The journey toward love

Although I’ve lived in this country for nearly four years now, I am still surprised by some of the place names I encounter. You know the sort of thing I mean. Who would want to live in a place called Wormiehills? And some of those names are pretty shocking to American ears, at least. I will not be mentioning those from the pulpit!

But there are some lovely names too. Did you know that there is a town called Truelove in Devon? I wonder, how would you get to Truelove? Where would you start? What roads would you take and which would you avoid.

Today we are going to talk about love and I’d like to start with a bold assumption here and suggest that we are all in favor of love. Am I right?

Now, what exactly we mean by ‘love’ and what it is to be for it – those are questions we are going to have to consider.

But we do know that love is a big part of the answer to our questions of how to live a life of happiness and meaning and how to be live in a way that helps others to have what they need and want as well.

Our second hymn this morning was inspired by a passage from the New Testament book of Corinthians. We sang:

Though I may speak with bravest fire
and have the gift to all inspire
and have not love, my words are vain
as sounding brass and hopeless gain.

Whatever gifts we may have – whatever blessings we have received in this life – they are all meaningless if we do not have love

Love is extolled again and again by philosophers. It is commended by the scriptures of the world religions.

Love your neighbor as yourself. The Bible repeats this particular formula no less than eight times, beginning in the book of Leviticus in the Hebrew Scriptures.

“Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” 20th century prophet Martin Luther King, Jr. brought the power and necessity of love into the present in a real and powerful way when he spoke of love in the face of vicious racism and hatred. He was saying to love your enemy, as Jesus of Nazareth said so long ago.

When we hear such words, do we not recognize how much truth is in them? Do we not understand what kind of place this world would be if people acted out of love?

I think we do. Love, however, is hard.

One of my favorite poets, the German Rainer Maria Rilke offered this wisdom in one of the letters he exchanged with a young poet:

"For one human being to love another human being; this is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us – the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.”

When we talk about love in this context, we are not talking about the love that most of us so quickly feel for a newborn child. We are not talking about the romantic love that bursts unbidden into flame and burns unquenchably.

We are talking about a love that we embark upon deliberately and that does not benefit us in any direct way - a love that is not mutual or conditional. It is a love that grows out of the deep faith that love is right and good – that loving – especially when it is hard to do – is the way we can be our best selves and create wholeness and healing in the world.

The king of our story this morning showed love to the first thieves who approached, handing over his gold and then giving more than they asked because he knew that their actions arise from their pain.

Importantly, though, the story shows us that love is not simply about giving everything away – love, in this way, is not foolish. When the greedy villager approached, eager to repeat the success of the thieves and gain riches himself, the king offered love in a different way – by not giving. The kind of love we are talking about is thoughtful, wise, and self-protective. When encountering a lion, it is fine to express our love from a safe place – preferably with some strong iron bars between us. The call to be loving does not require us to stroll into the lion’s den and put our head between its jaws. 

And yet, loving is hard – even without putting yourself in direct danger. Loving your enemies is very hard. Loving our friends can sometimes be even worse! Even loving the people we love is not always so easy.

Although James Brown’s song suggests differently, I think the words we heard earlier from feminist theologian Carter Heyward are more accurate: ‘We are not love machines, puppets on the strings of a deity called "love."’ Love is not simply a “warm fuzzy” thing that comes to us automatically.

And we humans are not always easy to love. We can be selfish and go on and on about ourselves without thinking. We can be rude and hurt others’ feelings. We can rob and steal and hit, and we can do much worse. And as we do these things, we can create fear and worry in the people who might love us. We can say and do things – even without knowing it – that undermine their sense of identity and leave them feeling as though the ground is slipping out from under them. This is a hard state in which to find your footing enough to love.

The kind of love I’m talking about requires that we put our egos aside to be present to the experience of another person. It requires that we accept that experience without judgment.

Jean-Paul Sartre said “We do not judge the people we love.”

Putting aside judgment is at the heart of what it is to experience and demonstrate love.

The bible is an interesting place to look when thinking about judgment. “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged”, Jesus is heard to say in the Gospel of Matthew.

I can imagine the biblical authors wrestling with a very difficult theological challenge. There are competing desires for the God of the bible to be both full of judgment and wrath to assure us that bad people will get their come-uppance at some point, but also we want a God that loves unconditionally. Christianity struck an awkward compromise by saying that God loves unconditionally during life but judges at the end – remember separating humanity into sheep and goats?

We can see the fallout from this compromise even today, with conservative strands leaning more toward an emphasis on judgment, and liberals toward love.

In the development of Unitarianism from its origins as a heretical strand of Christianity to the very inclusive diverse faith it is today, our religious ancestors boldly chose to turn away from judgment. I have mentioned previously the ‘Unitarian trinity’ – freedom, reason, and tolerance. Along with the freedom to explore by the light of reason, Unitarians from earliest times insisted upon tolerance – a willingness to forego judgment.

You may know that in the US, Unitarianism is called Unitarian Universalism. This is because of the 1961 marriage between the separate but kindred faiths of Unitarianism and Universalism. Universalism went further even than Unitarianism in abstaining from judgment. In the face of a stern Calvinistic Christianity that claimed only a few would be saved and the rest tossed into eternal fire by a judging wrathful God, Universalism said that all would be saved. It was a radical statement. God – they said – is a God of love first and foremost and no such God would condemn anyone.

Our faith is a tradition that calls us to put aside judgment and to love. But these are only nice words until we make them real. We, in this place, have diverse beliefs. Some of us believe in a God who loves us. Some of us don’t believe in a God at all. Whatever you believe, I want to suggest that love will only truly be a reality in the world around us until it is a reality in our hearts and actions.

Whether that love comes from a loving God or solely from the good within us, it is ultimately through our human words and our deeds that love can be enacted. It is in our voices, our hands, and upon our faces that love can become fact. It is in loving community that people can find their salvation and healing.

So, shall I stop the and simply say “go be loving people”? As Carter Heyward and Rainer Maria Rilke and so many others remind us, it’s not that easy. Becoming loving people is a lifetime journey. None of us is fully there yet.

It might be useful to imagine stages in this growth toward love without judgment.

At the first stage, we love only when our judgment allows it. Each person we meet is measured and evaluated on the basis of how well they fit our image of what a person should be. If they fit – and as long as they fit – we can love them.

This is where most of the world is. Love is very much a conditional thing.

At a second stage, we begin to overcome our judgments. This stage is characterized by understanding and compassion. We may judge a person negatively but begin to understand the pain and suffering that has brought them to the point they are at. Understanding allows us to put aside judgment and turn to love.

The third stage is non-judging. The saint-like people who reach this stage offer love to all. They recognize each person as part of a shared unity, as a brother or sister, worthy of love. They note and observe, but do not judge. Who has reached this stage? Not me, surely! The Buddha, Jesus? I leave it to you to determine if anyone living today could be counted among this group.

Becoming loving people is a journey. It comes not in a divine flash but through deliberate, self-searching, and demanding effort. It comes through knowing ourselves and the ways we judge others for we cannot put aside our judgment without this insight. It comes through cultivating compassion and understanding – recognizing and relating to the suffering of others. It comes through consciously deciding to put our own needs and desires aside to be truly present with another person’s experience.

Let us embark on this journey and help one another along the way. That is the work we are called to do to heal ourselves, one another, and our world.

You know, there are odd place names in the US as well. In the town of Shullsberg, Wisconsin, you can drive along Judgment Street. It runs right through the center of the town. But Judgment Street, while it can take you to East Truth Street does not lead everywhere. You’ll have to leave Judgment Street to reach North Happy Street.

Let’s journey.

May it be so.