A Place at the Table

A Place at the Table

February 7th, 2016                      Rev. Fiona Heath

This month our theme is welcoming. What does it mean to be a people of welcoming, of hospitality?

For some of us, being welcoming is a natural state of being. 

Many of us know an excellent host, the one who is able to draw people out and serves great food.  Or the person who can make you feel like you are the person they most wanted to see in that moment.   

Before I go any farther, I invite you to take a few moments to remember when hospitality has been extended to you: When have you felt truly welcomed?  When have you felt truly included?  

Reflecting on those moments when we have felt truly welcomed, it is a sense of warm authenticity that stands out. Sometimes it is a just a simple and genuine hello and how are you? A moment when we were gathered up and included in a circle of friendship. A moment when we were accepted just as we are.

Sometimes it is a big, gigantic act of astonishing hospitality.

Many of you may already know this story. During the aftermath of the terrible events of September 11th, 2001, a small town made clear what it means to welcome the stranger. After the airplanes hit the World Trade Centre Towers on that terrible day, for the first time ever, all the continental US airspace was closed. All incoming flights were told to redirect.

Across Canada, airports big and small took in extra flights.

Gander, Newfoundland took in 38 diverted flights with over 6,500 passengers and crew.Now Gander is a small town of about 10,000 people. It has only two senior officers in the police force. Oz Fudge, one of the officers, said he stood and looked at all the planes, began calculating the numbers of people, and thought “oh geez”.

At first everyone was confined to the airplanes, as security, transport and housing accommodations were organized.  The Red Cross went into action.As the people came off the planes, they were met with bagged lunches and hugs, then taken to the local high school and college. 

As Gander filled up, school buses came and took passengers to even smaller towns like Lewisporte and Appleton. Every high school, meeting hall, masonic lodge and large community space was turned over to those stranded by 911. Most of the people on the planes knew nothing about Newfoundland. 

Planning for a business trip or a longed for holiday, or just heading for home, they were stranded in Canada. Many were Americans in shock and fearful for loved ones in New York and Washington. Others did not speak English.  All in all, 40 nationalities were represented.

But a Newfoundland warm welcome embraced all the “plane people”. Seniors were taken into private homes.  Children were well supplied with toys. Cars were offered to strangers.  Local businesses donated food. Bakeries stayed open all night baking and giving away bread. 

People dropped off home made casseroles and invited people to come and use their showers and computers.  Clothes and toiletries were donated. Kosher food was found for a group of orthodox Jewish travellers. Pharmacists filled needed prescriptions for free. The Gander Canadian Tire store gave away goods to stranded travellers.

People across the region gave up their ordinary routines and volunteered in any way they could. One passenger said “I was on a flight from London to New York and landed in heaven.” After two days, flight travel resumed, within a week all 38 planes had gone on to their original destination.

A woman named Linda said she was telling her friend about the experience and was asked if she had been afraid to fly home from Gander. “My response was no,… [and] my calmness was a direct result of all that I had experienced. People from many countries living closely together as one in peace and co-operation. I was lucky to have experienced how the world could and should be.

People caring for one another without regard to religion or ethnic differences, finding out what we have in common - that we are human and have the ability to love one another in a meaningful way.  I thank all of the people in Gander, hosts and guests alike.”

The people of Gander gave those stranded travellers a warm welcome.They demonstrated true hospitality:  people caring for one another without regard to religion or ethnic differences. They accepted all those in need, without hesitation.

In all the stories about Gander Newfoundland in those difficult first days after 911, what stands out most is that the people felt so welcome. Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen notes that hospitality is essentially an opening of the heart.  An openness to the other. The people of Gander Newfoundland opened their hearts in September 911. In the midst of fear and great sadness, they opened their hearts and homes to strangers.

It was a hospitality needed not just by the people on the planes, but by everyone. In the days after, Gander was the good news story. Gander reminded the world that it was possible, it is possible, to care for one another without regard for difference.

And we have another opportunity for caring today. The Syrian crisis is displacing millions of people.Unitarian Universalists across Canada, including this congregation, are stepping up to welcome Syrian refugees to their new home.

We’ll hear more details about the families we are sponsoring in next week’s service. May we be as welcoming as Gander. We all need a world where hospitality overcomes hostility.

This poem, entitled Red Brocade is by Naomi Shihab Nye.

The Arabs used to say,

When a stranger appears at your door,
feed him for three days
before asking who he is,
where he’s come from,
where he’s headed.
That way, he’ll have strength
enough to answer.

Or, by then you’ll be such good friends you don’t care.

Let’s go back to that.
Rice? Pine Nuts?
Here, take the red brocade pillow.
My child will serve water
to your horse.

No, I was not busy when you came!
I was not preparing to be busy.
That’s the armor everyone put on
to pretend they had a purpose
in the world.

I refuse to be claimed.
Your plate is waiting.
We will snip fresh mint
into your tea.

