"The LORD hath appeared of old unto me, saying, Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee." - Jeremiah 31:3
THE SERMON "Unending Love" Rev. Victoria Weinstein
I was thinking this week about a time I was chatting casually with a very active member of this church and we were talking about our worship traditions and she said, "I don't say the first line of our covenant. I don't say it aloud." I asked, "Why in the world NOT?" And she said, "Well, I don't love everyone in the congregation. It would be a lie to say ‘in the bonds of fellow and LOVE' out loud if I don't love everyone."
So right there I felt like some kind of cartoon character going ai-e-ai-ai-e with the confused shaking head. There wasn't much time to talk about what she said in that moment but I certainly wish we could have. So I'd like to consider this sermon partly a response to that remark.
You may recall that our former covenant started with the line "love is the doctrine of this church." Part of what some folks didn't resonate with in that line is that "doctrine" is not a positive concept for them. So now, in our fairly new covenant, we begin by saying, "In the bonds of fellowship and love." It never in a million years occurred to me that someone would feel like they couldn't affirm the bonds of fellowship and love because they genuinely don't feel they love everyone in this room. And yet I have to respect the integrity of her freedom to say what she feels she can in good conscience, and to not say things that feel untrue to her. Perhaps we should start by exploring what love really means, and most especially what love really means when we talk about it in church.
Love, like God, is a concept too monumental to contain within a specific definition so I won't try to. What I will try to do is to explore what love in the church context is not, and that may help.
When we say that we gather in the bonds of fellowship and love, does that mean that each of us is required to have warm feelings of affection for each other at all times and under every circumstance? No, it does not. Does it mean that everyone in this house of worship right now is the person we would choose to be my best friend or the first person we want to see when we get to heaven (if heaven works like that)? No, it does not. It doesn't even mean that you're expected to send a Valentine to everyone in the congregation the way your second grade teacher made you do. We are talking about another kind of love here.
Of course we don't love each other all the time with a pure heart of affection! There is and always will be a place in religious community for anger, disappointment, frustration and sometimes just not liking someone else. The love we affirm in our covenant, therefore, is not much about a feeling or an emotion at all. It is not the kind of love that fills your heart with joy the second you set eyes on someone, but the kind of love that calls us to behave in a certain way: love as action, as commitment -- not as feeling.
The love affirmed in our covenant is a commitment to a way of being together, and it implies an expectation that despite whatever emotion you or I may be feeling toward each other at any given moment, we recognize and appreciate that we are invested in a shared life of moral, spiritual and ethical growth together. We are here in "bonds of fellowship" and therefore we belong to each other in a special way that makes certain demands on us.
Love is not a sentiment in this case, or a warm, fuzzy feeling, although those feelings can certainly come along with our experience of community. Rather, this love is a lens through which we promise each other we will regard each other: a lens of compassion, of solidarity, of humility, a perspective that requires us to say to ourselves on occasion, "Yes, I am really angry about this-and-such but I'll do what I can to restore or maintain right relationship, to be fair, to take responsibility for the ways I may have screwed up, to respect that community is challenging work. When I regard my fellows here through this lens, I remember that we're all human here. We are doing our best."
So you see that compassion and basic consideration are central to this kind of love. We gather in the expectation that every single one of us in here is capable of cultivating that kind of perspective seeing through that lens -- and that this is, in fact, one of the chief spiritual tasks that church life requires of us. To put it plainly, the Unitarian Universalist religion, which has no creed and no doctrine, does expect and require that we all make a serious and disciplined effort to be considerate and compassionate in our relationships. The church is, in fact, one of the primary training grounds for becoming a more loving person. The poet Rilke reminds us that such love is work, sacred work. Let me quote him:
"People have misunderstood the place of love in life, they have made it into play and pleasure more blissful than work; but there is nothing happier than work, and love… is work. There is scarcely anything more difficult than to love one another. That is work, day labor, day labor. God knows there is no other name for it. Whoever loves must try to act as if s/he had a great work; s/he must go alone and go into himself and collect him/herself and hold fast to him/herself; s/he must work; s/he must become something!"
Becoming something putting effort into transforming ourselves into more whole, loving and awake beings -- is what our lives in religious community are all about. Out in the secular world and we just had Valentine's Day so you can't have missed hearing about this the emphasis is on the love called eros, erotic love, sexual and romantic love. That's what everyone's supposed to be looking for, that's supposed to be the ultimate fulfillment of every human longing. You find your soul mate (and some people believe there's only ONE soul mate out there for each person, which tops my list of all-time terrible ideas), and you fall in love and stay that way forever and ever ‘til death do you part, and then (according to some traditions) you spend eternity together.
Eros is a wonderful experience and I have nothing against it. A touch of eros can even be appropriate in a religious community we are embodied, incarnate beings, after all, and there can be a romantic energy among us at times. People work closely on a project and they get crushes on each other. It can be very sweet, and when experienced between responsible people, harmless. Those sweet feelings can be used to the benefit of the good. They can energize and inspire. (When experienced between single, available, mutually interested people, eros in church can be terrific! Raise your hand if you met your spouse or partner through church). But eros is a dangerous love let loose in church not just because it's about sex but because it's about exclusivity: "I am in love with the object of my affection and therefore must have him or her." People can get hurt. No, that's putting it too lightly. Marriages, families, lives and congregations have been shattered by eros left unchecked.
