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The Kindness of Strangers – 9/25/2011

This week I was an observer of sorts at a meeting of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee in Boston. The Ministerial Fellowship Committee, the MFC, is the body in our movement that counsels those seeking to become ministers and determines when they are ready to enter our ministry. It was a tremendous honor to be with them for three very full days, and during that time I had the privilege of meeting the talented and dedicated ministers and lay people who sit on the panel together. One of these awesome folks is the Rev. Karen Gustafson, who serves in Madison, WI. When she had known me for all of one day, Karen told me a story and she said, “I’m giving you this story as a gift. Maybe you’ll preach it sometime.” And when she’d finished telling it to me, I knew I had to come right here on Sunday and tell it to you. Here is the story:

Many years ago, Karen made another trip from the Midwest to Boston, and she brought her 12 year old daughter along with her. They had gotten to the city and were walking from one place to another, through the Common and across Tremont St. to the public garden. Karen started across the street and – whoosh! – a car sped wildly by and came very, very close to hitting her. Turning immediately back to the sidewalk, she faced her daughter who was a few steps behind her. The thought that she had almost been struck by the speeding car was frightening, of course, but at least as frightening was the thought of what might have happened to her daughter, stranded suddenly and violently in a strange city. Shaking off the adrenaline, Karen asked her daughter: what would she have done if something had happened to her mom, and there was no one to take care of her. The answer she got back was this: “If something had happened to you, Mom, I would have found a policeman, and asked where the nearest Unitarian church was, because I know there’d be people there who’d take care of me.”

When Karen told me that story, what it made me feel was a fierce desire to live up to it. Her daughter showed such faith in our faith, such trust in our congregations and their commitment to practice loving kindness. It’s a high bar that she set, of a church where a stranger from far away, lost and stranded, could show up unannounced, and the people there would do whatever they could to help. That’s the sort of church I want to be a part of, though. It’s the sort of church I believe we aspire to be together. Last Sunday, after worship, we had a meeting right here about our Tuesday Night Supper program, about the free meal that this congregation has been serving for years every Tuesday to whoever shows up. The source of the donated food that the program was based on had suddenly dried up, and we needed to talk through the hard questions about continuing the program. Could our community commit to the major increase in volunteer work and cost that would be necessary to continue providing a meal to 35-40 people per week for 52 weeks a year?

And the answer that came back from you, loud and clear, was ‘Yes!’ Of course we can do that. Of course we must do that. In a moment that I found particularly moving, I heard one of you say that you could think of nothing that would be more important for our congregation to be doing than this. It is a matter of fundamental compassion to fulfill a fundamental need. But practicing compassion, living with compassion, requires something particularly challenging from us. It requires us to cultivate an orientation of trust.

I want to remind you of a story from the Christian tradition that many of you may know. It comes from the Gospel according to Luke. Jesus is holding an informal class, and when he talks about the importance of loving your neighbor as yourself, someone from the crowd asks, “Who is my neighbor?”

There is a pattern in the Gospels in which someone will get a little too cute for Jesus, and he will respond by taking them to school, rhetorically speaking. So the teacher answers the question with this story:

“A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. By chance a certain priest was going down that way. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he traveled, came where he was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two coins, and gave them to the host, and said to him, ‘Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.’ Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?”[1]

To Jesus’ audience, the priest and the Levite were respected figures, but the Samaritan was something else entirely. Samaritans would have been viewed as villains and enemies by the Jewish gathering that Jesus would have told this story to. The reasons are complex, but basically one group thought of the other as a nation of frauds, and while the second camp saw the first as a circle of fools. The idea of a Samaritan stopping to help an injured Jew would have been shocking and disorienting to a Jewish audience hearing the story for the first time. It disrupts the idea that the Samaritans as a group can just be written off as evil or worthless. It sends a message that anyone can choose to do what is right. And that happens to be a deeply Unitarian Universalist message.

Our tradition affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and that worth and dignity comes bundled up with the power to act out of love and a sense of justice. So our faith counsels us to a certain sort of optimism about human beings, pulling us into an orientation of trust. The 19th century Unitarian poet Lydia Maria Child said that “Every human soul has the germ of some flower within”, and so we owe it to ourselves and each other to trust in the possibility of that flower: the potential in each of us for wisdom and compassion and love. With that in mind we need always to allow for the possibility of being pleasantly surprised. We need to hold firmly to the belief that it is always possible to choose to do what is right and good, and that life is filled with unexpected opportunities to care for one another. Such an attitude brings dignity and respect to every party: to the one who serves the food and the one that receives it, as both admit to themselves that if the world were only a bit different, their roles might be reversed. The stranger, the person who arrives in a community unknown and unrecognized as ‘the same’, becomes less a frightening uncertainty and more of a welcome possibility.

