Friday, January 5, 2024

Let's Welcome One Another by Reverend Tom Capo preached on 9/10/2023


 What was it like giving a welcoming blessing to someone in this congregation?  How did it feel?  Would a couple people share?

 What was it like receiving a welcoming blessing from someone in this congregation during the meditation?  How did it feel?  Would a couple people share?

After such a giving and receiving, perhaps these words from UU Reverend Angela Herrera touch you in a different way: “Don’t leave your broken hearts at the door…don’t leave your anger behind…Bring them with you, and your joy…”  Don’t we all want to be radically accepted for who we are, just as we are?  As I say this, some questions come to mind.  Can we, UU Miami, consistently be a place of such acceptance, of such welcoming, of such blessing to those gathered here in community and to any who join us?  I believe we can, for I have seen instances of it.  But I ask you to consider what does radical acceptance and welcoming look like here, right here at UU Miami, to you?  And what can each of us do to promote radical welcoming to each other and to anyone who enters our doors?  

And so, I wonder, have you been that person who entered these doors when your heart was broken, or when you were filled with anger, what did someone do to help you with your feelings?  You don’t have to answer any of those questions out loud, but I do hope you allow them to stir within you, consider them, perhaps even talk about them with each other after the service.  Our UU Principles—which for those of you who are new are printed in the front of our hymnals and on cards you can get at the welcome table—are filled with words like justice, equity, peace, compassion, and affirming the interdependent web of all existence, but I ask you, how are each of us and us collectively embodying these words.  Giving them life.  I know many of you and I have seen ways that they are embodied by you.  I believe that part of embodying is also sharing how we live these values in our lives.  So that when the going gets tough, when push comes to shove, how do we lean into these values, individually and collectively?  Or do we just put them into our back pockets until we feel better?  Do we remember that we are not alone in living these values, that we can also lean on each other, that the members of this community bless each other even in tough times?
I have often said that we are a values-based religious community.  And this congregation has affirmed that all who come through our doors are welcome here.  But is there a sort of unspoken expectation that people who decide to stay with us have to affirm the values we hold?  Do they have to affirm all the values to receive our acceptance or blessing?  Or do they just have to accept the important ones?  And which ones are the important ones?  
I know I am asking you a lot of questions this morning, but do you think Unitarian Universalism is a religion?  Or is it a group of like-minded people who like to talk about religion?  I believe it is a religion.  

A couple week ago, I led a class discussing what is a religion as we prepared for the World’s Religions Classes.  Which, by the way, is starting after lunch today with Muslim Imam Dr. Abdul Hamid Samra.

We explored many definitions of religion and here is what we came up with.  A religion provides a community to explore and explain mystical and/or awe-inspiring experiences—both those that conventionally defy explanation and those that a person cannot find words to express.  This community has social cohesion and provides a sense of safety in world that is constantly changing, where the world is not always safe, a world where people are often hurt, abused, oppressed.  A religion, and thus the religious community, hold onto things that they collectively believe, things that are of worth to the community.  Religions, and thus the religious community, are places where people explore existential questions like life’s meaning, purpose, and particularly questions about the meaning of death.  Religions have myths and stories that hold some explanation regarding nature, relationships, creation and how to live in this world.  Religions define/find/recognize what is sacred/holy.  Religions address questions of sex/sexuality/gender.  And religions and religious communities have a sense of who is “in” the religion or community and who is “out” or not art of the religion or community.  I think that many of us have answers to at least some of these questions about Unitarian Universalism.  I wonder how do we, here at UU Miami, decide who is “in” and who is “out”?  I think we do this, too.  I believe we would have great difficulty accepting a “Proud Boy” or a “Mothers for Liberty” member here.  Or at the very least, I believe they won’t feel welcomed.  How far does our sense of radical welcoming and acceptance extent?  

Also, the class on What is Religion, I said that it is easy to find fault in other religious traditions, and even “otherize” other faiths because of certain beliefs, rituals, books they hold sacred.  Nasiruddin in our story was “otherized” because of how he looked, dirty, sweaty, in farm clothes.  Remember what he said: "when I first came to this feast in my old farming clothes, I was not welcome. No one would speak with me. No one would even look at me.  But when I changed into this coat, suddenly I was greeted warmly. So I realized it was not me that was welcome at this party, but my clothing. And so I am feeding my coat."   I believe many of us are aware of what means to be religiously “otherized”.  For instance, have you ever been around someone marginalized, minimized, stigmatized or made fun of a certain practice or belief of a certain faith tradition?  Saying it was stupid, not important, not worthy of study.  How do you think someone who holds a belief that is being put down in one way or another feels when that happens?  For instance, in the Christian tradition, during Holy Week—that’s the week before Easter Sunday—there is Maundy Thursday, where participants wash each other’s feet.  No matter what you might think about the service, it is deeply meaningful to many people.  How do you think they would feel if it were ridiculed?  Ha Ha look at them washing stinky feet, how silly.  We as Unitarian Universalist are not immune to this kind of minimization and joking:
The many answers to ...
Q: What is a Unitarian Universalist?
A: An atheist with children.
A: Someone who approaches every question with an open mouth.
A: Someone whose only sacred artifact is the coffee pot.

