Radical Hospitality

Vicki Carmichael
Minister of Music–Choir Director
Trinity Presbyterian Church, University City, MO

This reflection was shared as part of the communion service
on Trinity Sunday, June 3, 2012.

In her book The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century, Joan Chittister remarks, “The monastic heart is not just to be a good heart. The monastic heart is to be good for something. It is to be engaged in the great Christian enterprise of acting for others in the place of God.”  While you and I are not monastics, I think her statement applies to us.  I think it is the essence of Christ’s call to radical hospitality.  For many years I disliked the term “radical hospitality” for two main reasons: First, because I am a rebel at heart and so shun any trendy new “buzz” word; but also, if I take Christ’s call to radical hospitality seriously, as Dr. Dan reminded us in his sermon a few weeks ago, my life is going to be turned upside-down.

Radical hospitality means vulnerability.  I have to change what is comfortable or simply familiar for me in order to provide what is best for others.  I have to step out of my comfort zone, my safety zone, into the disturbing place beyond, where I am awkward, afraid, and unsure, and where I am in a position to make mistakes or even to fail.  However, as a friend reminds me, this is also “where the magic happens.”

Last July I went to a suburb of Chicago to visit my best friend, “Beth,” and attended church with her and her three kids —“Jason” who was 8, “Peter,” 5, and “Lizzie,” 2.  That summer the church was meeting in a theater space downtown while the sanctuary of their church was being renovated.  Beth’s church reminds me a lot of Trinity: it is a generationally and politically diverse church with members of various backgrounds who worship in a mostly traditional style while continually wrestling with how to say “yes” to Christ’s call into the 21st century.  The thing that strikes me the most about this church is their radical welcome – not so much of me, though they were certainly friendly enough, but their deep concern for Beth and her kids, and especially their acceptance of Jason, in his dress, beautiful flowing golden-blond ponytails and pretty sandals.  By practicing radical hospitality, this congregation is a safe and loving home for every member of Beth’s family, including her transgender daughter.

But this congregation and its leadership do more than that. After all, what’s so radical about mere welcome? Every kind of hospitality does that – that’s the definition of hospitality.

Radical hospitality doesn’t just welcome, it transforms.  The members and leadership of this church have stood by Beth and her family at every step in her “uncharted territory” of raising a transgender daughter.  With their radical support, the entire family, along with Beth’s sister, was able to attend a week-long conference last summer in California that included programming for everyone – parents, siblings, and supporting friends and family as well as the transgender child.  In providing this support, the members of Beth’s church didn’t just welcome Beth and her family into their existing congregation; instead, they stepped into the journey with Beth and her kids and were willing to themselves be transformed into something new as an inevitable part of the process of loving this family.

If I had more time today, I could tell you more of Beth’s story – how it changed her congregation and how their radical welcome supported and changed her family, but we’ll leave that for another day.  The story I want to tell you today is of the blessed bread you are about to be served for communion.

This spring when I again visited my friend and her church, many things were new:

  • Jason’s name has been legally changed to “Amanda” and she attended 3rd grade fully “out” as a girl – a beautiful, bubbly, social butterfly of a girl who has never seemed happier.
  • In addition to directing several youth choirs at her church, Beth is transitioning to a larger pastoral role in the leadership of the youth of the church and she is working with the UM’s Reconciling Ministries.  (This is a movement within the United Methodist Church which is working to achieve full inclusion of people of all gender identities and sexual orientations into the full life and work of the church.)
  • The sanctuary renovation is complete – the congregation now faces a gorgeous floor-to-ceiling stained-glass window that used to be behind them as they sat in the pews; two high definition screens lower from the ceiling to project the order of service, hymns, prayers, and responses as well as, when I attended, to show a video for their Mission Moment; the worship leaders gather on a stage that contains beautiful moveable pieces to accommodate varying needs in worship; at the service I attended, 3 choirs with members of varying ages, singing different styles of music, added their voices to lead worship

Also at this service, Beth’s pastor presided over a very moving communion service which ended with the youth of the church bringing in 12 heaping baskets of individually wrapped loaves of bread to represent the 12 baskets left over at Jesus’ miraculous “feeding of the 5,000.”  I sat in this service watching some of the growing pains of this congregation, among them: figuring out what lights were best to see the new screens by, navigating new travel paths for communion, adjusting to the workings of a new sound system.  As I observed and participated, I was thinking of Trinity, thinking of YOU, and getting worship planning ideas to bring back to the staff.

There was so much bread left over that the youth were trying to pawn off the extra loaves well after the service had ended and folks had moved downstairs for fellowship.  I was so excited about the faithfulness and courage of this congregation, grateful to them for loving my friend so well, and inspired by their example of radical, transforming hospitality, that with their blessing, I took enough bread to share with all of you in communion today.  My hope is that this bread – the body of our radical, transforming Christ – will nourish and sustain us all as we strive to live out our statement of welcome in radically hospitable ways; that it will give us the courage to allow ourselves to be transformed by loving others completely, reaching out to all in our community and meeting them where their need is greatest.

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