A sermon for Prairie UU Church, Parker Colorado. 10/24/2021
Speaker: Rev. Roger Butts
I’m going to tell you about three very different congregations, in three very different places. All of which had to consider the question, How shall we show hospitality? And what are we being called to, right now in our particular place and time.
Maybe a decade ago, on Colorado Avenue in Old Colorado City, a community-oriented Baptist church was full of aging folks. Huge building. Dwindling congregation. They did good stuff, like host Westside Cares, a nonprofit that helps the homeless and near homeless.
But the building was enormous and their numbers small. They went into a period of discernment. What are we being called to do, right now? Who are we to be and how are we to be that?
In another part of town, a vibrant, family-oriented congregation was renting space, happily. Their minister had been a professor at USC. He was a specialist in addictions. He had been through ups and downs, including ministering to a very large congregation in Southern California. The kind of dream job for certain folks, but he was not happy. He was not fulfilled. Through a series of setbacks, Dr. E, ended up in Colorado Springs. But in rebounding, he started a radical church and it was attracting addicts, homeless people, transgender people, and a lot of families. They were bursting at the seams.
Two congregations, heading in two different directions. The Baptists called Dr. E. Come and take over our space. Your congregation is perfect for our church building. He said no way. I am not looking for a building.
They persisted. Dr. E would say through the prompting of the Holy Spirit, he finally said yes.
Fast forward. Two years ago. Sanctuary church is doing well. The Baptists and the Sanctuary folks are together. And Dr. E. is doing his outside-the-box ministry. Some people gather on Sunday morning to get food. Some to get fed spiritually. Some to take a shower. Others just to see friends. Currently, they give away 2000 pounds of food a month.
Two years ago, they had a needle exchange at the church. Westboro Baptist, the folks from Kansas who just basically hate everyone, were coming to Colorado Springs to protest some church — who knows which one. (May every church do the kind of ministry that will get them picketed by Westboro Baptist!) They found out that Sanctuary was doing a needle exchange and they added Sanctuary to the list of folks they’d protest. On a Sunday morning, during their service time.
Dr. E found out. He and his board and his ministry team said the following: We are not going to change how we do things. If folks are here for food or a shower, they’ll get food and a shower. If they are here to worship, our worship will be the same. If they are here for human contact, so be it.
And we are certainly not going to engage the protestors. We aren’t arguing with them. We aren’t feeding that energy. But this is what we will do. We will cook the pancakes. We’ll make em pancakes. We’ll feed them. We will love them, the best way we know-how. And that is what they did.
Who knows, who cares, if the folks from Westboro Baptist ate the pancakes (if they didn’t I can assure you someone did).
By the way, 10 transgender angels came and blocked the protestor’s signs from the congregants. Those transgender folks said we love this church. We feel welcome here. We feel protective of the place.
So let’s review. The Westboro Baptist folks think that the folks in Sanctuary Church are evil. Most of society thinks the druggies who hang out there are losers and the trans folk’s weirdos. And almost everyone thinks the Westboro folks are despicables.
So who are the bad guys? Dr. E decided to model hospitality, insisting that no one is beyond the circle of grace. Labels? Don’t matter. Identities? Don’t matter.
We are all wrapped up in a network of mutuality and dignity. And hospitality calls us to see the worth and dignity of each and every one. (Sound familiar?)
Carl Scovel, the UU minister who once served King’s Chapel, said the church exists to feed people — either ideas or food.
What Dr. E is modeling here is what the Buddhists call Equanimity. What our first principle calls us to. He could have had counter-protestors out there saying, but we’re the good guys. You’re the bad guys. He could have had a group praying for their souls on the sidewalks, looking pious and righteous.
They could have had a food fight.
But he decided that hospitality calls us to open our hearts, open our kitchens, open our space. Welcome. We may not agree, but you are welcome here. Have some pancakes.
Equanimity. Worth and dignity.
Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrongdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there. Rumi, the Sufi says. Beyond labels, beyond categories, beyond right and wrong, we will encounter the divinity in one another. Namaste, as they say.
