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Love Is God – 2/12/2012

One of our Sunday School classes this year is studying from a curriculum on the theology of the Simpsons, about the lessons and the meaningful discussions that can be drawn from that long-running cartoon show. I’ve admitted to you before that I’m a fan. One of the deeply human moments that I treasure from that program is centered around Valentine’s Day. All of the children in little Lisa Simpsons class are exchanging paper valentines. The second graders are all sorting through their piles of store-bought cards from their classmates when Lisa notices that the class outcast, Ralph, has not received even one. So in an act of mercy, she gives him a valentine, and he develops a powerful and immediate infatuation with her. Lisa finds it difficult to put Ralph off without hurting his feelings. The situation escalates and circumstances conspire such that Lisa ends up telling Ralph in no uncertain terms that she does not like him and never will on national television. The whole thing leaves Lisa feeling terrible, as her older brother Bart treats her to a video playback, rewinding and replaying the recording of the event in order to pinpoint “the second when [Ralph’s] heart rips in half.”[i]

Human beings love each other because we have no other choice in the matter. I could trot out evolutionary theory here about the ways in which attraction, familial bonds and shared commitment of all sorts are beneficial to the survival of the species. I could point to cognitive theories and our growing but still spectacularly incomplete understanding of the brain, which is troubling more and more our dearly beloved concept of “free will”. Instead, though, I will simply say that we must have no choice but to love other people, because it is such a hard thing to do. To love someone, to care deeply about their whole person – not just the parts you enjoy or think are cute – to open your heart to theirs and make yourself colossally vulnerable. If we did not do it out of some in-built imperative, we would never reasonably do it at all.

But it may be, more precisely, that there are two imperatives here. There is the need to connect, to be known and appreciated by another person – and that is a need we certainly cannot escape. The other is the struggle to know someone else and to see their wellbeing and their happiness as a part of our own. That is a hard thing; it is always a risk, and it takes work.

There is a very old story about a woman who fell in love with a man after his first wife had died. When the woman and the man she loved were married she became a stepmother to the man’s son. The woman wanted to have a good relationship with her new son, but he seemed to want nothing to do with her. He hardly acknowledged her, and when he did it was to say things that were unkind. It hurt his poor stepmother a lot.

When she had had enough of crying over this, she went to seek the help of someone said to be very wise and powerful. She asked the wise one to help her, to make her stepson return her love. And she was told that such a thing was possible, but she must first find a lion of the most dangerous and ferocious sort, and return with one of its whiskers. So the woman climbed up into the mountains, where a lion was said to live, lonely and hungry among the stones. She went to the mouth of the cave where the lion lived and it growled at her from the darkness. Carefully, slowly, she set down a piece of meat she had brought with her, and backed away. The lion came out to eat the food, and the two watched each other from a distance. The next day, the woman repeated the same careful process. And the day after that and the day after that, each time staying a little bit closer to the mouth of the cave.

Soon there came a day when the lion came out to greet her when she arrived, and allowed her to stroke its mane. More days passed, and the two spent more time together. Finally the woman felt they had reached the point where she could ask lion for the whisker that she needed. Her friend the lion seemed to understand; it turned its face towards her, and she plucked one whisker free. The woman returned to the wise one in triumph. “I have done what you asked,” she said. “Now will you help me?”

This is what she was told: “To make friends with the lion required great patience and compassion. That is all everything you need.” And so the woman returned to her stepson. And she was patient with him, and compassionate. And it took a long time, and it was hard. But she loved him, and he loved her.[ii]

In the first epistle of John, in the Christian bible, is a line you have likely heard before: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” The idea of a God whose fundamental nature and most basic quality is love is common to a number of religions. For the Vaishnavas, one of the many sects of Hinduism, the god Krishna created the universe and everything in it so that all creatures could be a part of what one teacher calls his “love games”. This is a sort of playful back and forth between Krishna and every living thing, a courtship between human beings and the divine with all the intoxication and heartache of a mortal love affair magnified immeasurably.[iii]

It was a profound belief in the loving nature of their God that gave our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors the courage and, in fact, the responsibility, to become heretics. Seeking to emulate that most basic quality of their deity became their most important practice. “We need not think alike to love alike,” the great Unitarian leader Francis David said. “If we can agree in love, no other disagreement can do us any harm,” the foremost Universalist Hosea Ballou said. Today, as Unitarian Universalists, we do not all agree about who or what or if God is – because that proved not to be our bottom line. Instead, our bedrock as a religion is love.