When we affirm our covenant in love, we aren't talking about eros, which is tinged with possessive exclusivity. As I said before, we aren't even necessarily talking about a feeling.
So now we're getting closer to the kind of love we do affirm in our covenant. What we are getting closer to is the love the Greeks called agape, the love that is a divine gift, freely given by God to all. This kind of love expects nothing in return; it is self-giving and, above all, it is intentional. No one ever falls in agape, agape is the soul's loving response to having been loved first. The great nineteenth-century Danish thinker Soren Kierkegaard said, "And when the eternal says, ‘You shall love,' it becomes the eternal's responsibility to make sure that it can be done.'" (Jacob Needleman, The Wisdom of Love: Toward a Shared Inner Life, 76)
And so here we come to one of the foundational claims of our Universalist heritage, which is that the essential nature of God, Higher Consciousness, the energy of the Universe, whatever you choose to call it, is Love. And in agreement with Mr. Kierkegaard, the Universalists would say that it is therefore each human being's ultimate task to make of their lives a response to that love, because that is what we were made to do, and we are all capable of it.
That love is our highest goal and should provide the infrastructure and underpinnings of all else that we do, attempt and are. Writer Jacob Needleman puts it this way, "It is not often noted that this capacity to love intentionally, with the whole of one's being, is what makes a human being godlike. If humankind is made in the image of [the Divine] and this is the view of both the Judaic and the Christian teaching it means to be capable of love. ‘God is love.'" (Needleman, 79)
The Universalists went even farther: they claimed that God the Designer of all Creation, the Magnificent Intensity that governs the cosmos, loves each of us personally, each soul, you and me and even those people who might be commonly judged to be outside the realm of anyone's love. It was because the Universalists believed this, that they argued against the idea that God would damn anyone to Hell, and for that they were considered heretics and degenerates. After all, how can you get sinners to behave themselves if they're not threatened with Hell? Well, here's how, answered Universalist John Murray, "Give them not Hell but hope. Preach the kindness and everlasting love of God."
Would we want those two little girls we just dedicated this morning to behave themselves all their lives long for fear of Hell or damnation? Or would we rather wish for them open and inquisitive and secure hearts and free lives and spirits, knowing that an eternal spirit of love was breathing with them the moment they took their first breath, and that they can be confident of that fact until the day they die? Do we want to teach them that they were born loved and loveable, or do we rather want to say that they must somehow earn that love, by doing the elaborate, life-long tap-dance for approval with which most of us are all-too familiar?
You know that tap-dance, right? I bet a few of you are damn tired of it, too. That tap-dance for approval that we think might earn us the love we deserve hurts with a soul-killing hurt. I believe that God wants to heal of us of that hurt, and this is central to our Universalist faith.
Here I want to get personal, and confess to you that for the longest time I intellectually appreciated the idea of a God who would love each of us personally and abide within us and without us as a compassionate, invisible and inconceivable eternal presence, but I did not truly believe it for myself.
I have preached and prayed in this fashion for as long as I have been in ministry. And over the years, I came to believe without a doubt that whatever God may be, God is love, and I came to believe with all my heart that God loves every one of you, and loves all fragile human creatures with an everlasting and unfathomable love. It never bothered me if you didn't believe that for yourselves, I believed in it for you. The reason I did not believe it for myself was because I did not experience it. So it would be fair to say that I have believed in God's love for you before I believed it for myself personally.
Let me tell you how, before very recently, I have experienced love: as a feeling of warm regard and attachment and fond emotional inter-dependence and sometimes passion between myself and others, but always tied up with my worth as someone who has certain abilities or who did things the right or appropriate way. The tap dance. Shuffle-ball-change, and a double time step. And then, recently, I experienced a deep wounding by people I love, which is never something we want, or look for, or enjoy experiencing.
But I will tell you this: in being deeply hurt and disappointed by people whom I love very much and have known all my life, I came to see that my illusions about love were being shattered and making way for something better, and very liberating. I learned, through being hurt, that genuine love is unconditional, and that even if other human beings reject us or abandon us because they deem us unworthy of their love, God never will abandon or reject us. God is the limitless undying love which requires no tap dancing. I had to have my idols smashed to make way for a direct experience of that transcendent love, which for me has come as a deeper peace and sense of gratitude than I have ever had in my adult life.
Amazingly, I although I have been calling myself a Unitarian all my life, over the past few months I find that I am also, truly, a Universalist.
I felt it appropriate to bring this to you, my church, because it seems important to tell you that now when I speak of God's love, and when I pray that the Spirit of Love guide and guard you, and when I read from the old wise voices from all traditions who insist that the Divine Nature is love, I believe it in a new way. I will always wish for all of you that this love descend upon you and sustain you -- that you experience it, believe it, and never lose faith in it.
So to return to the one who feels she cannot say aloud "in the bonds of fellowship and love," I will allow Jacob Needleman to help me have the last word. He writes, "We are born for meaning, not pleasure, unless it is pleasure that is steeped in meaning. We are born to overcome ourselves, and through that overcoming to find an inner condition of great harmony and being. We are born for that but we are not yet that. We are searchers; that is the essence of our present humanness. And in love we have the possibility and the need to help each other search. Is this the hidden meaning of the blaze of love, its echo, its teaching? I believe it is." (Needleman, 6)I believe it, too. The search for inner harmony can be a long and difficult one. Thank God we can do it together, in the bonds of fellowship and the love they call agape love, the everlasting love that will never let us go.