Sunday, February 14, 2010

Love Will Guide Us

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Feb. 14, 2010

What’s your favorite love song? Maybe you have a special song that reminds you of your love for someone? Let’s hear a few of those great songs, old or new. Just call them out and I’ll repeat them.

I have a couple myself, the old Hoagy Carmichael hits “Stardust” and “Skylark”, both of which remind me of long-ago love gained or love lost. Their romantic words seem timeless, expressing both sweetness and sorrow, the universal qualities which infuse our love relationships.

We humans tend to move through stages in our ability to love, from that helpless dependency of infancy and childhood, through the tense love between adolescents and their parents, the chaotic feelings of puppy love, the steadier, growing affection between young lovers which often blossoms into the more mature love of committed partnership and perhaps parenthood. With parenthood or other family relationships comes that shocking love that awakens us to the depths of love and opens us to both the joy, sorrow, disappointment and even fear that accompany committed loving. Some of us lose that committed love and must shift gears when love dies, whether we search for love in another partner or in fulfilling work or in devotion to children, our own and others’.

You’ve probably learned, at some point, about the several names the Greeks gave love: Eros---passionate love, with sensual desire and longing; Philia---love for family and friends; Agape---often considered the highest, purest form of love, by which altruistic love of humankind is expressed.

We all experience all of these forms of love, whether it’s for another human, for a pet, or for chocolate. We learn from our experiences how to express our love, what the loved ones need from us, and, we hope, our understandings improve our ability to communicate our love.

We also come to recognize that our experiences can lead us down some pretty negative paths, that a hurtful experience can keep us from loving again. It takes courage to love, to express our love, and to build our love.
My blogger friend Joanna, a seminary student in the Houston TX area, sent me an email the other day describing a recent worship service she’d offered to a rather staid and buttoned-up UU congregation nearby. Let me read you her delightful note:

When people try to tell you about UUs being "God's frozen people," don't you believe it for a minute.
Today I guest-preached at a fellowship that had the reputation for being ... well, a little taciturn. Dour. "Give us the intellectual sermons and save that belly-button-gazing touchy-feely stuff for someone else." (one of their members walks out of the service if she just hears the word "I." Literally.)
But I love 'em more than my luggage. They're an older congregation and they're just filled with the types of people I grew up around. I have to confess that because of that, I just always feel the need to "push" them a little out of their comfort zone. So I'm just a little louder, a little more evangelical when I visit them.

I had something I wanted to do -- well, something I wanted to tell them to do -- but I was a little nervous. What if half of 'em walked out? Well, I reasoned, "that'll blog."

So, just a couple of paragraphs into my service, I told them to turn to someone near and say, “I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it!”
There was 1/2 a second of silence while they processed the request. And then, total bedlam. Little old ladies turned and said it to each other. Men said it to men, women hugged each other, men and women said it to each other, patting each other's arms. They turned around to tell those behind them, in front, even across the aisles.

THREE TIMES I tried to begin my sermon again. I finally gave up and said with glee, "Look at this!"

Finally they settled back down and I continued on my sermon about expressing love. Preaching to the choir. No credit due me -- this was at the start of the sermon. All they needed was someone to give them permission.
"We bring diverse people together around shared Universal values" is our motto. And of these values, I contend, the greatest is love.

I invite you to think about that. Who here in this room would you want to say that to? Your spouse, probably, your friend, your fellow choir member or committee member or board member. We know we love certain people, the ones we know the best. But what about others in the congregation, the ones we don’t know well. Could we say it to someone we are seeing for the first time? What would it mean to say “I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it!” to a stranger?

What kind of love might that be?

The past several months have been another lesson for me in the nature of love. No, I’m not about to announce a secret romance nor am I adopting yet another cat. It’s just that I’ve been struck by how many opportunities we have for love in our lives, how many opportunities for love I have in my life.

Over my lifetime, I have found myself drawn to people and animals and ideas that are “different” in some way, like UUism, for example!

There was my crotchety Spanish professor in college, Dr. Malone, whose passion for ancient Spanish and the correct usage of the pluperfect subjunctive challenged me to do my very best as we translated Don Quixote from the 17th century original text to classic 20th century English (good English, that is).
There was Paleface, the rambunctious, ornery white horse who finally let me pet him and give him a carrot without biting me.

There was the Washougal Old Age welfare recipient, Ed, who had run off his other caseworkers and yet became my favorite client.

There were countless junior high kids who wormed their way into my heart over the 25 years I spent in junior high, teaching and counseling, despite their addictions, their obnoxious behavior, their rudeness, and their neediness.

And then there was Macho, the motheaten tomcat who used to haunt my backyard for a handout yet resisted any kind of affection and who stole my heart, even though I couldn’t get near him.

I learned from these encounters that my capacity for love is deep and that I can deliberately find lovable-ness in eccentric people or animals or in religious philosophies that challenge the orthodox. I think this is something I learned long long ago, from childhood experiences.

There’s a very old-fashioned poem from my Sunday School days that pops into my head occasionally, when I am particularly irritated by someone’s behavior, one of those folks you wish Jesus hadn’t been talking about when he said that thing about loving your neighbor.

“That I should love my neighbor as myself
was pure impossibility, I said.
How love someone so completely lost to good,
whose bitter temper was a thing to dread?
He may have lacked much opportunity to learn good ways
to shape his living by,
But with his glaring follies and his faults,
how could he claim the love of such as I?
And then I glimpsed how I must look to God,
and now I go about my little labor of love
in overwhelmed astonishment,
that God should love me as he loves my neighbor.”

