Monday, August 6, 2012

Sermon - "Courageous Love Will Transform the World"

"Courageous Love Will Transform the World"
 “Courageous Love Will Transform the World.” It is a bold statement, a hopeful statement, but not an easy one. This is one of the core pieces of Unitarian Universalist theology that we are exploring this Summer. We don’t have a set of doctrine that everyone must agree to, we are not a creedal church that way. But throughout the history of our tradition and the way we live out our faith today, there are some core beliefs that we seem to share. This summer we are looking at five of those beliefs. They are:

All souls are sacred and worthy
There is a unity that makes us one
Salvation is in this life
Courageous love will transform the world
Truth continues to be revealed

         This Sunday we visit the belief that courageous love will transform the world. We talk about love as Unitarian Universalists. But, I want to spend a little more time talking generally about what we mean when we say love, before diving into it’s capacity to transform the world.
         And what better place to start talking about love than weddings.  This particular type of love, this particular symbol of loving relationship has a lot to teach us about the other kinds of love. As a minister, my relationship to marriage is a little peculiar. Because of the role that I fill, the ritual and symbolism of marriage is perhaps more important.
         For many folks, marriage is about a commitment between two people. But I can tell you, as someone who has facilitated that statement, as someone who has been witness to several different marriages, there is more to it than that.
         As I see it, as I have witnessed, weddings are more than a couple celebrating their love. With friends and family gathered, it becomes apparent that the romantic love that they share is the fruit of a much broader love that has nurtured their entire lives. Maybe it is from family, maybe from friends, maybe from church community, but the capacity for caring that two people bring into a marriage is cultivated throughout their lives. It’s not a spark that comes from nowhere when two sets of eyes meet one another. The public ritual of marriage is about recognizing the communal foundation of love that any couple relies on for a lasting relationship.
It’s also a moment for others to reflect on their own romantic and family lives. When we celebrate the couple getting married, we simultaneously celebrate the love found in our own lives.  Weddings become not just about one relationship. They become a time to celebrate the life-giving power that connects humanity.
         I bring all that up about weddings not to give you my own personal take on the ceremony. But because it is a window into one key aspect of love as we understand it. Love is expansive, not exclusionary. Whether romantic or otherwise, love is about broadening our capacity for compassion and caring to the widest extent possible. It is not about excluding others. Simply put, love expands our heart and mind, and it invites the stranger in. Love is expansive, not exclusionary.
         There are endless ways of loving and endless recipients of our love. But we can essentially boil down to three basic categories. There are three major objects of our love. Love of self, love of neighbor, and love of the spirit of life.
         It all begins with loving ourselves. I know it sounds cliché but it is true. If we don’t love ourselves, there’s really not much to share with others. Self love isn’t enough in itself, but it’s a necessary starting place for this whole package.

         Then there is our neighbor. We are all familiar when with that nearly universal religious teaching to love thy neighbor as thyself. The commandment that so easily roles off the tongue is not always easy to practice. The implied equal sign in the middle is the challenge. It requires love in equal parts. It requires loving both yourself and your neighbor at the same time.
All to often our relationships involve a sense of sacrifice of personal worth, or diminishment of another. Loving your neighbor as yourself does not mean diminishment of either’s integrity. It means a mutually beneficial relationship that enhances each person’s being. Real love is mutually beneficial. When we engage in it, we grow as people.

         The third type of love is a little harder for us to describe in words, but we have all felt it. Many would call it the love of God, but I want to call it loving the spirit of life. For some it is God, for others it is nature. I think of it as the opportunity for life to flourish, the unfolding of harmony and diversity, and new opportunities. It’s about loving our home, this planet and its co-inhabitants. But it’s also about loving the process that makes this home and this life that we enjoy possible. It’s about appreciating life and our world with a sense of awe and gratitude. Loving the spirit of life is the third major type of love.
When I try to describe Unitarian Universalism for the first time, one of the things that people are most confused about is how we UUs worship together in the midst of our theological diversity. It’s a valid question, “How do a group of atheist, agnostics, and Christians, Buddhists and Pagans, worship together at the same time?” all have tremendous reason to be grateful for this life, for the miracle of life at all. We have reason to be thankful, to offer our praise for the opportunity to be together, to thrive. This is how we worship together. The name that we put on the object of our worship differs. But at the end of the day, we are talking about a love that we share for the spirit of life, the animating force of the universe, that power beyond name or understanding that makes each of our lives possible and worth living.
         What we do on Sunday in worship is about loving the spirit of life, loving each other, and loving ourselves. This is why I end every worship service with the words “I love you.” At a pastoral level I say it because we all need reminding that we are worthy and we are loved. But more than that, it is a statement of resistance to the forces of indifference and intolerance. It’s a commitment, maybe an aspiration, but at least it is said out loud. It’s a commitment to our work of building the beloved community.

