Welcome's Underbelly

Ancient Testimony ~ Mark 9:38-41, 49-50

September 27, 2009

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Those of you who have had the privilege of using a personal trainer will understand what I mean by “underbelly.” Underbelly survives all the sit-ups you can do. Underbelly is the muscle under the tummy that has gone flaccid. Good trainers will show you where that underbelly is and teach you how to move what is below the fat. You will do pelvic tilts until the cows come home and may or may not touch the underbelly. Then you will go back to sit-ups. Getting to the underbelly is hard work. It is also foundational.

Welcome, or radical hospitality, is a foundational value. It has become the theology de jour of the 21st century, mostly to counter the radical inhospitality toward gender minorities by congregations. We speak of welcoming Baptist churches. Our phone answer says that all are welcome here, even though you would hate to hear most of our staff meetings, when we add the caveats to that welcome. “No matter who you are or where you are from, you are welcome here,” declares the phone answering machine. At staff, we say, “… unless you are on crack, or have no money, or smell, or want something from us that we do not have.” Worse, there are sarcasms about what kind of members we want. If you are unemployed, there is a nice church right down the street. If you are Republican, surely you have checked out First Presbyterian. If you are off your medication, we hope you will consider Beth Israel. And the bad jokes go on. We know our limits. Today I hope we can get even better acquainted with them. Sean’s new member statement said he wanted to be challenged. So, Sean, this sermon is for you.

I have learned long ago that if you have difficult news to bring to someone you should start off with a few positives. So let me state the positives before I become difficult. Last week our front porch delivered some of the finest food we could find to a few locals. Thank you, Martha and Abigail and team. We have an urgency to give here. That urgency is powerful, beautiful, and flawed. The flaw is fairly simple but takes a while to reveal itself. Whenever welcome becomes a should rather than a want, whenever welcome becomes all host and no guest, it becomes flawed. At its worst, this all giving and all hosting, or imagining that we are so doing when actually we are protecting our power in the relationship, can devolve into racism and paternalism. When we brag that “no matter who you are, you are welcome here,” we ought to add, “No matter who we are or who you are, we are all welcome here.” Lose the mutuality in welcome and you lose its joy. Maintain the mutuality in welcome and you might be okay.

Unfortunately, this one-sided welcome and caring is deep in our genome at Judson. We began as a missionary operation, as a downtown church of the privileged for the underprivileged. We began in that 19th century urgency to bless the whole world with our version of privilege. The sadness at our heart—that we are a monument of a son for a father dead and lost at sea—is rarely discussed. Sometimes I think if we could establish our legacy more deeply in this loss, we might find our way forward with more grace. Instead, we establish our legacy in all that we have done for “them,” and the problems begin. Some of our best people still talk about meeting the needs of the community rather than receiving the gifts of the community. Or declaring the human rights of the community. When we meet needs, or welcome others, and don’t see our self-interest in that relationship, trouble starts.

One-sided welcome, when it is a should and implies a needy them, can lack mutuality. When it lacks mutuality, the guest is not really being welcomed so much as used. There are always power relationships between hosts/insiders and guests/outsiders. When welcome is something we give, rather than also receive, it becomes wobbly and worse: paternalistic. When we lose our own self-interest in the act of welcome, we can become tasteless, and I don’t just mean lacking in flavor. I mean oppressive. I mean that me Tarzan you Jane relationship that no newcomer wants to know about. The underbelly of the beautiful value of welcoming is in its shoulds. When we welcome because we should, we poison the welcome. When we welcome because we want to welcome, relationship is restored and good things happen all the way around. Wanting to receive is what the host has to give. Becoming one of us is great—as long as it is also an understanding that our oneness will change every time someone new comes to us. Love is often defined as the mutual willingness to be changed, constantly, by the relationship. Welcome that lacks love, or the mutual willingness to be changed, is dangerous to both the giver and the givee.

In our ancient text for today, the disciples are worried that some people are doing healings in the wrong way. As a parallel, consider a chef noticing that a brand new dish is being served in the restaurant, a dish which has only the vaguest resemblance to what the chef originally put on the menu. You can imagine a professor discovering that his students are doing his experiments using completely untested methods. Or consider a parent noting that a child no longer is Christian but has become Jewish and that the grandchild will have a bris. “Teacher,” say the disciples, “we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Always watch out for that word, “us.” It implies a “them.” Jesus has no problem with this diversity of methodology or orientation, but his disciples do. Jesus clearly tells his disciples, don’t stop these innovators and experimenters, these strangers who indeed may just come along and take over your whole story. Indeed, says Jesus, if these innovators, whom you call strangers, give just a cup of water to those with demons, they will be with us and not against us. Our wide tent has room for many. We will all be flavored by what happens among us. Flavor is good, and the more flavor the better. Indeed, Jesus suggests that by hoarding your own salt you might find that it sits around long enough to lose its flavor. So don’t lose your own flavor by protecting it too much. Enjoy the innovators. They have something to give you. When a guest comes to your home, welcome them. They are not only here to eat or steal the silver. They are here to bring a gift to you. The self-interest in welcome is salt and flavor. It is also feast, mutually enjoyed.