And while we may not always understand another faith’s tradition, history, ritual, or beliefs, we have to respect them and I believe, at least for myself, acknowledge there is always something I can learn from other faiths, something that will enrich my own faith.  Respecting and learning about another’s faith is also what it means to be radically accepting and welcoming.  And it’s how we can embody spiritual hospitality.  

I am always learning something new about other religious traditions.  This week in preparation for Dr. Samra’s presentation, I came across an article “The Power and Beauty of Hospitality”  by Paola Bernardini, PhD who teaches Christian-Muslim Encounter in the Center for Global Perspectives of Holy Cross College at Notre Dame  (from the Religica Theolab in the Center for Ecumenical and Interreligious Engagement (CEIC)).  

It starts: “While many of us are all too familiar with the image of the Islamic terrorist, a few know that the Islamic tradition contains many spiritual treasures, the foremost of which being the call to hospitality. I have experienced this beautiful hospitality many times when visiting Dearborn (Michigan), home of the largest Arab American community in the US, with my college students. We are always greeted with plenty of refreshments, very much appreciated after a long, early morning bus drive. The community spends the whole Saturday morning with us, taking away from time with family and leisure, not expecting anything in return. As if that were not sufficient, they also send us back with baklavas’ trays so big that they could feed a whole legion…Similar experiences are reported by many of those who travel in the Islamic world. What is striking about these stories is that the acts of hospitality are not directed only to friends or family. Rather they are directed to the foreigner, and the religious other…In the Islamic tradition, the call to hospitality is rooted in the Qur’an and in the life of his Prophet. A famous Sura of the Qur’an (51: 24-27), paralleling Genesis (18: 1-8), recalls the story of how Abraham treated his visitors with utmost reverence, serving them at once a fat calf, because they were strangers. Another Islamic tale tells of the time when Abraham was reproached by the angel Gabriel for having turned away a guest who had refused to bless the food prior to a meal…The professor of Quranic studies, Joseph Lumbard, explains that hospitality in Islam has nothing to do with ostentatious display. Rather it goes hand in hand with simplicity and humility. It is not the expensiveness of the food, or of the shared gifts, which characterize the many acts of hospitality which I and my students have often experienced in our Muslim hosts. The goal of hospitality in Islam is to make strangers feel at home in one’s household or place. This is expressed very well in an old Arab saying, ‘al-bayt (el bate) baytuka  (bate uka),’ which literally means “the house is yours,”  says Dana Sajdi, Professor of Islamic History.”

We embody he same spirit here when we tell our guests they don’t have to pay for lunch on their first visit.  Our spiritual house is theirs.  I fortunately have had many friends of other faiths.  When I was serving Peoples Church Unitarian Universalist in Cedar Rapids Iowa, I became close friends with members of the Mother Mosque, the oldest purpose-built mosque still standing in the United States, having been completed in 1934.  I frequently felt at home in that Mosque and in other Mosques in Cedar Rapids, frequently eating family style with many of their members.  

Members of those Mosques knew that our congregation was working to feeding the homeless in town.  During Ramadan, they brought over truckloads of frozen turkeys and chickens to help in our effort; they explained it was one of the four pillars of their tradition, Zakat, an obligation to donate a certain portion of their resources/wealth each year to charitable causes.  As I learned more about their Islamic faith and about how they embodied their faith, I was enriched, and my own faith expanded.  And I felt very much that I was part of their family and they were part of mine.

How do we welcome the stranger who enters our doors?  We give them a name tag.  We ask them for their email address so we can send them our newsletter.  Do we engage them in conversation?  I think so, if the groups in the breezeway are any indication.  Do we spend time getting to know them, about their spiritual journey?  Do we explain to them how the service will go?  Again, I think so; I know we’ve been distributing an order of service to people who want them.  This is welcoming by the way.  Here’s an important question: If they want to be left alone, do we honor that?  For some people, it’s hard enough to just walk into a place for the first, perhaps even second or third time, much less have an extended conversation with a group of strangers.  And that’s okay.  That’s another way of being welcoming.  What else can we do to make this place feel like a spiritual home?  A home where visitors feel like they can belong; where they can be part of our family.  Do we notice if they are metaphorically feeding their coat, like Nasruddin in our story, wondering if we can accept them as they truly are, not just how they appear to be on the outside?  It can take a while for someone to believe it when we say “Don't leave your broken heart at the door… Don't leave your anger behind… Bring them with you, and your joy…”  Do we have the congregational patience to give them enough space to feel safe?

Welcome and hospitality may not be a formal pilar of our faith, but I believe it is a value that is foundational to our faith.  Almost every Sunday we say: “Love is the spirit of this faith and service is its prayer.”  Welcome and hospitality are expressions of our love and service.  May we continue to broaden our understanding of what it means to be radically accepting and welcoming, and may we continue to embody the meaning of words “this spiritual home is ours and yours.”  So may it be

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