up to leave. Two people said goodbye, but I didn’t feel invited back. The experience left me thinking about the experience of the visitor.

It’s often uncomfortable to go outside our own experience. In the time for all ages we heard the story of the Good Samaritan, from the Christian scripture of Luke. The first two passersby probably did so for good reason: the roads between Jericho and Jerusalem were notoriously dangerous with thugs and bandits. Imagine walking through a part of San Antonio where there are gangs, and there’s nobody around, and suddenly you come across a hurt person, maybe someone of a different race than yourself, dressed differently than yourself. This person is bloody and dirty. His eyes are open and he’s looking at you approach. Are you uncomfortable? Are you frightened? Would you go up and help the person? Would you take out your wallet filled with money and give him some for a meal and a hotel room? That’s exactly what the good Samaritan did.

Jesus told this story because he knew it was not what his listeners would expect. He was crafty that way. He told this story to a lawyer who asked him about the way to eternal life, which I understand as a metaphor for enlightenment. Do I need to follow the Law to gain enlightenment, the man asked? Yes, said Jesus, and you must love your neighbor as yourself.

“And who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asks. This is the crux of the story. It’s not about being nice; it’s about who your neighbor is.

The answer isn’t “someone who lives in your neighborhood,” or someone who looks like you—the answer is someone who may make you uncomfortable, even afraid. Jesus chose a man from Samaria because such a person would have made the lawyer uncomfortable. Samaritans were Jewish by faith but not the Law. They were of mixed ethnicity, intermingled intentionally by the Assyrians during their rule in an attempt to assimilate the existing Jewish culture. Samaritans believed in the monotheistic God of Abraham, but did not follow the temple cult and did not observe proper purity restrictions. They were strange and different. And Jesus sets the Samaritan up as the model for radical hospitality. More so than the priest or Levite (who were usual models of piety for first-century Jews), the Samaritan would have had reason to be afraid of the situation, more reason to hold a bitter grudge, more reason to want to walk on by.  This is not just story about helping others, but helping someone you may not like, someone who may not like you, someone who is not only a stranger but who is strange and foreign.

Since moving to San Antonio I’ve attended several meetings with the COPs/Metro group (an organization which unites communities for empowerment and change) on the near West side, and the first time I went down Commerce Street to a meeting I didn’t know to take the overpass and to not travel under the bridge. I was on a bicycle, and suddenly I was surrounded by dozens of homeless men and women. I was suddenly terribly uncomfortable.

“So this is what they mean in this town by ‘under the bridge,’” I thought.

And then I thought, looking at these men and women, but for the grace of the Universe go I.

Every time I go over to the West side now I try and go under the bridge, not over it. I don’t want to forget the discomfort and challenge that the simple act of witnessing a life experience that I cannot fathom has on me. I drive through a world of strangers I can only touch, right now, through my involvement with community organizing groups like COPS/Metro.

I used to call this kind of reaching out “charity.” I’ve now come to realize that when outreach is rooted in hospitality instead of charity, it can become a more powerful transformative tool for both receiver and giver. Reaching out because we are grateful for the blessings we have received, and not because we feel sorry for someone, is the heart of hospitality.

The New Testament word xenos has three meanings in Greek: “stranger,” “guest” and “host”. Ana Pineda writes in her essay “Practicing our Faith” that this one word, xenos, signals the essential mutuality that is at the heart of hospitality. “No one is strange except in relation to someone else; we make one another guests and hosts by how we treat one another.”

Stranger, guest, host: all the same depending on where you are. You are all here today xenos. If it is your first time here, if you have attended 40 years, xenos. This place is equally yours, first timer and long timer, big giver and guest. That’s a pretty radical concept in a world of capitalism and commerce. The only question is how do we make that known? If it is your first time, how do know that this place is yours, that we can accommodate the change that you will bring so that there’s a place at the table for you — even if you’re wearing a blue shirt and we’re all wearing black? Likewise, if it is your thousandth time, how do you know that this place will always be yours, despite the changes that are inevitable in a thriving community? 