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” Blanche DuBois pronounces at the close of A Streetcar Named Desire. Every one of us here, every life everywhere, has reason, at some time, to depend upon the kindness of strangers. The degree to which we are open to each new person we meet is a risk, and at the same time, the possibility in every moment is fresh and real. We serve ourselves and each other best when we accept the risks of discomfort, of disappointment or of being thought foolish in order to remain open to goodness from people we might have doubted. This does not mean that trusting everyone always, unconditionally and without any limits to protect ourselves. If the foreman refuses to pay your wages at the end of a fair day’s work, you should not go back the next day to work for him, until he first gives you what he owes you.

The experience of oppression – of systems of power and privilege, much larger than each of us but which touch all of us – based on race, gender, class, sexuality and gender or any other identity forms a powerful barrier to trust. But bit by bit, the bitter stone of prejudice can be chipped away by a faithful grounding in cautious optimism. Trust in our own deep worth can give us the breathing room to acknowledge where we have unjust privilege, and to seek to change ourselves and the systems that shape our lives. Trust in the potential good of others can help us to venture into partnerships across boundaries and borderlines, to risk meeting and knowing and struggling with people who do not look or sound or feel like us, and yet share the same beautiful and resilient human spirit. It is a vast and challenging undertaking, I know, and so I would ask you now to try practicing just a bit of it with me:

Take a moment to look inside of yourself. Find someone there whom you do not want to reach out to: someone who seems too strange to you to know, or who you know too well and too painfully to want to trust again. It might be someone you know personally or it might be an abstract idea of a type of person you can’t stand or can’t understand. It could be a sports team you root against, or a politician you oppose. It could be someone who has hurt you or betrayed you or harmed you. Do you have them in mind? Without the need to forgive or forget or pretend you understand them, let us take a moment together to imagine them showing kindness to someone else. Picture them hugging a sibling or petting a cat. Think of them calling to wish an old friend a happy birthday, or loaning their car to a neighbor in a rush to get to the hospital. Imagine the finer half of their humanity, not because it is all that they are, but because it is always a part of what they are.

I want to leave you with one final crystallized moment, one that has lived with me for many years. In college I volunteered at a domestic violence shelter.  The place had a strong, antiseptic smell, and when I began volunteering I had the feeling of being perpetually in the way, out of place, lacking purpose.  The staff sometimes seemed at a loss for what tasks to assign us volunteers, and as the only man in the group, I couldn’t even perform the one consistent job of answering the office phone. For a line used mostly by women who were seeking a way out of abusive relationships with male partners, the policy of never having a male voice answer was sound. But as I say, it didn’t leave me with much to do. And then one night I was present for the first time when a guest was being admitted to the shelter. She was a woman a little older than I was then, a little younger than I am now. She had two rambunctious daughters under six years old. At last I had a job to do: I was put to work making up the room where all three of them would sleep. In the moment that still hangs in a particular corner of my heart, I was tucking in the sheets on one of the bunk beds when I looked up to see our new guests, this woman and her two young daughters, standing in the doorway.  The mother watched me with a look of confusion and wonder and she said out loud, “I’ve never seen a man make a bed before.” I do not know where she and her children went when they left the shelter. I have no expectation that she has thought of that moment even one more time in her life. But I think of it often, because in that moment, I felt as though what I was doing mattered, like my life was touching the life of another in a way that hinted at the potential to do good that I knew I had but was hungry to find evidence for.

On the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, we will all, sometime or another, find ourselves waylaid and in need of help. And sometimes we will notice ourselves in the role of the passersby, crossing to the other side of the road to avoid the fallen traveler. Sometimes, if we are lucky and open to it, we may allow ourselves to see what is wrong, to stop and give what we can of ourselves, even and especially though it crosses some line between ‘us’ and ‘them’. But most of the time, all of these roles at once are present in us. We are hurt, and we are helping, and we are less than certain about what exactly we should do. But if we can trust that we, like everyone else, are capable of doing good, we will be far more likely to recognize the opportunities to do so. Let us never stop reminding ourselves and each other, of the flower that grows in the heart, waiting to bloom. So that when a stranger ventures through the door of our meetinghouse, we may trust them, and trust ourselves enough to risk finding out who they are.

[1] Luke 10:25-37


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