We are often asked what we believe in. What is our theology? You will get just about as many different answers as you ask different Unitarian Universalists. We celebrate this diversity of belief. In a world where so many people each have a piece of the truth, we have a religion which affirms the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.
My piece of this truth has always been the importance of love. I grew up in the Evangelical United Brethren Church. During a childhood full of insecurity, I depended upon the song “Jesus loves me, this I know.” My spiritual path led away from my early religious beliefs but the importance of agape love remained foremost in my life. Since I embraced Unitarian Universalism, I continue to ask myself. What do you believe in? What is your theology? I believe in love.
Many of our congregations seem to share my belief. My home church in Los Alamos, New Mexico and many others repeat a version of this affirmation each Sunday.
Love is the doctrine of this church,
the quest for truth is its sacrament,
and service is its prayer.
I believe the words of this affirmation are a powerful statement of our rich heritage. They roll off the tongue and they feel good. They comprise the kind of statement most of us can make with some conviction. This is a large part of our faith. We work in the service of humankind. We covenant together to seek the truth in freedom. This affirmation contains some rich theology, represents a system of ethics and an understanding of human psychology all wrapped up neatly in a few lines.
The words of this affirmation are based in part on what we express in the listing of the principles and sources of our faith. We covenant to affirm and promote seven principles. We share a living tradition from many sources in the history of world religions and the traditions out of which our particular movement arose.
There are two sources that speak of love in two different ways. The short word “love” is often abused and inadequate. I believe we are suspicious that its meaning is richer than we know. Perhaps we can express some of the richness as we look at these sources. Our principles and sources are found in the front of the hymnal on a page with no number. Follow along with me as I read these two sources that speak of love: “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.” If you have trouble with the phrase “God’s love” translate it to the “Good”.
Let’s take a closer look at these. The second source calls out justice, compassion and the transforming power of love. Actually, each of these three represents a form of love. I believe it was Reinhold Niebuhr who wrote, “Justice is the civic or political form of love.”
Justice is both a way of proceeding and a goal to be sought. Prophetic UU women and men continue to challenge us through their words and deeds. Their names are on our t- shirts and coffee mugs. Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Albert Schweitzer, Adlai Stevenson II, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Charles Darwin. They made a difference in their world. Thousands of us, famous and humble, work for justice, confront the status quo with new ideas of justice and make a difference in our world.
Justice, compassion and the transforming power of love. The figure most of us remember when we think of compassion is the Buddha. He said: “Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love.” Buddha made the distinction between desire and compassion, compassion being the form of love that we experience with and on behalf of others. We express compassion in many of our deeds.
After justice and compassion in the second source comes the transforming power of love. Transformation is a common term used by many religions to describe what they believe happens to them when they have faith. The sacrament of baptism reflects this transformation, a new birth. Traditionally we have thought of these transformations as grace, a gift from out there.
While many of us experience grace, I believe there is more to it. I believe we can also use this transforming power of love as our own. It does not just happen to us. We participate in it as we act in the world. We can express love in our deeds. The love which compels us to act transforms some small part of life for those on the receiving end of the transaction. We have the power to effect change. The transforming power of love.
Love can be expressed simply by acknowledging that the other person exists. A smile, a hello, how are you, a look directly in the eye can validate another’s being. We cannot gauge the power of any particular small expression of love, but trust me; the power is there. I believe we have a responsibility to use this power as often as we can. In a world where people are seeking community, where they are losing their sense of belonging, everything we do to express love can be transformative. Look at people. Make an effort to make eye contact with others. Practice smiling.
Especially at church. Five years ago when I moved to Berkeley, I attended a large church one Sunday while shopping for a church home. Out of hundreds of people, only 3 looked me in the eye and one of them was my husband. Needless to say, this was not a good way to begin a relationship with a congregation.
