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The Strangers in Our Midst

Recently I went to see a movie called "The Spitfire Grill." About halfway through, I realized that you could interpret the whole movie as a meditation on our scripture readings for today.

In one of the opening scenes of the film, a young woman steps down from a bus, onto the streets of a tiny New England town called "Gilead." It's night, and there is snow on the ground. The woman is bundled up in layers of heavy clothes; her bangs hang down in her face; she carries all her belongings in one suitcase. She has just been released from prison. She is looking for a place to stay.

As the woman's figure moves along the main street of town, townspeople sitting near their windows look up from their television sets in alarm. Strangers don't often come to the town of Gilead. What is she doing here, in the dead of winter, and at this hour? Put her back on the bus, they say to each other. There is nothing for her here.

The townspeople's initial reaction toward this stranger ~ and a disposition that some of them will hang onto throughout the movie ~ is one of suspicion and hostility. It is a natural human response. Who knows what trouble a stranger may bring?

The Bible, however, teaches a different way.

It begins as early as the book of Genesis, our first reading for today, in which Abraham and Sarah greet three strangers in the desert, who turn out to be angels in the end. But Abraham and Sarah don't know that. They simply follow the ancient law of the desert, practiced among the nomadic peoples of the Near East, which required that if a stranger appeared at your tent, you were to welcome them, and share your food, drink and shelter. In the searing heat of the desert, the law of hospitality was a matter of human survival. It is still practiced among the Bedouins today.

From that point on, hospitality to strangers is one of the grand themes of the Bible. When the Hebrews wander in the wilderness, God provides them with manna and water, as a gracious host. When the refugees finally enter the promised land and settle down, hospitality is written into their holy law: "Love the sojourner," says the Book of Deuteronomy, "for you yourselves were once sojourners in the land of Egypt."

The theme continues in the New Testament when Jesus teaches that acts of hospitality are actually the prime indicator of a person's relationship with God: "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me." The Book of Hebrews reiterates His teaching, referring all the way back to the Genesis story of Abraham and Sarah; "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers," it says, "for thereby some have entertained angels unaware."

Clearly, willingness to extend hospitality to strangers is fundamental to the Christian way of life. And it may be that today, in our shrinking global village of limited natural resources, the practice of hospitality to strangers may, again, be a matter of human survival. But what exactly is hospitality?

Hospitality involves the obvious: offering food, drink and shelter to the stranger in need. In the Bible, however, hospitality is a much richer, larger concept. Hospitality is an attitude, a disposition of the heart, out of which such generous actions naturally flow.

Hospitality is a habit of the heart that must be cultivated. Which requires, first of all, that we overcome our initial human response of hostility toward people who are strange to us. The Latin root of our English word, "hostility," is hostis, which means enemy. Our Christian task is to turn the stranger who is perceived as an enemy, a hostis, into a hospes, which is the Latin word for "guest." This is where our English word, "hospitality," comes from.

Years ago, when I was taking a graduate course in the sociology of religion, my professor had an odd course requirement. His requirement was that at least once a month, each student was to take what he called "a cultural plunge." That is, we were to intentionally put ourselves in a place we would not normally go, among people we would not normally choose to be with. In this strange environment, we were to be what the professor called "participant-observers."

What he meant by "participant observers" was that we couldn't only observe these strange people doing strange things, like animal in a zoo. We had to actively join them, and participate in what was going on. It was one of the most interesting assignments I have ever had.

One month I went to the racetrack and joined the crowd that was feverishly betting on horses. I had never done that before. Another month I went to the midnight showing of the cult movie, "Rocky Horror Picture Show," where the audience came in costume, sang along with the film, and threw rice in the aisles at the wedding scene. Other students in the class chose to go to a soup kitchen in a homeless shelter, a Native American sweat lodge ceremony, a Star Trek convention, a meeting of the African Violet Society.

My teacher's idea was this: when you intentionally put yourself in an environment that is strange to you, again and again, your natural hostility toward strangers will gradually fall away. You will start to realize that all people ~ even if they look and act different ~ are just people like yourself. In the same way travel, and even reading books, are ways of cultivating an attitude of hospitality toward the stranger. One of the problems with a sleepy little town like Gilead, in the movie "Spitfire Grill," is that people living in such communities can become insulated and ingrown, so that strangers become something frightening and rare.

I recommend the practice of taking "cultural plunges," by the way. Try it for a while, once a month, as a spiritual exercise. See what happens.