I have to talk about the dastardly direction of the immigration debate right here. The underbelly of that debate is that immigrants, whom even our President is now calling illegal immigrants, don’t deserve the silver. They are here to take, not to give. If only these United States could begin to see the gifts of immigrants, and not just to the gross national product or to the cultural flavors of this nation, we would have elasticity, vibrancy, a salty beauty that we do not now have. We act as though we are the hosts and immigrants are the guests and they really can’t become part of us. They are a permanent they, who only take and do not give. They don’t deserve the America that we do. A better definition of paternalism and racism I cannot find. Racism is the idolatry that you are fine just the way you are, having no need for the other or his or her gifts. Literally right now, we are developing legislation that won’t even allow immigrants to buy health insurance; that is how far this debate has gone. Our friend in South Carolina has a long reach. His reach is so dangerous to the salt of this nation that we can’t talk about it enough. When people are allowed to say, “I bought 24 pairs of legs today,” meaning I hired 12 immigrants, we are in great danger as a nation. We have objectified human beings. We have gone deep in the underbelly of welcome, which is to lose our self-interest in befriending the other. Apparently, we want to be white and in charge more than we want flavor or feast. When we lose our self-interest in befriending the other, we join in the debased language in a debased way. Note that we call our thems “Astroturf” and we are the “grassroots.” Note that the way we counter hate speech is often with more hate speech, as in the Brooklyn Rail article entitled, “Intolerant Dickheads Come to Brooklyn.” As this debate about immigration deepens, we have to be very careful that we don’t have more chaff than wheat. We have to be very careful of our language and get especially good at our pelvic tilts. We need to be foundational. Immigrants are deserving of America. Those who say they are not are wrong. They lack flavor. They endanger feast. They are losing their salt and endangering the very us-ness they say they are protecting.

Not all closed communities are flavorless. For a resident of a small village in northern Tuscany, where ritual and tradition are fiercely guarded, the invitation to contribute a dish to an elaborate communal meal is a long awaited rite of initiation. You are invited. You work on your dish. You do something to become a part. You are not automatically welcomed so much as initiated into a community. You are invited, not enveloped.

At a great church in Portland, whose slogan is “Good Coffee, Cool People, Hot Church,” welcome is understood as something the people there do for themselves, not for the outsiders or the others. They enjoy their guests. Their guests aren’t there to fill the pews or meet the budget or make them look good because they are so diverse. The guests are there because they are fun. They add flavor. This same church won the slogan contest for Portland. Their entry: “Keep Portland Weird.” Good coffee, cool people, hot church; welcoming people, welcoming for the sake of the host and the guest, mutually, not one-sidedly. Nor does this congregation in Portland enjoy my favorite -ism, that of “uniquism.” They know they are part of a great welcoming movement, which as we know is often, in Protestantism today, code for queer and gay people. The Portland congregation knows they are a small part of a big whole and like being that. They don’t have to be the best or the greatest or the first. They like being a cup of water in a mighty river.

You don’t have to go to Tuscany to enjoy the folk value of a somewhat closed community. Or to Portland. You can reread what Alice Walker said about being a womanist. A womanist is “not a separatist, except periodically, for health.” I often remember what she said about how womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender. There are dangers in large diverse communities and the danger is dilution. When we talk melting pot, instead of mosaic, we can end up being anti-local and anti-particular and anti-safe. Sometimes we need homogeneity for our health. That is not only true of black women.

I want to start winding up by referring you to a very important study, Dear Sisters: A Womanist Practice of Hospitality, by N. Lynne Westfield. Westfield studies the power of what she calls concealed gatherings among oppressed people. Based in what W. E. B. Dubois said about double-consciousness and the terrible fatigue it causes, where people are one person in mixed company and another in separated, homogenous company, these groups are intentionally closed. They keep people together. They are deeply hospitable to their sisterhood. They gather in order to spread. I might argue that unless any of us has a home group where our consciousness is unified, we won’t be very good in mixed groups. The larger and more diverse that home group can be, the better.

Henri Nouwen, in his seminal book on this matter of hospitality, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, written in 1975, argues that we are increasingly a world of strangers, even to ourselves and our histories; therefore, we search anxiously for a place of hospitality where community can be found. Or as The Times asked this morning, “Which of our fears should we choose?” We can choose to be alone and strange to ourselves and our histories, particularly our ethnic histories. Or we can choose to be in community, where dangers abound as well.

I might define a good community as a place where you are free to be alone, where connection and isolation co-exist. Sean doesn’t need to fear envelopment so much as he needs to fear the loss of his particularity in community. Nouwen argues that Christian texts say two things simultaneously: that we have obligations, even shoulds, toward the stranger, and that guests are carrying precious gifts with them. Both gifts and obligations, not either. Mutuality is the ticket. If we want to convert hostility into hospitality, we are to create an empty, non-manipulated space where things are open enough that both the guest and the housed can receive each other. “We cannot force a change of heart . . . where gifts are given and received . . . but we can prepare a space for that to happen.” bell hooks says the same thing a bit differently: “When we gather we are to create the excitement in which people can change each other.” There are always power relationships between guest and host, teacher and student, newcomer and old timer. Intimacy, reciprocity, and safety are rarely achieved all at once. But when they are achieved, something sacramental happens.

This is what we mean by the welcome table, at the heart of the communion table. At that table all are fully themselves—even if that means being able to be alone, or weird, or smelly—and fully connected to each other. Justice and peace pass by in bread and wine, even a cup of water. Our double-consciousness unifies. We take off our mask in public, like women do in concealed gatherings. We pass the salt around. We get to the underbelly and get rid of a lot of excess. Amen.

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