Let me ask these questions a different way: Do you remember when you weren’t a Unitarian? Since more than 80 percent of all Unitarians came from other religious traditions, four out of five of us have some memory of a time before we discovered what it means to be a part of this free faith of religious diversity and tolerance. Do you remember a time when you weren’t a Unitarian? If that was 20 minutes ago or 20 years ago, again we are united by a common thread.

I have been throwing the term radical hospitality around a lot the past four months. If you’re getting tired of it and want to move on, just go out into the community, grab three or four people, and get them to church.

The truth is, we’re not very good at evangelizing. The best we often do is energetic discourse, or enthusiastic hinting — baby steps toward a more vigorous public invitation. Until then we need to be radically hospitable in the way we share our healing message of affirmation and challenge. We need to do to say, “come share a cup with us, not of communion wine, but of coffee and fellowship on Sunday morning.”

Church attendance, too, is woven into radical hospitality. If you make a connection with someone one Sunday, and then you take the next three off, who will be there to greet potential new members on their second or third visits? Don’t underestimate your power to gladden the life of our community. Don’t underestimate how much your presence is appreciated here. I understand the need to get out of town from time to time. This is not about guilt but being radically hospitable to yourself, too.  When we use the phrase, love your neighbor as yourself, you must hold some love for yourself for it to make sense. If there is an absence there, know that you are valued in this place.

Near as I can tell, the term radical hospitality comes from the book by the same title written by Father Daniel Homan and Lonni Gollins Pratt. For Homan and Pratt, radical hospitality is about connecting with non-Christians and the un-churched in true and inclusive ways.

For Unitarian Universalists (since affirming a plurality of belief is intrinsic to who we are), the question has become, How do we connect with those outside our circles, even when they don’t look like us? How do we make more room in our circles? How can we connect with other faith communities or people of faith when they don’t understand us, or may be hostile to us?

One answer is to live with the discomfort. When I first got to San Antonio and got involved with COPs/Metro I found myself in the uncomfortable position of the newcomer. COPs/Metro’s collective voice of churches, unions, and communities has affected all manner of change in our city, from flood control in economically challenged areas of the south side to job training programs. It holds our local elected representatives accountable for the promises they make or fail to make during elections. This was an organization of power that I wanted to be a part of.

There was one problem for me: I have not always agreed with the tactics of  Industrial Areas Foundation organizations, of which COPs/Metro is a part. I have not always agreed with angry politics of organizing pioneer and IAF founder Saul Alinsky, although the results of his efforts have led to innumerable positive changes for the laboring and underclasses of America.

Three things drew me to become engaged in COPS/Metro: its success rate in the city of San Antonio, our church’s founding organization status with the group, and the explicit understanding I had with our church leadership that, were I chosen as your settled minister, I would at least give it a try. I am glad that I did!

Saul Alinky did some of his most important work in Chicago, the city where I’ve recently come from. His legacy is still felt in the city, but up there I was more attracted to the work of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, another organization working for social justice and change. In fact, I was one of half a dozen people in Chicago to reactivate the organization and get it going again after many years of inactivity. We staged events of public witness, participated in protests, and hosted educational forums.  I was very comfortable with the group. We began each meeting in meditative silence. We dealt with anger as just another mental fabrication. I was very comfortable.

Not so much with COPs/Metro. Sometimes when I tried to explain my faith to others in the group I’d get a response like: “Well, at least we’re all working through Christ for the salvation of others.” Me, not so much the whole working through Christ thing. How do I explain myself? Sometimes you don’t explain, you just work and be yourself. Let the dharma shine through.

Sometimes you do, like the breakfast meeting with a COPs/Metro organizer a few weeks ago. It was our third individual meeting, and he often has quoted the prophet Jeremiah to me as a theology that grounds our work. I enjoy the enthusiasm that the major Hebrew prophets had for social reform so it has been a common frame of reference for us. But I kept thinking of the passages in the movie Pulp Fiction, as quoted by the gangster character Jules: “ And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers,” says the prophet Ezekiel. I decided on our third meeting that it was time for him to hear some of the theology that grounds my social justice work.

He asked me: “What gets you angry? You have to be angry. If you say you aren’t than you’re lying. What makes you angry, Bret?”

