The Rev. Alison Cornish
November 7, 2004
It was a quiet summer on Noyac Creek, our front yard. For the first time in years the creek hasn’t been filled to overflowing with Canada Geese and their offspring, fuzzy goslings with bright eyes and outsized feet. Canada Geese, as all of us here on Long Island know, have become abundant on our waterways, golf courses and highway medians, often refusing to return to northern climes at the end of the summer, and eating away at any vegetative treats that suit their fancy – their “leavings” thick on the lawn. Though truly beautiful to behold, they have plucked our shoreline bare and probably despoiled the quality of the water.
No, this was an almost goose-free summer, but still, there’s been trouble on the water.
That’s because a pair of mute swans settled in with their cygnets, and it became apparent the creek isn’t big enough for the two species to share. Many a time I saw mama and papa swan, wings arched and necks stretched to their limit running down geese who dare to paddle their way down the creek. Their ferocious protection of their young was loud enough to draw us out of our house to watch the confrontation. There we were, witnesses to another “Wild Kingdom” moment, and powerless to stop it.
Watching this summer’s drama unfold in our front yard, I couldn’t help but think about the practice of hospitality. You see, my naturalist friend Stuart reminds me that we should expect the geese, at least in the summer when their historical migratory patterns bring them to our mild climate to raise their young. But the mute swans are truly displaced, never having been native to these parts. Originally from Europe and Asia, they were transported here in the late nineteenth century by European immigrants. Some swans eventually escaped, or were deliberately released into the wild, started to breed, and now they’re here to stay. Birders call them “exotics” not for their good looks, but because they’re outside their native habitat. Yet their relatively recent appearance doesn’t seem to stop them from defending their territory as if they were the original settlers. To me, their honks and charges seem to say, “we found it, it’s ours, now back off.”
Watching the confrontations in our little creek, I found myself thinking about the plight of all who come from afar, immigrants, new arrivals in strange lands. It’s felt as if this was a creature version of that all-too-familiar anti-immigration cry, “I’m here, I’ve got mine, you – you have no right to be here. You go away.” And all this brings me to a subject close to my heart – hospitality, and specifically, religious hospitality.
I’ve been reading and contemplating the subject of hospitality ever since I stumbled across it in a class at seminary. Not the Martha Stewart kind of hospitality of an artistically set table and creative seasonal decorations – but the hospitality that asks us to open our doors, literally and figuratively, to the other. I’ve preached on the subject a number of times, usually from the text in Matthew that is familiar to most everyone.
Speaking in a parable, Jesus says to his disciples, “ … for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me…” The disciples are lost in confusion – they ask “when was it that we saw you hungry … or thirst … and when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?” Then comes Jesus’ reply, the heart of his message, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” By providing for those in need, all are cared for, because there is nothing that separates us. “Our world is one world,” we sang earlier, “what touches one affects us all.” Jesus’ message is a truth that we know is right, one that we find expressed in our own seventh principle, there is but one interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part. What happens to one part of the web does affect us all.
What has recently caught my eye and ear in this text is the categories of those in need – the thirsty, the hungry, the naked, the sick – these all share some common ground. They need our care. We are called to give of our own resources to address their plight. Whether one sees this as righting an injustice or giving charity, the needs of these people are pretty straightforward. They were a part of the ancient world, and they are still with us.
But there’s more to this parable than first meets the eye, for if we take Jesus’ words at face value we miss the radical nature of his message. Right in the middle of this passage stands the stranger, “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” A stranger is not necessarily poor, or hungry, or sick. A stranger seeks a welcome. “Mystery surrounds all human relationships but especially a relationship with a stranger.” A stranger confronts us with the unknown.
You see, Jesus’ message was intended to challenge the model of hospitality practiced by the Greeks and Romans that dominated the culture of the gospel writers. Back then there was a definite protocol that shaped the relationship between a guest and host.
There were formal reciprocal obligations between a benefactor and recipient. And, perhaps most importantly, hosts and guests were socially and economically on par with one another. They knew one another – they traveled in the same circles. Jesus’ words in Matthew were radical at the time because they challenged the cultural norms and the traditional practice of hospitality. In this parable, Jesus declared that a welcome was to be offered to the stranger, to one so unknown that it was impossible to know if they had anything to give in return. This shift in the meaning of hospitality comes with the Greek word philoxenia, wrapping together the words phileo, meaning love or affection for people who are connected by kinship or faith, and xenos, meaning stranger. What results is an expression that links the love usually reserved for those who are familiar – even familial – with the act of embracing those who are not known. “Love the stranger as if that stranger were family” is the vision of hospitality that Jesus conveys.
I have to believe that I am not alone in stumbling when I encounter this radical new view of hospitality. I understand the call to feed and clothe the needy – and I have some sense of how to do it, even though I never feel I do enough. But welcoming the stranger, never mind loving the stranger, strikes me as almost counter-intuitive. From an early age I was taught not to interact with those not known to my family. The word “stranger” covered a lot of territory. In fact, in seems the world in which I grew up may have resembled the world I understand of the ancient Greeks and Romans – hospitality was reserved for those known to our family, and those who could reciprocate in equal measure. It’s hard for me to admit, but when I contemplate the words “welcome the stranger,” I feel a bit like the swans in the creek – wary, even suspicious of the outsider.
