Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork June 2, 2013
There is no life apart from one another… The question is not whether we are social, connected beings. That is a given. The question is how we shape our modes of being with one another and with the sources that uphold and sustain life.
– Rebecca Parker
The Third Unseen Guest: Love The Rev. Alison Cornish
Today we begin our third month of our “unseen guest” series. We started in April, with Hope, explored Faith during the month of May, and that brings us to Love for June.
Now, when this was planned, many months ago, none of us knew we would be on this threshold of change – that I would be taking my leave of the congregation this summer. And yet, looking back from here, we could imagine that we planned this all along, it’s just what we needed. For when we talked about hope, it was about the importance of staying in the moment. And when I announced my decision to leave the congregation, that was certainly an invitation to a leap of faith for us all. And now, love, as expressed particularly in community; and next week, as instrumental in the work of social justice.
Today I want to speak particularly of covenantal love, something that is central to our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition. What this means is that we promise to walk together in love.
Actually, there are three dimensions to this covenantal love – as well as two directions, given and received. First, there is love given and received to ourselves – that’s the love we reflect in our first principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Next, the love given to, and received from, others, where we “accept and encourage” one another. And finally, love for, and from, something greater, beyond our sphere – what some would call God.
But before we get too far down the road, let’s figure out what it is that we mean when we use that heavily loaded word, Love. This morning I’m going to draw particularly on the work of Erich Fromm, and his classic work, The Art of Loving. Fromm talks about love as a “syndrome of attitudes,” which includes care, responsibility, respect and knowledge. He captures the essence of this by defining love as “an active striving for the growth and happiness of the loved person, rooted in one’s own capacity to love.” (Fromm, 55)
Now these are great and grand words. But also quite abstract. So let’s bring it down to earth with a story – a true story, actually.
Here’s a story about the power of covenantal love that taught me well the lessons of a circle of caring. Many years back I was a member of a congregation that had a large and vibrant group of young people in their religious education program. As sometimes happens, one age group “clicked” and bonded, and so they stayed a sizable group as they progressed through the years. It came time for this large group of kids to begin the UU curriculum, “About Your Sexuality,” taught to 7th and 8th graders. Not surprisingly, the specter of this class raises lots of emotions from kids – those who want to appear cool, like they know it already, and those who are nervous about having these conversations with their peers while adult leaders are present. So a lot of them lobby to opt out.
In the midst of all of this was Scott. Scott was one of the gang. Scott had been diagnosed with cancer when he was 8 years old. He had already endured large doses of radiation and chemotherapy. In all my time at that congregation, I never saw Scott with hair. When it came time to sign up for the course, Scott declared he wouldn’t participate. He didn’t see the point of it. From his perspective, he wasn’t going to live long enough to enter into an intimate sexual relationship with another person. Why bother? he said. Why make myself even more depressed?
Scott was unprepared for the response from his peers. When they heard about his decision, they all, as one, declared that if Scott didn’t take the class, they wouldn’t either. Scott – and the rest of us – were completely taken aback. Scott rebutted: “But you – you all have a future. You need to learn this stuff.” The kids stood their ground. No Scott, no class.
Eventually, Scott relented. He signed up for the course. And everyone else did, too.
They had an incredible, memorable, time together. Scott cracked jokes about everything and everyone, including himself. Everyone laughed, a lot. And later that spring, at the age of 14, Scott died.
Some kids get it – they do the loving thing naturally. And, for some of us, walking together in love is learned behavior. But I will always remember what Scott taught all of us about the potential of the congregation as a setting for this huge lesson in loving.
Here’s another story, closer to home. When I first started my ministry with you, back in 2004, I was still a beginning minister, in what the UUA calls “preliminary fellowship.” Every minister in this stage of development chooses a mentor with whom to work. My mentor was Kay Greenleaf, who this congregation honored at one of its summer galas for her work on marriage equity upstate. In my monthly phone calls with Kay, I would share particularly my stories of struggle, of what wasn’t going so well. Kay would listen patiently, and then offer her one searching question, “but, do you love them?” Kay delivered this question every time we talked, and always with complete sincerity. It was never “gotta love ‘em!” or “dontcha just love them?” – but, “are you offering your love to them?” “How, Kay?” I asked. “How am I to ‘love them?’”
Kay didn’t give an answer to that question – she was indeed a wise mentor who expected, and helped, me to find my own way.
In fact, I found an answer I hadn’t expected – that it became much easier to love all of you once I let myself be loved by you.
I also discovered that it wasn’t possible for me to do this work, this ministry, alone. It became increasingly clear that I needed to tap into something bigger, broader, more aspirational … what I’ve come to know as “the source and force in Life.” What is sometimes, in some traditions, called God. Another heavily loaded word, so let’s turn again to Fromm for some insight, for he speaks of “… faith in the principles which ‘God’ represents… To love God [if that word were to be used] would mean to long for the full capacity to love, for the realization of that which ‘God’ stands for in oneself.” (Fromm, 66)
Now, I know that both the word, and the very idea of God, do not resonate with many of you here in the congregation. But the ideas that I’m trying to speak to today are so beautifully expressed in the First Letter of John from the Christian New Testament that I’m going to invite you to read them together with me – # 639 in the hymnal:
Let us love one another, because love is from God.
Whoever does not love God does not know God, for God is love.
No one has ever seen God; if we love one another God lives in us.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear.
Those who say “I love God” and hate their brothers and sisters are liars, for those who
do not love a brother or sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom
they have not seen.
No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us.
What I understand from these words is that Love as God, and God as Love, is not about belief so much as a way of life. It’s about being, acting, doing. Which takes practice, commitment and dedication.
Your greatest gift to me, after I depart from you, would be that you continue to walk together in love.