Generous and Alive. A sermon preached to the good people of the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL on October 8. 2-17
“Hospitality is literally the art that will save us from our fear of each other, it will save us from turning each other into threats that can be dehumanized and dismissed, it will save us from being a people who keep killing each other. Hospitality is how we keep ourselves open, open to love, open to being changed, open to growing more deeply connected to life.”
Story for All Ages
Love After Love by Derek Wolcott (98 words)
Like many teenagers, my dad taught me to drive, and given that I was deep into that adolescent time of self-differentiation where my dad could do absolutely nothing right, I really wasn’t looking forward to spending hours in the car with him telling me what to do! But I was a country kid, and for country kids a drivers license is your ticket to a social life on Friday night. It seemed like all that time with my dad was a sacrifice that would pay off pretty quick!
Dad started my teaching with a hard jolt. I’d had my learners permit for two hours. He piled the whole family in the car, and said, “You are driving me, mom and your brothers to Oma’s for dinner. Our lives are in your hands. If you make a mistake we could die. Let’s go.” His first lesson was that every time you drive a car, other people’s lives are in your hands.
In the days to come, we spent hours crawling at slow speeds on the gravel roads around our farm, graduated to the undivided highway, mastered rush hour in Leamington Ontario with its population of 15 000, and parallel parked all over town. But the road that scared me most of all was the expressway. On the day we finally approached the on-ramp to the 401, the busiest expressway in Ontario, I could feel myself shaking and he asked me to pull over when the onramp came into sight.
“Freeways are easy to drive once you’re on them,” he said. “But the most dangerous place on a freeway is where the onramp and the highway merge. When you are going up the onramp, climbing in speed, you have to keep an eye on the end of the onramp, you have to keep an eye on who is in the lane that you are going to merge onto. Are they slowing down or moving over to let you in? If they do, you’re set. If they don’t, you have to slow down and wait for your chance, eyeballing how long you have before the onramp ends and moderating your speed. When you have a chance to safely merge, go for it. That’s lesson 1.
“Lesson 2 is just as important. Once you are the one on the highway, it’s your job to watch every onramp that you approach. If someone is merging, don’t make it hard for them. You will move over or slow down so they have a safe entrance to the highway. Do you understand?”
I didn’t. “So you’re telling me I have to be ready for other people not making room for me but I always have to make room for them? Why should I make room when they don’t?” I wonder if my annoyance is similar to the annoyance that Sophie felt when she got that letter from God, someone who she wasn’t sure existed, and if they did, probably didn’t write notes and leave them on her desk. Why should she offer hospitality to an invitation she didn’t trust?
“Well,” he said, “You can choose to be a selfish driver and I can guarantee you that you will be dead sooner than you should be. You can be selfish and dead, or generous and alive. When you respect everyone on the road, even if they aren’t respecting you, then everyone is safer. You are more likely to come home at night and so are they. I want you to always come home.”
At that moment, he was no longer the father I lived to rebel against. His words were passionately energized with love. He was a fully embodied human being lovingly teaching his eldest child not only how to drive safely; he was teaching her values that he wanted her to live by, values that weren’t just for the road but for her whole life: be aware of who is around you and what their needs are; we hold each other’s lives in our hands; everyone, including you, needs their space; respect everyone. If you live like this, everyone gets home alive.
He was teaching his child the art of hospitality which is not only the art of being polite, but also the art of respecting the intricate and interdependent web of life. Hospitality is the art of being lovingly and generously engaged with all of life around you so that everyone gets home.
The theme of our services this month is hospitality. It might be stretch to think of hospitality as an approach to driving or as a life saving spiritual discipline. We think of hospitality as being kind to strangers, or asking people how their day, or offering a nice meal for those we care about. Hospitality is seen as a gentle art with a gentle impact. And this is absolutely true. All these gentle acts are vitally important. And, we can never underestimate their impact. They may brighten someone’s day for a moment or save their life. Just like Sophie, we rarely know exactly what is needed or wanted. Sometimes we have to guess and hope that our efforts will bring comfort and not unanticipated suffering.
The working title of this sermon was “My home is yours until I believe it.” And what I am hoping to question is this idea that each of us has our enclosed separate reality that is exclusive to itself, like our homes where we lock the door behind us and separate off from the world, like the idea that the only part of the highway that is important is the lane that we are occupying or the destination of our individual journey. Driving is an act of sharing the road and hospitality is an act of sharing this world.
Every culture is unique in the particular balance it creates in how we draw the lines between ourselves and others. In America, we have a high level of individualism. We have expanded the parametres of what is deemed personal and shrunk the parametres of what is deemed collective and shared. You can see this in the way we drive. We ask for a lot of personal space and personal power in how we make our driving decisions. In Germany, by comparison, a country which has a different balance between the self and others, zippering is legally mandated. The line of cars on the onramp and the line of cars already on the highway must work together so that they merge one by one, with cars on the highway leaving room for merging and merging vehicles understanding exactly when their turn is to get on the autobahn. Merging is a shared responsibility and a shared risk.
Here in America, leaving room for a merging vehicle is a personal choice. We can choose or not whether we leave room for each other. The law places the risk entirely with the person who is merging, which ironically is also the person who is most at risk already. If an accident takes place, they will be responsible. This is a direct manifestation of the heightened importance of the individual. Your car, your space, your issue. If you look at other places in American society, the risks of living are continuously downloaded onto the individual who most experiences the risk, like with health care and the way we address poverty.
