The Stranger Among Us is the Stranger Inside Us

(this posting is an excerpt from a sermon I gave today)

It is an
honor and a privilege to be a guest in this house of worship today.

When Lea
invited me to preach, I started to think about what particular aspects of
spirituality are most compelling for me right now. I thought about my work with
Jewish Mosaic, as well as a therapist, a spiritual director, and then about my
own spiritual journey over the last 40 plus years.

So many
of the clients I see in therapy and spiritual direction describe a longing for
a spiritual community in which they can feel free to be all of who they are. So
many of us feel ourselves to be compartmentalized inside, like “I can share
this part of myself over here at work, and this other part of myself over here
with my family, and this other part of myself with my partner and friends”…but
still living a divided life, fragmented at the core.

One of
my teachers and mentors, Quaker educator Parker Palmer, describes it like this:

“[We get] messages as young children that it’s not safe to be
out in the world with who we really are. We learn that it’s not safe to be out
there with our personal truth with our gender or sexual identity. Ask any gay
or lesbian young person what it was like to have that dawning awareness of his
or her own sexuality in school, and to the dawning awareness that this is a
very unsafe world for almost any kind of otherness.” (from podcast “The Divided
Life & the Quest for True Self”)

reminds me about something that Judaism refers to as
shleimut, or
wholeness. It shares the same root as the word
shalom, which means
peace, and Shalom is also a word that is used to greet another person. What a
concept, greeting someone with peace and wholeness.

is a theology of wholeness, healing all the
fragmented parts of ourselves.  A spirituality of
shleimut speaks
directly to what Parker Palmer means when he talks about “the gap between who
we really are and how we present ourselves to the world.”  He says it’s
“the spiritual journey that takes us toward an adult wholeness.”

In order
to celebrate our
shleimut, our wholeness, we must also acknowledge our
brokenness.This particular theme of the relationship between brokenness and
wholeness reminds me of a Kabbalistic teaching from Rabbi Isaac Luria about the
creation story. Creation
began in a state of cosmic spaciousness, a boundary-less vacuum which material
creation would ultimately inhabit. The Divine Energy contracted itself into
these mystical vessels, but the vessels were ultimately unable to contain the
great awesome light of the Infinite and therefore shattered (
sh’virat ha-keylim).
The sparks of holiness from that light were exiled and dispersed among all
mundane physical matter. This created a state of brokenness that can only be
rectified by every single person participating in
Tikkun Olam, the
healing and repair of the world.


So each
one of us is a holy spark of the Divine, and tikkun olam is an action plan of
connection and healing. There is an ongoing tension and balancing–as we move
toward wholeness, we have to pay attention to our brokenness.  

Image courtesy of JLR

Since a
central teaching of Jewish theology is the commandment and commitment to
participate in tikkun olam, the healing and repair of the world, it is our
spiritual obligation to:

  • care for the poor and the underserved
  • speak out against police brutality and racial profiling
  • speak out about hate crimes
  • advocate for universal health care for people of all genders
  • safe accessible abortion
  • HIV treatment


According to the Torah, it is also our spiritual obligation to love
your neighbor/friend as you love yourself–V’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha –-
all aspects of our diversity: race, gender, ethnicity, economic class, whom and
how we love, age, physical ability, —look around the sanctuary right now and
notice who is and is NOT here. There is always more we can do to enrich our
diversity, but the task is not always simple or quick.
V’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha also requires us to be welcoming and
loving in how we treat one another, as well as to love all parts of

We are intimate with one another in many ways; let's talk a little
bit about sexuality–
kedoshim t'hiyu ki kadosh Adonai
Elohecha–you shall be holy because I Your God am Holy.
 This is a
cornerstone for thinking about our sexuality as sacred. We are manifestations
of the Divine, we are all holy sparks, and as such, our sexuality is a
reflection of that divinity.

