Monday, March 21, 2011

All You Need Is Love

Well it is has been a long time since I have posted. Now that spring has come maybe I can be resolved to return to my weekly posting!

I'll begin with my sermon from March 13, 2011. 

Call to Worship

All You Need Is Love, Love is All You need” sing the Beatles.  As I reflected on a sermon title and topic for today I could not get the Beatles song out of my head and hence our title for today’s service. 

It may seem simplistic and na├»ve to say “All You Need is Love.”  All one needs to do is pick up the newspaper and see the news coming from all parts of the globe and think we need a lot more than love.  Yet do we?  Certainly we need more than saying or singing the words.  What if our actions are grounded in love; if our response to life and the events of the world is grounded in love – then what?  What if we lived seriously into loving our neighbors as ourselves – both here in our families, friends and communities and in the larger community?  Then might it be true that all we need is love?

Come let us explore the questions together! Come let us worship together!

Sermon

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” Familiar words to many of us followed by the familiar story of the Good Samaritan.  So familiar in fact that often we just gloss over the story, thinking we know what it means, so familiar that it is hard to engage with it and find something new.

This story was most likely first a story told orally as people who remembered Jesus and his teachings, shared them with those who had not known him.  Eventually the story came to be written down and it comes to us a thousand plus years later.  We read it not its original language of Greek, but in English. We read it not from the original writings because of course they don’t exist.  To understand the story we must reinterpret in our own time, through the lens of a thousand years of readings, copies, translations.  We must have things explained to us that would have been obvious to the followers of Jesus or even for the early hearers of this story who lived in first Century Palestine, under the rule of the Roman Empire.  For the audience in the story, the lawyer who asks the question, the followers of Jesus that were listening, the Samaritan as hero would have been the twist, the unexpected plot turn.  It was the Samaritan, the despised one, the one not to be interacted with, that did the right thing, who behaved in accordance to the law – the one that loved his neighbor as himself.  For us so many centuries later, in a different context, a different world, we miss the twist.  We must have it explained to us.

Because we read the story, not in Ancient Greek but in English we miss the subtleties of language. The Greeks had many different words for that which we translate as love.  There is agape which refers to sacrificial love or it can also be used to express the love of a good meal, a feeling of being content or holding another in high regard.  Agape is not based as much on the personal relationship but rather a general affection. It is the love found in the book of Corinthians which tells us that love is patient and kind and slow to anger.  Eros is passionate love, sensual desire and longing.  It can also be used to talk about knowledge of beauty and truth when it is not attached to physical attraction to another but rather to the spiritual quest.  Phila is the love found in friendship and family and includes loyalty to friends and family and community.  In this context the Greek word is “agape” that general regard, holding in high esteem and self-giving love that is the love Jesus commands.

There are many interpretations of this story and the command to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. Martin Luther King Jr. used this story to talk about not just helping the man who was robbed but rather to transforming the road itself so that the dangers on the road were no more. He called us to transform the road, to offer not just charity to the victims of violence and oppression but rather an end to violence and oppression – so that never again would anyone be robbed and beaten and left to die. One can focus on the importance of first loving oneself, of holding oneself in high esteem in order to be able to love others.  It can also be interpreted to talk about our obligation to assist others in need, even those who we might regard as our enemies.

Since it is such a familiar story, we often see ourselves within it or identify with the characters.  I think for many of us we see ourselves as the Good Samaritan , or want to see ourselves that way.  We don’t want to be the priest or the Levite although we may when by ourselves admit that we are probably most likely to act as the priest or the Levite in our daily lives. Most of us if pushed would admit that we would not stop and care for the victim on the road.  We might use our cell phones and call 911, maybe we would even stay nearby making sure that help arrived.  Most of us also don’t want to be the man left on the road half-dead.  There is a clear winner in this story and that is the Good Samaritan – he is not a victim, he did the right thing, he is the hero of the story.  So Jesus tells us that it was the person on the margins, the Samaritan – despised by the Jewish people at the time – that did the right thing, not the honored and revered priest or Levite. 

