The Reverend Mark DeWolfe Sermon


January 24, 1988

In our world the assumption is that strangers are a potential danger and that it is up to them to disprove it.  When we travel, we keep a careful eye on our luggage; when we walk the streets we are aware of where we keep our money; and when we walk at night in a dark park our whole body is tense with fear of an attack.  Our heart might desire to help others: to feed the hungry, visit the prisoners and offer a shelter to travelers; but meanwhile we have surrounded ourselves with a wall of fear and hostile feelings.  Instinctively avoiding people and places where we might be reminded of our good intentions.

It really does not have to be so dramatic.  Fear and hostility are not limited to our encounters with burglars, drug addicts or strangely behaving types.  In a world so pervaded with competition, even those who are very close to each other, such as classmates, teammates, co-actors in a play, colleagues in work, can become infected by fear and hostility when they experience each other as a threat to their intellectual or professional safety.  Many places that are created to bring people closer together and help them form a peaceful community have degenerated into mental battlefields.  Students in classrooms, teacher in faculty meetings, staff members in hospitals and co-workers in projects often find themselves paralyzed by mutual hostility, unable to realize their purposes because of fear, suspicion, and even blunt aggression.  Sometime institutions explicitly created to offer free time and free space to develop the most precious human potentials have become so dominated by hostile defensiveness that some of the best ideas and some of the most valuable feelings remain unexpressed.

READING, from “Creating Space for Strangers”  In Reaching Out, by Henri J.M. Nouwen.

Sermon: From Hostility to Hospitality

In camp when I was a child we learned a song about a curious, perambulating mammal of genus Ursa who traversed an alpine prominence in order to visually appreciate what was there for his delectation.  And when the bear got over the mountain, to quote the ancient camp song, all he could see was “the other side of the mountain.”  And there end-eth today’s lesson from ancient scripture.  But if that bear looked a little further ahead from the other side of the mountain, the odds are good he would see – another mountain!  Mountains, after all, come in ranges.

The real challenges of human life are perennial: they recur, year after year.  I might think I had climbed a personal mountain, only to discover another mountain before me.  “I thought I’d gotten over that,” I’d say, somewhat embarrassed at facing again some familiar challenge.  But it’s not the same mountain.  It’s another mountain, and climbing it is only like climbing the first as one mountain is like another.

Making room for others in our live is like mountain climbing.  It takes definite skills, and regular practice to keep the mental and emotional muscles in shpe.  And like mountain climbing, you don’t get better at it by doing it once and then never doing it again.  Skills improve with practice.

We don’t live alone, even if we have no one sharing our residences.  Other people come into our lives all the time, from the moment of conception to the moment of burial.  Everything they do, from the trivial to the profound, has an impact upon us, and those impact can be for our good or ill.  The fact that other people can affect us to our detriment makes us wary.  In the selection from Henri Nouwen which Bill just read, we become suspicious of strangers.

Some of you will remember a colleague of mine, Rev. Roberta King Mitchell, formerly extension minister to our London fellowship and now working for the Urban Ministry of Boston.  Bobbie was travelling once in Northern Ireland.  Walking through Belfast, she came across a Unitarian church – to be accurate, they call themselves Non-Subscribing Presbyterians there, but they’re still part of our global Unitarian family.  Like the good tourist and Unitarian scholar that she is.  Bobbie decided to take a picture of the church – and so set down her backpack, took out her camera and crossed the road to take the picture.  As she was trying to focus, she saw the church’s minister call over a police officer to investigate a mysterious abandoned parcel which might contain a bomb – her backpack!

Bobbie quickly identified to object of their curiosity and explained what she had done.  The minister and officer forgave her North American naivete – one does not leave parcels unattended in Belfast!  The minister – the Rev. William McMillan – offered her some hospitality, and in a gesture of collegiality invited her to preach in his pulpit the following Sunday.  Which she did, adding a building block of friendship to our international religious family.

Bobbie’s story reminds me of how experience can teach us to close ourselves off to others.  We need not have experience the scale of trauma which Northern Ireland has known to be wary of strangers.  WE hear a great deal these days of economic protectionism.  Relatively peaceful but competitive societies, Nouwen reminds us, breed a kind of protectionism of the mind and heart.

Just as protectionism prevents the fair trade of goods in the economic realm, mental and emotional protectionism gets in the way of trading the insight and experiences which make for growth in the religious realm.. This week our “Living the Interdependent Web” class discussed the third affirmation in the UUA’s Statement of Purposes and Principles – the religious affirmations which we join in as Unitarian Universalists.  Number three is “we covenant to affirm and promote… acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.”  In the discussion, it was pointed out that if we are to grow spiritually, we must e open to what other people hae to tell us – in accepting one another, we are able to hear each other and learn from the different experiences each of us has.  And learning from eah other is critical for “spiritual growth”.

How different that is from what I call emotional or mental protectionism!  Fearing for our safety, we look upon others as if they were unattended parcels in the streets of Belfast.  We call up defense forces to keep people at a distance.  If we keep people away, we will remain unchanged:  unharmed, but also unenriched.  Defense forces exist to maintain a mental status quo.

Nouwen points out one of these, which he calls “preoccupation.”  Some of you will remember from my November sermon From Loneliness to Solitude that Nouwen describes how a fear of loneliness motivates people to fill up their time with activities.  That fear of emptiness also keeps us filled with business, ideas, thoughts, concepts, and preconceptions which help keep the world orderly and emptiness at bgay.  Old familiar patterns and a lack of change are more comfortable that opening a space in our lives where someone else might challenge us.

