Sunday, August 10, 2014

Called to Love (Sermon, 8/10/14)

Preached at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston, TX.
We started with a pitching practice story for all ages, and an adaptation of Malba Tahan's tale of Mussa and Nagib, or Written on Stone, Written in Sand. The meditation used Kay Ryan's poem Waste, from Say Uncle: Poems.

In our meditation, poet Kay Ryan said that her poems start with an aggravation, and like an oyster, she works through it.

Perhaps the same applies to sermons.

In 2009, quarterback Michael Vick, following his jail time for financing and running a dog-fighting ring, was reinstated in the National Football League.  I was OFFENDED.  I thought he should have to suffer at least as much as those dogs he’d had killed and mistreated. I ranted and raved and stomped my feet.

But somehow I listened a little longer—to the players and coaches saying that everyone needs a second chance.

Don’t you just hate it when football makes you question your motives and your theology? As a Unitarian Universalist, I agree that we all need a second chance… and a third one.. and a fourth one. But I also have a strong pull toward justice, and sometimes I want to call the shots myself.

And then I realized that I needed to stop and think about the times when *I* have refused someone a second chance. When I have not lived up to my own ideals, and when I have missed the mark.

For those of you who know your ancient Greek, missing the mark is the literal translation of the word "hamartia"—this is one of the words the Bible uses for what we call sin.

I’m a sinner.  And guess what – you’re a sinner, too.  We all miss the mark, nearly every day. The only way to avoid it is to stop living.  Sin is like gravity and evolution – you can go ahead and say you don’t believe in it, yet it still exists.

But with the concept of sin come the ideas of forgiveness, making amends, and redemption.  Folks, this is fertile ground – stuff we NEED to embrace in order to live a full life.

And YES, this does relate to Unitarian Universalism.  Our Unitarian forefathers believed that we are created in God’s image – not perfect by any means, but not depraved wretches either.

Our Universalist ancestors held that God loves us unconditionally and NO ONE is damned.  No matter how many times you have missed the mark. 

They rejected the understanding of sin as “Offending God” – God is that (literally superhuman) parent who has such patience and such deep love that there is no offense.

My friends, it is HARD to love unconditionally.  We are wired to react strongly to possible harm and to uphold the norms of our culture—these are our knee-jerk reactions.

But as mature members of society, looking to create a better world… well, getting offended and deciding that WE, personally, can damn anyone who doesn’t meet our high ethical standards?  That’s not going to build beloved community, unless it’s one tiny, grumpy, unforgiving tribe.

As Unitarian Universalists, we claim to honor the inherent worth and dignity of ALL people—to treat people kindly and with respect.  And yes, when there’s an earthquake in Haiti, we rush in to help, to fight for justice – the whole nine yards.  Victims are easy.  But what about the so-called bad guys? 

Viscerally, we want these guys to PAY.  Not just money, but an eye for an eye – VERY Old Testament, isn’t it?  Sure, this could be seen as justice by some, but respect?  Dignity?  No.
And where is that possibility for redemption?

Perhaps this will be easier to consider if we start with our friends and family. And yes, of course we’ll use props.

Who out there still has one of the yarn balls I threw out during the story for all ages?  Bob could you stand?  And three or four people on each side of the aisle around him? We’re going to spend a couple of minutes on an experiment.  Bob is going to hold on to the piece of string with one hand, and throw the ball of string to one of y’all.  Then you will hold that piece tight while throwing the ball to another person.  Got it?  Keep going until I tell you to stop.

What do we do when someone we know sins?  Sometimes, a friend does something pretty bad. Even if we aren’t the ones hurt, we can be so angry and bewildered –what do we do?  Do we always practice unconditional love? 

OK, y’all can stop throwing the yarn around.

Now we’ve got this matrix of string here.  This represents our interconnections—perhaps our family structure or a circle of friends. 

A pretty common occurrence when someone messes up is for people around them to put their hands up and say, “Whoa. I can’t be a part of that.” In doing so, they drop that piece of string (Bob – could you drop yours?).  And so did some others.  (Sara, can you drop yours?)  The whole network can get…messy. Quickly. 

The disconnection here? That is a HELL we create. We deliberately stop being in relationship with someone. It diminishes not just that person’s humanity, but our own.

<Thank those who helped with the string and ask the person who held the ball originally to collect the tangled mess.>

So, our sermon title today is Called to Love.

I know that LOVE is one of those giant words of much misunderstanding, but I’ve already brought up sin and hell and damning today, so let’s just continue with the controversy.

We are not talking about Valentine cards and roses and smooches kind of LOVE today, but this idea of connection.  Sometimes it’s how we stay at the table when someone wrongs us, and sometimes it’s in how we recover after we screw up.

A teacher accidentally hurt a child’s feelings. She sat down with him and worked to figure out how they could better communicate.  Afterwards, she reflected, “This is love in action: a constant shifting of what you knew to what you know, a practice of asking for and extending forgiveness, and a commitment to showing up for each other, even when situations get intense. “ (1)

That’s a pretty good definition of love for me.

