As Unitarian Universalists, we hope to be welcoming and open people. And yet, we’re all familiar with the warning: “Don’t talk to strangers!” One of the gifts of spiritual growth is the deepening ability to love people we think of as “other” and to embrace the parts of ourselves we don’t know (or like) very well. Lynn Harrison will offer both spoken and musical reflections on the joys and challenges of “Talking to Strangers”.
Click here to listen to the awesome song Lynn sang as our postlude! (Shared with permission.)
The complete sermon can be read below:
People who enter ministry in mid-life have the benefit of being able to draw on their previous careers for sermon inspiration. Some time ago, when I was in my twenties, I worked as a writer for children’s television. In addition to writing short comedy sketches that were acted out by puppets, sometimes I wrote songs.
I remember one time I was very excited about a song I had written. The song was called “Everybody’s Different, Everyone’s the Same.” I can’t remember how the song goes now. But I do remember that I was very pleased with it! The idea was that despite our individual differences, we all have universal human qualities that unite us. I expected the song would be approved for production right away!
But…you can probably predict that this story has a different ending. Here’s what happened.
All of our songs and scripts had to go through a careful vetting process, involving a team of educational consultants. I remember getting my script back. It had corrections marked on it with a red pen. “This song is confusing,” the anonymous consultant had written, “Please revise!” There was an exclamation mark, and a note in the margins. It said: “The lyric should read, ‘Everybody’s different…not everyone’s the same.’ ”
Everybody’s different, not everyone’s the same.
Well, needless to say I tried to explain my reasoning. I told my producer that the song pointed to a meaningful paradox. People are different and the same, at the same time! This was an idea I thought children would be able to appreciate. In fact, I thought many children probably knew it already. But I didn’t get very far with the educational consultants, and my song ended up (as they say) on the cutting room floor.
Half a lifetime later, though, I’m still finding value in that experience…and not because it’s good sermon material.
It’s not just the value of the song’s meaning, which has endured for me. Nor the value of learning to handle rejection. No…I think the most important lesson of that experience was what it taught me about how much our culture values difference and individuality. It taught me that our culture values difference so much, it can be blind to the aspects of life we all share… Blind to the love that might actually save us as a species, if we could become aware of it.
In my studies this year I read a book called “Just Hospitality” by a Christian theologian (no longer living) named Letty Russell. You’d be interested to know that in the book, she quotes from the hymn we’re going to sing a little later: “I Wish I Knew How.” Letty Russell wrote that “the concept of difference can be a tool for, or a weapon against, understanding one another.”
It’s difficult to create a world of peace and justice when we start to see people as “other.” When individuality is held up as an ideal, we see others everywhere. We do this from early childhood. We teach that it is right. We teach ourselves that each other are, essentially, strangers. In doing so, we separate ourselves from the Love that is around us all the time. The Love that creates a larger music that gives each unique individual a place in this world.
Fast-forward now to another time in my life when I was on tour with another woman musician. We were finding it a little hard to get along in the close quarters of our rental car and our hotel room. I broke away to have breakfast by myself one morning, and I read a magazine article called “You Spot it, You Got It.” It was written by a woman named Martha Beck, and it explained how when we’re particularly irritated by someone, it’s a signal that we have the same characteristic within ourselves. Something that we don’t even recognize. Certainly something we don’t “love” in ourselves or others.
It’s the dimension of ourselves that Carl Jung called “the shadow”—the un-embraced parts of our identity that can run the show if we don’t watch out. When someone really bothers us or annoys us, it means there’s a part of ourselves we don’t know very well, that we’re projecting onto them. The origin of the problem is really within us…which is maddening to say the least. When I read the article, my friend happened to be bugging the heck out of me…and I think she felt pretty much the same way! So the article came at an uncomfortably appropriate time. When I thought about it, I realized it was true!
The aspects of my friend’s personality that I found so difficult and “strange” actually did have parallels within me. I had to get to know the “stranger” within myself. Strangely, when I began to do that, I felt less irritated…less triggered. And the long drives ahead of us felt just a little easier from that point on. 
Our reading today, by Joy Harjo, included these words of timeless wisdom:
“Remember the earth whose skin you are:
Red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too.
Talk to them, listen to them. …
Remember you are all people and all people are you.”
