Monday, March 14, 2016

What's Love Got to Do With It?

Rev. Kit Ketcham, March 13, 2016

Part I (After the offering/Spirit of Life)
            I was thinking about the sermon the other morning, getting ready to sit down and write, a little pensive because my own experiences with romantic love, at least, have been a little erratic, a little unsatisfactory, and quite a lot painful at times.  I bet I’m not the only one here in that position!
            And as I was reflecting that morning, I realized that though I may not have a lot of great romantic experience, I (and maybe we) have had plenty of experience with deep love, a wider love than romantic love, and an old hymn, written by George Matheson and published in 1882, popped into my head.  I’ll read you the words of part of it.
            O Love that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee,
            I give thee back the life I owe, that in thine ocean depths its flow
            May richer, fuller be.
            O Joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to thee;
            I trace the rainbow through the rain and feel the promise is not vain
            That morn shall fearless be.”
            This is a very old hymn out of what I think of as the mystical tradition of Christianity, far removed from the literality of much of today’s traditional doctrine, and set firmly in a faith that recognizes the depth and breadth and universality of Love, linking to the depth and breadth and universality of Joy, its sister.
            I offer you this vision of Love to set the path for our reflection today.  We’re going to look at Love in three ways:  the way of our most intimate relationships with beloved individuals; the way of our relationships within this congregation; and the way of our relationships with the wider world beyond these walls.  And we’ll link it to Joy, its ultimate reward.
            I want us to look at Love---and Joy---as bigger than temporary romantic thrills.   I want us to look at these two life forces as essential to our lives as individuals, our lives as a community, and our lives as contributors to society.
            I invite you to close your eyes for a moment or two and let yourself think about the love in your life, particularly the love you receive and give to the persons and creatures in your life, now and back as far as you care to go.  (moments of silence)
            With your eyes still closed, answer this question either quietly to yourself or aloud:  “Who do you love?”  (say names silently or out loud, as you wish).  And then this question:  “Who loves you?”  (again, silently or aloud, as you wish)
            What are the features of that love?  Deep love may be physically intimate or not; it may be painful at times, it may be exuberant or serene.  It may be all of these things.  Much of it depends on the nature of our interactions with the persons or creatures we love.  It takes thought to express love in ways that the other person or creature can receive.
            How do we express our love to a dear person or a dear creature?  You notice I’m including non-human beings in my wonderings.  Many of us live with a mate but almost as many of us live with other creatures---pets or wildlife or growing things.  What tenderness do we offer to the living beings in our lives?  How does that tenderness and affection freely given enhance our life together?
            I don’t have a mate, at least currently!, but I have always had cats.  Cats who thrive on my attention and care, cats who purr noisily in my lap, who gobble down the expensive special diet food I spoon into their bowls, cats who  are sort of glad to see me when I come home, cats who receive the best care and affection I can give them.
 And what do we receive from those living beings?  We can’t order our beloved ones to treat us in certain ways; we generally have to learn how our mates or children or pets or other beings give love.
As my son grew up, his ways of expressing his love grew up too.  From a child who was openly affectionate as a toddler, he morphed into a teenager who walked 20 feet behind me in the mall when we went to buy school clothes but who produced a wooden plaque with the phrase “Cherish Love” carved into it for my birthday. 
As an independent adult, he has stood with open arms, laughing as I rushed to hug him as tight as I possibly could when he arrived for a vist.  Gifts were literal expressions of love, like the handwritten parchment on my wall saying thank you for a life of love.  He has learned to express love in ways that I deeply appreciate.  And he listens to me, which is a huge gift.  He doesn’t necessarily agree, but he listens and responds thoughtfully.
When we are in relationship with those closest and dearest to us, we usually make a strong effort to keep those relationships warm and rewarding for both parties.  It isn’t always easy.  Sometimes dear ones are estranged from us; sometimes it takes a lot of work not to throw up our hands in frustration and give up, especially when there are major points of disagreement or dissatisfaction.
But if it’s worth it, if there are many years invested, if there are others to consider, we tend to make the effort as long as we can, not wanting to let go of a love that has been sustaining in the past and might be again.  We are instinctively, I think, committed to love as long as we can manage it.
Our desire and instinct to love those closest to us does not die just because we are angry with each other.  It takes a betrayal or serious injury of some kind to discourage that instinctive behavior.  Chances are we have all been there.  Chances are we, right now, have a great deal of love to give the beloved ones in our lives, a great deal of love to give away.
One of our UU composers, the late Malvina Reynolds, wrote “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.”
And Fred Small, another UU composer, writes in his song “Everything Possible”:  “You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around, you can choose one special one, and the only measure of your words and your deeds will be the love you leave behind when you’re done.”  With those words in mind, let’s continue with our service.
Part Two  (after Candles of the Heart)
            Let’s sit for a few moments in silence and consider what the experience of Candles of the Heart means to us (silence).  As we have listened to the joys and sorrows of our gathered community, I’m wondering what thoughts and feelings arose for you as our fellow congregants spoke of their lives.
            This time during our service gives us a chance to learn what’s going on in others’ lives, their struggles, their griefs, their hopes, their joys.  As we listen, we may have a myriad of varied reactions.
            We may feel compassion or sorrow at hearing of a loss, eager to help if we hear of a need, tickled by a triumph, joyful at a birth or achievement.  But Candles of the Heart is a snapshot, a bird’s eye view of  our Fellowship.  In these moments we have a chance to see the humanity, the much-varied lives of our fellow seekers.  It can feel sweetly sentimental or jarringly tragic.  But our lighting of candles at this time always invites us into a place of shared life—and love—with our community.