Preparing to busy. It is a good excuse isn`t it? How often we are just too busy to notice the person in need of welcoming. Too busy to notice who is being excluded.

Hospitality is a fragile art. And while we hope that we are always welcoming, so often we are not. “I’m saddened by how very often I find myself treating my neighbors as invisible, whether that is the cashier at the grocery store or the street person on the sidewalk. Paying careful attention to the humanity of my neighbors is the first step of hospitality, and one I’m too often ill-prepared or too distracted to take.” (Shawn Newton, Radical Hospitality sermon)

Offering hospitality in a crisis is wonderful and so needed. But in a way it is easy to do. The crisis – like nine-eleven or in Syria today – is so large and intense – people are galvanized to respond.

Offering hospitality during our everyday lives is harder to do. Too busy, too introverted, too busy talking about ourselves, too little time. We get so caught up in our own lives we forget to make mint tea. And the truth is we are not always in a place in our lives to offer hospitality. Sometimes we need to be the guest, weary, broken hearted, in need of safe haven. Sometimes our appearance, our sexuality, our race, marks us as different and it is a challenge to be welcomed as we truly are.  To be seen as ourselves and welcomed.

Hospitality is a fragile art. We all have our times of rest and retirement.  Times of fear and anxiety. And we can only hope there is someone, somewhere, with an open heart to welcome us.It is my hope that UCM  can be a place of open hearts, willing to reach out across difference, willing to see the common hopes and desires that lie within all of us.

Being truly welcoming takes time to learn. We will fail.  Sometimes miserably. It is always easier to be with people just like us, whether that is the way we think or the way we look. 

Hospitality is a fragile art, but it can take a great deal of strength to practice it. We have to choose to be welcoming, to be aware of difference and not frightened by it. Like anything, it gets easier with practice.

Within the Catholic Benedictine order of monks, hospitality is seen as a way of being. “Hospitality, rather than being something you achieve, is something you enter. It is an adventure that takes you where you never dreamed of going. It is not something you do, as much as it is someone you become.

You try and you fail. You try again. You make room for one person at a time . . . and each of these choices of the heart stretches your ability to receive others. This is how we grow more hospitable – by welcoming one person when the opportunity is given to you.” We grow more hospitable by welcoming just one person.

So with our hands of peace and welcome, we all just grew more hospitable! Excellent work everyone!

As Unitarian Universalists, we are guided by the seven principles. Our first principle affirms the inherent worth and dignity of each person. If we see each person as having inherent worth, then we must treat each person with care and consideration.

Part of being UUs is to cast our circle wide, to be boldly inclusive, and welcome everyone who cares to join us, with a place at the table. We have a legacy of trying:  UU churches were some of the first mixed race churches in the Southern United States in the sixties.  In Canada we were leaders in the fight for marriage equality for same sex couples.  In the United States, UUs are standing on the side of love for the rights of illegal immigrants. 

We have done good work. And we can do more. There is an old story that suggests what might happen when we are generous in our welcome.

Long ago and far away, there was a monastery that had fallen on hard times.Once thriving, things had now become so bad that there were only the abbot and a few monks left.  The monastery was well past its best days.  The aging monks bickered and grumbled and neglected their work. In despair, the abbot decided to seek the counsel of an old friend, a rabbi. 

The rabbi welcomed the abbot and listened very carefully. When the abbot finished his tale, the rabbi only shook his head and held his hands up. The two men wept together. Eventually the abbot had to leave.

As they embraced, the rabbi said, “I’m sorry I had no advice for you. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is among you.” The abbot returned to the monastery in confusion. “The rabbi couldn’t help. As I was leaving he said was that the Messiah is among us, but I have no idea what he meant.”  

The monks pondered. What did the rabbi mean? Could the Messiah really be one of them?  Maybe it was Abbot?  Or Brother Thomas?  It’s surely not Brother Michael? He’s far too grumpy. And each monk thought: surely the rabbi didn’t mean me! I’m just an ordinary person. ….But… what if he did mean me?

As all of the pondering continued, the monks began to treat each other with great care, just in case one of them really was the Messiah. They began to treat themselves with great care, too—just in case.   

There were still times when a visitor would come to the monastery, staying for a night on their way to somewhere else. Visitors began to stay for a second night, sometimes a third, leaving reluctantly. They would tell their friends there was something special about the monks. It was hard to define, one said, but it just made me feel good to be with them. The monks were so kind to each other, said another.

People began making special trips to the monastery, to these monks which radiated love and respect. And younger monks joined, drawn by its welcoming atmosphere. Soon the monastery was thriving once more. (story as told by Shawn Newton).

Now I am not going to claim the Messiah is among us. But I do claim that each of us has inherent worth. Not just those of us already here among us, but all those outside of these walls. All those still in need of a place at the table, lost, lonely, marginalized.

May we be a place where we can recognize our commonalities and cherish our differences. May we be a place where we make the time to make tea and welcome the stranger.

May we be a place of true hospitality.

So Say We All.

 


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