The doors are open. The pancakes are ready. The blame and the labeling and the feeling of superiority, the feeling of being right, not so important as the encounter. Hospitality is the encounter. The encounter is hospitality.
I will undoubtedly speak on this in our two years together, but let me briefly mention the Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas. He says that when we encounter the face of another before anything happens, we register deep in our bones a revelation of the divine.
Rob Hardies, formerly of All Souls Church in DC, the church that sponsored my ministry, speaks about his seminary experience and his first encounter with Unitarian Universalism.
He had gone to seminary at a Quaker school in Indiana. Small town. Great school. Prepared him well. But, as a gay man, upon graduation he says he was ready to get somewhere else, a big city, with big lights and all of that.
So he packs up his car and goes to Portland Oregon, which at the middle of the 90s or whenever that was, was a good place to go. Action. Bright lights. Cool bookshops and vibes.
And as soon as he got there, he realized they were in the midst of a horrible anti-gay movement that was trying to codify and legalize anti-gay measures. Here it was called Prop 2, don’t know what it was called there.
Wait a minute, Rob Hardies said. What is happening? I come here for the liberation and freedom and I’m surrounded by hate speech, by fear, by ugly open prejudice and bias? What have I done? The Quakers would be better than this.
He was walking in downtown Portland, he says, one day (I have to imagine it was raining), and he comes across this beautiful old beautiful church and hanging from every possible location on the sides of the building: rainbow flags and little rainbow ribbons.
A safe space. In the midst of his disorientation, here was something orienting. Here was something welcoming him, as he was. Something hospitable.
He walked in.
First Unitarian Church. He says he had never been in a UU church, but the energy and the focus, and the beauty and creativity kept him coming back. He eventually became a UU minister.
First Unitarian was hospitable to Rob when he needed a sanctuary. It was a sanctuary. They were grounded in their own self-awareness, their own vision, their own idea of the beloved community.
Self-awareness is key to hospitality. Here we stand. Join us as we build this thing. We are not all in agreement, but we have a vision. We have our deep faith and our deep understanding. Our deep covenant. We are different places on the spectrum but we are marching towards love and inclusion.
Self-awareness leads to humility. We know we won’t always get it right, but we are going to do everything we can to check our biases check our blind spots. We aren’t going to beat ourselves or each other up, but we’re going to keep on. With resilience and power and humility, and finally Grace.
Hospitality and Grace have a lot to do with each other.
I listened this week, via Zoom, to Dr. Elias Ortega, the President of Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. He spoke about Latino/a/x theology. He said something that I was taken with. In his community, there is this beautiful ritual and habit of blessing one another. He said Latino theology begins and ends with community and with community there are disagreements, challenges, accountability, but above all there is the idea of blessing one another. At the beginning of the day. At the end of the day. He says when he calls his parents, the first thing he says to them is: Send me a blessing.
What a beautiful hospitable faithful thing.
Trinity Church Wall Street in lower Manhattan. The days and weeks and months after 9/11. For some reason, some fluke, that building which is close to the World Trade Center did not sustain any damage on 9/11.
That church is high church, Episcopalian. First granted a charter by King William III in 1697. An endowment that is through the roof.
I imagine that it is active but for the most part quiet and orderly. But now proximity to a tragic disaster was inviting them to a great and tremendous call.
Every day, first responders, firefighters, EMTs, family members would gather at the site of the fallen towers, looking for bodies, looking for survivors, anything.
What are we called to do?
They made their sanctuary into a sleeping field, like a MASH unit, for first responders to sleep, on cots, on pews, wherever they could.
They made a ton of coffee. They grilled burgers on the sidewalks.
They weren’t a MASH unit. They weren’t a fast-food burger place. But the call was the call. They responded.
Three different stories. Three different congregations. Three different invitations to hospitality.
I’m glad to be here at Prairie to walk with you in this new time, this new day. We are in the pancake business! Let’s go.
What is your call? And what is the collective call of Prairie UU, right now? How shall we be together? And how shall we be in the world?
And since we are all here together, we may as well bless one another, with grace and conviction, and deep deep calling.