God is love

One of
my favorite teachings on this topic of sacred sexuality is from Audre Lorde’s
brilliant article about the erotic as power. She saw the erotic as our deepest
sense of knowing at the intuitive gut level–the bridge which connects the
spiritual and the political, And she described this threshold, this bridge of
the erotic energy between the spiritual and the political as the open and
fearless underlining of our capacity for joy.” (p. 56)


erotic bridge brings us to my next point, which is a 
theology of
both/and, not either/or

has many references to what we ARE, or are NOT. We are pure, or we are tainted. There is a lot of emphasis on making the distinction between THIS
and THAT, between Shabbat and the regular workday. But the
is also important. In fact, that is often where the ritual occurs, like
Havdalah, the ritual that marks the end
of Shabbat and the transition back to the everyday work week.

We also
have a piece of liturgy called the Chatzi Kaddish that marks the transition
from one section of the service to another, and the Chatzi Kaddish is a prayer
of high praise, of Halleluyah to the One of Many Names who is holy, who is
great, whose name is glory.
Yitgadal v’yitgadash shmey rabbah.  This
liberation spirituality lifts up the transition and the inbetween.  

We are
the inbetween, the brokenness and the wholeness, the stranger and the lover.

I am
always drawn to the presence of the Stranger in the Torah and the
mitzvot (commandments) about relating to the stranger in the
community. I want to share with you a line from the book of Exodus on this
topic of the Stranger: 

lo tilchatz ve'atem yedatem et-nefesh ha’ger ki-gerim heyitem be'eretz

Do not
oppress the stranger, because you know the soul/nefesh of the stranger, because
you were strangers yourselves in the land of Egypt/Mitzrayim.  

(Exodus 23:9) 

mentioned earlier about being created in the Divine Image,
b’Tzelem Elohim;
one of the ways we lift up our Divine Spark is by
remembering that we
were strangers ourselves in the land of Egypt, and just like the Torah says,
relevance does this teaching have for our everyday lives as people of
faith?   Actually the question I’ve really been thinking about about
is this:  

role and function does the Stranger serve inside us and among us?

When we
feel like the Stranger, or encounter the Stranger in the Other, there is a
different sense of alertness, of paying attention, and if we are truly NOT
oppressing the stranger, if we are consciously welcoming the Stranger, that
the part inside ourselves that feels like the stranger,
the part we disavow in ourselves. This is not easy to do in a world that
renders us invisible, or disposable, or despised. We have internalized that
othering at times, turned it into self loathing.

energy of the Stranger is that of OTHER, boundaried, different. Most of us have
been socialized to fear or mistrust the one who is different. But I am learning
it is at that very threshold of difference, the energy and tension at
the edge of our Otherness, where I usually have a direct encounter with the
Divine.  Sometimes
the Stranger is God’s way of holding up a mirror for me to look at that part of
myself, my inner Stranger. And other times that God encounter is erotic energy;
sometimes it is
yirah, which in Hebrew means both fear and awe.

At times
I have even made God the stranger–other times God has been energy that is
masculine, feminine, beyond gender.

We bring
this complex relationship with the Stranger directly into our relationship with
our community institutions, our churches, our synagogues, our organizations. We
have been so beaten up out there that when we find a place that we think is
going to FINALLY accept us for all of who we are, if we encounter even the
slightest bit of disappointment or hurt, we either flee or we rage. We need
to be committed to ongoing sacred relationship with one another. We cannot give
up on each other.

I am
about to conclude my remarks, but before I do, just take a moment in your seat
to take a deep breath.

your eyes and think for a minute about a part of yourself, inside yourself that
you experience as the Stranger, the Other, the Different One. It could be some
aspect of your sexuality, or your gender, or culture, or race, or how you grew
up, or something about your body, or how you pray. It could be anything. Linger
there for a minute. Take another breath. Notice any thoughts or feelings that
come up as you pay attention to that part of yourself. Without judgment, just

imagine the words that part of you would want to hear, a message of welcoming
or healing, or simply, “I see you and I know your soul.” Or “Thank you.” Or “I
will protect you,” or “I will set you free.” Take another breath, and when you
are ready, open your eyes.

I’d like
to close with a prayer from Rabbi Naomi Levy:

we learn to open to love

all the doors and windows

our bodies swing wide

their rusty hinges.


we learn to give of ourselves with both hands,

lift each other on our shoulders,

carry one another along.


holiness move in us

we pay attention to its small voice

honor its light in each other.