Sermon #13 (25th January 2015 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
You know that saying ‘I’m sorry I sent you such a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one’? That’s what happened with this service. As your last-minute stand-in in the pulpit today I am going to offer a few thoughts on what it means to be hospitable here in our spiritual home. (This was meant to be a 5-minute reflection but it turned out to be a 10-minute sermon instead!) Often our services consider issues that might help us lead better lives as individuals. I think it’s important, once in a while, to consider what might help us to lead a better life as a church community. How should we live – together? I hope that there will still be something in this service for you today regardless of whether or not you are already a committed member of this church, as hospitality is an important consideration in any groups we are a part of, and the lessons we have to take note of as a congregation are more widely applicable. The issues we are considering about hospitality here in our church community also have parallels at a smaller scale – in our homes, families, social groups – and perhaps also at a larger scale – in our nation and in the world beyond.
Now – Kensington Unitarians – I’m not setting out to flatter you all but I should acknowledge that in one sense I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t already know – over the last few years we’ve often heard visitors speak highly of the warm welcome they have received here. And perhaps the highest tribute to our hospitality is the fact that some of those visitors have come back! And kept coming back! And some of those people have become committed members and friends who will stand in the church foyer on a Sunday welcoming the next newcomer. So – thumbs up for the good work we’re already doing… and at the same time it’s good to take a moment to reflect on what we do, why we do it, and whether we might be able to do better. And if anyone is here for the first time today – I want to say: you have got something to teach the rest of us – as you’re seeing the place and the people with fresh eyes. Do stay for a chat at tea time after the service and maybe let us know how we’re doing.
So, quite often you’ll hear people talk of hospitality as a significant spiritual practice. It’s certainly a central obligation in most of the major world religions. As Tom Owen-Towle mentioned in the reading we heard earlier, ‘Mature church life begins with hospitality, the most ancient religious rite, hallowed in every tradition – at least in writ, if less successfully in practice.’
I’m going to pull out three strands – three virtues – that we might focus on to help us get a better grip on what hospitality requires of us. And those virtues are: Awareness, Sensitivity, and Generosity. As we examine each of these threads in turn I am going to try to spell out what they might require of us – what they look like in practice – here in this church.
Let’s start with my first strand: AWARENESS. Perhaps the most basic aspect of hospitality is simply noticing the visitor. On a busy Sunday morning in church, when some of us are rushing about to get everything ready or the service, and others are greeting old friends and catching up on news, it is quite possible that a visitor could come in and not be noticed, and be left to their own devices, to stand awkwardly in the foyer of an unfamiliar building, filled with a community of people who all seem to know each other already, and who have their own funny ways. [I don’t think this happens very often but I suspect it does happen from time to time]
And this might be stating the obvious but you can only notice who’s new if you already know who’s old (for want of a better word). The more regularly you attend, the more likely you are to know who’s who, and the more likely you are to spot someone you haven’t seen before, and be in a position to offer a special welcome to those who are here for the first time. Think of that character, from our first reading, John, who came to church every single Sunday. Few of us these days are in a position to be here week in, week out, rain or shine. The demands of work and family, and the irregularity of modern life conspire against us. However, the more regularly you can get here, the more often you stay on after the service to chat, the more deep and rich your network of relationships here becomes, and the more you realise, like John, that ‘someone might miss you’ if you didn’t come. [I hope you do all realise that – it’s not like we’re checking up on you in a creepy way – but we do miss you if you’re not here – first off, we wonder where you are, if you’re alright – and yes, we also miss your contribution, your practical help to keep the show on the road. What I’m trying to say is: Your presence matters. You matter.]
Back to this question of awareness: let’s think about the particular needs of the newcomer. There are basic, practical things you might need to know when you first arrive: Where are the toilets? Where should I hang my coat? Where can I get a drink of water? There are various quirks of the way we do things here that might need explaining, and if the newcomer has never been to a church before (not unusual these days) then they might be anxious about making a faux pax of some sort, standing up when they should be sat down in the service, and so on. There are some bits of infrastructure, some systems and routines, with which we can make life easier for a visitor – we can put up notices to say where the loos and the kitchen and the coat-rack are – the worship leader can make announcements inviting people to stand up and sit down, as they are able to, in the service – we can provide a printed order of service so they know what’s coming up and don’t feel unnecessarily anxious about what will be sprung on them next). Even more basic than that – we can make sure the place is clean, warm, and comfortable! We can and we should do these things…. but none of this replaces the human touch. In the end, hospitality is about human connection, people responding to each other.
