The Lord appeared to Abraham[a] by the oaks[b] of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3 He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5 Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6 And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures[c] of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” 7 Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
A year after the June 2016 shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Omar Delgado, a police officer from a neighboring community who was one of the first responders at the scene, told USA Today that the scene that greeted him when he arrived at that tragedy still stays fixed in his mind.
In a room that only minutes before had been a full-out party, the only sound he heard as he entered was cell phones scattered across the floor ringing incessantly.
“I knew it was a loved one trying to reach that person, and they were never going to pick up that phone again,” he said. “It was horrific.”
Officer Delgado was among 25 people associated with the Pulse shooting who were profiled by an organization called Dear World, which travels the world photographing people associated with conflict or disaster. You can find it on the Web.
Each subject is depicted with a message written in black marker on some part of his or her body. One survivor of the shooting wrote on his arms “nowhere left to hide.” The mother of one who died had written on her chest, “I went to the bedroom and he wasn’t there.” Officer Delgado had written on his arm, “I wish I could have answered their phones.”
Unlike most of the events that Dear World documents, though, the Orlando shooting was not a military conflict or natural disaster. It was a hate crime.
At about 2 a.m. on June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard who had expressed hatred for gays, entered Pulse, a gay nightclub packed with patrons, and opened fire with a pistol and semi-automatic assault rifle. His three-hour rampage left 49 dead and 53 injured.
Mateen struck on what the bar had advertised as Latin Night. So, many of those injured or killed were part of a gay Latinx culture in the Orlando area that had been particularly marginalized. The incident sent shockwaves through many communities, but perhaps most powerfully it illuminated how splintered our society has become and how fragile and dangerous life can be for those of us who are deemed by someone else to be other.
Other. Different. Unlike. And, therefore, feared, held in suspicion, even despised.
The passage Nancy read earlier from Genesis suggests how long such suspicion has plagued us. Altogether, the stories in the Hebrew Bible associated with Abraham, a chief patriarch of Jewish tradition, are few. But key among them is this brief tale of hospitality.
It comes just after Abraham and his first son, Ishmael, have been circumcised and so received the sign of the covenant between them and God. Shortly afterward, Abraham is surprised to see three men whom he doesn’t recognize appear at his tent. He makes no inquiry of them – Who are you? Where did you come from? Anything like that.
Instead, he bows and asks them: Won’t you take some rest and let me feed you? And then he sets off to ordering the food and waits until they have consumed them before troubling them any further.
Soon after he learns some miraculous news – his wife, Sarah, quite old and thought to be barren, will give birth to a child. And it becomes clear that these are not just any guests but angels who have arrived with much to tell him.
What miraculous news might visitors, people who are unfamiliar, others unlike us whom we chance to meet, have to give us about who we are and what the world, the future holds for us? It’s a question we don’t seem much to entertain these days. We’re more inclined to seek out the familiar, people who remind us of ourselves or other people we know. The rest, well, they can take care of themselves.
In sum, we appear to be suffering from a failure of empathy, and perhaps, as some people suggest, empathy’s tragic flaw. Now, that’s kind of hard to hear, right? We’re raised to be empathetic. We tell our children to be slow to judge another person. Try walking a mile in his or her shoes. See? He/she is a lot like us after all.
And, you know, that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing, but in the long run it may not be enough. Here’s why: The fact is that there are people we’re going to have an awful hard time learning to empathize with. They are so different from us that we really can’t see wrapping our heads around their situation. In fact, we’re more likely to fantasize a bit about how we think things are for them, imagining a life for them that has nothing to do with their real world. It may persuade us that we understand them when we really don’t.
The Nasruddin tale is a good example. He arrives at the wealthy man’s feast wishing he had time to change his soiled clothes, but figuring that his host would be more troubled if he arrived late. No, better to honor his hospitality and be prompt. But he arrives and find that his host and the guests can’t see past his soiled clothes. He is shunned and ignored.
Embarrassed he goes back home and changes into his finest clothes, which prompt a generous welcome from his host and the others. So, he concludes it is his clothes, not him, that was wanted at the party and blithely stuffs his pockets.
The story makes an obvious point about human vanity, but it also offers a subtler lesson about the tyranny of visual cues that we use to decide how to relate to one another.
