In the past two weeks I have had five houseguests. Two were dear friends who came in from Washington, DC to attend my graduation. The next one, with the unlikely name of Rolfe Foxwell, came unexpectedly through an organization called Couchsurfers.org, an international community of people who offer hospitality on an as-needed basis to those who contact them. This works entirely through the honor system and what Tennessee Williams memorably called "the kindness of strangers." As soon as Rolfe showed up I got another last minute request from a couch surfer, a Dutch man named Halpert. So last Sunday night I found myself hosting two complete strangers: one in the guest room and the other downstairs on the couch. I fed them dinner and we shared a bottle of wine and talked late into the night about politics, culture, travel and healthcare. My fifth houseguest arrived yesterday – another stranger but this one a woman with whom I had communicated on-line, and who is a seminarian and therefore someone with whom I knew I would have a lot to talk about. Tomorrow morning she and I will welcome seven other women religious professionals for a day of conversation, theological reflection and, of course, plenty of good food.
I have gotten so comfortable having guests that instead of feeling obligated to clean the house, dress up, cook something fancy and serve it in the dining room I open the door in whatever condition I happen to be in (yesterday it was dirty from gardening), welcome whoever shows up, show them their accommodations, give them a towel and then feed them whatever I'm eating while we sit at the very informal kitchen table. What I'm eating almost always turns out to be something like cheese and crackers or asparagus-tofu-rice – something easy, in other words, that can be eaten out of one bowl, and often with the fingers.
I am learning a spiritual lesson from this spontaneity, from this "come as you are and I will welcome you as I am" attitude. I am learning that the less I prepare for guests, the more happy and willing I am to host them (and even with little or no notice), as I find that the lack of fussing on my part means that I am genuinely relaxed when they arrive, and therefore able to focus my attention on them instead of worrying whether there's a layer of dust they can see or if I have the right food on hand to impress them with my culinary craft. But this learning has come slowly and uncomfortably, as I was raised with a far more formal approach to hostessing than that. Perhaps you are familiar with this approach? How it works is that you work very hard to get everything just right and then ACT as though the house was always sparkling and the special meal no trouble at all to prepare; an afterthought, really. To call this kind of hostessing a lie seems a bit harsh, but if it is not a downright lie, it is certainly based on an illusion. "Welcome to our sane, lovely home."
On one hand, opening the door in your pristine outfit and ushering guests into the lovely foyer is a beautiful, respectful, gracious gesture. Civilized. However, when we begin to feel that we should NOT open our doors unless it can be to beautiful house and hostess and perfect refreshments, we maintain our separateness. Religious people need to remind ourselves of this, challenge ourselves on this. The ethic of hospitality that religious people are committed to is not about Martha Stewart forms of hostessing. It is about flinging open the door to the "whosoever may come." We share sheltering compassion, food and lodging not only to the whosoever may come, but in the truth of who we are, too, whatever condition we are in. Which usually turns out to be, you know, just the raw human condition.
How do we come before each other? With how much honesty? With how much fear? And how much pretense? How do we come before our God, or questions of ultimate meaning? With how much honesty? How much fear, avoidance, denial? With how much pretense?
As suburbanites, we are people and we dwell among people who are deeply invested in appearing to have their houses in order in both the literal and the figurative sense. "Welcome to our lovely home. Just don't open any closets, please, oh, and also – that attic is off-limits. The parlor, too – please don't go in there unless you've been pre-approved and have a college education." The Church has always been-- or certainly should be-- the institution that lovingly confronts the shaky foundations that those pretty houses are built upon. The minute the Church starts looking like an exclusive club or a private home, it needs to call itself back to its mission, part of which is to throw open doors and windows and let fresh air and reality into stuffy, exclusive and exclusionary edifices that have been constructed in both society and in the human heart.
The Church challenges, or it should. It says, "Your house looks great. What's underneath? How's it holding up?" We express this concern in different ways over the centuries but the message is the same: it is not what we reveal on the shiny exterior that expresses any lasting truth or that sustains us, but the strength and security of our foundations that provide the home base from which we may love and serve and endure what comes. I admire the resilience of the pastor in Western Massachusetts whose church steeple blew off a few days ago in a tornado. "We lose our steeple every hundred years or so," he said with a patient smile. "The church is not the building, it is the people." Think of those empty mega-mansions abandoned by exiled dictators in the Middle East (I see in this morning's news that squatters have taken over the London estate of one of Quaddafi's sons). Poignant, indeed. What foundation were they built upon? St. Paul wrote, "Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands." (Corinthians)
It may be that I am thinking in metaphors of guesthouses and foundations lately not only because I have been hosting people in a house owned by the church and occupied by its ministers since 1875, but because the kitchen in my house is actually sinking. There is literally no foundation under the parsonage kitchen, and so when I share my meals with travelers at the table, I wonder if they notice how the big wooden beam is pulling away from the ceiling, or how the cabinet doors no longer fit their frames because the weight of the floor is pulling them down. It's funny, and the Capital Improvement Committee is "on it," so not to worry. What has happened is that because all of our newfangled appliances are so heavy – when that kitchen was built, no one owned refrigerators or washers and dryers – the floor is giving way. Another metaphor. Even sturdy structures need to be assessed in every new age to see if they are strong enough to hold up what they need to hold up.
