[This sermon was given at the service where we took our offering for Partakers Prison Ministry, a ministry with which our congregation has been very active for the past decade. The reference at the end of the sermon to prisons in Walpole, Norfolk and Framingham is a tribute to the volunteers who have gone into those correctional facilities to serve as mentors to prisoners in the College Behind Bars program- VW]
My friend Jane had mentioned her prison pen pal, Marty, who is on death row in Texas, several times over the past months. We don't see each other often, Jane and I, so I don't know any details about Marty. I didn't ask. I noticed the other day that she wrote, "R.I.P. Marty" on her Facebook page, and that several of her friends wrote condolences. "May he rest in peace and rise in glory." "We are such a barbaric nation." That sort of thing. I didn't say anything. I didn't know anything about the case, I didn't know anything about the hell Marty may have created for other people, and I didn't want to think about the death penalty. I didn't want to think about Marty's own fears or the pain of his loved ones. Thinking about those things is hard work and I didn't feel up to it. I didn't want to get involved, as they say in New York. I didn't want to deal with Marty's death ...and I especially didn't want to deal with Jane's love. That part of the story made me feel tired. I almost felt like, "Oh God, not love again."
Now, stay with me here because this is a strange thing to say: what I know at this point in my life that although we cannot love everyone, we almost always come to feel love for those whose lives we become intimately acquainted with and whose stories we get to hear in full. This is both a blessing and a curse. If we learn a person, we almost always come to love a person. Even those on death row. And when that happens, we are softened. We are broken open and pushed beyond our carefully constructed defenses --and that can hurt. It can be scary. As the crusty old English don C. S. Lewis put it, "To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness." (The Four Loves, 121)
We are a terrible, vicious species, you know that. But yet we are also a species that is very prone to love. We are drawn again and again, sometimes very much against our will, to those entanglements that break our hearts. You are in one now, just by being here at church. To participate in church life is nothing but a big entanglement. Here, we cannot help but learn each other as we learn the human condition and contemplate the divine nature. And with that learning comes loving. You know where that takes you. The way of love is not a subtle argument, said the poet Rumi. The door there is devastation.
Love is the softening of the heart that obliterates judgment and demolishes defenses. Love is the willingness to see the humanity in someone who, had we never met them, would have remained a monster in our imagination. Or even worse than a monster: a statistic. A person whose existence would elicit nothing but a shrug of indifference from us.
"God is love," we have heard. "You shall love one another as I have loved you," said Jesus. "In the bonds of fellowship and love, we unite," we say in our church covenant. We have heard all our lives in religious communities that we are supposed to accept and love everyone. That we are supposed to have Christian love in our hearts, or in Unitarian Universalist terms, that we should ‘Stand On the Side of Love'. No matter what tradition we were raised in, most of us have it in our minds somewhere deep down that were we ever to be called before the throne of righteousness to answer for our lives, one of the key questions that would be put to us is "Did you love your fellow man?" If you're like me, you imagine yourself in that moment getting a little itchy under the collar and asking,"Well, whaddya mean by LOVE, exactly? Do you mean Friendship-Love (philios), Erotic Desire-Love (Eros), or do you mean Agape, the self-sacrificing, unconditional, divine love?" (A little bit of theological education can be a dangerous thing!)
I imagine that in response to that question I would be met with patient silence by the Angel at the scales of justice, or the one with the pen in her hand waiting to inscribe me in the Book of Life (or not). Because in the end, we do not answer this question "Did you love your fellow man?" by breaking love into categories and chalking up points in each one. We know what love means, at its most basic. It's either yes or no, isn't it? And so I would have to finally respond to the Angel quite honestly, "I'm not sure. But I tried every day to believe in them. My struggle in life was not whether or not to believe in God, it was whether or not to believe in humanity." Do we have to love everyone? No. We don't have to. But we can try to believe in them.
Loving everyone is God's job, not yours and mine. But do you know something? It is my observation that many of us manage to love some pretty awful people, and that has to be acknowledged too. Loving crummy, mean, abusive people who let us down time and time again is exhausting. And yet give yourselves credit: many of you extend your love in just this way for decade after decade. You love ungrateful, bitter children. You love manipulative siblings who leave a mess for you every year at the summer house and who gossip to Mom and Dad behind your back. You love friends who owe you money and have lied to you about petty things and who abandon you every time they get a hot new lover. You love parents who have done nothing but criticize you and insult you all your life. You've loved spouses who stomped on your spirit and treated you with icy disdain or lied to you or betrayed you repeatedly. No one knows this better than your pastor, who wants to give you credit for persisting in ways of love as often as you do, let alone extending love to the human race in the generic sense.
You don't have to love everybody with affectionate, warm feeling. Nor are you required to hold the human race in high regard when you see evidence that it is corrupt and vile. What you are required to do, if you are a follower of this religious tradition, is to hold hope for each human being, to root for the full flowering of each human's potential and to love by having faith in. You don't have to kiss and hug on everybody in the world. What you can do is bless them; sometimes from a distance. Genuinely wish them the best. Help create an environment so that each can fulfill the potential of his or her unique life. Work toward a world in which each can have the opportunities you would want for yourself and your own children. Remember Cornel West's quote that "Justice is what love looks like in public."
I have been watching the BBC series "Downton Abbey," a sort of "Upstairs, Downstairs" drama about life among the servants and the aristocracy in World War I era England, and it reminds me that still, for many of us, we have a sense that certain segments of the population should "know their place" or "accept their lot." This attitude is the antithesis of the love I am urging us to adopt as our practice as religious people.
I could never go before the throne of any divine judge and say that I held all of humanity in a fond affection -- it's just not in my nature! -- but I want to be able to say at the end of my life that putting my own feelings aside, that I earnestly desired, advocated for and sought the complete freedom of each soul. I don't have to have fond feelings for each individual I meet -- I'm never going to become nearly saintly or enlightened enough for that to happen. At this point I don't care if it never does. Because in the end, I realize that my fond feelings or lack thereof are of very little use to the rest of humanity. Who cares what I feel, really? Do you? Does God?
Feelings change all the time. Moods come and go in ten minutes, and that's a scientific fact. How silly, then, for any of us to base our ethical commitments on mere feelings. Love is not a feeling. It is a conduct of life. It is a daily spiritual discipline. I don't expect to have affection for most of the people whose rights to freedom of mind, body and spirit I will always passionately and sometimes very angrily advocate for. I don't care if they like me, either. What we owe each other is mutual support, an unconditional and unquestioned championing of each other's right to be here, to learn, to thrive and grow as human creatures, to gain wisdom, to live free from fear of starvation, violence and exploitation. If sweet feelings of affection and intimate connection come along with that work - and they inevitably do, I promise you - so much the better. Icing on the cake.
There are certain kinds of love that feel happy and good. This love that I am talking about, however, will draw us outside our comfort zones and into some pretty challenging places. If you follow the path of this love you may even find yourself, say, being patted down by a security officer at a prison in Walpole, Framingham or Norfolk Massachusetts and then escorted through huge, clanging metal doors into a waiting room where you will watch as a stony-faced human being -- someone you have come to love -- in shackles is escorted into the room by a heavily armed guard. They are there to meet you. You are there to become a champion for their lives. You take a deep breath and try to calm your nerves.
The way of love is not a subtle argument.
The door there is devastation.
They fall, and falling, they're given wings.