Love is expansive and it is mutually beneficial. We love ourselves, and our neighbors and the spirit of life. But what does it mean for our love to be courageous? Last week we heard a sermon based on Unitarian prison reformer Dorothea Dix. In the mid 1800s she was a tireless advocate for the most destitute in American society, the imprisoned and the mentally ill. She courageously went into the depths of the problem; as a Victorian woman she ventured into putrid feted prison cells where children, criminals, and the mentally ill were caged all together like animals. She lovingly educated criminals, and advocated for the safety and well-being of every single person held in the custody of the state.
Our history is filled with a lineage of women and men who have put their compassion into action to make a difference in the world. Just take a look at the poster in our foyer of 100 famous Unitarians and Universalists. The number of social reformers on that list is astonishing.
Fortunately we don’t have to look so far into our past to see those sorts of models. There are many in the midst of our own community. Before she came to be with us, Gladys Hanes put her love on the line to advocate for women’s reproductive rights in Michigan. And there is Mark Diamond and his commitment to wage peace, Jean Raun and her commitment to enrich civic engagement and the democratic process. We have seen and felt the power of courageous love in our midst.
Most clearly, courageous love involves a degree of personal sacrifice. All of these models involve giving of themselves, their time, their energy, their heart, and their money. It’s rare to talk about it outside of pledge campaign, but giving money is a central expression of commitment to your values. Other options include giving your time to build community, literally showing up with your body as Marta and others do at Main Beach each and every Saturday to protest the ongoing wars.
Courageous love involves sacrificing a bit of yourself. It’s not a blind sacrifice, or a painful one. The sacrifice of courageous love is, more than anything a statement of faith. It is a faith that the piece of ourselves that we offer, will be received somewhere, somehow.  
The real courage that I’m talking about today isn’t about braving prisons or facing personal hardship. The real courage of the love that will transform the world is a willingness to take the first step, willingness to offer love without a guarantee of reciprocity. Acting in love is often a leap of faith. Whether in our personal lives or in our commitment to improve the world around us, there is little guarantee that the love that we offer, the piece of our heart that we offer, will be appreciated. That takes courage, and that risk, that vulnerability is the most powerful thing we have.
         This is the magic of the story of Ruby Bridges that we heard earlier. That little was courageous in ways that should shake us to our core. Yes, her willingness walk before throngs of bigots just to attend her first-grade class was certainly brave. But the real power of her story, the part that is revolutionary, is that her bravery went far beyond offering her body. Ruby Bridges offered her heart. As she encountered hatred, she prayed for the very people who tormented her. In the midst of their hatred she held faith in the possibility that their hearts would be changed. Sincerely praying for you adversary, not for them to change but praying for their wellbeing, that is courageous love, and that will transform the world.
Courageous love will transform the world. It is more than a political strategy. It’s a statement of faith. In academic terms, we call it eschatology, it is a statement about the direction that the world is going to take, a statement about the direction of this great journey we are on together. Some Eastern faiths posit endless cycles of reincarnation until all beings reach enlightenment, while many Christians predict a cataclysmic event that will destroy the Earth and end in divine judgment.
But for us, courageous love will transform the world. We don’t know the exact destination, or what it will look like, but we as Unitarian Universalists share a faith, and are strengthened by a faith that taking the first step, loving without guarantee of reciprocity and trusting the hearts of our fellow human beings will create change.
This is a grand eschatology, so I invite you to start with a smaller vision. It’s like that story of saving the star-fish that we have all heard so many times. Making a difference doesn’t have to mean making things perfect for everyone. Maybe we can’t individually change the course of history. But it is possible to change one person’s world… or at least their day. A small, sincere gesture of kindness can easily make another person’s day. And a big gesture, a meaningful relationship, an offering of your heart, can literally change the way another person experiences the world.
The world gets transformed every day on an individual level. I believe that there is a tremendous capacity to change the world on a global level as well, through the power of courageous love. This is the faith that inspires me. I forget it sometimes, but this is a priceless piece of hope that sustains me.
One of my biggest fears for our community and for our country as a whole isn’t environmental degradation, escalating militarism, or crumbling democracy. My biggest fear is the pervasive sense of pessimism, the sense that there is no answer for the litany of problems we face.
A core piece of our faith is a belief that courageous love will transform the world. But I fear we have lost a good deal of that faith. And when we lose our faith in the power of love, we lose with it the courage to risk. If we lose this faith as individuals, as progressives, as a religious community, we are doomed. We must have a vision, a faith that our love is worth-while. We must believe that whether we see it or not, our love will be received and it will make a difference. Because without trusting in that power, we have already lost the game.

         I want to leave you with a short quote from the mother of Ruby Bridges. She said, “Our Ruby taught us all a lot. She became someone who helped change our country. She was part of history, just like generals and presidents are part of history. There’re leaders, and so was Ruby. She led us away from hate, and she led us nearer to knowing each other, the white folks and the black folks.”
         May we go forth and do likewise. May we all have the courage to love, so that our world might be on day transformed.


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