Sunday, February 08, 2009

Standing on the Side of Love: the sermon

Rev. Kit Ketcham, February 2009

Monday January 26 was an unusual day for me. It started out in a pretty ordinary way---I had to take my car into the Toyota dealer for some maintenance work and to get the rearview mirror replaced, an expensive proposition, all told, with ferry tickets adding to the total.

But they were going to give me a loaner car, since the work would take several hours, so I decided to make the best of it and see the Lucy exhibit at the Pacific Science Center, a display that I'd been wanting to explore ever since it came to town. "Lucy", as you may already know, is an exhibit of the archaeological discovery of ancient bones and artifacts dating back 3 million years.

When I arrived at the Science Center, I discovered that my fellow explorers of Lucy and her roots in Ethiopia were a noisy bunch of high school kids, which I followed around through the various displays, marveling once again at the many variations on the adolescent theme.

They were a nice bunch of kids though and I felt tolerant of their teenage behavior, though it was clear that rapt contemplation was not their forte. It was something, however, that I had been hoping for, so I quickly moved through the preliminary exhibits, past all the teenagers, and found myself eventually at the heart of the exhibit, a small, quiet room with one case in the middle of it.

It took me a moment to realize that in the case, carefully placed, were the actual fossilized bones of Lucy, the remains of the most ancient early human yet discovered. As I stood there and gazed down at those ancient relics, a recognizable skeletal human frame, I felt tears building behind my eyes and a lump in my throat.

This seemed a little odd at first and because I could hear the teenage rumble building behind me, I didn't linger long after marveling at the bones and at the replica of those bones which had been mounted in another case. Handing in my audio device to an attendant, I mentioned my surprising emotional response and she remarked that another woman had come through earlier and had burst into tears looking at the bones.

Sitting in the food court a little while later, I pulled out the newsprint article that accompanied my ticket to the exhibit and began to read more about Lucy. Gradually it dawned on me that what had moved me wasn't the scientific meaning of the discovery of her remains, it wasn't the evolutionary link that was forged by the discovery, it wasn't the majesty of the Ethiopian hills where she was found or the tenacity of the archeologists who dug her up.

The intensity of my emotional response came out of the realization that Lucy was a human being, like me. Like me, she had worried about how she would feed and clothe her child, whether her mate was a reliable provider, whether the dangers of the world would bring harm to herself and those she loved. She was too cold at times, too hot at times, too hungry at times, lonely and sleepy and angry and sad at times.

Like me she had wondered at the immensity of the sky, the moon, the stars, the sun, the weather, the natural patterns that provided structure to her life. Like me, she had wondered about how best to work with those patterns, how to use them to move through her days and her nights.

She had likely developed routines that used her knowledge of the natural world to survive. She may have tried to influence the natural world by treating it in special ways, with sacrifice, with nurture, with gratitude. She may have thought of the natural world as an entity which deserved to be worshipped and placated.

Absorbed in these thoughts, I left the food court and started back toward my parking place. Approaching the Space Needle, there in the middle of the Seattle Center, I noticed an elderly man sitting on a bench shaking a tambourine and singing. He had a paper cup out in front of him with a couple of dollar bills poking out.

I grimaced inwardly, thinking I would detour around him and not make eye contact. I wanted to stay in my thoughts about Lucy, not get sidetracked into issues of poverty or homelessness or whatever paying attention to this gentleman might mean.

As I got closer, fully intending to avoid connecting with him, I heard a man's voice say, as if to his child, "go ahead, honey, put the money in the cup" and saw a small child dart over to the cup with a dollar bill. And then, for reasons I still don't fully understand, I reached in my wallet, pulled out a fiver, placed it in the cup, and said, "can I sit and listen to you sing for awhile?"

He nodded and continued to play and sing: O Lord, I am so grateful; when I was lonely, you came to me, when I was sick, you healed me, when I was afraid, you comforted me; O Lord I am so thankful. Over and over he sang the same thing, shaking the tambourine, his eyes closed, and I started to kind of get in the groove of it all, nodding and swaying a bit myself. I also felt the tears pricking my eyelids and a lump in my throat. Why? I asked myself.

This guy's theology and mine were miles apart----in a way. We were philosophically different---in a way. We were economically different---in a way. We were racially different---in a way. And our theologies were similar---in another way; our philosophies similar---in another way. Economically we both struggled. Humanly, we were both tied to Lucy, our ancient sister.

Suddenly he stopped, stood up and started to preach. O Jesus, I love you, he preached; you've been so good to me, Lionel Lewis, you've given me strength and joy and love, you've told me to give the good news to others, you've given me a way of life that means the world to me, can I hear you say amen". Amen, I stuttered.

Again the tears behind my eyes and the whys in my head---Jesus had not been recognizably good to me--he was dead, after all--nor given me what he'd clearly given Lionel Lewis with his tambourine. But wait, something brought into my life goodness and strength and joy and love. Something told me to give the good news to others, something gave me a life that means the world to me. It might not be Jesus, but something was working in my life too.

