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general assembly


Sermon by Rev. Bill Darlison  23 -10 -16



Entertaining Angels Unawares


According to the media, there has been a considerable increase in racial tension since the EU referendum. Recent reports claim that racially motivated crimes have risen 57% and police chiefs are concerned that this figure could well increase in the coming weeks. As a consequence, we are hearing that strange word ‘xenophobia’ more and more, and it is xenophobia that I want to talk about today.

          The word comes from two Greek roots; xenos, which means ‘stranger’, and phobos, which means ‘fear’. Xenophobia is fear of strangers. Not, originally, hostility towards strangers, you notice, just fear of them, but, since fear and hostility go together, it has come to mean hostility towards them.

          There’s a certain irony attached to using a pair of Greek words to describe this hostility, because in the world of ancient Greece – the world of Homer, Socrates, and Aristotle, the world of two and a half millennia ago – hostility towards strangers was considered one of the most grievous of all sins. Although the Greeks did feel a certain cultural superiority over non-Greeks, whom they called ‘barbarians’, on account of their language sounding like, ‘baa…baa…baaa’, they nevertheless upheld the sacred principle of xenia – ‘guest friendship’, by which a person was obliged to provide food, shelter, and protection to anyone seeking these things. Violation of this principle was considered to be an offence against Zeus, the king of the gods, who was sometimes called Zeus Xenios, Zeus the protector of strangers, and such a violation would inevitably incur divine retribution.

           In Homer’s two great works, the Iliad and the Odyssey we regularly see this principle in operation. In the Odyssey, for example, Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, seeking news of his long-absent father, visits Nestor, his father’s friend, a man whom he has never met. As soon as he and his companion arrive, they are given food to eat and wine to drink, and only when they have dined are they questioned about their identity and the purpose of their visit. At the end of the meal, Nestor says:


Now is a better time to interrogate our guests and ask

Them who they are, now they have had the pleasure of eating.

Strangers, who are you? From where do you come sailing over the watery

Ways? Is it on some business, or are you recklessly roving

As pirates do, when they sail on the salt sea and venture

Their lives as they wander, bringing evil to alien people?

(Odyssey, Book 3, lines 69-74, Lattimore translation)


Notice: even though they think they may be pirates, they still feel obliged to feed them.

There is a corollary to this: one wasn’t supposed to abuse the hospitality one was offered, nor to take it for granted, and those of you who are familiar with the Odyssey will recall that the climax of the book recounts the revenge taken by Odysseus on those who have done just that.

Sometimes, it was said, the Greek gods would disguise themselves as strangers just to test a person’s fidelity to the principle. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews in the Christian scriptures refers to a variation on this idea when he says, ‘Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’. (Hebrews 13:2)

          Jesus, too, in his great sermon on the sheep and the goats, which can be found in Chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel, tells us that the people who will inherit God’s kingdom, will be the ones who look after the sick, who welcome strangers, who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and so on. The goats, whom God will turn away in disgust, are the people who do not do these things. 

          I was contacted a few months ago by a woman who’d been reading some of my stuff and we’ve started a bit of a dialogue. She, like me, was brought up as a Catholic and in an email last week she asked me what I feel I have to thank the Catholic Church for. I told her I was thankful to the Church for teaching me that all human beings are children of God, that we are all brothers and sisters, that human life is sacred; that every human being is the crowning glory of creation and that he or she is infinitely precious in the sight of God, in whose image we are all made.  This was indeed the substance of what I was taught in the school I attended and in the sermons at mass on Sundays and these things have informed my politics and my ethics ever since.

          Many people will see this kind of stuff as a little primitive, a little mythological, a little unscientific. It may have been okay during the Middle Ages, but post-Galileo and post-Darwin it seems somewhat out of date. We moderns have a better understanding of our place in the universe and our status as human beings. We don’t talk like that anymore. The hard-headed scientists and philosophers are giving us a different view of the universe and of the human being. We are told that everything began fortuitously, without a cause and without a purpose. That the vast universe is indifferent to us. We are just the expendable, accidental products of blind natural forces. We came from nowhere and we’re going nowhere.

I’ve collected a few of these pronouncements by scientists and science writers over the years. Here’s a selection.


Marcus Chown wrote in the Guardian at the time of the total eclipse of 1999: ‘A total eclipse confronts us with a truth we would rather not face. The truth is that we live on a tiny clod of cold clay in an insignificant corner of an infinite cosmos. In the great scheme of things, our lives are of no importance whatsoever.’