One of you shared a story with me this week, and as soon as I heard it I had to ask you permission to share it from the pulpit. Thank you for saying ‘yes’.

Your story was about your Uncle Bernie. You and Uncle Bernie do not see the world in exactly the same way, you told me. Because you are an atheist, and he is a priest. Over the years you have talked about this and argued through all sorts of questions about theology many, many times. Those arguments were passionate and heartfelt, and always enjoyable. You disagreed with him, and he with you, but you never lost sight of the fact that you were family, and that you cared about each other. And then not so long ago, you went to pay your Uncle Bernie another visit.

He’s gotten pretty sick, and the medication he’s on takes its toll too. You started into the old debate and you could see Uncle Bernie had a point he was reaching for that he just couldn’t find or couldn’t get out. That was the moment that you lost your will to argue with him: it wasn’t a fair fight any more. There are other ways you and your Uncle can enjoy each others’ company now. You can still talk about this and that, and have a piece of pie together. You still love each other, and that’s what matters.

The existence of God is a point on which people of good will may disagree. It is the existence of love that matters, in a place called here and a time called now. Loving another person teaches the courage to protect them, and the appropriate fear of things that are harmful to life – theirs, or any other. Love teaches us to hope, even if just for a smile, or a kind word, or a touch. Love teaches us pain, at losing a person or a relationship; and love also teaches us how to live with that pain, and still continue to love. Love drives us to free ourselves and each other from systems of oppression: to break chains, confront tyrants, and throw open prison doors. And even the memory of love is a comfort in hard times.

So when we say, as we do this day, that our faith moves us to stand on the side of love, this is not some empty, idle pleasantry. Our history and our present theology require us to support and defend love. All people must be free to love whom they love and to form and sustain mutually caring and equitable relationships not just for their own benefit, but for the benefit of everyone. When families respect each other; when lovers care for one another; when friends trust each other, the love they share hallows the world. We learn how better to live with kind and open hearts, not only from the love we experience ourselves, but also from the love that we see practiced by others.

For those that believe in the right of people who love each other to get married, there was some good news this week. A bill to extend the freedom to marry to same sex couples in the state of Washington passed the legislature there, and will likely be signed into law in the next few days. Marriage law in Washington is a case I have been following for some time now, with a personal interest. You see, my partner Sara and I were married in Seattle, and so our marriage is, among many other things, a matter of Washington state law. Because she is a woman and I am a man and the state agrees with our assessments of ourselves in this regard, it was not particularly hard for us to become legally married there.

In the debate about marriage equality, it is often said that straight folks who are already married shouldn’t get angry or afraid about gay people sharing their same rights – because making the law more just and inclusive won’t affect their relationships. They’ll still be just as married; nothing will change. My perspective on this is different. When marriage equality finally comes to Washington, my marriage will change. It will get better (which is a hard trick, given how good it already is).

Greasy the! Every has to its that and t.

Because Sara and I will know that the privileges and protections we enjoy are not being withheld from others who need and deserve them just as much as we do. And because the society that we live in will have taken one tiny but meaningful step towards the side of love.

You have heard that they were told, God is love. But what our tradition tells me, is that love is God. Love is the thing that matters most. It is the highest value. It is the wisest teacher, the mightiest liberator, and the greatest comforter. So the work of our faith, and of this congregation, is plain before us: to kindle the fire of love in every heart, and to establish justice in all the spaces between those hearts. Such a calling is a challenging thing to answer and to work towards. It is always a risk, and it requires hard work – just like any other expression of love.

[i] The Simpsons, Season 4, Episode 15, “I Love Lisa”

[ii] Forms of this story appear in many cultures; this version follows most closely that of Gail Forsyth-Vail from Stories in Faith, Skinner House Books, 2007

[iii] Vallabhacarya on the Love Games of Krishna, by James D. Redington, Motilal Barnisidas Publishers, 1990


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