We have talked about the second source and our commitment to justice, compassion and the transforming power of love. Let’s move on to the fourth source: Jewish and Christian teachings, which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves. As ourselves. I have been thinking about this great commandment. It is found in both the old and new testaments. Matthew Chapter 22 verse 39 reads: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But we also find in Leviticus chapter 19 verse 18 the admonishment: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The words from Leviticus are stunning in many respects. If you have read the Old Testament, you will find that the God described therein is often a vengeful God, who frequently holds grudges against the Israeli people. So how do we explain these words that specifically call out vengeance and grudge maintenance as sins. The writer must have been reflecting the common wisdom of the time. And this wisdom is still valid. In order to love our neighbors as ourselves, we must let go of the wish for vengeance and we must let go of grudges.
As we begin this process, it is important to look inward before looking outward. We often spend great amounts of energy punishing ourselves for our real or imagined shortcomings. We continue to make the mistake of comparing ourselves to others. Loving thyself, myself, yourself is the hard part. Self-acceptance in the face of the many standards presented by our culture can be a struggle. Some of us heard negative messages from a family member or school mates and have internalized them so that we repeat the messages even though the original perpetrator is long gone from our lives.
How can we affirm and accept others without first having the ability to affirm and accept ourselves. We may truly regret some of our actions. We may believe that we should in fact be punished. Let it go. Open yourself to the possibilities you have for relationships. We may have fallen short of what we hoped to achieve in our lives. Can you change it? Do you want to change it? Or do you just want to want to change it? Change what you can if you can. Let me say with all the love I can muster. You are enough. Love yourself. Accept yourself. When we have done the work of loving ourselves, we can then participate fully in the transforming power of love: we can love our neighbors as ourselves. To paraphrase the biblical injunction: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against yourself, but you shall love yourself.” This is the key part of the great commandment that many churches and religious communities fail to emphasize. They work so hard to convince congregants of their original sin and the dangers of their evil ways, that they seem to ignore the music behind the message of “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
How do I love me, let me count the ways. First, I accept myself as I am. Isn’t that what we propose is the way we want to treat our neighbors? They are who they are. We are who we are. We affirm and promote their inherent worth and dignity. Why not affirm your inherent worth and dignity? Second, we promote justice, equity and compassion in our relations with our neighbors. Why not to ourselves? Be compassionate to yourself, practice self-care, practice self affirmations. Third, we seek truth and meaning as we learn about our neighbors. Their truth, their concept of meaning. As we get to know them, we can understand them at deeper levels. As we get to know ourselves, we can understand and accept our strengths and our limitations just as we understand and accept those of our neighbors.
Perhaps you are like me. Perhaps voices in your head will continue to try to convince you to perpetuate the negative messages. Leave them their little squeaking and live your life loving yourself. This is important not only for us as individuals, but also for our congregations. Research shows that churches that express love through internal harmony with a low amount of conflict and disunity are most successful at growing and assimilating new members.
Let’s return to the affirmation from the beginning of this sermon.
“Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest for truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer.” The transforming power of love empowers us to complete the rest the affirmation. Mother Teresa wrote:
Love cannot remain by itself – it has no meaning. Love has to be put into action and that action is service. Whatever form we are, able or disabled, rich or poor, it is not how much we do, but how much love we put in the doing; a lifelong sharing of love with others.
In the reading this morning, Theologian Charles Hartshorne writes: “One’s present self has duties to one’s future self as truly as it has duties to other human beings.” He further warns that “Mere impulse will repeatedly pull one in directions contrary to this requirement, just as impulse will pull one in directions contrary to the requirement to give heed to the needs of others.” We are called to a full agenda of many kinds of love– justice, compassion, service –which I believe depend greatly on our ability to take seriously the admonition to love ourselves. Following this practice leads to the possibility of what I believe is best in humankind, that beyond which we cannot imagine.
When people ask what you believe, when they ask what is your theology, you might tell them “Love is the doctrine of my church, the quest for truth is its sacrament and service is its prayer.” But most of all, I believe in a community where we truly “love our neighbors as ourselves.”