This series on hospitality began several posts ago in a Fellowship Hall not far from here.
Tonight I want to invite you back to that same Fellowship Hall . . . about seven years ago.
It was a Sunday morning. All the adults had foregone their usual classes, and we were gathered for a shared study. It was one of a four-part special series. In fact we had a guest teacher. I think his name was John.
We were exploring what it meant for our church to be more explicitly welcoming and affirming of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks.
(Okay some of you just read that and want badly to exit this window. I hope you’ll stick with me a little longer.)
Our guest teacher asked us to respond to some questions: Who is in your family? What jobs do you hold? Where do/did you go to school? Where is your church membership? Who are your friends? Neighbors? The questions, as I recall were on individual slips of paper.
We all set about dutifully filling in the blanks. Then he asked us to imagine for a few minutes what it would be like to be a person whose sexual orientation was not straight. Imagine, he said, what it might be like if we were to “come out” to some of our friends or family members. Picture what might happen.
This took imagination for some of us. For others it required no imagination. They had lived through the reality of coming out. Already.
He said it would likely cost us something important. Statistically he said, we might lose at least two of those important connections in our lives. School. Church. Family. Friends. Then for the sake of the exercise, he said, we had to choose giving up two of the relationships or roles we had just written down and remove those slips of paper from our hands and put them in the middle of the table.
We were instructed then to turn to others at our table and talk about what it might be like to be in this situation. This was painful to think about . . . so let’s see if we have the logic right: if I accept myself and say honestly who I love, then I’m likely to lose some of the other people and work I love?
This is not a welcome feeling.
Then while most of us were still pondering aloud this predicament, the teacher began moving swiftly around the room. He arbitrarily grabbed slips of paper from people. He crumpled some and ripped up others. They were just slips of paper, but it felt like he was tearing out our hearts. Some people gasped and instinctively tried to hold on to their papers. Others just sat in stunned silence.
He stopped. And then said something like, “Even if you did have the luxury of deciding which relationships you would lose for the sake of being yourself, you still would not be able to anticipate all of the losses or how randomly they might strike.”
This drove the point home to me in a powerful way. Even more powerful came the moment when people began to share the stories of their real – not imagined – losses and rejections when they “came out” to friends and family.
One kind of hospitality was traded for another. Welcome of the self meant loss of the other.
As a church we were on a shared journey of “coming out” as a congregation declaring our hope of embodying God’s radical welcome. This decision was not sudden or random. It was based on long considerations of our shared theological understanding of the welcome of God as seen in Jesus and practiced by communities of faith. There were many key moments in the story which turned us toward greater clarity.
Our decisions had consequences. Individual members, and the church as a whole, experienced losses. For some, family members became estranged and cut off. Some of us lost jobs and others kept the jobs but lost friendships and other connections. A number of people left the congregation for a wide range of reasons. Many of us felt a strain with friends and family who simply did not get what we were doing.
For those of us gathered on in that Fellowship Hall some years ago, the loss and rejection were not the end of the story. Thanks be to God. In the years since that study we’ve also experienced growth and gain in the form of a renewed sense of community, a clarity of purpose, a larger sense of welcome and love shared more openly.
We’re not perfect. Not even close. And some of the hurt and loss continues on to now.
That brings me to an additional set of points: Hospitality is complicated. Embracing God’s radical welcome can be costly. It is a contested space. What our community of faith chose and continues to choose is understood by some not as hospitality, but rather as folly. Sometimes the good news of God’s love takes us into some pretty unpredictable places. But this is the kind of complication, grounded in God’s loving welcome, that is worth some complication, some cost, some contest and even some misunderstanding if necessary. Because this kind of hospitality has already been extended to every one of us. Every. One.