Theatre director Peter Brook began one of his books, “Take an empty space and call it a bare stage.”  If we don’t make empty space in our lives, then ther is no stage where other people can act out the stories they have to tell us.  If we do not empty the stage, then it is crowded with the scenery, props, and (perhaps most of all) the ghosts of characters and actors who still haunt it.  And the people who might grace our lives with their gifts battle the preoccupations who take up the space.

Among the things which “occupy” that space are attitudes and prejudices which might get in the way of our seeing someone for whom he or she really is.  For convenience we think it categories, lumping together people, ideas, thins, parties, governments.  But thinking in categories means that we do not see how people differ.  The Globe and Mail’s African correspondent warns us against assuming that because Zimbabwe now has a one-party government that it is necessarily Marxist.  Other things are happening in Zimbabwe which we will miss if we interpret everything according to that assumption!  If we assume all men are one way, all women another, we will not be able to see how the individuals in our lives differ – we ignore the differences to maintain the prejudices.

The word “category” is dangerous – because its Greek root is the word for “to demean.”  When you place someone in a category, you demean them – you diminish their individuality.  No person can be completely described by relating their categories; a human being is more complex than that.  And that is what makes them great bringers of spiritual growth!  From the complexity of who they are, they can tell us things about the world we do not see.  They include things we do not; yet if we limit them by our prejudices, we impoverish ourselves.

So, how do we open ourselves to the messages of others?  Nouwen talks about “creating an open space where we may reach out to strangers.”  I believe he doesn’t just mean the strangers who are completely new in our lives; I think he also refers to the familiar strangers – our spouses, friends, children, co-workers.  Even the people we know most well have depths we will take lifetimes in plumbing.  How many relationships have hit the rocks because one partner refused to recognize the new growth of the other?  In some play somewhere I recall hearing an outraged man say, “My wife would never leave me!”  as she prepares to walk out the door.  His disbelief in her action came from the fact that his mental stage was crowded with a character of who his wife had once been and still was in his mind —  and this ghost was preventing him from seeing the growth which led his real wife to leave.  The people who are closest to us are familiar strangers, and so love becomes an endless adventure of discovery and growth.

How do we create an open space where we can reach out to strangers?  Nouwen believes it helps to remember certain truths about our relationships.  He uses three examples – parent/child, teacher/student, and healer/client – to point out the need to remember.  Parents need to remember that their children are strangers they are getting to know; they are not something the parents have made and can hold onto in their need.  Parents cannot mold children: they can provide a safe space for them to grow in.  Teachers and students, likewise, must remember they are in their work for learning’s sake, not to cover so many pages of text and answer so many questions.  And healers, whether they are physicians, nurses, therapists, ministers, must remember the importance of hearing the patient so that he or she may be literally diagnosed: known through and through.  Opening our ears as good listeners is critical for creating open space.

In all three cases, Nouwen recommends setting aside the preoccupations which prevent real listening.  Parents should put aside worries about being responsible for everything their children do.  Teachers and students should not let the textbook and educational bureaucracy get in the way of learning.  And healers must relax their preoccupation with doing the cure and let the client reveal her or himself.

Don’t mistake either Nouwen or me if you think I intend to say you should lay yourself aside and try to approach people as if you were a blank slate waiting for them to write upon.  What could be more destructive than trying that!  There is no real communication if one tries to be only a mirror; there becomes only one message.  You cannot open the gift of yourself if you do not reach out from who you are into the space you have opened for the other.  Receptivity – being open to the other – is only one side.  The other side Nouwen calls “confrontation” which means presenting them with who you are.  In Nouwen’s words:

…. Confrontation is much more that “speaking up.”  Words are seldom the most important form of confrontation.  We often have communicated many things long before we speak a word.

I am always fascinated to see how newcomers in my room look around, make comments about the furniture, the painting and most of all on the books on the shelves.  Someone notices the cross on the wall, another makes a remark about the Indian mask; others ask how Freud, Marx and the Bible can be together in one bookcase.  But everyone tries to get a feel of the place just as I do when I enter for the first time someone else’s space.

If you are letting others into your own life – in Nouwen’s term, being hospitable – then your life shapes the space which you open.  As 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.  In fact, it quickly becomes a ghost house, making the stranger feel uncomfortable.  Instead of losing fears, the guest becomes anxious, suspicious of any noise coming from the attic or the cellar.  When we want to be really hospitable, we not only have to receive strangers but also to confront them by an unambiguous presence, not hiding ourselves behind neutrality but showing our ideas, opinions and life style clearly and distinctly.  No real dialogue is possible between a somebody and a nobody.  We can enter into communication with the other only when our own life choices, attitudes and viewpoints offer the boundaries that challenge strangers to become aware of their own position and to explore it critically.

I have long been impressed by the fact that the angels in the Hebrew Torah always first appear as human strangers, and in fact never lose their human shape.  Abraham and Sarah and all their descendants, when they meet an angel, first take him to be another wandering stranger – for so he is.  Only after they interact do the heroes of the Hebrew Bible recognize them as messengers of the holy, bringers of new truth to their lives.

The news is sometimes good, and sometimes bad.  Abraham and Sarah get the good news of their approaching pregnancy; Lot and his family get the bad news of the impending destruction of their city.  In both cases the messengers brought news of changes in their lives.  On the night before he confronts his brother Esau, whom he has defrauded, Jacob meets a stranger and wrestles with him.  His conscience?  Perhaps, but tradition makes it an angel.

Strangers bring us news which ?????? our life, sets us on new roads, leads us to wrestle with our consciences.  Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because they feared strangers and would not treat them with hospitality.  These legends have their lessons; that if we would grow, if we would live, we should move from hostility to hospitality.

Reverend Mark DeWolfe

Thank you!

Kathy, Judy, Joan, Bert, Camille, Tisa, Susan, Anthony, Fiona.
Without your help, this work would not have been possible.

Brigitte Twomey