The writer Sarah Sentilles says that for years she taught art and learned how indelible visual impressions can be. “Labeling someone as either like you or not like you, as friend or enemy,” she says, “hangs on perception, and perception is warped by the lenses through which you’ve been trained to look at the world.”
These lenses teach us how to identify an “other,” so that in the end, she says, “otherness is made, not found. It is learned, imagined, and imposed.” In that way, it works against empathy. We may try to empathize with someone who seems different from us, thinking “I know he’s strange, but give them a chance.” Meanwhile, perceptual cues inside of us that we’re not even conscious of may be shouting, “No, no: scary!”
What would happen, she says, if on encountering someone different from ourselves we didn’t just turn on the empathy script – “OK, now she’s a person just like you. Find out what you share.”
Instead, in her words, “what if we were to let confrontation with otherness, with difference, give us pause? What if encountering someone I don’t understand raised questions about my limited view, about the lenses through which I’ve been trained to see the world, about the agendas driving how difference is demonized?”
That’s a pretty different script, right?
The truth is we do others a far greater honor if we enter into relationship expecting that the person we meet will exceed our understanding of them. We do, of course, seek out common interests, but how about if we also came to enjoy, perhaps even treasure the richness and qualities in that person beyond our own experience and understanding.
To my mind, it is one way that we realize our first Unitarian Universalist principle – affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person. What gives each person worth and dignity is not the qualities that we share or that we happen to like about them, but each person’s inherent beauty and genius, that which makes that person unique, irreplaceable, unlike any person who has ever lived. It is that which we seek to know and cherish in each other.
As the philosopher Judith Butler puts it, this understanding affects our ethical stance. Ethical awareness, she says, “surfaces not when we think we know the most about each other, but when we have the courage to recognize the limits of what we know.”
That brings us back to our choir’s uplifting anthem. Do you remember it? “Safe Places for the Heart”? This piece wasn’t just written in a vacuum. It was written as a response to the Pulse nightclub massacre.
“My heart will be a home for you, where in the window of our dreams the cause of right comes shining through, where every word is kind, where every spoken word is kind, where outstretched arms embrace diversity and open affirming minds encourage others to be free, striving for equality, respecting each one’s dignity to love who we were born to be.”
The song invites us to take stock of how we regard this or any highly marginalized group of people. And I offer it up this Sunday when we reflect on giving and receiving forgiveness because I think it pushes us. At least, it pushes me.
“Outstretched arms embrace diversity and open affirming minds encourage others to be free.” Hmm. Really? I don’t know. I don’t want to load on you, but for myself, I have to admit that there are certainly folks for whom my empathy gets strained. I feel badly, yes, but outstretched arms? You know, not so much.
Each year I invite us into the litany of atonement we just experienced not as a mere exercise, but to invite us all to reflect. For myself, remaining silent when a single voice would have made a difference? Yup. Letting my fears make me rigid and inaccessible? Yup.
So, what do we do with that? Well, to begin with we confess it and admit the sorrow that it gives us to do so. Then we go about the work of repair, forgiving ourselves for coming up short in our own expectations, which gives us the courage to forgive others their own trespasses, and then look to begin again. Not from a position of judgment or feigned superiority, but from curiosity, humility, wonder: from love.
It is a place where we pause and reflect. It can be hard to enter into relationship with people different from us. We can embarrass ourselves and make mistakes.
Parker Palmer tells the story he heard from the director of a Jewish Community who hired a gentile woman to act as a receptionist. The director said they instructed her that when she answered the phone she was to say, “Jewish Community Center – Shalom.”
You remember shalom.
He said he happened to be listening when the woman took her first call and said, “Jewish Community Center – Shazam!”
And so we laugh, “Oh, boy, did I mess up. I’ve got a lot to learn.” And we turn up our curiosity. What more do I need to know here?
Because beneath the sweet words of an anthem like the one the choir sang is the acquaintance with something terrible and cruel. “When stares despise the way we love, our eyes will speak of deeper grace ‘cause love keeps truth within its sight.”
That deeper grace, deeper truth is a unity beneath all difference, a unity that does not make us all the same but makes us all worthy. Behind the rituals of atonement is the prayer that through this practice we may in time change how we respond to those we deem to be others in our midst. That we learn to be slower to judgment and quicker to self-examination, less rigid, more curious. So that having abandoned the illusion of separateness we may forgive ourselves and each other, and begin again in love.