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What’s Love Got To Do With It? – February 13, 2011

It was a hot summer, in Arizona last year. At the north end of the Sonoran Desert, in the last days of July, daytime temperatures generally hover at 105 degrees or so. Even in the very early hours of the morning, before the first drops of daylight fell on the Valley of the Sun, the air in the city of Phoenix was already climbing above where I keep my thermostat set. For the people who were gathering there at 4:30 in the morning, it was going to be a long day.

After gathering before dawn, those folks set out on their first march of the morning, from the Arizona statehouse to the Episcopal cathedral downtown. There they gathered to sing and to pray and listen to words of encouragement for the long hours ahead, and for the struggle that would no doubt still be going on long after this day was over. The people gathered there were from the city of Phoenix, and other cities and towns all over Arizona, and also many, many other places all over the country. They came with many different faiths, and some of them with no outward faith at all. They were there because of a particular piece of legislation, Arizona Senate Bill 1070, but more generally they were there to call for a change in immigration policy, in that state, and throughout the whole United States.

Once the sun was up, the marches and the vigils started to grow in attendance, along with the heat. On the streets, there were many faces, many banners, many signs and slogans. One particular group, well-represented at the protests, were notable for the loud yellow of the t-shirts they wore, almost blinding in the bright desert sun. They had big, slightly asymmetrical hearts printed on their shirts, and smiles on their faces. This was the day’s uniform for the Unitarian Universalists in the crowd; many of them local, and many others from far, far away. The matching shirts and the banners and signs they carried had apparently garnered them a reputation because other marchers, who had no idea who these folks were or what a Unitarian Universalist was, had given them a nickname: the Love People.

Now those signs and t-shirts, that logo with the heart and even that piercing shade of yellow are all part of social justice campaign called Standing on the Side of Love. It was begun by Unitarian Universalists two years ago in response to an attack by a lone gunman on one of our congregations in Knoxville, Tennessee. A man entered the sanctuary and opened fire on the congregation. After his trial, that man released a manifesto that made it clear his actions were motivated by political hate, in words so vile that I will not quote them in church. Since that terrible act, people of that congregation in Knoxville and other folks all over the country, some Unitarian Universalist and some not, have sought to answer the hatred and fear now endemic in the nation we live in, with its natural antidote: Love.

A few weeks ago, as most of you know, we had a pancake breakfast here at the church. The members of our board of trustees got together in the kitchen, and with the help of a few other volunteers – most of who are, coincidentally, married to members of the board of trustees – put on a lovely meal for us to share. It was a fundraiser to raise funds for the purchase of a banner to put up on the front of our church – a banner that would say, Standing on the Side of Love. On that morning, and in the weeks since, more than a few of you have shared a sentiment with me that runs something like this: “This Standing on the Side of Love thing sounds nice enough, but I don’t really know what it means, and I don’t really know why we’d want to be involved with it.”

Thinking about it, I had to say that that was quite a reasonable reaction if you’d just sat down to eat your pancakes and found out it was all for the benefit of this something-or-other you’d never heard of. I’d like to thank those of you where were willing to share your uncertainty with me. Whenever you have a question you are brave enough to ask, it is often true that there are others who wonder the same thing, but have yet to voice their curiosity. So I want to take some time now to talk about what I think it means to stand on the side of love, why I think that, as a congregation, we already are, and why I hope to see us do so all the more in the years to come.

In the course of a day, we might use the English word love to describe how we feel about our partners and our children, or just as easily use the same word to express our feelings towards our favorite color, or flavor of ice cream. There are many other ideals we share that are certainly no less specific, and some of them might just be a little more clear in their meaning than love: justice, equity, compassion, liberty, respect.

The word love has been repeated so many times, heaped with so much hollow praise, as to nearly lose all meaning. In the film, Moulin Rouge, the main character is supposed to be a gifted poet, and this is symbolized to the audience by the fact that all of his verses are taken from 20th century pop songs. In one exchange with his hardened and cynical romantic interest, he testifies to her that, “Love is a many splendored thing. Love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love.” After all of the romantic comedies, and greeting cards, and jewelry advertisements, what meaning can possibly be left. As long as we are quoting pop songs, the question seems to me to be, “What’s love got to do with it?” With justice, with changing the world for the better, with anything at all, really?

The answer is that love is the word here, because love unites people. It breaks down the barriers between “I” and “you”, and helps to form a “we”. Particularly in our ever-more individualistic and isolating culture, love is the most dynamic force there is; the one most likely to change the way in which people live and relate to one another. Love makes partnerships and families, but it is also what makes community livable. Even in something as small as the anonymous or unlikeable neighbor who turns out unexpectedly after a big snowstorm to help clear your driveway, there is some flickering spark of love – an acknowledgement of the natural affinity we have to and the care we have for other beings. Love is a building block of a free society: one of the many amazing scenes from the recent successful protests in Egypt, has been the solidarity and mutual support between Christian and Muslim demonstrators. They have marched and worked together, and groups of each have stood guard over one another as they took turns praying in the street, watching for anyone who would try to disrupt the demonstration with violence. Tyranny depends on fracturing and fragmenting a nation into paranoid and xenophobic factions; freedom can be achieved only when we have the courage and loving-kindness necessary to struggle together.

