Listening with the Ear of Your Heart

The Rev. Susan Milnor
May 7, 2017
On my first Sunday here in September, you made me feel very welcome. Michael Fosberg introduced me, and you stood to your feet and applauded. At first I turned around to see if someone was standing behind me, but then I understood and took it as a reflection not on me, but on you.   You were ready for us to meet and enter this adventure together.
 
Welcome is important to the people of this congregation.  It is in fact part of your mission statement:  you seek to be a “diverse, welcoming community.” Anything that serves as part of your fundamental purpose in being here deserves to be lived as fully as we can.  This morning I suggest to you that welcome consists not only of friendliness or a set of strategies or a protocol for Sunday morning, though both are important.   True welcome is really something more spiritual, what the Benedictine order of monks, known for their hospitality, define in the one primary principle of their order: “Listen with the ear of your heart.”
 
Listen with the ear of your heart.  This means finding out who others are, how they experience the world, and doing it with our compassion rather than our judgment.  Put a slightly different way, it is the willingness to encounter and embrace people as who they are and not who we need them to be.
 
A wonderful story from Benedictine life captures this perfectly.  Father Noel has lived the hospitality rule at a monastery in Oxford, Michigan for decades.  One day he and a younger monk, Father Dan, were walking on the monastery grounds, enjoying a soft, warm, late summer day and the acres and acres of rolling green countryside. It so happened that several twelve and thirteen years olds from an institution for challenged kids were visiting the monastery that day, and they had arrived in a hay wagon driven by two older teenage boys.   The young kids were off touring when Father Noel and Father Dan, hiking the grounds, suddenly came upon the drivers of the wagon passing a joint back and forth and looking completely at home – and relaxed.   Father Noel had never seen marijuana, but he wasn’t naïve.  Father Dan, a former street kid from Detroit, was on the verge of reprimanding the drivers when Father Noel spoke.   “Young men,” he exclaimed, opening his arms wide to the rolling fields around them, “we are so glad you are with us today to enjoy the grass.”
 
The words hospital, hospitality, and hospice all share the same root word for “guest” or “stranger.”  The first place in medieval Europe where strangers could go to find welcome, food, and a bed was not an inn but a monastery.  First to become hospitals to treat ill and injured people were monasteries:  in fact the world hospital means guest house. In our very language, we inherit a long history of spiritual communities taking seriously the welcome of any in this lonely and dangerous world who come to our doorstep, a history of being called to practice radical hospitality.   I love when our congregations in the twenty-first century, just as much a world in which someone can be a stranger in real need of welcoming, take that to heart.   It’s a worthy mission. 
 
"Real hospitality,” say Lonnie Collins Pratt and Father Daniel Homan in their book Radical Hospitality, isn’t “about what we do; it’s about who we are.  And it doesn’t focus on the goal of being hospitable; instead it is singularly focused on the object of hospitality, the stranger, the guest, the delightful other.”  I was startled to read that because eager for sermon input, I had asked our twenty- seven-year old daughter where in her life she had felt most welcomed.  “I guess at camp,” Abby said.  “Why did you feel welcome there?”   “Because it was all focused on us, and they had thought about who we were and what we liked. They were at the bus stop waiting with signs and then waiting in our cabins.  Welcome,” she added, “is about waiting with excitement and anticipation.  Metaphysically, it’s like two trains headed toward the same spot, and it’s the place where you meet.”   After a second, I asked, “Do you want to write the sermon?”   
 
Welcoming, as we know, is not easy. We Unitarian Universalists need to know many people more fully in their particularity to welcome them -- people of diverse race, income, gender identity, age, theological sensibility.  They can even be among us, looking to belong, without us realizing how we discourage them. In one congregation, we wanted to welcome people beyond the limits of the middle class that made up most of our large congregation.   We tried several strategies, mostly focused on membership programs and Sunday morning greeting.  We were encouraged when a struggling young mother living on public assistance with two children found that our spiritual community spoke to her. People kept inviting her to join groups, but when she always declined, they began to wonder if she disliked them.  
 
Finally, one day, we were talking about an upcoming event, and suddenly she made a confession that broke my heart: “I simply can’t afford the child care fee.”  You see, we thought we were welcoming parents by providing childcare for meetings and events, but to cover the cost we charged those using it a few dollars.  For this young woman, a few dollars proved an impossible hurdle, one which she was embarrassed to admit people who didn’t think twice about it.  I’m glad to say that next year we built the cost of child-care into the collective budget, raised the money to cover it, and suddenly a door opened for more than one person. The Benedictines say that listening with the ear of your heart means opening your ears, opening your heart, listening closely, and then listening for more.
 
Listening for more does not become an impossible burden because it also taps the joy that renews the spirit.   Some of life’s most precious moments come when we can sit with people and hear their rich, sometimes painful, often amazing stories. One of your most welcoming acts as a congregation is to hear journeys of faith on Sunday morning. Consider.  In how many places of this fragmented and increasingly indifferent world will people suspend whatever else is going on in their lives to listen to our stories with the ear of their hearts? You can hear a pin drop during those journeys. You could argue that our very reason for being here is to share our travels with others, whether publicly or not.    We hear much about how people love receiving those journeys; wouldn’t it be fascinating, sometime, to ask those who have given them whether they came to feel more welcome and included in this community?  
 
It is the most natural human impulse in the world to seek out people like ourselves and then collectively become more and more like ourselves.  The only problem with it is that we miss the possibility of serving and of tapping that deeper joy.  The good news is that human beings can learn.
 
Even the hospitable Benedictines have such moments.  The order in Oxford, Michigan, from which Fathers Dan and Noel hail, began not as a permanent retreat from the world, but as a good place to train young monks to then take their ministries to the streets and sanctuaries of Detroit.  The monks surprised the founders when some took so completely to life with their own kind that they did not want to leave. Indeed, they wanted to close the ranks. 
 
As a result they discovered ways of discouraging others from seeking them out.  When people would call to ask if the monastery held services open to the public on Sundays, the monks would respond, “Well, yes, we do, but our mass is very early and we’re hard to find and we are not a parish.  Have a blessed day.”  
 
Then two things happened. Father Dan, who spent six years in Detroit and Toronto working with youth and learning to listen to them with his heart, suggested to the other monks that a remodeled barn become a youth retreat center. Over the coming years, hundreds of youth spent time working the land and interacting with the monks.  For some of the monks, it provided uncomfortable moments to walk into the kitchen to find curious, laughing teenage girls at work. The rule of hospitality required that they be gracious, though, and mentorships developed.  The kids were blown away that such a place would be open to them and that the monks would scrub their toilets and showers.
 
The other change came when the monks changed Sunday services to a later hour and truly welcomed neighbors, friends, former youth and their families, and strangers.   Although the visitors express gratitude for worshipping in the community, says Father Dan, “We monks know the truth. . . ; we are the ones who have received the most from the whole deal. . . . we were endangered by our isolation. . [but now we are ] grounded in ‘real life.’ Something sacred has happened since we opened our doors and our hearts.” 
 
Whoever you are, wherever you come from, whomever you love, wherever you are going, you are welcome here.  It’s an audacious statement.  Right now, at this moment, let us live it.  If you are here because you want to change your life, you are not alone.  Never gone to church in your life and feeling a bit awkward about it?  Know that almost everyone here came from somewhere else. Looking for a religious community that encourages you to embrace the beliefs and identities you have found unacceptable elsewhere?   Grant us the chance to hear your story. All of us, let this be the place that we meet, and let us travel toward each other with excitement and anticipation. 
 
My friends, we are all strangers, looking for life-giving hospitality, looking for an ear that hears through the heart.  Welcome.
 
 
Copyright  Susan Milnor  2017
 
 
Sources
Pratt, Lonnie Collins and Homan, Father Daniel.  Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love. Brewster, MA:  Paraclete Press. 2011.