I’ve lived in two countries, the United States and Canada, and what I have experienced in America is a lot more social anxiety because there is a lot less to catch us if things go really wrong. Because risk is highly individualized, the burden is on us, and life is really more precarious.
So my question to us is this: what is the spiritual and existential cost of putting the burden of risk on the person who is needing the space more than on the one who could be providing it? What is the cost to those of us who should be providing hospitality and what is the cost to those of us who have to keep asking for it, and sometimes even fight for it. How many of us have taken the risk of pushing the nose of your car into a lane because you’re running out of on ramp and you are hoping that you’re not going to be in an accident and hoping that the people coming up behind you will brake and not hit you? The result of the balance we’ve created in America between self and other creates a higher level of risk and uncertainty for us all. It also creates a culture of distrust. We don’t know when to trust each other and what we can depend on each other for.
For those of you who drive, I be you have had the experience where you are making room for someone who is merging and they don’t believe you! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve experienced slowing down for a merging car because there isn’t room to move over, and the person merging does not believe that there is actually room being made for them. They hang back and hang back, and that leaves the person making room for them to make a difficult choice – do they slow down to keep making room, or do they rush ahead? I’ve made both choices, and it neither ever feels satisfying because it is hard to not be trusted. Not being believed when you offer someone hospitality is a disconcerting experience. What did your generosity mean if it wasn’t accepted?
In Unitarian Universalism, we have grappled with the relationship between the self and the whole. Our faith has developed in response to our cultural context. We have swung between the polls of extreme individualism andcollective identity, and it’s been a struggle for us. We are the faith that affirms and promotes the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but sometimes we have held up the individual at the cost of community and our congregations have not been very effective. In response, we have evolved into a faith of the covenant, a faith of sacred promises that we make to each other. Unitarian Universalism is a highly relational faith and living responsibly in light of the interdependent web of all existence is an operative principle. In fact, if you look at our 7 principles, (https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles), every principle includes both what we should be able to expect for ourselves and what we are called to offer others. So our first principle – the inherent worth and dignity of each person – tells us that we should be able to trust that our worth and dignity will always be recognized, and that we are called as well to recognize the worth and dignity of all others. We are called to offer each other justice, equity and compassion in our relations with each other.
One of the reasons that Unitarian Universalism has evolved into a religion of covenant, or a faith of sacred promises, is that we have recognized that there is an imbalance in how we live with each other. We need a framework to untrain ourselves from the incessant teaching that we can be completely self sufficient, that our needs come first, that hospitality is individualized charity, and that we can survive without caring for others. When I say that we are a faith of covenant, it means that as covenanted congregations we make sacred promises to each other that elevate our responsibility for each other. We recognize that the spiritual and physical cost of an excessive individualism is hurting us all. In fact, lives are being continuously lost.
Think about what happened in Las Vegas last Sunday night. One person was able to amass an arsenal of weapons that gave him the power to kill and injure hundreds within minutes. In our country, we have valued the right of a person to own a gun over the right of others to be safe from gun violence. Despite all the mounting evidence that easy access to weapons increases the rate of mass murders, increases successful suicides, and increases the rate of homicides, our country keeps feeding its addiction to weapons that are intended to kill human beings, and this costs us about 30 000 lives a year. That’s almost the size of Quincy. The result of this continuous loss is that we are nation and a people traumatized by ongoing tragedy. We keep having to absorb more and more loss, more and more death, more and more fear and helplessness. What happens when people are repeatedly pushed to their limit, or beyond it, is that we start to close in, we start to try and make our worlds smaller, our homes impenetrable, the lane on the highway solely ours. The result then becomes more fear, more distrust, more loss, more loneliness.
So when I say that hospitality is much more than the gentle art of being kind to each other, do you see what I mean? Hospitality is literally the art that will save us from our fear of each other, it will save us from turning each other into threats that can be dehumanized and dismissed, it will save us from being a people who keep killing each other. Hospitality is how we keep ourselves open, open to love, open to being changed, open to growing more deeply connected to life. That is why Unitarian Universalism has become a faith of the covenant, a faith of sacred promises we make to each other so that we have the strength not only to resist a culture that separates us from each other and dehumanizes us, but to become, together, the means of a path forward, a path towards healing, a path towards wholeness and new life.
You know what I’ve learned from driving on our interstates? Sometimes you have to do something a little extra so that people know you’re leaving room for them. It’s not enough to simply hang back and wait. They will be unsure what the space you’ve left for them means. I’ve learned that if you blink your lights, people are more likely to realize that you are actually leaving that room for them. They can trust what they’re seeing in the mirror and hoping is true. This practice has resulted in an almost 100% rate of people taking advantage of the space I’ve left for them.
We have to keep finding ways of providing the reassurance that if someone offers you an act of hospitality, it’s real. If you are offering an act of hospitality, you aren’t going to take advantage of them in that vulnerable moment when they choose to accept your kindness. So my question for you is what would that look like for you? What can you do in your life that sends the message to those around you that you are prepared to offer that room. Who is it that you are needing to reach out to? Is there someone whose hospitality you need to build up the courage to accept?
This has become a matter of survival for us, I believe. Let’s take that into our hearts, let’s make hospitality our gift to our continuously traumatized country so that we can be part of the journey out of fear, out of hatred, and into hope, compassion, and trust.
Amen and blessed be.