As we are discovering in the interconnected web of existence, we are called to “talk to” the strangers of other species, which are our ancestors and our close relations. We’re emerging now from a period in history when human beings celebrated our difference from virtually all living things around us. Now, however, we’re recognizing that we’re more similar to other living creatures than we thought. We share more than 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees, it turns out. Even living things that seem a lot different than us share a large percentage of our genes. You might be surprised to learn that we share 47% of our genes with a fruit fly…and 25% with a simple grain of rice.  And recently I saw a video from the BBC that showed a puffer fish creating a beautiful mandala on the ocean floor to attract a mate.  It took the fish seven days of round-the-clock work to create the beautiful, symmetrical work of art: a mandala as lovely as anything most humans could make. The accomplishment of the puffer-fish makes me think twice about the word “humanist” that so many Unitarians so proudly use.
Is it possible that one day the word “humanist” will sound the same way that “sexist” or “racist” do today? I hope not! But in order for “humanist” to continue to be a positive and
life-giving description, it seems to me that human beings will have to evolve somewhat. What kind of transformation will have to happen, so that we re-evaluate our own importance? What will it take for us to “talk to” the stranger that is the earth, and to love every living creature in it?
Fortunately, spiritual growth does offer us the potential of such transformation. Through prayer and contemplation and artistic practice and mindful community-building…we can gradually learn to see the bigger picture beyond the usual “us/them” distinctions. All spiritual traditions teach us to welcome the stranger. The Christian tradition from which our UU faith has evolved includes this passage.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” 
And we’re probably all familiar and somewhat comfortable with the teaching to “love thy neighbour as thyself…”
But the full passage from the Gospel of Matthew reads:
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” 
That is, don’t simply love and welcome the friendly neighbour you don’t know… But love and welcome people you don’t understand, don’t like, and don’t approve of. I think all of us can think of times when that seemed absolutely impossible. When it seemed perfectly acceptable and even correct to ignore, reject or even persecute the “strangers” we encounter. But a commitment to spiritual growth calls us to widen the circle of compassion—to use Einstein’s words—to include even those that we feel justified in excluding from the circle. “Our task must be to free ourselves by widening the circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.”
When we begin to “talk to strangers,” we might start to notice them popping up everywhere—whether they’re other people or parts of ourselves. This was something the poet Rumi noticed, as a Sufi mystic of Islam. He wrote:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond. 
As we begin to learn to welcome the stranger, both outside ourselves and within ourselves, perhaps we might learn to live our Unitarian principles more deeply and consistently. We might learn how, for example, to approach the UU first principle from a deeper place. Not simply to “affirm” and “promote” the inherent worth and dignity of every person…but to know it.
To not deny difference, but to affirm the universal inherent worth that transcends dualistic ideas like right/wrong, either/or, insider/outsider, this church/that church. To paraphrase Letty Russell once again, “unity is an impossible possibility.” That is, to live “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” is much harder than it looks. Perhaps such an “impossible possibility” springs from a love so deep, we human beings can only glimpse it from time to time.
Now, some may think that Unitarians do hospitality better than others, because of our first principle. But in fact, in a report published in 2005, the Unitarian Universalist Association wrote that: “Within the UU religious movement, which embraces a spirit of questioning and daring, permeates a strong and steady fear of ‘the other’.”  A strong and steady fear of the “other.” This may be the “shadow side” of our radically inclusive identity. The UUA also said that “although UUs promise to live ethically and in loving relationship, it is difficult to see when we are falling short of these aspirations.” 
Of course it’s difficult, in a culture that highlights individuality and difference.
Unitarian theologian Paul Rasor writes: “The deep-seated individualism in our culture—and in religious liberalism—reflects a misguided and dangerously outmoded understanding.”  “We cannot adequately satisfy our longing for community until we learn to embrace a different view of the self.” He goes on to say, “Our liberal-modern understanding of ourselves as autonomous individuals is an illusion. We don’t first exist as individuals who then form social groups. The group always comes first.” 
The way I see this today, it means that “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” can only be upheld if we become more deeply conscious of the “interconnected web of all existence.” If we learn to “talk to” people and creatures and aspects of ourselves that we once saw as “other.”
If we become willing to welcome the stranger in this way…
…we may grow toward the Unconditional Love that can illuminate all our lives,
…set all people free from suffering and injustice…
And protect and sustain this beautiful planet.
The sacred home of everybody different…
everyone the same.
Thanks for listening.
 Martha Beck, “You Spot It, You’ve Got It”
 Carl Zimmer, “Genes are Us. And Them,” National Geographic online.
 Puffer fish on BBC One, “Life Story”
 Hebrews 13:2.
 Matthew 5:43-44.
 Jelalludin Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks.
 UUA, Engaging our Theological Diversity, 117.
 UUA, Who’s in Charge Here?, 57.
 Paul Rasor, Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2005), 89.
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