Beat writer Allen Ginsberg once wrote that poetry is “that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public.” The same can be said of worship. Let us bring into this space of light, seated in community, our commitment to be with one another openly in search of deepest worth and meaning.
“Song” by Allen Ginsberg
The weight of the world is love.
Under the burden of solitude,
under the burden of dissatisfaction the weight,
the weight we carry is love.
Who can deny? In dreams
it touches the body,
in thought constructs
a miracle, in imagination
anguishes till born in human –
looks out of the heart burning with purity –
for the burden of life is love,
but we carry the weight wearily,
and so must rest
in the arms of love at last,
must rest in the arms of love.
No rest without love,
no sleep without dreams
of love – be mad or chill
obsessed with angels or machines,
the final wish is love –
cannot be bitter, cannot deny,
cannot withhold if denied:
the weight is too heavy – must give
for no return as thought
is given in solitude
in all the excellence of its excess.
The warm bodies shine together
in the darkness, the hand moves
to the center of the flesh,
the skin trembles in happiness
and the soul comes joyful to the eye –
yes, yes, that's what
I wanted, I always wanted,
I always wanted, to return
to the body where I was born.
San Jose, 1954
Sermon – The Weight of the World
This congregation will soon celebrate the anniversary of its founding 150 years ago in 1860. Entering these doors, one might feel daunted by the rich history those years represent, the hundreds of souls who essences occupied this space, and the energy of heart and mind expended within these walls. The first time I entered this building, I immediately sensed the Universalist roots of this congregation. From the architecture of the structure to the warmth and friendliness of our members, I felt the sense of love, hope, and openness central to our Universalist core. Also, one can hardly help but notice the impressive proclamation on our wall that “God is Love.”
That phrase derives from the fourth chapter of the First Epistle of John the Apostle, which calls on us to “love one another, because… God is love.” The letter’s author explains that God’s love was revealed by sending his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. “Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us… God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
Since the merger of the Unitarian and Universalist churches in 1961, congregations have wrestled with how we carry on the heritage of the founders of our distinct religious denominations within our new Association. In modern times, I can imagine people attending services here pondering these words and wondering, “What exactly do we mean in 2010 when we proclaim that ‘God is Love’ from a Unitarian Universalist pulpit housed in a religious community founded in Universalist traditions?” Do the words of an apostle nearly two millennia ago have meaning for us today?
The founders of this congregation likely agreed that “God” was the god of the Christian texts, the Father of Jesus, whose life and deeds brought the Word to the world. Today, however, “God” can mean many things for many people. And since our adult members were often raised in other religious backgrounds, we should consider the various definitions of this term for current and potential congregants.
For some, God may still represent some version of the Christian God. And, within this broad category lies a wide range of Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and other representations of God. For others, God may be Yahweh, who made the covenant with Abraham and imbued Moses with the power to part the waters. Some people may view God as Allah, who spoke through his messenger Muhammad, Ever Forgiving, Ever Providing, the Lord and Cherisher of the Worlds.
Like many Deist founders of this nation, one may consider God the instigator of the universe, the Creator, but not a being involved in the intimate details of human history or in our daily lives. Another, like the Hindu, may consider God the ultimate seed of soul stuff from which we ourselves emerge and to which we will someday return. Still others view God as actively manifest in Nature, either here in the elemental components of our Earth, or perhaps beyond to the nuclear core of suns and the endless vacuum of space.
Then, there are those for whom the term God lacks practical meaning – the atheist who disbelieves God’s existence; the agnostic who lives life accepting that adequate knowledge of God may never arrive; or the nonbeliever who sees participation in a religious community and a theistic theology as mutually inclusive. For these tens of millions in this country alone, we need to be aware that this term may present a barrier to communication and mutual understanding.
I count myself among this latter group. As a child raised Christian, I accepted the Nazarene into my heart. As a teen, however, I grew disillusioned with a distant father God who allowed misery, hate, and violence to run rampant in our world family. As an adult, I rejected all notions of God as outdated, outmoded human concepts created to institutionalize oppression and localize power into the hands of the few.
Many years passed before I moved beyond the anger and hurt I felt when confronted with the term “God.” So, I understand how some people might feel entering our worship space. I know that tension in one’s vulnerable core longing to join with others in the search for truth and meaning. I have experienced that erection of mental barriers in the mind to unwanted messages. I have been that outsider, the Other, unwilling to bend his will to that of the prevailing dogma surrounding him. I know the pain of rejection, of betrayal, even when unintended, by caring people of faith.
Sadly, language does often hinder communication and understanding. “Love” is a term with many meanings and often misconstrued in its various contexts. When I say “I love you” from this pulpit, the assumed meaning differs significantly than speaking those same words at a gathering of friends and family, during the toil of shared labor, or over a candle lit dinner. And, when we proclaim that “God is Love,” one can well imagine these and many more meanings found within the infinity of human circumstance and emotion.
In his 1960 book, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis discussed the ancient Greek terms defining types of love. For instance, affection or storge, describes fondness, such as that shared between family members or people who have become familiar with each other. Friendship describes the bond between people who share a common interest or activity. The Greek word, philia, is the root of the name Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love.
