The Freedom of the Friend

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Rev. Dean Snyder

Galatians 5:1-9

We have been talking this month about hospitality, which is a core Christian value and spiritual practice. In fact, it is a core Judeo-Christian value and practice.

I’d like to try to make a point this morning about hospitality and freedom and hospitality and friendship.

Hospitality frees others. Hospitality is a free relationship.

The Apostle Paul says “For freedom Christ has set us free.” When Christ receives us, Christ sets us free. Hospitality sets us free.

Henri Nouwen wrote about hospitality in a book called Reaching Out that I think is a spiritual classic. He tells the story of a student who was offered a place to stay by a couple while he was studying at a nearby university. Hospitality, right?

After a few weeks of staying with the couple he realized he was feeling oppressed. Over the years, the couple he was staying with had become so distant from each other and they were so lonely that they were each trying to use the student to fill an emotional void in their lives. They each wanted his attention. They each clung to him. They each watched to see if he spent more time with one than another. He no longer felt free to come and go when he wanted. He found himself increasingly unable to concentrate on his studies or to satisfy his “hosts’” demands for attention. He even found himself unable to leave.

What this couple offered him was not hospitality. It was a form of slavery.

Hospitality leaves room for the other to be himself or herself. It does not demand that the other serve me or please me or fill an empty place in my life.

A lot of United Methodist churches are having a hard time being hospitable to younger people these days. We talked about this at annual conference a few weeks ago.

Nationally the average age of United Methodists is now 57.

Some United Methodists are afraid their congregations will die out when their generation dies. They have become desperate for younger members. They think that younger member will save them. And they usually manage to drive anybody younger who walks in the door away because they are so needy and so clingy that they can’t be hospitable.

Hospitality makes room for another and it does not force them to be what we need them to be in order to fill an empty place within our own lives.

I posted a blog to Facebook not long ago from the Christian Century. It was entitled “How reaching out to young adults will screw up your church.”

I want to read part of the blog to you:

Several of my young adult pastor friends tell about a time when one of them is hanging out around town, meeting new people, just being his cool/nerdy self when someone finds out he’s a pastor. And this person thinks the pastor is pretty hip so she asks, “Hey, can I come to your church.” The pastor sighs and says, “Yes, but you’ve got to know: I’m really different at church.”

These pastor friends, to survive in their parishes, have taken the edge off their preaching, their politics, their big ideas, even their theology. Though the pastors know young adults are drawn to their edgy honest selves, they also know their more established members — with the power and the checkbooks — have other ideas. A lot would need to change for the pastor to be able to respond to his friend saying, “Yes! Please, come to my church. You’d love it!” And, if that gal at the bar would truly love it, what would the church’s choir members think? [Nothing personal.]

I was once at a church-related event where young adults were going around the table introducing themselves to the group. One person shared his name and then said, “And, I want to be upfront: I’m an atheist.” For a second, I held my breath to see what would happen next. Quickly, someone said, “Great!” And another smiled and said, “So glad you’re here.” There were smiles all the way around the table.

I can’t help but wonder how many congregations would welcome that young atheist with a genuine smile rather than a leeriness that he might infect the confirmation class with dastardly atheism-laced questions. Welcoming young adults that fit the perfect church visitor mold is easy. You know the type church members long for: some magical newcomer who was raised in a perfect household, is married (not divorced), has a few kids, enjoys his well-paying job, and, of course, has orthodox unquestioning beliefs. Fewer and fewer young adults fit this image (if anyone ever did). To welcome young adults these days churches need to welcome the atheist, the single mom, the tattooed, the unemployed, and yes (of course!) even the same-sex couple.

Here is the comment left on Facebook by one of our members here at Foundry who is in his 70s.

Larry wrote – “Let me try to understand this blog post. Keep young people away so that we can be comfortable. Fear the atheist because our faith is weak. And then close our churches as the old die out.”

This was the exact point that the Apostle Paul was trying to make to the Galatians. If someone else is pressuring you to think like them and act like them and be like them in order to be part of their community, that is not hospitality and it is not from Christ. It is from their own insecurities.

Hospitality creates free space for the other. In a friendship that is a friendship, you are free to say what you think and to be who you are.

So that is one truth, one side of the coin.

Hospitality sets us free. Hospitality offers free space to another. We can not offer hospitality if we can not let the other be other. We can not be a friend if our friend can not be who they are.

That’s one side of the coin. The other side of the coin is this:

In order to be hospitable, we need to be at home.

Henri Nouwen says: “We are not hospitable when we leave our house to strangers and let them use it any way they want. An empty house is not a hospitable house.”

He says: “The real host is one who offers that space where we do not have to be afraid and where we can listen to our own inner voices and find our own personal way of being human. But to be such a host we have to first of all be at home in our own house.”

To be hospitable, we first need to be at home in our own house.

To be a friend, we first need to be at home with our own soul. To be a partner or spouse, we first need to be comfortable with who we are.

There is a German Catholic theologian by the name Johannes Baptist Metz. By the way, isn’t Baptist a great middle name?  If I could rename my kids I’d give them the middle name Methodist.

Johannes Baptist Metz says that, in order to be hospitable to others, we need to be secure enough in our relationship with God so that people who are different will not frighten us, otherwise we will see in others only what we want to see and not what really is and we will not be able to give them the freedom to be who they are.

I listen to the podcasts of Bill Maher’s show Real Time. Bill Maher is very anti-religion. Maybe some of you have seen his movie “Religulous?” Sometimes when I listen to his show he says these amazingly simplistic negative things about religion and I find myself getting ticked off.

And I know that he has struck a place of my insecurity as a person of faith. And the question I need to ask is not why Bill Maher is so superficial but why I am so insecure.

Henri Nouwen says that we can not be hospitable unless we are okay with solitude. Here is the irony: We can not be with someone else in a hospitable way unless we can be alone. We can not be a friend unless we can be alone. We cannot be a lover unless we can be alone.

We need to be capable of being friendless in order to be a friend. We need to be able to be without a lover in order to be a lover.

Being hospitable does not mean that we stop being free. We need to be able to think our thoughts, believe our beliefs, and be who we are or it is not hospitality, it is not friendship. It is some other kind of transaction.

I’ve been thinking a lot about our African brother and sister United Methodists since General Conference in Tampa a couple of months ago.

It was clear that there was a divide between some of the thinking of African United Methodists and the “liberal” US United Methodists.

My reaction was that we needed to convince our African brothers and sisters to agree with us.

But that is not hospitality; that is not friendship; that is not Christ.

Without stopping being who we are, we need to offer friendship; free space that allows our African brothers and sisters to be who they are.

I want you to take a moment to think about the most difficult relationship in your life. Can you be free to be who you are in that relationship? Are you extending the hospitality for him or her to be who he or she is?

It is possible. We can choose hospitality. We can choose to be a friend.

We are tempted to say I can’t be friends with someone who doesn’t accept me. Wrong. We can be friends with them. We can offer them free space in our lives. They may not be able to be a friend to us. But we can always be a friend to them.

It is possible. We can choose hospitality. We can choose to be a friend.