We religious liberals, we who are committed to social justice and making the world a better place, see ourselves as loving the stranger.  We see how it is wrong to stereotype people, to practice racial profiling as is happening Congress right now as they hold hearings on Islamic extremism – a politely veiled way of saying that all those who are Muslim are suspect.  We may find it easy to say we love our Muslim neighbors.  We stand on the side of love with LGBTQ people, people who others would despise and condemn and we say we love our LGBTQ neighbors.

Yet might it be easier to love the stranger then it is to love those closer to home.  After all the Samaritan did not know the man who had been robbed. The man had given the Samaritan no reason not to like him.  Yet often even in our comfort zones we are confronted with “neighbors” who we find it very difficult to love.  How am I to love the person here at WUU that just drives me crazy?  Or even how am I to love my family members who hold such different values than me? 
We all have people in our lives that we can find challenging to love.  All you need is love might be easy to sing but not so easy to live.

This is where the story of the “Rabbi’s Gift” I think can help us.  I think the key to loving those, to holding in high regard the stranger and those who drive us crazy, is the notion of radical hospitality.  In the story, the Rabbi tells the Abbot that he does not know how to help his dying monastery but he knows the Messiah is among you.  The story then goes on to say how in this tight knit community, they don’t always like each other, they find it difficult to love, to stay in community.  We are told of brother Elred who is crotchety and Brother Philip who is a nobody.  How could either of them be the Messiah?.  And certainly I could not be Messiah followed by the prayer – please not me.  The Rabbi’s gift of course is that they see each other and themselves in a new way, in a new light.  In some versions of the story, set in a classroom rather than a monastery, the Rabbi says they can’t tell anyone that the Messiah is among them.  Of course each class is told the Messiah is among them.

What if I am the chosen one, the one sent to heal the world?  What if it is the person next to me?  If I look upon the world that we are each called to be a Messiah, to bring our gifts to save the world then how does it change how I look at it?  How does it change me to look at myself that way? 

Marianne Williamson speaks of this in her often quoted words from “Our Deepest Fear.” “We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.” Our earliest Unitarian roots call us back to this – we are manifestations of the holy, of the Divine.  Ralph Waldo Emerson rejected the divinity of Jesus not just because it wasn’t rational, not just because it wasn’t Scriptural but because he believed it stripped Jesus of his essential message - that we are all children of God, we are the chosen ones, sent to heal the world, sent to love our neighbors as ourselves.  It let us off to hook  to say that Jesus was divine and therefore we certainly could not be expected to live the life that Jesus led.

Radical hospitality calls us to be curious and welcoming.  What if the next time we find ourselves finding it very hard to love the neighbor right next to us, we thought “what gifts does this person bring to the world, to this community, to my me, to my family?”  It does not necessarily mean we will like them but can we hold them in agape – in high regard?  Can we see the holy within them?

I recently had the experience of serving on a marriage panel at William and Mary.  The panel included one of the priests from St. Bede’s Catholic Church and I found myself filled with pre-judging and outright anger.  You see I had recently read about the Pope’s words against same-sex marriage and I didn’t know what it was going to be like to be on a panel on marriage with this Roman Catholic priest.  I found myself pre-judging and making all sorts of assumptions.  It is not that my anger at the Pope and his statements is not a righteous anger – I would even say it is a holy anger.  It is not, however, helpful to direct that anger toward this person.  It turned out to be fine and a lot of fun. I am not sure that we agreed on things but that was not important. What is important is that we were able to be at the table together.

The Beatles tells us that:
There's nothing you can do that can't be done.
Nothing you can sing that can't be sung.
There's nothing you can make that can't be made.
No one you can save that can't be saved.
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you
in time - It's easy.
All you need is love, all you need is love.