The God theology doesn’t quite work the same way for me these days, but the idea that I might think I am too good to love someone, that someone is unworthy of my love and my loving behavior, hmmmm----there’s the rub.

Our theological question for this month is “what is the role of a faith community in human life?” Let me tell you of something that illustrates this point.

In the 1960’s as the Civil Rights movement was intensifying, one of our most beloved ministers and social action advocates, the late Rev. James Luther Adams, was the minister at First Unitarian Church of Chicago. He had been working with the board of trustees to make First Unitarian an integrated church.

They had been struggling with this question for a long time and kept running up against the disagreement of a board member who thought that to declare the church open to integration would make people leave, would ruin the church financially, and besides, he said, “this is a non-credal church. Desegregation would be a creedal action.”

Finally, at one board meeting, the issue came to a head. They had been at it for hours and it was 1:30 a.m. Rev. Adams had heard it all by then and everyone was exhausted. He asked the board to answer him a question: “what is the purpose of this church?” And he repeated the question, “what is the purpose of this church?”

They argued some more, getting more and more frustrated, when suddenly, the stubborn member threw up his hands and said to them all, “the purpose of this church, the purpose of this church is to get ahold of people like me and change them.”

The First Unitarian Church of Chicago went on to become one of the most integrated churches in our history and this has become one of the apocryphal stories of Unitarian Universalism.

What is the purpose of a faith community? What is the role of the faith community in human life? It’s to get ahold of people like us and change us, to allow us to change in transformative ways, to see things through a different lens, to find companions on a path that can be challenging and sometimes painful. A faith community is where we practice love.

In the Adult Religious Education curriculum “Building Your Own Theology” published by the UUA, the question is answered in these ways:

A liberal faith community is a community of celebration, of worship, of caring, of learning; it is a place of moral discourse and social action, a community of commitment---of time, energy, and resources. It is a place of refuge and a source of strength in good times and in bad.

Each one of these statements can be unpacked and amplified endlessly. They are high-minded words and hint at the important work we as a UU congregation are challenged to carry out. But they’re just words, not stories. And stories are what make us real to one another.

So here’s what I think:
We are a community of celebration and worship. Every time I light the chalice and we say our congregational response: may love reign among us here, in this hour of community, I think of what it means that under this roof we join together to express our love and gratitude to each other for the circumstances that have brought us here and to the powers beyond our power that have made it possible to worship freely, in our own way.

We are a community of caring. When John Harrington came to us last spring, desperately needing a place to belong as he lived out the last months of his life, many of you reached out to him in friendship. Some of you spent hours and hours with him, took him on errands and for social occasions and he died in your presence, surrounded by the love he had discovered here.

We are a place of learning. We come together to talk about our values and learn from each other’s thoughts and ideas. We explore new avenues of learning and make those avenues available to each other and to our children. We disagree and we learn from our disagreements. We even learn to like others’ points of view! We do this at koffee klatches and book groups and at committee meetings and over dine outs and social hours, in fact anywhere two or more of us meet to talk.

We are a place of moral discourse and social action. We examine together what is right behavior, right thinking, right knowing. We argue for freedom for the oppressed. We act in behalf of the environment, the unfairly treated, the poor and the lonely. We offer our building and our support to same sex couples who want to be married. We put up an anti-torture banner and found a way to make it express the variety of feelings in the congregation. We invite the community into our lives.

We are a community of commitment. We give our time, our energy, our ideas, our financial resources, so that this community can do its work in the world, reaching out to give our resources of time, energy and money to those who need it most. We take up designated offerings and have in the past year or so given away thousands of dollars to local agencies who help others.

We are a place of refuge and a source of strength in good times and in bad. People come to us lonely and confused and hurting. People come to us bereft and sorrowing. People come to us with joy and promise, with ideas and creativity and talent. The loneliness and sorrow and joy and promise are brought to this sanctuary and burdens are lifted and gladness and serenity freely shared. We learn what’s going on in each others’ lives as we listen to the Joys and Concerns expressed in our services and we support and hold one another close, bringing food or providing transportation, a hug and a listening ear.

So what does it mean to be part of a faith community? It means intimacy and knowing each other’s lives. It means both giving help and receiving it. It means watching out for our children and for the elderly and disabled. It means caring for the social fabric of the community, providing a safety net for those who come here.

And it means learning to love people who are very different from ourselves, looking for that divine spark in each person, that fountainhead of love that we share, as human beings.

I’d like to invite you in a moment to join me in Joanna’s experiment, by turning to someone nearby and saying to them “I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it!” Say it to someone you know you love dearly. Say it to someone you don’t know well at all. Say it to someone who makes you mad sometimes. Say it to anyone at all. For our capacity to love is deep and wide and saying it to each other makes it more real. It may be the most important thing that can happen to anybody here today. Let’s try it!

There’s a song by Malvina Reynolds which I asked Mavis to print in the O/S, so that we can sing it together. I think many of you will know it, but if you don’t, just let us sing it to you:

“Love is something, if you give it away (2x)
Love is something if you give it away,
You end up having more.
It’s just like a Magic Penny,
Hold it tight and you won’t have any.
Lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many
They’ll roll all over the floor, for
Love is something if you give it away (2x),
Love is something if you give it away
You’ll end up having more.”

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

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 the deep well of love inside each and every one of us, ready to be given to those we meet in our daily lives. May we have the courage to share our love with each other every day and may we find this congregation, this faith community, to be a source of love and support and challenge as we are transformed by love together. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

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