In a bit of a daze, I said I had to go and stood up. Lionel Lewis, whose name now I will never forget, said to me as I turned to go, "Sister, you have been a blessing to me today and I thank you." And still in a daze, I replied, "Lionel Lewis, you have been a blessing to me today and I thank you." He held out his arms and I walked into them and we shared a long hug.

What does it mean, this story? Have you ever had such an experience? Let's pause for a few moments of silence and just let the stillness enter our hearts. No need to think, no need to do anything, just enjoy the silence.

As Effie and I were preparing the service for today, we spent some time talking about the various ways we use the word "Love", the various ways we think of the concept of Love.

There's romantic love, sexual love, love of family, love of friends. We love art and music, we love our pets, we love certain ideals, we love the natural world, many express love of God or Goddess.

We talk about unconditional love. We use the words Eros, Philia, Agape, those ancient Greek words that differentiate between physical love, familial and friendly love and perfect or ideal love.

We have been urged to "love our neighbors as ourselves" yet often view love of self as narcissistic and selfish. We often have no idea how to love God, for the whole concept of God can be so difficult.

We sometimes fear the responsibilities of loving and being loved, because sometimes another's love for us is engulfing or obsessive. So we may protect ourselves from this kind of love.

I don't know if you've ever been to summer camp, but we Camp Fire Girls had a favorite song we liked to sing at the nightly bonfires. "It's love, love, love that makes the world go round, it's love, love, love that makes the world go round…." The verses are a bit out of date, for we now know that it's not just boys, boys, boys that make the girls go round. It's often girls, girls, girls that make the girl go round. And boys often fall in love with other boys.

So there's another dimension added to our understandings of love, as we see longtime love relationships between our gay and lesbian friends, neighbors and family members. Our Proposal 2009: Standing on the Side of Love is our effort to acknowledge and honor those love relationships, and I'm very pleased about our doing this for our community.

But love goes way beyond the feelings we have for people, places, things, ideals. Let me re-read Effie's opening words, written by Brian Swimme in his book "The Universe is a Green Dragon".

"For the last few centuries…we have crippled many of our concepts and words. When we hear the word love, we think only in terms of human love, a very special sort of love. If we are going to think about love in its cosmic dimension, we must start with the universe as a whole. With the attraction that permeates the entire macrostructure---the allurement that all galaxies experience for all other galaxies…All communities of being are created in response to this mysterious alluring activity. Love is a word that points to this alluring activity in the cosmos which awakens the communities of atoms, galaxies, stars, families, nations, persons, ecosystems, oceans, and stellar systems. Love ignites being."

When she read this to me, it blew my mind! I remember learning in Sunday School that God is Love. It never occurred to me at that time to turn it around and say, "if God is Love, then Love must be God". That sure would have shifted any idea in my mind and about the old white guy in the sky reaching out a hand to Adam, as seen on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

For if Love is God, that makes perfect sense to me. Love is the Creator. Love is the instigator of growth. Love is the connector. Love is the everlasting force and is visible in relationships between people, between all animals, between trees and earth, between sky and sea. Love is not just poetry, an ideal, it is physical and metaphysical, a natural law with which we all live.

But we have squeezed the idea of love into a box; we use it sexually, manipulatively, commercially, guiltily. We see it as finite when it is infinite. We see it as limited, rather than limitless. We see it as scanty when it is abundant. We see it as coming and going, rather than omnipresent.

Perhaps there are not really many kinds of love. Perhaps there is really only one Love, with many, many words to describe it. Perhaps our vision of Love has been too small.

Long ago when I was in a 12-step program and asked to define my Higher Power, as I worked through the steps of recovery in AlAnon, I wasn't sure what I could call my Higher Power, since I had discarded long ago the idea of the old white guy in the sky.

My sponsor said that it was only necessary that I find something I could depend on which was stronger than I am. And after some thought, I settled on the natural force of gravity as my Higher Power. It controlled everything I did; I had to work with it in order to stay upright, in order to accomplish my daily tasks. I could not ignore it. It was good for me, as well, as it gave my legs and lungs a workout as I hiked up mountain trails, providing the resistance that made my legs and lungs stronger.

I could see, too, that most of the science I knew considered gravity a binding force in the universe, keeping planets and solar systems and even galaxies in their places in the cosmos. I figured I could count on gravity, that it would not go away.

It didn't occur to me to choose Love as my Higher Power at that point in my life, for I didn't see Love at that time as available to me all the time or infinitely or omnipresently. I saw it as finite, conditional, a feeling that was contingent on emotion and circumstances, not really unfailing. I didn't trust love at that time; my definition of love had let me down. But gravity! Gravity really works.