Some time ago I read an article in the New York Times (2) that claimed we need to treat our spouses (I’ll extend it to our friends) more like we treat our pets. 

That is, do you greet them happily at the door? 
Do you concentrate more on what you love about them than their faults and how much maintenance they require? 
Or do you have unreasonable expectations, continuing to punish them for something that happened days or years ago? 
To relate back to our second story--Do you write a friend’s failings in the sand and carve their graces in stone?

Things can get even more complicated when people around us are in conflict. Where will we stand?

Well, what if love meant that you did not have to choose sides? That you could continue to love someone even when their actions disappoint you or someone else?

Now I am going to put in the big flashing condition here—no one is telling you to put yourself in harm’s way, or to keep yourself in harm’s way.  And you need to make that judgment call.

If it’s something that is not unsafe BUT makes you deeply uncomfortable, you may be at one of those tipping points of life—what would it mean for you to stay in relationship even when it’s hard?

These relationships and strains and conflicts? They don’t just stay at home and in our personal friendships—they also happen at church.

We like to think that people bring their best selves to church and that we would never damn each other in a religious community.  And yet we make assumptions, we hold grudges, and we duck to avoid messy issues.  Heck – this is supposed to be a sanctuary – a place to refill our lamps.  It should be easy and happy -- Please, don’t make us deal with something TOUGH!

In the call to worship this morning, there was a promise—“You do not have to do anything to earn the love contained within these walls.” (3)

And our theological tradition is anything but wimpy – Unitarian Universalist minister Marilyn Sewell reminds us of Dr. Norbert Capek, the minister who gave us the Unitarian tradition of the Flower Ceremony. 

In 1923 he said ‘Let us renew our resolution sincerely to be real brothers and sisters regardless of any kind of bar which estranges… In this holy resolution may we be strengthened knowing that we are God’s family; that one spirit, the spirit of love, unites us.’  He tried his best to love as God loves, and he was so deeply imbued with this value that he was willing to die for it “ (at the hands of the Nazis). (4)

My favorite quote, from Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams-- “Church is a place where we get to practice what it means to be human.” 

Love is a practice, like pitching or singing or anything else we might undertake. There are a multitude of skills within the larger action—bits that are perfectible, with bad habits that can be improved or discarded.

What do YOU need to keep practicing?  Setting aside judgment in favor of support and forgiveness? Or getting away from despair and fear with some courage and confidence?  Do you, like so many of us, struggle with failure, with feeling not worthy?

And the world does not stop at our church door—how will we take our beliefs into the streets?  What are our personal and communal responsibilities?

Unitarian Universalist minister and theologian Rebecca Parker (5) offers a historical survey of our responsibilities in this world in terms of our religious purposes and eschatology—our ideas of what happens in the end, as in, after we die.

Common in many religions is the idea of the Social Gospel—we are the hands and feet of God. If you’re an atheist, feel free to translate that as “We are the hands and feet for Good.”

Add to this the Universalist idea of all people being saved—yes, hell had been rejected, but there was debate on that whole saving process. Were souls held for a thousand years of purification or did they get to go straight to heaven?

On the fringe was the idea of Radically Realized Eschatology— heaven is here and now, and we need to reveal it.

I know—the news right now is a mess of wars and fear and warehoused children, of Ebola and climate change and constant political bickering. It seems a whole lot closer to hell than to heaven.

The minister Joanna Fontaine Crawford puts our call another
 way—Love the hell out of the world.

My friend Amanda, without planning to, did this ministry on her way across town last month. She shares,

What I *wanted* to do was yell at the guy who was slapping his little girls on the bus & speaking to them so horribly.

But then I took a breath & I asked if he needed help.

He said yes...he let me take the tiny sleeping baby so he could hold onto the other two. I gently suggested he just stop. And breathe.

He did.

We all got off the bus. I asked if he felt like he could stop yelling at & slapping the kids, & he said, "Shit. Yeah. I'm turning into my mom."

It would have been far easier for Amanda to add to that man’s hell. I’m sure all of us can consider ways she could have made his day much harder. But somehow she was able to give him that little bit of breath, to help him find his way.

How might YOU love the hell out of the world?

I have a feeling that each of us might come up with something different. And that’s just fine, because heaven knows, there is plenty of work to be done here.

Already, as a church, we do so many things to love the hell out of the world—feeding the stranger through Meals on Wheels, providing those critical second chances through the Houston Drug Court. As we grow as a church and as people of faith, how else will we choose to build the Beloved Community in the world?

And how will each of us take our love into our families, to our friends, and to all those we encounter in the world?

Some days we will each miss the mark. We are not perfect.

And yes, some days we will not feel up to this challenge.

But we are not damned and our perfection is not expected.  We do the best we can, and we strive to be a community where, as Robert Eller-Isaacs says, “We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.” (6)

Together we build the world we dream about, as we love the hell out of it.

Please rise in body and/or spirit for our closing hymn, #131 in the gray hymnal, Love Will Guide Us.

4:  Marilyn Sewell, “The Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Person” in With Purpose and Principle: Essays about the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism
6:  #367 Singing the Living Tradition

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