The concept of Standing On the Side of Love has deep roots in Unitarian Universalism, in fact. Jim Adkisson, the Knoxville shooter, said that he wanted to attack a Unitarian Universalist congregation because he saw it as a center of political liberalism. He was wrong about so many other things, it should not be surprising that he would be wrong about that as well. Unitarian Universalism is not synonymous with political liberalism. We have avowed conservatives here too, and folks who prefer the label ‘moderate’ – and let us not forget the socialists, anarchists and certain progressives for whom liberalism is on their right hand side. True, many of us are political liberals, but not all of us. What all of us together are, is religious liberals. In the realm of the spiritual, in matters of faith, we Unitarian Universalists are defined not by a focus on the past, nor by an appeal to established doctrines or sources of authority. We are guided instead by a truth which is constantly revealed and rediscovered, an openness to new ideas and the new people who offer them, and an enduring sense of hope for the nature and plight of humanity. At times a weary and tearful hope, but an enduring hope nonetheless.

Love has always been central to our hope, as Unitarian Universalists. Our religious ancestors were considered heretics because they believed that the love of God was more powerful than the religious authorities of their time. They were persecuted for believing that that love applied to all people, was available to all people, and ultimately would liberate and unite all people. Because of that persecution, the need to move from a society defined by fear to one defined by love became all the more pressing for our spiritual forbearers. Our Unitarian ancestor Frances David said, “We need not think alike to love alike,” and centuries later, the Univeralist Hosea Ballou advised that, “If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury, but if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good.” As some Unitarians and Universalists began to conceive of theologies that did not include God, love still remained at their center; a precious, mysterious force that binds human hearts together. Whether we believe that it comes from God, like light from the sun, or up from between human beings, like the roots of a tree tracing up out of the soil, our faith as Unitarian Universalists has always aspired to be guided by love.

I see that aspiration here in this congregation as well. Love can be inward-focused, and it can be outward-focused, and both are sorely needed in our hurting world. I might describe the love between myself and my partner Sara, the love we share with our daughter, the love that wraps all of our extended families together, as inward love. The strands of caring connect each to the other and we have the merciful gift that, even if it is sometimes hard, each of the people in this extended circle loves each other. Similarly, to be a congregation requires a practice of inward love: caring for one another and growing together in support and understanding of each other. Years ago, this congregation made the commitment to become a Welcoming Congregation, a designation that means we specifically seek to understand, include, and affirm bisexual, lesbian, transgender and gay people as equal and vital members of our religious community.

That was one expression of inward love, not just to everyone who was already a part of this congregation but to future members who might find us or be found by us, and seek to make their spiritual home in our midst. Similarly, though I would not presume to speak for the many from this congregation who have travelled to El Salvador, or for those about to do so, I don’t know any better word for the urge to learn from other people in far off lands and find ways, however simple, to help them to improve their lives – I do not know any better word for this impulse, than love. This, is outward love: when the inward love experienced in a partnership or a family or a community is pointed outside its boundaries, to form connections and engage compassion with and for strangers. I could point to other examples, in the life of this congregation, of both kinds of love. This is why I say, that when we are at our best, we are already standing on the side of love.

The national Standing On the Side of Love campaign is, of course, more than a slogan. It is a network of congregations and individual activists, a collection of resources and an ongoing series of calls to action. It has been associated with a few specific issues already: the human rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, and the cause of immigration reform. More recently, I’ve seen its banners and t-shirts crop up in support of protecting the social safety net, achieving ecological justice, and moderating the often violent terms of our public discourse. Each of these, and many others besides, are issues that our congregation may decide to study and take action on at some point in the future, or not. But as a basic challenge, I believe that the maxim is worth our wearing on our sleeves. As apparently non-controversial as love is – who would ever willingly put themselves in the anti-love column? – it is not the guiding force behind most of the lives we lead, and the institutions that shape our world.  Our faith as Unitarian Universalists, however, calls on us to imagine what the world could be like if love really was at the center; we stand on the side of love when we work toward that vision. It is my wish for us that our vision should become clearer and our labor in its service more diligent and imaginative. I would not be terribly unhappy to gain a reputation as one of “the Love People.”

On that day last summer in Phoenix, Arizona, several Unitarian Universalists were arrested in an act of civil disobedience, protesting for a more compassionate and less divisive immigration policy. Among those arrested were Peter Morales, the current President of our association of congregations, and Wendy Von Zirpolo, my colleague who serves not far from here, in Marblehead. As often happens when you get arrested, Rev. Wendy eventually got her day in court, and in her remarks to the presiding judge, she said,

“Your honor, I treasure this country. I believe in our judicial system and the laws that protect all people. But there is a higher law, which landed me here today. The law of our collective soul, some call God. It is a law that cherishes all creation’s children and insists that each of us are due respect, safety, justice and love.”[i]

This law of which Rev. Wendy speaks has been the hope of Unitarians and Universalists and Unitarian Universalists for as long as we ever have been. I cannot claim that I have lived every moment of my life in perfect accord with it. But I do know, that whenever I am possessed in myself of the mindfulness to choose, and the courage to follow what I know in my heart is right, I choose to stand on the side of love. I hope that you will join me.




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