Eros, the root of our modern word “erotic,” means romantic love, passionate love, with sensual desire and longing. Eros, however, does not have to be sexual in nature. Eros can represent a love for someone for whom you feel more than the love of friendship. Plato added an appreciation of the beauty within that person as eros.
Lastly, charity or agapē often referred to a general affection rather than the attraction suggested by eros. Lewis saw agapē as the greatest of loves, a specifically Christian virtue. His chapter on agapē focused on the need to subordinate the other forms of love to the love of God, who is full of charitable love. Lewis compared love with a garden, charity with the gardening utensils, the lover as the gardener, and God as the elements of nature.
I suspect that long before Lewis’ analysis, our Universalist forebears embraced this interpretation of agapē. For them, “God is Love” emphasized ultimate love felt for the source of love itself. Universalists long plowed the fields of justice, planting the seeds to improve the human condition, cultivating the rights of the oppressed, and harvesting the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind in common purpose.
So, in my garden, I welcome any definition of God, especially from those who resist the concept entirely. I cultivate the notion that “God” merely represents a term we use as a shortcut to encompass all of the magnificent mysteries of life that bring us together and through which we may experience moments of joy, of insight, and of peace. And, my intentional use of the term allows me to walk hand-in-hand not only with my own faith family, but with those of other religious traditions to effect meaningful change in the world.
Standing on the Side of Love is a public advocacy campaign recently created by the Unitarian Universalist Association that harkens back to this attitude and commitment to agapē. As the campaign materials explain, we live in a time of great hope and possibility, yet our communities are threatened by the increased prevalence of acts motivated by fear and hate. No one should be dehumanized through acts of exclusion, oppression, or violence because of their identities. In public debates over issues such as immigration and the rights of gays/lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons, religious people must stand on the side of love and call for respect, inclusion, and compassion.
Now, what does that mean for us, as individuals, or collectively as a congregation? Let us return to our previous discussion, because we still have one more word to analyze. Is. God is love. We do not proclaim merely that God was love. That is, our emphasis lies not solely in the doctrinal assertion that God was made manifest in the body of a first century Jew named Jesus and through whom salvation lies. We do not only proclaim that God will be love. Universalism historically distinguished itself from other Protestant faiths by affirming a belief that a loving God would not condemn us to eternal torment in hell and that all men and women will someday return to a blessed reunion with God in the afterlife. But, in the 21st century, our emphasis lies not simply in the future promise of heaven.
No, our Universalist forebears as well as our colleagues today proclaim that God is love – in the here and now. We may debate over the words of various prophets, or the interpretation of archaeological findings. We may engage in theological discourse over the nature of existence after the death of our mortal bodies. But, by Standing on the Side of Love, our congregations are asked to commit to increased community activism, to exploring new tools of social networking, and to enhancing the amount and quality of our outreach to the media. We commit to equipping ourselves to counter fear and to make love – the charitable love of God – real in the world.
So, as your minister, I am committing to stand on the side of love here in Smithton and in the surrounding communities. I will explore with you your current commitments to social justice and ways that we might expand our impact for change. A redesigned congregational web page and new Facebook group, which I hope you will all visit and offer feedback on, enhances our presence on the internet, reaching out to new generations through their tools of interaction and learning. And I hope to work with you to deliver our liberal religious message to a broader population seeking solace from the stress and strife of the world.
This work is the imperative of our 21st century congregation, for the weight of the world is love. Too many souls struggle, crushed under the burden of solitude, under the burden of dissatisfaction. The weight, the weight we carry is love.
We dream of a just future, construct in our minds a miracle of fairness and equality, which lies anguishing in our imagination until made real by the work of our hands. The burden of our lives, burning with purity in our hearts, is love.
And, as we strive every day to achieve our goals, we must occasionally rest. We rest in the arms of love, of the philia we share in this religious community. For, though we may disagree on the nature of the universe or on the existence of or appearance of any higher powers, we cannot deny that the final wish is love.
This weight is too heavy to bear alone. For all the excellence of dedication and commitment, of ideas and emotions, salvation is not attained in solitude. Here, in this place, our bodies can come together, shining in happiness. Taking a stand for love, proclaiming that God is Love, our souls will come joyful to all eyes.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Well, dear readers, I have been on hiatus for some time as life has intervened. I completed my ministerial internship in New York, moved back to Pittsburgh, spent January in Chicago finishing my last seminary classes, and started my new job as the Consulting Minister for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Smithton. I am thrilled to be at the helm of this intrepid little church, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary in June.
A great irony in all of these massive changes is moving from our wealthiest congregation back to the real world -- a church building with no computer, no DVD player, and no photocopy machine. But, we've got a wonderful structure, complete with a working bell in the tower, and a feisty group of folks who very much want this congregation to grow and have pinned a large lot of their hopes on my ideas and energy to help them make it happen.
It is a daunting task. Smithton is a town of 400, with one grocery store, one bank, and four bars. But, it also has a tiny public library (the volunteer librarian is a former Lutheran minister) and, the town's pizza shop serves amazing food. I find both of these auspicious coincidences.
So, stayed tuned as I expect my muse will be keeping me very busy in the coming months. And, if you ever find yourself on Interstate 70 south of Pittsburgh, take a one mile detour at exit 49 and stop in for a visit.