I checked out a definition of Gravity, to see if my intuitive understandings of gravity were accurate and I found this paragraph:

Gravitation is a natural phenomenon by which objects with mass attract one another.[1] In everyday life, gravitation is most commonly thought of as the agency which lends weight to objects with mass. Gravitation compels dispersed matter to coalesce, thus it accounts for the very existence of the Earth, the Sun, and most of the macroscopic objects in the universe. It is responsible for keeping the Earth and the other planets in their orbits around the Sun; for keeping the Moon in its orbit around the Earth, for the formation of tides; for convection (by which fluid flow occurs under the influence of a temperature gradient and gravity); for heating the interiors of forming stars and planets to very high temperatures; and for various other phenomena that we observe.

I'm beginning to think that gravity is just one of the words we use to describe Love, the Love that creates all being, the Love that is everlasting, infinite, omnipresent, the law that holds the universe together. I'm beginning to think that God is just one of those words too. I'm beginning to think that all the human words to describe Love are just our efforts to describe something we can barely measure.

Our Third Principle of Unitarian Universalism states that "we affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations". Another way to phrase it might be that "we promise to recognize and accept each other as creations of Love and that we encourage each other to use our Love to grow spiritually."

Can we expand our definition of Love to see it as the driving, coalescing, creative force in the Universe? Can we see it as that which has created all life, all beings, all things, which brings together disparate matter into communities of atoms, molecules, living creations of animals, trees, rocks, earth, stars, galaxies?

Can we see that Primary Force of Love in each other? in those we don't like? in those we don't know? in those we fear? Can we find that Primary Force of Love in ourselves? Can we see Love not as a feeling but as a generative, alluring, eternal force in the universe? And can we find, in that Love, a way to bring it to others?

On Feb. 12, we mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. In his theory of Evolution---and this next week is Evolution Week, in case you didn't know---Darwin started us thinking beyond the legends and myths of creation, got us considering a bigger story than we had heard before.

On that same date, we mark the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, surely another human being who started us thinking about a bigger story than we had heard before, turning our attention from the ways things had always been done to a new way of considering all human beings equal.

It's no coincidence, I think, that this week coming up is also Freedom to Marry Week, a week in which we celebrate another bigger story than we have heard before, in fact, the many stories of Love which transcend the standard one man/one woman story of attraction.

As we consider the idea of Love as the Primary Force in the Universe, Love as God, Love as Creator, Love as binder together of disparate matter, let us commit ourselves again to standing on the side of Love, not just for our gay and lesbian friends who want to be married in the eyes of the state but also for each of us and for our planet, for we have been created by love, we depend on love as we depend on gravity for our connections to each other. Let us stand on the side of Love forever and always.

Let's pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that we are created by Love, we are bound together by Love, we have Love to give ourselves, each other, and the larger community. May we reach out in Love to each other, may we be gentle with ourselves, and may we find ways to offer our love to the world. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


Mile High Pixie said...

As usual, thank you for sharing. If anything right now, we need more love, more consideration, more civility, more understanding, more listening. It's the connection that keeps us all together, even when we disagree. Like the Force on "Star Wars." (Though I've heard it said that The Force is like duct tape--it has a light side and a dark side, and it holds the world together.)

ms. kitty said...

Love it! Duct tape as Love!

Lizard Eater said...

Wiped out. I love this sermon.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, LE, for your kind words. It was very exciting this morning---we had two new lesbian couples, at least two new families, and several singles, at least some of whom came in response to our Proposal 2009.

Robin, sorry. Not germane.

uuMomma said...

Great sermon, Ms. Kitty. It reminded me of what your originial post about Lucy reminded me of: a scene from Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, 2, where one of the girls is on an archeological dig and finds the women's room. She has this lovely encounter with the woman leading the dig because the girl is very flip about what she's found. The archeologist says something about finding the women always makes her sad, but also reminds her of "what endures." Really lovely. I like how you flip this around, if God is Love then isn't Love God? Yes, yes, and yes. Amen!

ms. kitty said...

Thanks for your kind words, Momma. Gosh, I may have to watch that movie; sounds like that scene is particularly good.

And it's interesting to me that the logic of "Love is God" is often overlooked. It's a simple grammatical construction---two nouns connected by "is" are interchangeable.

You grammarians out there---that's true, isn't it?

Miss Kitty said...

Ms. K, I sit here with tears in MY eyes now too. Thank you so much for sharing your sermon. I'm amazed. Just...amazed.

You have certainly touched a far-away congregant here in Georgia. :-) Amen, shalom, salaam, namaste, and blessed be INDEED!

ms. kitty said...

Dear Miss K, I am honored by your words. Thank you.

And the thing about the grammar--did I get it right?

LinguistFriend said...

I don't believe that the logic of this grammar always works as you suggest. See discussions of implication and logical equivalence, e.g. in Willard Quine's "Methods of Logic". For instance, the sky is air but not everything that is air is sky. Of course, the sky is really an upside-down cup, as it says somewhere in the Rig Veda.

ms. kitty said...

Hmmm, I knew there was some exception to that rule. Thanks, LF.