Definitely time for me to talk about my theology.

“Well, I have to tell you that although I’m versed in the Bible, the foundation of my practical theology is not Biblical, but based in Buddhist practice, so I might have a different way of dealing with anger.”

“Tell me more,” he said.

“Through Buddhist practice I’ve learned to observe anger as something that arises in the course of human living and something to which I can choose not to attach. I notice it, and by observing its origins I can also watch it be extinguished. I don’t have to be the anger.”

“But you’re angry, right!” He motioned to the newspaper on the table. “You have to be angry if you’re paying attention.”

“The anger may be there from time to time, but  tend to let it go more often than not, and then get to work.”

“What do you do when you’re angry?”

“I sit.”

“What do you do when you’re really angry?

“I sit longer.”

He didn’t get it.

“Then what motivates your work for justice if not anger? You’ve read the prophets.”

“Interdependence,” I said. “The knowledge that I am part of the interdependent Web of all things, and that when I’m ignoring my responsibility to that Web, I am not being fully engaged in it.”

We sat there for a few seconds in silence, looking at our eggs. Then we talked a little more about the prophet Jeremiah. It was one of those moments of discomfort, a moment of radical hospitality where both of us met in a place unfamiliar to both of us. He was being radically hospitable by actively listening to my story—and connections were being made.

We don’t need to go out on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and find someone shot and lying in the gutter to practice radical hospitality, but as a spiritual practice we do need to intentionally look for ways of practicing it. Many of you have examined our practices through the lens of radical hospitality and are looking for new ways of being welcoming. You may have noticed the coffee fund can has vanished. That was intentional. It says to the stranger or guest: sharing a cup of coffee with you is worth the nominal cost, week after week. It says to the long time member, too: sharing a cup of coffee with you is valuable to this community. It says you are all valued for the gifts you bring. It says thank you. Sometimes the simple things speak the loudest.

Theologian Matthew Fox calls this kind of hospitality not radical, but cosmic. “I believe it can be said that holiness consists in hospitality. Cosmic hospitality,” he writes.  Hospitality comes from the word for host or hostess . . . [and, he continues] the creator God is a gracious, an abundant, and a generous host/hostess. She has spread out for our delight a banquet that was twenty billion years in the making.”

Fox calls us to express our gratitude for this banquet of creation, its lakes and mountains, grasses and flowers, by recreating that hospitality in our own lives. “Hospitality is about relationship—one cannot be hospitable without guests. We say “thank you” to creation when we give of ourselves, when we allow ourselves to be uncomfortable in the process of connection, when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and invite new people into our lives. We love the intimacy that being a part of an inner circle brings. This is natural. It is also the trap of intimacy, for when we close our circles, they eventually whither. “Cosmic hospitality,” Fox concludes, “requires a deeper and deeper reverence for all that is and all that might be. It will therefore require a substantial preparation, as all true hospitality does.

It is therefore our gift to creation to foster radical hospitality, cosmic hospitality, in our institutions and lives. And there are so many ways to do this. I challenge you to get involved with COPS/Metro and bring your gifts to the table, your way of dealing with anger about unjust social policies. Become a leader in our institutional crusade to make our city a better place to live for the good people of San Antonio with fewer material resources than yourself. I guarantee that at some point in that work you’ll be uncomfortable, you’ll struggle with the theology, you’ll encounter angry people. And I guarantee that you will walk away transformed in some way.

Or you might make a deeper commitment to fostering relationships here at church, perhaps by joining a small ministry covenant group, by inviting a visitor out to lunch after church, or by trying out something new. These are ways that we religiously liberal Unitarian Universalists can be holy: by being grateful and hospitable. One cannot be half grateful. You’re either thank-full or thank-empty. (I didn’t say thankless!) Gratitude and its reflected image of hospitality are appropriate responses to the banquet of blessings we have been given. Our deepest prayer is a thank you, and our greatest sacrament service to others, so that they may be thankful.

True holiness and hospitality leads to gratitude, and gratitude back to hospitality, and the circle continues until we are all guests and hosts, we are all connected, we are all found.  

This entry was posted in Sermons. Bookmark the permalink.