This reading is adapted from words by Albert Q. Perry that appeared in Carl Seaburg’s Unitarian Universalist anthology, Celebrating Christmas.
One of my favorite Christmas stories concerns the rather snobbish ox who shared the stable with the family from Nazareth. With considerable amazement he witnessed the visits of shepherds and the strangers from the East; heard all the talk about stars and angelic choruses; and finally watched Mary and Joseph flee with their son. The ox was not impressed!
For days the other animals could talk of nothing but their human guests while the ox silently chewed his cud over in a dark corner. Finally he reproved his companions with this reflection: “I don’t understand all this excitement. I don’t know, I really don’t know why you are so interested in that vagabond family. If they had been anybody worth knowing, they would never have stayed in this broken-down shack. As for the baby, ─ it was very like any other baby that I ever saw. They were very ordinary people, I would say. Very ordinary people indeed!”
Regardless of how we react to this story, most of us can confess to being even more “ordinary” than the family from Nazareth. It remains our task to find ways for our ordinary lives to become more unusual, more extraordinary. It remains our task to cultivate unusual neighborliness, unusual generosity, extraordinary expressions of love, extraordinary attention to matters of the heart and the spirit. May this season bring extraordinary grandeur to our otherwise ordinary lives.
While pondering the theme for this morning’s sermon and service, an image came to my mind. It is a bit of a random and obscure image, but I thought I’d share it with you. On the first season of the television program The Simpsons – see, I told you it was random – there was an episode that began by playing up the dysfunction, disrespect, and lack of civility in the Simpsons’ household. One evening the Simpsons decide to compare themselves to other families in Springfield. They slip out into the night, slink through bushes, and peer in at their neighbors through the windows of their living rooms. In this act of voyeurism they see scenes of domestic tranquility and wholesomeness. In this viewing they have an experience of alienation.
Almost every year on the first Sunday in December in has been my tradition to preach on a negative emotional state, what I call a “spiritual affliction.” In past years I’ve considered such themes as loneliness, anger, jealousy, disillusionment, and depression. It is not that this time of the year makes me pensive and pessimistic. Rather, it is that I know, pastorally, that some people, not everyone but a lot of people, struggle emotionally and spiritually at this time of the year.
Meteorologically, December is a harsh transition. “Now light is less,” as one of hymns puts it. The wind and chill startle us. Physically, we conserve heat by becoming closed and drawn in. It is the beginning of a season that is bare and raw, and I don’t just mean the weather. For some of us, for many of us, it is a season of various stressors, longings, expectations that are put upon us, and regrets that surface. In the words of what will be our closing hymn, this can be a season in which, “disappointment pierced me through.” So, what I want to do this morning is to focus on one of those challenging emotional states, one of those spiritual afflictions, the feeling of alienation.
Alienation. The dictionary defines alienation as estrangement, as turning away, as the state of being or feeling like an outsider, as the state of being or feeling isolated, or as the state of being or feeling withdrawn from the objective world as through indifference or disaffection. It is as if we were hiding in the bushes, looking in at this reality that is not ours.
Alienation, we might say, involves the feeling of existential distance and difference. Distance and difference. Such distance and difference are evident even in our common uses of the word “alien.” This word is used in the realm of science fiction and in the realm of immigration.
Let’s take science fiction first. [These two paragraphs are inspired by Jeffrey Kripal’s new book, Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal.] In the realm of science fiction – films, television, books, comic books, and the like – aliens typically first appear as distant (that is, they come from a long way away) and different (that is, they are not human.) And, one of the really fun things about science fiction is that it plays with what happens when what seems very far away and very different becomes close and familiar, a close encounter of the third kind. Sometimes that distance and difference is overcome by empathy. E.T. the Extraterrestrial is not that strange. I, too, like Reese’s Pieces. I, too, have been homesick and have wanted to phone home. And, sometimes the distance and difference is overcome by painful recognition. When the aliens of science fiction are not cute and adorable, when they are threatening and menacing, they actually function in sci-fi literature as a way of reminding ourselves of our own human proclivities to colonize, enslave, exploit, and destroy. We see our own ugliness reflected.
[As an aside, we might note that many of the creators of these alien beings had a deep rootedness in humanism and religious liberalism. The Twilight Zone was created by Rod Serling, a Unitarian. Star Trek was created by Gene Roddenberry, a humanist. It is interesting to mention, for example, that the very first interracial kiss on television took place on a 1968 episode of Star Trek. What might it mean that one of our own society’s racist taboos was first shattered on a distant planet, many light years away? Talk about an overcoming of difference and distance.]
In present day America, the word “alien” is used in a different sense. The term refers to a non-citizen. It happens to be a legal term, resident alien, non-resident alien, and so forth. But, the language, as language does, also has significance beyond its precise legal definitions. I would submit that when immigrants are spoken of as aliens, the language emphasizes difference and distance, and denies a sense of common humanity. I would argue that there are whole classes of non-citizens that we would never think of as or refer to as aliens: the shortstop for the Kansas City Royals, the visiting professor at KU, the guest soloist at the symphony, the co-worker down the hall. All technically alien according to legal definitions, but we would never think in these terms.
Our current focus as a religious movement on immigration justice, on Standing on the Side of Love for families and individuals who suffer because of a broken immigration system, is based, I think, in a realization that emphasizing distance and difference beget dehumanization, and that our faith calls us to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every single person.
Not only is alienation about a sense of perceived difference and distant. It is, like our snobbish ox said, a way of saying, “I do not recognize myself in you.” When we sung “Building Bridges” [a hymn we sang before the sermon] in our church youth group, the alienation that was being combatted was akin to teenage existential angst. But alienation also has a greater meaning and greater significance beyond that somewhat limited sense. I think social alienation is a term that we might use to speak to a larger sense of indifference. That way of thinking that says that the poor and the sick and the suffering are not my problem is a form of alienation. It can be holding your own self away or holding the other person away. It is saying, “I cannot see myself reflected in you.” Or, it is saying, “I cannot see you reflected in me.”
You probably weren’t expecting an Advent sermon that mentioned The Simpsons and Star Trek. They are funky, odd little examples. But, the truth is that alienation is a tough thing to face into directly. It is that feeling of distance and difference and inability to see your own self in another person. It is a feeling that becomes intense when you feel alienated from members of your own family. It is a feeling that is painful when you feel distant from those around you. It is a feeling of panic when you are in a group of people and, all of sudden, you think, “These are not my people. I don’t belong here.” Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever felt this way?
In years past, when I’ve spoken about these negative emotions and preached about these spiritual afflictions, something has been obvious. It has been really, really obvious that our lives would be improved if we had less of this or that, less of this spiritual affliction, if we could keep that emotion in check. In talking about loneliness or depression, it was very obvious that if we were feeling lonely or depressed we wanted to feel less so, because feeling that way hurts and we do not want to hurt. When I preached about anger or jealousy, it was clear that we all wanted less anger and less jealousy because when those emotions were strongest we tended to act in ways that were inconsistent with our best selves.
But, is alienation the same way? Why should we bother to work to overcome it? What if the people from whom we are alienated are people we shouldn’t even bother to like? I struggle with this. I can think of some events and functions that I had to attend where I’ve walked in and thought, “These are not my people. I cannot see myself in these people. I don’t really want to see myself in these people.”
Alienation will happen to almost of us from time to time. There will probably always be moments when it hits us. I think this is true. But, I also think that it is true that it can become a default script that comes to dominate our living.
One of the earliest sermons I ever preached was in Boston. In the sermon I used Jesus’ line where he instructs us to love our neighbors as ourselves. This wasn’t a major point of my sermon. In the receiving line afterwards, a woman approached me and said, “You can’t tell me to love my neighbors. My neighbors are horrible and I hate them.” That is who I do not want to become. That is what happens when a sense of alienation grow too powerful and dominates our lives. Too much alienation makes us misanthropic.
I want to end with some thoughts about what life would look like with the absence of alienation. The Latin playwright Terence offered probably the very best quote about being free of alienation. Terence wrote, “I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” It is a quote that sounds a bit different if you know the briefest sketch of his life. Terence was born about two hundred years before Jesus. He was born into slavery in northern Africa and, as a child, was taken to Rome as the property of a Roman Senator. He was educated and later freed and is remembered today because as a youth he wrote six comedies, still translated by Latin students today. He died very young, perhaps in his mid-twenties, perhaps at sea. And, knowing these few biographical facts about Terence makes us think a bit differently when we hear again his famous quotation, “I consider nothing that is human alien to me.”
Gandhi’s life is a testament to overcoming alienation. Gandhi’s early experience in South Africa, where he first faced off against the racism and prejudice of the British Empire, led him to a deeper sense of his connection to all. In South Africa Gandhi has a “Rosa Parks” experience on a train. When he refused to move, he was beaten. He worked for voter rights with a broad base of people of color. He was chased by a mob of white supremacists. He turned his treatment as an alien into a life lived in which nothing that was human was alien to him.
As Unitarian Universalists, what we find most inspiring in the figure of Jesus is his radically inclusive ministry. The core of his message is that there are none who are alien, that all human beings are the children of God, and we love God by treating each other like children of God. The aliens of Jesus’ time were the tax collectors, the lepers, the poor, the prostitutes, the Samaritans, the outcasts and the left behind. Like Terence and like Gandhi, the stories that are told about Jesus’ birth and childhood have him coming from the wrong side of the tracks. Nothing good can come out of Nazareth, we’re told in John’s Gospel. An expression of alienation.
We will all experience alienation. The question is whether we will grow distant in response, or whether we will grow into a profound awareness of connection despite the efforts to distance and differentiate.