This brings me on to my second strand: SENSITIVITY. Do you remember the first time you crossed the threshold of this church? Was it a casual thing for you, or a big deal, when you first came to Essex Church? Can you recall what it is that drew you to this place, as a visitor, a newcomer? Some come because they seek liberal religious teaching or intellectual stimulation. Some seek a spiritual workshop where they can wrestle with life’s ultimate questions. Some come to church because they are lonely and yearning for connection, community. People have vastly different prior experience of religious and spiritual communities (and they are likely to arrive here with a wide range of different expectations as a result). Visitors arrive at our front door for all sorts of reasons, with all manner of different needs… and they – WE – have differing temperaments (some introvert, some extrovert). SO – a key part of hospitality is displaying sensitivity to the particular person, the honoured guest, the unique individual with their own particular quirks and charms, in front of us.
There’s one classic, fairly fundamental, dilemma we face when welcoming a newcomer. On the one hand, there is a deep human need that most people share, and that is the need to be seen, heard, and acknowledged. Ultimately, the need to be known. How awful would it feel to turn up here one Sunday, come, and go, and leave no trace; have nobody take an interest in you, nobody even ask your name? On that basis, we tend to think that the right way to welcome a visitor is to bound up to them, introduce ourselves, ask their name and find out about them. Maybe introduce the visitor to one or two others you think they might get on with. Even, if you want a gold star from Sarah, let the visitor know about groups and activities going on here that they might enjoy, and invite them to leave their email address… That is all good, well-intentioned stuff, it’s what we encourage our official ‘greeters’ to do. But for some visitors that is ALL TOO MUCH (maybe so much so that they won’t come back!) It’s like an over-attentive host at a party, fussing, who won’t leave you alone for a second. When I first came here, sixteen years ago, I was extremely shy, I hardly talked to anyone for months and months, and I was glad of being able to lurk while I sussed the place out. Us naturally introverted types might prefer to be mostly left to our own devices. It’s a difficult balance to strike: being friendly and interested but not over-friendly and intrusive. People might want connection… but they also need space. And that is why SENSITIVITY is a key element of hospitality.
And onto my final strand: GENEROSITY. This is not just about being materially generous in the way that good host at home might be – though I do want you all to know that me and Juliet have made cakes and bread pudding for you to enjoy after the service – we felt it was in keeping with the ‘hospitality’ theme! Really I’m thinking that hospitality is largely about generosity of spirit. Generosity with your presence, time and attention: making a place at the table for strangers who might become friends.
Generosity with your insight and wisdom: sharing whatever fragments of wisdom you may have and being open to wisdom of others. Also the generosity of inclusion – think of the words of the hymn we sang earlier – ‘break not the circle, make it wider still, till it includes, embraces all the living’ – for me, a hospitable community is always reflecting on ways to be more inclusive, to work on removing the invisible barriers that might stop people from joining us. What, from our church’s position of relative privilege, are we not aware of? What are we not seeing? [the Unitarian Universalist Association in the states has done some really good work on all sorts of inclusion issues – work on accessibility for those with physical disabilities and mental health issues – work on the ‘LGBT welcoming congregations’ project which helps churches be more intentional in their welcome to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people – educating Unitarians about specific barriers to inclusion that people in each of these groups face (and so on)].
I think this is an area as a congregation where perhaps we’ve got more work to do. (perhaps there will always be more work to do – the circle can always be made wider).
Awareness – Sensitivity – Generosity – three virtues of a hospitable congregation.
I’m going to end more-or-less where I started by saying this: We’re doing alright. We are already a hospitable congregation. But it’s good for us – each one of us – everyone who has a sense that this is ‘their’ church – to reflect on what we can do personally to help make it ever an ever more welcoming place. In the words of our last reading, ‘Prayer for this Church’, by Nancy Shaffer ‘May we always have enough room for those many who want to come in… May we notice each one who is new and invite them to stay.’ May it be so. Amen.
Sermon by Jane Blackall
An audio recording of this sermon is available: