First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Rev. Kent H. Little
Date: July 7, 2019
Scripture: Taoism, Tract of the Quiet Way, Matthew 20:20-28
Sermon: “’When a Tiger Comes to Dinner’, Radical Hospitality”
Author – Jessica Olien
Taoism, Tract of the Quiet Way
Relieve people in distress as speedily as you must release a fish from a dry rill [lest he die]. Deliver people from danger as quickly as you must free a sparrow from a tight noose. Be compassionate to orphans and relieve widows. Respect the old and help the poor.
Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus along with her sons. Bowing before him, she asked a favor of him. “What do you want?” he asked. She responded, “Say that these two sons of mine will sit, one on your right hand and one on your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “You don’t know what you’re asking! Can you drink from the cup that I’m about to drink from?” They said to him, “We can.” He said to them, “You will drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left hand isn’t mine to give. It belongs to those for whom God prepares it.” Now when the other ten disciples heard about this, they became angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them over and said, “You know that those who rule the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first among you will be your servant— just as the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.”
We met Behrooz at the Iftar at one of the mosques in Wichita our first year. It would be the beginning of a good friendship. I would see him now and then at church on Sunday morning as he often attended one of the Sunday school classes, we offered. Now and then, though less frequently, he would attend our worship celebration. I also encountered him on a regular basis at the gym I attended. It was here, the day I was signing up, I heard a loud voice behind me shouting, “Rev. Kent, Rev. Kent! Welcome, welcome! So good to see you!” it was Behrooz welcoming me to the gym as if it was his. Behrooz knows Hospitality!
I always told him he was the only one I knew who could get on the treadmill, lift weights, and workout with a cup of coffee in his hand. After a couple of years one afternoon he told me of a new mosque they had just opened on the west side. He invited me to a prayer meeting a group had the first Saturday morning at sunrise to have their morning prayers and then just a time of discussion and conversation. He told me this mosque and the group there were the “College Hill” (the church I served in Wichita…not unlike FUMC a very theologically progressive church) … the group there was the “College Hill” of Islam in Wichita.
I joined the group that next Saturday. I arrived in the dark of the morning and was welcomed in the front door. This mosque as an unassuming house, previously a residence, converted into a worship space, with a couple of rooms for study groups, a small library of books, and a kitchen for gatherings for meals. I removed my shoes, as the others present had done, upon entry. After a few minutes of conversation, the group gathered with the leader in the front and the rest in a single line side by side and they began their prayers. Standing, kneeling, touching their faces to the floor as the leader sang the prayers in Arabic.
I sat quietly in a prayerful state of mind in a chair at the table where they had placed the coffee and snacks. I remember how uncomfortable I felt, not an uncomfortableness they made me feel, it was my own, just as a result of not being familiar with the prayers and practice and language. My presence was simply one of respect and prayerful attendance as I knew little of their practice and no Arabic,
In the midst of the gathering I tried to assume nothing, and simply be in their presence. And they seemed comfortable and at ease with my presence among them. After the time of prayer, they gathered around the table and we talked of families, religion, politics, politicians, and whatever else happened to come up.
I thought about the experience in relation to the book we read this morning, “When a Tiger comes to Dinner.” it seems to me there were a lot of assumptions made by the hosts of the dinner; assumptions made by a “tiger expert.” Tigers hate to be bored, tigers do not like checkers, they love peanut butter, assumptions about how to speak tiger, that they are very punctual, and like hats but not party hats.
In the book the one host was very sure about what tigers were like, what they cared for and what they did not care for. As we know from Cynthia’s reading… their assumptions were not entirely accurate. Perhaps you know that saying about “assumptions,” however, at least in my experience, when I assume it rarely makes one out of you but usually makes one out of me.
Unfortunately, I believe we do that a lot in our culture and society. We look at a whole group of people and assume we know what they are like, how they exist in the world, how they practice, where they are from, what they believe, why they do what they do, or how they think. We assume, in some sense I believe, in order to have power over them. We assume in order to place ourselves in authority over them without knowing from where they have come, what they believe, how they think, why they do what they do… too often in our culture and society we do this because we are not interested in these things and we refuse to be vulnerable and relinquish whatever power we believe we hold over others.
It is why we have children locked away in horrendous conditions in concentration camp conditions.
It is why we have rooms full of men making decisions about women’s rights.
It is why we have religious leaders calling for the persecution, and even death of LGBTQIA persons.
It is why wars are continually threatened around the world.
It is why poverty has never really been addressed in our country.
It is why the poor are blamed for their plight.
It is why power, authority, money, and the ever-widening gap between those in need and those who have much continues to grow. The want for authority and privilege leaves little, if any, room for hospitality, let alone radical hospitality.
This is the predicament the sons of Zebedee find themselves in when their mother comes to ask a favor of Jesus. She, and based on their reply to Jesus’ question, assume a great deal in this request. Things like, what this “kingdom” looks like, who will be in charge, what will it be like to be “one at the right hand and one at the left,” where is this kingdom, and why do they want this authority? And what does this authority look like in this kingdom they assume they know about?
Jesus intent here is to teach. Do you really know what you are asking? Can you drink from this cup? Can you lead as I lead? Can you be my right hand and left? Of course, they can! They are experts, they have surely by now been privy to the “How to Impress the World” by an Expert in these sorts of things. “You know that those who rule the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around.” Jesus says. That is not how it will be with you…with us…Jesus says. Your task, your work, is in servanthood not authority…
This book and this teaching from Matthew brought to mind my encounter, experience, and subsequent conversations with Eboo Patel, the founder of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based international nonprofit that builds relationships among interfaith youth. He brings them together to do service projects in cities. The service project is the core of the experience; however, he begins by having the youth tell their stories. “What story in your faith traditions moves you, inspires you to want to serve?”
“Whoever wants to be greatest among you will be your servant.” Hospitality, radical hospitality, is about vulnerability and service. It is to be willing to be invited into another’s story without judgment or preconceived knowledge. It is to place oneself last of all. To sit at the feet of those we do not know, those with less power and privilege than ourselves and listen without thought of response. But rather to see them, hear them. It is to relinquish one’s perception of authority and power for the common good of those they are serving. It is to lift others up. Authority in the upside down kindom of God, the kindom into which Jesus calls us is about service and hospitality, to be willing to be invited into another’s world to better understand, to encounter the authenticity of who they are and not to assume we know best what they need or want.
I think about my experience at the mosque with my new friends. The second time I visited, my friend handed me an English translation of the sung prayer so I could follow along and understand what he was singing. A few more visits later I decided to leave my chair and sit on the floor behind the group lined up side by side so as to be closer in relationship to their practice. One morning as I prepared to sit on the floor, one of them looked and me and motioned for me to join them in the line, “It’s my job to make sure the line is straight,” he winked and everyone laughed… “Join us here brother.” he said. And we all prayed that morning as the sun rose, standing, kneeling, pressing our foreheads to the floor. Around the table we continued to tell our stories as we shared coffee, crackers, cheese, and fruit.
I learned a valuable lesson from my Muslim friends in that sacred space over those many months about being invited into the story of another. A valuable lesson about what hospitality looks like and how uncomfortable vulnerability is … and how much our souls, our faith communities, our country, our world needs it. Listen to the stories. And think on these things. Amen.