The injunction to feed and clothe the needy and to tend to the sick are familiar directives found in nearly every religious tradition. For example, the passage in Matthew is drawn on the words of the prophet Isaiah. But including the stranger on the list changes everything. We are not to stop at caring for those in need, but to welcome and love strangers as if they were family. What could be the motivation, even the justification, for such a call?
Some of the answer comes in the Torah as a commandment repeated three times with increasing ardor: You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 22.21); You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23.9); When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19.33) The references, of course, are to the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt – living as aliens in a foreign land – and the memory of that dislocation carried in their memories forever after.
But to me, these passages from the Hebrew Scriptures refer to far more than the history of Israel – they describe the universal experience of all people who find themselves, at some point in their lives, in an Egypt – displaced aliens living in a foreign land.
So here’s the motivation for the injunction. We are to welcome the alien, the foreigner, the stranger, because we, too, have been aliens, living in strange lands – perhaps literally, and often in other ways. When we look into the eyes of a stranger, we are looking at the reflection of ourselves, remembering our own experience of strangeness. When the Italian farmer and the young girl from Mississippi pass on the streets of New York, they know something about each other. That sharing of a common experience could well allow superficial differences to dissolve, empathy to well up, even banish fear. An understanding of one another’s “Egypts” may move us to do surprisingly courageous acts – like welcome the stranger. At this moment, we are not one with the swans, oblivious to the past, bound only by animal instinct – we are human beings, remembering our own exiles and experiences of alienation, called to extend true philoxenia – to love the stranger as family. To embrace the other – and all she brings – as part of our own circle of kinship. This is the work of real hospitality.
But we all know it is not so easy. Take, just as an example, our own Unitarian Universalist congregations. On the one hand we have every good intention of embracing diversity and difference, which is just another way of saying that we offer hospitality to “the other” or “the stranger.” Our principles and purposes say it in these words, “grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision.” Unitarian theologian and ethicist James Luther Adams said it in these words: “I call that church free which in charity promotes freedom in fellowship, seeking unity in diversity. This unity is a potential gift … but it will remain unity in diversity.” Good, even great words.
And yet, in practice, we can probably agree that we are far more comfortable with the familiar, with what we share, than the diversity we say we seek. Here are authors Father Dan Homan and Lonni Pratt on the subject, from their book, Radical Hospitality:
What we notice most about the ‘other’ is how much he or she is not like me…
We do not intentionally put people at a distance, but we can’t help notice that there are some who are not like me.
Not like me – that’s actually everyone, but some people seem particularly like a stranger because they are very different from the people I am comfortable with.
We all tend to surround ourselves with people who agree with us on the vital issues, people who look like us, smell like us, have similar backgrounds, and hold similar convictions. It is natural to do this…
Are we like the swans or what? The authors continue…
The problem with this manner of forming relationships is that we may exclude those who are not like us. We don’t exclude them intentionally, but our worlds tend to be small and homogeneous. We don’t go looking to be made uncomfortable.
You see, this is the difficult truth of hospitality, the one we tend to dodge when we skim the surface of the subject. Hospitality is not, ultimately, about comfort. Religious hospitality is about love, love of the stranger, a love that is challenging to our very cores.
It was a 7th century monk, Benedict, who first named hospitality as a spiritual discipline. Our authors explain:
[Benedict] understood the importance of encountering those who are different from ourselves because it stretches us; it dislocates stiffness and opens us up to new possibilities…The stranger helps us locate our favorite lies. The stranger helps us see the absurd in our culture and ourselves. The stranger opens our eyes… If we consider the possibility that others do not feel and think the same as we do, we suddenly feel very small in a mysterious, expansive universe. There is a security in a world where all the others are like me. It’s a false security, but we prefer it to no security at all.”
No wonder we dodge true hospitality. Not only is it hard, it can be terribly painful. And yet, I am increasingly convinced that it is only a radical, religious hospitality that has a hope of challenging communities – those as small as a family and as large as our nation – communities that are now segregated sometimes by fearful suspicion, but often by indifference, complacency and selfishness. We need not be as aggressive as swans to keep our lives small and homogeneous.
I know well this challenge, and I admit to falling short – not once, but over and over. The choice to be hospitable, or not, is made so quickly. I walk into a gathering of people, most of whom I do not know. Here is a choice. I can make a beeline for the familiar face. We will slip into a conversation we’ve had a hundred times before. Ah, the comfort I feel! From here I scan the crowd from a place of safety, relieved of my anxiety. Others will fend for themselves, I reason, – live and let live, right?
The gathering might be coffee hour, or an office party, or a PTSA meeting, or a public hearing. It might not even be a literal gathering of people, but instead the beliefs of fellow congregrants, or the political views of my neighbors. It matters not. In each and every case, we have a choice – to reach out to the other, or not. To keep our worlds small, or not. To risk change, or not.
And the key to making the choice to welcome the other? It starts, for me, in remembering my own Egypts, my own experiences of being the other, the alien in a strange land. Those times when I have looked around and seen nothing familiar, felt nothing comfortable, when I have been the “other” to everyone else. We all feel it, over and over again. Often on the streets of New York, and sometimes within our own families. Yet despite its universality, it is still a feeling I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
This summer, my heart was neither lost to the geese, nor set against the swans –
but aching for a creek that might be a home to all.
May Sarton, “Gestalt at Sixty”
No one comes to this house
Who is not changed.
I meet no one here who does not change me.