            We are reminded during this time of our shared life, of the losses we have faced and may still face, of the joys we have experienced and have yet to experience.  We grieve and rejoice together for a few moments during our service.  It’s important to know of the struggles and victories that we individually are facing.  The kind words and hugs that follow these sharings are one way we can help each other. 
            Our life experiences help to create the atmosphere of our community.  And just as in a family, discomfort and conflict can arise among us, just as a result of our own experiences and the challenges of being together as a community.
            If we are grieving, we may feel a bit cranky or short-tempered.  If we are rejoicing, we may be impatient with another’s grumpiness.  We can’t always understand where another person is coming from.  For example, if I am grieving some loss and am just trying to make it through the day, I may misinterpret someone else’s words as hurtful, when they are not intended to be.  If I am joyful about some event, I may not realize that my excitement may be seen as a slight to someone else.
            Life together can be complicated, can’t it?
            When I first went to Whidbey Island to serve that congregation, we both had been through tough congregational experiences.  I had made some rookie type mistakes when I was at Wy’east  and though we settled our differences amicably, I decided to move to another congregation after a few years.  The Whidbey Island folks had had to ask a disruptive person to leave the congregation and had lost members in the process.         
            We were both in need of some healing, and as we learned to trust each other, we began to use an affirmation every Sunday to remind ourselves of our ties and our commitment to the health of the congregation. 
That affirmation went like this:  “Love is the spirit of this
congregation and service is its practice.  This is our great covenant, to dwell together in peace, to speak truth in love, and to help one another.”  That affirmation became a part of our worship ritual and led  eventually, to the development of a Covenant of Right Relations, best practices for maintaining the spiritual health of the congregation.
            In voting on acceptance of the Covenant, members and friends were acknowledging how tricky it can be to get along with each other all of the time, especially in times of growth and times of decision-making.  Even the most serene among friends can get testy and crabby if their toes are stepped on, even accidentally.
            Here at PUUF, we are in a process of discernment:  we have grown more in the past couple of years than we have for a long time and we are apparently outgrowing this space, particularly when we are all assembled downstairs after the service.
            We have a Facilities committee that is evaluating this building and other possible locations for their suitability as we continue to grow.  A change of location can be a very stressful challenge for anyone---a single person, a family, a congregation.  We want to do this in a democratic way and there will be decisions to make during the next several months.
            This can be a difficult time for us and it is valuable to remember our unspoken agreement to stay on good terms with one another .  I say unspoken because we don’t have a written Covenant or even a ritually spoken one.  However, our daily behavior with one another implies that agreement; we want to get along. 
            Let’s consider these ideas as we move forward now in our service.
PART III  (after anthem)
            The Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, president of Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, has written:
Your gifts---whatever you discover them to be—
Can be used to bless or curse the world.
The mind’s power
The strength of the hands,
The reaches of the heart,
The gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, waiting,
Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,
Bind up wounds,
Welcome the stranger,
Praise what is sacred,
Do the work of justice
Or offer love.
Any of these can drawn down the prison door,
Hoard bread,
Abandon the poor,
Obscure what is holy,
Comply with injustice,
Or withhold love.
Choose to bless the world.
The choice to bless the world can take you into solitude,
To search for the source of power and grace,
Native wisdom, healing and liberation.
More, the choice will draw you into community,
The endeavor shared,
The heritage passed on,
The companionship of struggle,
The importance of keeping faith,
The life of ritual and praise,
The comfort of human friendship,
The company of earth,
The chorus of life welcoming you.
None of us alone can save the world.
Together---that is another possibility.
            How are we as a community blessing the world?  Let’s reflect silently for a few moments on this thought.  (silence)
            I noticed a church marquee sign not long ago, which stated “Do the Math!  Count Your Blessing!”  I think they might have left off the “s” at the end of the word Blessing, but I kind of like the way it turned out, because my reaction was “Yes!  My blessing counts, in this world!  I can bless the world, with my every action.
            Those of us who grew up in strict Bible-based churches might have gotten the notion that only God---or a clergyperson---could give blessing, that ordinary people were not “blessed” with that ability.
            But I disagree.  We are all capable of giving blessing.  Our every act of kindness, of giving love, is giving blessing.  When we raise our arms in an arch over our children as they leave for their classes, we are giving them our blessing as a community.
            When we offer love to any living thing, we are giving blessing.  When we take care of our own health and needs, we are blessing.  When we offer kindness to mates, kids, friends, we bless them.  When we care for the earth, whether by refraining from hurting it, whether by a garden or indoor plants or watching protectively for wildlife on the roads, we are blessing the earth and its creatures.
            So circling back around to the title of this sermon, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”, here’s what I think:  Love has everything to do with it.  Love is our super power.  It affects every aspect of our lives and can be used to heal or….if warped and maimed into falseness, it can be used to destroy.
            We can choose to bless or to curse each other, our community, and the world.  If we bless, the outcome is Joy; if we curse, the outcome is Despair.  What will we choose?
            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 the power of love is our power, our strength, our opportunity.  May we go forth in love to bless the world, to bless our community, and to bless all those we love.  And in so doing, may we reap the blessing of Love, which is Joy.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

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