Sermon from January 27: Living with Love (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister–

I was taken a couple of weeks ago as I was standing with about 70 or 80 people in the basement of First Congregational Church downtown after one of the “We Do” actions by the Campaign for Southern Equality at Buncombe County’s Register of Deeds office. Seven same-sex couples, one after another, had just gone to the counter, asked for marriage licenses and been politely denied. It had been a carefully choreographed moment, as each of these has been, framed to bring attention to an injustice written into this state’s laws, their refusal to recognize the sanctity of commitments between people of the same gender, by the very people who seek that right.

For several of the participants, this was a return trip, only the most recent occasion when they had taken part in such an action. As we stood in the church hall, they were each given an opportunity to speak about the experience. What caught my attention was that in their reflections these women focused their remarks not so much on the moment of being turned back in the registrar’s office, but on the cheers that came from the dozens of people who awaited them outside.

No matter how often she does it, one woman told the group, she’s amazed every time by the warmth she feels in that moment. “The emotion doesn’t abate” were her words. It brought me back to what had been going through my own mind only a short time before.

As I loitered on the grass outside that nondescript office building in downtown Asheville, shifting my weight from foot to foot as these couples offered themselves to the unavailing machinery of bureaucracy I found myself reflecting for a moment on whether I was clear why I was doing this?

The action had come in the middle of a busy day and as time dragged on I had begun nervously eyeing my watch, thinking about the rest of the day, the commitments piled on my calendar. It wasn’t until the couples emerged from the building and smiled shyly as the dozens of us there hooted and cheered. It wasn’t until I heard the choke in their voices in their thanks to those gathered that it dawned on me again – oh, yes, that’s right: standing on the side of love.

In this congregation we argue that there are three dimensions in the religious life – within, the interior reflections that we each engage in to clarify for ourselves the source of our spirituality and what it demands of us; among, the ways we gather with each other to learn and grow, to share our lives and support each other; and beyond, the ways that we carry our own learning and reflections into our larger lives and in service to justice.

We tend to get the within piece, the individual search for meaning, pretty quickly. It is, after all, what got us in the door. We needed a religious community where there was room for us, where we weren’t going to get squeezed in a box or guilt-tripped, a place that was safe and accepted us fully so that we could explore our spiritual sides.

And the among piece comes with being a part of a community, finding our niche, people we can connect with, activities that engage us. This part comes easier for some than for others. More socially oriented people usually gather their clan or find their comfort spot pretty quickly, while some shyer folks can feel overwhelmed or marginalized. It’s a place where we as a community stumble at times and people can fall away. So, we work at building systems that help us all connect with each other and stay in touch.

The beyond piece is interesting. It’s not uncommon that people arrive at our congregation with a history of their own engagement with justice work. So, they don’t need to be persuaded that there’s a connection between their inner work and their work in the world.

And yet it has always seemed to me that we are less than clear about the nature of that connection, what creates that bridge. So, today let me be plain: the connection is love.

There. That was easy. Are we done? No, hardly.

Let’s step back a moment. I want to acknowledge that the word love can be and often is thrown around pretty freely. “I only did that/said that because I love you.” “We only hurt the ones we love.” Yadda, Yadda, right?

I’m reminded of the ambivalence I’ve experienced at times over the years among some people in our movement when we get started talking about love.

I remember years ago when I was still in seminary getting push-back from a long-time member at my home congregation after a service that I led. She said she objected to my using the word “love” to describe how we in the congregation sought to regard each other. “I would really describe it more as ‘respect’,” she told me.

And I remember some years ago us gathering in this sanctuary to talk through the key concepts that we wanted included in the mission statement for this congregation. Individual search for meaning, freedom, justice – all these came quickly. Love took a while to emerge.

So, what’s that about? Well, part of it, I think, has to do with what is often rightful skepticism. We’ve heard talk of love in other religious settings, and it can feel pretty squishy and even inauthentic, bound up, as it often is, with a theology we just don’t buy.

You remember the Peanuts cartoon: Lucy is taunting her younger brother, Linus, for his dreams of being a doctor. “You could never be a doctor,” she says. “You know why? Because you don’t love mankind. That’s why.” And Linus replies, “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.”

And that’s the rub, isn’t it? Love, Love, Love. Yeah, great when we’re singing along with the Beatles, but less easy or obvious when we’re confronted with people acting in ugly or disrespectful ways.

In a recent article, the philosopher Stephen Asma writes that as nice as the idea of universalized love may seem, it’s not really how the world works. Empathy, he says, is not something that we can just conjure up by willing it so. Instead, in his words, it’s “a natural biological event – an activity, a process.”

“The feeling of care,” he writes, “is triggered by a perception or internal awareness and soon swells, flooding the brain and body with subjective feelings and behaviors (and oxytocin and opioids). Care is like sprint racing. It takes time – duration, energy, systemic warm-up and cool-down, practice and a strange mixture of pleasure and pain (attraction and repulsion). Like sprinting, it’s not the kind of thing you can do all the time. You will literally break the system in short order, if you ramp-up the care system every time you see someone in need. The nightly news would render you literally exhausted.”

Sure, our heart strings vibrate a bit in response to the suffering of others, but that’s nothing like what he calls “the kinds of active preferential devotions that we marshal for members of our respective tribes,” in others words, family and our circle of closest friends.

Now, there is certainly truth in what he says. We have special bonds to those closest to us that set our hearts racing. And to suggest that we can live in such a way as to raise our feelings about everyone we know – heck, everyone on earth – to that level is pretty foolish. But, really, that’s not what we’re talking about here.

Love, after all, has many dimensions. Yes, it applies to those with whom we are most intimate, but it also applies to other relationships as well in different ways. I think the theologian Paul Tillich puts his finger on it when he remarks that, “love is the moving power of life.” It is what drives everything to everything else. It is the way in which we and all that we care about are realized.

Some years ago, the writer Karen Armstrong, won a prize from the TED talks to come up with an idea for making the world a better place. Being a scholar of religion, she chose to investigate ways that religion, the source of so much divisiveness in the world, might help people live together in mutual respect.

The project she chose was to bring together leaders of a half dozen religious traditions to see if, working together, they could create what she called a Charter for Compassion that, in her words, “would restore compassion to the heart of religious and moral life.”

Her book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, which T.S. read from earlier, lays out a program, distilled from teachings of the world religions, detailing how anyone might learn to cultivate compassion in their daily lives. Her program leads us through disciplines we might anticipate – cultivating empathy, mindfulness, compassion for ourselves, and so on.

But a key element, she said, is the admission of how little we really know about each other, that there is a mystery at the core of each of us that eludes our grasp. This, she noted, is part of what’s expressed in the Hindu greeting, “Namaste,” where, bowing with joined hands, one honors the sacred mystery of another. Too often, Armstrong says, our interactions with each other lack that reverence. Without thinking, we make blithe assumptions about others, often based on our own needs, fears, ambitions or desires.

But on occasion we are shaken out of our ordinary way of thinking. It may be an unexpected encounter, chancing on some natural beauty or coming on a particularly haunting piece of music.

In some way we experience what Armstrong identifies as a moment of what the Greeks call ekstasis, where for a time we step outside our own perspective and see the world from a different vantage.

This is the image that Jane Hirshfield’s poem suggests to me: a state of mind where we can identify with everything around us – the trees shedding golden leaves, the fish in the pond, the water itself – a place of deep appreciation, where for a moment we are given over to life, where our heart is calm and still, refusing nothing.

It is in such a place, I think, that we recognize love as the moving power of life, the power that carries us from our inner work within to our gathering among to our encounter with a larger world beyond us.

And, of course, this circuit continues, as our work beyond informs our work within that inspires our gathering and round we go again. The more practiced we become, the more easily our heart engages.

This, it seems to me, is much of the work we are doing here – inviting each other to engage our hearts at different stages, in different places. It will require risking at times and loosening our grip on old certainties. But in the end it is no great reach to locate ourselves in such a way so that we are standing on the side of love. It is where we want to be anyway.