But hospitality requires more than the cessation of hostility toward strangers. Hospitality also requires letting go of one-dimensional concepts of people we don't know. Have you ever noticed how often someone will say, about someone, "Oh, he is an alcoholic," or "she's a divorcee," as if that one thing said all there is to know about that person. As if that's all there is to them. In the case of the "Spitfire Grill" character, the townspeople whisper: "She's an ex-convict." As if this stranger were not a multi-faceted human being with a complex history, just as we know ourselves to be.

Genuine hospitality to the stranger requires suspending such judgments, and also withdrawing our harmful projections from others. Do you know what projection is? It's a term for the way we human beings take the parts of ourselves we don't like, and project them into other people, like movies onto a screen. The process is mostly unconscious. The result is that see in other people the fears and failings that we refuse to see in ourselves. By the process of projection, we may regard a stranger ~ or a whole group of people to whom the stranger belongs ~ as immoral, for instance, or ignorant, or prone to violence.

Several years ago I attended a retreat at which the leader led the group in an exercise on projection. (I recommend this one to you, too.) First, she said, write down the name of one person with whom, right now, you are having a difficult time. Someone who has come into your life, say, who you instinctively dislike. I wrote down a name.

Now, she said, write down all the things about this person that you can't stand. Make a list of his or her sins, the things that put you off or drive you crazy. I made the list. It was actually kind of fun.

Next, she said, imagine that you are the person you are having trouble with, and write ~ in the first person ~ about why you are the way you are. Tell us what makes you behave the way you do. I started writing. I act this way because I am insecure about such and such. I act this way because I don't want you to see how I really feel. I act this way because....

Now, she said, when our pens had stopped. In what ways is what you have just written true about yourself?

It is amazing, the way we project our own sins onto other people. In the "Spitfire Grill," there is a character named Nahum who looks at the stranger who got off the bus ~ her name is Percy ~ and sees only someone who is grasping, greedy and desperate for attention. As the movie goes on, it becomes painfully obvious that the person Nahum really hates, for being all of these things, is himself. Projection keeps him from seeing Percy for who she is. It keeps him from being hospitable.

Which brings us to a final thing that hospitality requires, perhaps the hardest thing of all. Hospitality requires not just the absence of hostility, and not just the suspension of judgments and projections. Hospitality requires the willingness and capacity to create an open, empty space into which strangers can come, and find themselves at home.

There is a Zen story about this. It seems that Nan-in, a Japanese Zen master, once received in his home a university professor who came to inquire about Zen, and who talked incessantly. Nan-in welcomed the professor graciously, and began to serve tea. He poured the visitor's cup full, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflow with dismay until he could no longer restrain himself. "It is over full!" he exclaimed. "No more will go in!" Nan-in responded, "Like this cup, you are also over full. You are full of your opinions and speculations, your own thoughts and desires. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"

Have you ever been with a person who is so full of themselves that they cannot be hospitable to you? Think about this for a moment. There is the person, say, who is so full of their own ideas, and so sure that their ideas are fascinating and correct, that the entire time they are with you is spent with them talking, convincing, directing the conversation, so that there is no free space created, no hospitable space into which you can bring your own ideas. There is no room in their cup.

Then there is the person who is so full of their own needs that they can't greet you with the open, honest question, "Who are you?" But rather, "What can I get from you?" When you speak to them, you get the uncomfortable feeling that they are not listening to what you are saying, but only thinking about what they can do with it. You feel invisible, because you perceive that in their eyes you do not exist as a person for your own sake, but only as a means to their ends. Such a person also cannot offer hospitality.

Contrast that with a description in an article by a librarian named Ellen Anthony. She's describing her meeting with an elderly Quaker man. "His gaze was not assessing, not suggesting, but completely even. His face was just there, beneath his wide-brimmed hat. He was so comfortable in his face. His eyes simply received me, like a lake."

Later Ellen writes: "What if I were more like that? What if I suspended my reflex judgments, my endless impressions, and gave every person I met the spaciousness of 'the benefit of the doubt'? What if I took time, made space, opened my heart, and invited them in?"

That's hospitality. It's a spiritual quality, a disposition of the soul. It may end up with the concrete acts of offering food, drink, and shelter to a stranger, but it begins with a letting go of suspicion, a suspension of judgments, and the cultivation of a genuinely open, spacious, welcoming heart.

I'm not going to tell you what happens in the "Spitfire Grill," what happens between Percy and Nahum, whether hostility or hospitality wins out. I don't want to ruin the movie for you. But I'll tell you this; by the time the credits of the film start to roll at the end, the little town of Gilead has been changed. And if you were to tag on an epilogue, or a moral to the story you couldn't do better than our text from Hebrews:

"Let love be genuine, my brothers and sisters. And do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."
Amen.