How do we come together in this house of worship? To whom are we opening our doors on Sundays and other days? Such a variety. An AA meeting on Monday night, First Parish Knitters on Tuesday mornings. Book groups, meditation group, yoga, SHAAGLY, committee meetings, weddings, funerals, christenings. Some enter this hall on Sunday mornings as a homecoming, who feel among family, and others who come timidly, who want to be able to keep mostly to themselves, who are not "joiners." Do we welcome them all to come as they are? Some of our guests arrive in good condition, charming and ready to engage with our busy household. Others come exhausted, barely able to make small talk. They need to rest from the road. We need to greet them right at the door, open it for them, and let them know that we're looking forward to visiting with them when they awake from their nap. They may sleep through dinner. They may not be up to chatting. Do you understand what I'm saying?
Not every guest comes through the door ready, willing or able to participate in ways that we would prefer. Religious hospitality requires that we minister to them with our whole hearts, too. The thing is, we are all guests here. This is God's house. We are just temporary sojourners and caretakers. You get in, you hold the door for the next person. The most loving thing we can do to keep this house open. And the most beautiful, hospitable, and wonderful way to do that is to be real here, to just be at our work, cooking up a batch of meatballs at the stove and hollering "Come on in, it's open!", or reading to the children and patting a chair where the newcomer might sit and listen in, or out in the garden planting, you know, and if someone stops by you just hand them a trowel and a plant and let them join you. Everyone gets a master key the minute they arrive: there are no secret closets, attic or kitchen cupboards they aren't allowed to peek into. This is God's house, the house of the highest. We're all just staying here for the time being, and therefore every room and cupboard should be totally accessible to everyone who walks through the doors.
This is not just a spiritual attitude but an issue of practical accessibility, like being very clear about how things work, how to get involved and how to participate. It is about continuing to be committed to communication about what's going on at every level of church life, and it also means that we must concern ourselves with accessibility on the tangible level. You know, we have to keep thinking about this and getting better at it. Do we need more parking? Yes, we do. How are we going to arrange for that? Do we need better lighting around the building? We need to look at that. Do we have enough hearing assisted devices for hard-of-hearing worshipers, and a great sound system? We really want to make sure we do, and to know about it if that needs improvement. We have a Braille hymnal now, thanks to Joyce Pickel, and we have a church secretary who has intermediate level skills in American Sign Language. I am going to take classes next year.
Here's the part of the sermon where I warned you I was going to be make some shocking suggestions, so here they are:
Look at where I'm standing. You know who can preach from this pulpit or participate in an important leadership capacity in worship? Only someone who can climb stairs. I can think of one former ministerial intern of this congregation who would not meet that criteria, and who is a very fine preacher. I can think of several other times in the past nine years when people who wanted to participate in a meaningful way in worship were not able to do so because they could not ascend these stairs. And I can think of dozens of times when creative worship ideas, pageants, readings, duets and presentations were either limited or impossible because of the design of this pulpit, which was fairly recently built up in its current fashion to feature one "star" speaker in this pointedly hierarchical fashion. A photo I have from the church taken in 1917 shows an open chancel with a simple center pulpit on a platform. There is room to move around, freedom to do more than stand center and declaim, and best of all, plenty of space to include more than one voice at a time. Now that we have restored the organ (and improved it in the process), I would like us to consider restoring the pulpit and chancel.
As far as other accessibility issues go, Joyce Pickel will be working on those in the coming years: everything from signage to bathroom access to wheelchair accessibility in this meetinghouse (like, would you consider knocking out a pew or two so that folks in chairs can sit up front and not in the way back?). Joyce has been our Worship Committee chair for three years, and it has been exciting and inspiring to work with her. She has come up with a detailed agenda for every meeting and held up a broader vision than just week-to-week worship details. I'd like to call her up and give her this sage plant (yes, the pun is intended) and invite you to thank her with me.
Ultimately we know deep in our guts that is just a guest house for temporary residents of this world. It is, in the words of an old hymn, "wayside hostel built by those who knew wild roads." Next fall, I hope we will begin a 20/20 Vision process that will bring us into conversation about our identity, our goals and our mission. But we should know this: however beautiful this house, however hospitable its guests, and however warm its hearth fire, this house is not a place to dwell in undisturbed comfort, sheltered from the world --but to strengthen and inspire those who gather within its walls for sending out, for meeting those wild roads with more love, more wisdom, and more reverence. Open the doors. Not only for those who come in, but for the going forth.