At about the same time, Jim Herrick, editor of the New Humanist magazine, wrote about, ‘the puniness of the self in the face of the vastness of the universe.’


The scientist, Dean Hamer, put it rather starkly: ‘We follow the basic law of nature, which is that we’re a bunch of chemical reactions running around in a bag.’


And some writer whose name I can’t remember put it even more starkly: ‘We are just hairy bags of chemicals’.


George Monbiot, who writes on ecological matters in the Guardian, wrote: ‘Darwinian evolution tells us that we are incipient compost, assemblages of complex molecules… After a few score years, the molecules disaggregate and return whence they came. Period. As a gardener and ecologist I find this oddly comforting.’


And just to demonstrate that this is not an exclusively male point-of-view, (although it does seem to be mainly male), psychologist Susan Blackmore, writing in a book called What’s Your Dangerous Idea?  said that her dangerous idea is: ‘We are just memes competing in a pointless universe’.


Recently, I read on Facebook: ‘Since the human being is 90% water, we’re just cucumbers with anxiety.’


Trotsky: ‘We must rid ourselves of the Quaker-Papist babble about the sanctity of human life’.


Stalin: ‘One death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is just a statistic.’


And we find the same sentiments among our entertainers. I was always pretty relaxed about the music people chose for funerals, but one song I would have objected to, (had anyone asked for it, which they didn’t) and apparently it is becoming increasingly popular. It’s the song that is sung at the end of the Monty Python film, The Life of Brian. This is one of the funniest films ever made. I remember almost choking with laughter when I first saw it, and it still amuses me even today. But this one song, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, contains a line which I think expresses the ultimate blasphemy: ‘Life’s a piece of shit, when you think of it’.

          It’s clever, it’s modern, it’s chic, it’s considered to be funny. But it’s abominable. Is this what we really think of life? Is this what we want to be our final summation of the nature of existence as they put our coffin in the ground?

          No wonder we are having trouble with our neighbours, with people of other races and other colours and other traditions if this is what we think about ourselves. If my life is of no consequence whatsoever in the vast scheme of things, if I am just a bunch of chemical reactions running around in a bag, then no wonder I can’t bring myself to care too much about others, who are pieces of the universe’s detritus, just as I am.

         One of my favourite stories in the Gospels is the Cure of the Blind Man (Mark 8:22-26). As Jesus enters Bethsaida a blind man is brought to him and, in response to the man’s entreaties, Jesus restores his sight. The story is different from all the other miracles recounted in the Gospels, because it is the only one in which Jesus is shown failing at his first attempt. He takes the man to one side, rubs spittle on his eyes, and asks him, ‘What do you see?’ ‘I see people but they look like walking trees,’ the man replies. Jesus rubs the man’s eyes again, and this time his sight is restored and he can see everything clearly.

This is a beautiful parable about the human condition. We are seeing, but we’re not seeing clearly. What are we not seeing? We are not seeing, in the words of our story this morning, that we are all eagles who have been taught that we are chickens. We’re not seeing what Thomas Merton saw as he stood at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of the shopping district in Louisville, Kentucky, when he had the sudden realization that he loved all the people who were around him, that they were all shining like the sun, shining like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. That there were no strangers. That the light of heaven is in everybody ‘and if we could see it we would see these billion points of light coming together in the face and blaze of the sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish’.

That’s what we don’t see, and one reason we don’t see it is the dreadful, demeaning view we are being encouraged to have of ourselves by those who are shaping the contemporary orthodoxy about what it means to be a human being.

           The Jews say that every person should carry around two pieces of paper. On one should be written: I am nothing but dust and ashes. On the other: For my sake the whole universe was created.

Traditionally, religion has kept us aware of the paradox and helped us to deal with it. But the paradox no longer exists. We’ve lost the sense of the second statement. Now, according to the intellectual conventions of our time, we’re just dust and ashes, walking trees, incipient compost, hairy bags of chemicals, cucumbers with anxiety. And I ask the questions: Now that we’ve discarded the mythological language of value, - that God loves us, that we are all brothers and sisters, that the person begging for my help might just be an angel in disguise - how can we create another language of value in the light of the contemporary scientific understanding of who we are? Is it indeed possible?

And I don’t know the answers to those questions. But we’d better find some or the xenophobia we are witnessing today will be the least of our worries.


Bill Darlison

September 2016






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