- Published Date
- Written by Rev. Tim Kutzmark
A Sermon Offered By Rev. Tim Kutzmark
Sunday, February 13, 2011 • Unitarian Universalist Church Of Reading
“Do you not see that you and I
Are as the branches of one tree?
With your rejoicing comes my laugher;
With your sadness start my tears.
Love. Could love be otherwise with you and me?”
– Tsu Yeh, AD 265-316
This morning, we’ve heard songs about love. We’ve heard poems about love. We’re about to listen to a short (but stunning) sermon about love. Everywhere we turn this morning it’s love, love, love! So I gotta ask: what is this thing called love?
We use the word ‘love’ all the time: “I love the Red Sox.” “I love pizza.” “I love it when you do that.” “I love Justin Bieber.” “I love that song.” “I love all this snow.” (well, maybe not that). It’s a wonderful word, love, but sometimes I think we use it so frequently it has lost all meaning.
So, on this day before Valentine’s Day—the most love-focused day of the year—I would like to suggest three thoughts on the nature of love.
First, love is caring. Love is caring. Unitarian Universalist minister Charles White McGehee writes: “Sometimes we need a substitute for the word love. We are told it is a solution to all things. But we are occasionally confused by its multiplicity of meanings . . . But we do know what the word care means . . . a care that is creative; a care that is understanding; a care that involves concern for my neighbor, for my community, for my place in the great mysterious reaches of the cosmos. A care that mounts into a collective confidence, a recognition of our need for each other . . . a care that raises life to a living affirmation.” When, as Unitarian Universalists, we say that our faith calls us to love one another, we are really saying that we are called to care for each other. When we say we are called to love the world, we are really saying that we are called to care for the world.
How we offer that care moves us to the second thought I offer: love is a choice. Far too often our culture tells us that love is an emotion, love is something we feel. But real love isn’t something we feel, it is something we do. Love is a choice, a choice to care. You may have heard this story. It has been circulated over and over on the internet. It goes like this:
“Many years ago, when I worked as a volunteer at Stanford Hospital, I got to know a little girl named Liza who was suffering from a rare and serious disease. Her only chance of recovery appeared to be a blood transfusion from her five-year-old brother, who had miraculously survived the same disease and had developed the antibodies needed to combat the illness. The doctor explained the situation to her little brother, and asked the boy if he would be willing to give his blood to his sister. I saw him hesitate for only a moment before taking a deep breath and saying, “Yes, I’ll do it if it will save Liza.” As the transfusion progressed, he lay in bed next to his sister and smiled, as we all did, seeing the color returning to her cheeks. Then his face grew pale and his smile faded. He looked up at the doctor and asked with a trembling voice, “Will I start to die right away?” The boy had misunderstood the doctor; he though he was going to have to give her all his blood.” (source: Chicken Soup for the Soul, 1993)
Love is a choice. Love is a choice to care.
This Unitarian Universalist congregation is a great place to practice this choice to care. Here, we can choose to care for each other. Now, that is an easy choice when it involves those we already know. Much harder, and often overlooked, is the choice to care for those we don’t know. I remember a few years ago we had several people recovering from surgery and in need of meals. When the call went out from our Caring and Sharing Team, we had no trouble finding folks to cook and deliver meals for the well known, the connected, the beloved members of the congregation. But I remember in this one instance, some of us pulling out our hair because there was one new family that not many of us knew—and it was hard to find someone willing to cook a meal for them. If we don’t feel connected to someone—it is harder for us to make the choice to care. I think this extends to how we interact with folks who are visiting our church. It is harder to make the choice to care—to reach beyond the connections we already have in order to care about someone we don’t know. It is harder to reach beyond the conversations we easily have here with our friends, to converse with someone we don’t know, yet.
We’ve had a dickens of a time finding folks willing to sign up to be greeters—those friendly faces that smile and say “hello” to everyone entering the building. If a greeter notices someone they don’t know, then they introduce themselves, offer a name tag, introduce them to other folks, watch out for our new guest, so their experience here is a welcoming and warm one, so folks feel cared for, so they will return to create deeper connections. So, perhaps, some of them will make this place their spiritual home (as we once did). But it has been very hard to find folks to sign up to greet on Sunday morning—to choose to care about our new faces. Recently our membership team that coordinates these things gave up and decided to simply stop having greeters. They were tired of asking folks to greet and hearing “no.” This makes me very sad. It’s not that this church isn’t a caring place. It is. It is a profoundly caring place, and I can stand here and say that you are—we are—a profoundly caring people. But we’re not perfect. And perhaps we don’t care—perhaps we don’t love, as completely as we could. Many Unitarian Universalist churches are training greeting teams to care for newcomers; we have disbanded ours. Now, this isn’t a scolding. It is simply an observation of where we are at this moment.
I remember the first time I visited a Unitarian Universalist Church. It was Arlington Street church in Boston, at the intersection of Boylston and Arlington Streets, across from the public garden. It is a big, imposing church, with large and long stairs leading up to the front door. The first Sunday I attended, I was nervous and uncertain. My heart was yearning for a place to call home, a people where I could spiritually belong. But I also felt uncomfortable crossing from the “real world” into a church. Taking a deep breath—one that would change my life forever—I began to walk up those steps. And what I experienced was profound. I am an introvert, and often very shy. New people and new places scare me, and my natural tendency is to shrink away or to hide in the sidelines. But as I walked up those steps, I found myself walking through a warm and welcoming gauntlet of greeters. No less than five different people, standing on those steps, reached out their hands to me—a stranger with whom they had no connection—and said “Good morning, welcome, I’m glad you are here.” They looked into my eyes, they shook my hand, and it felt like they cared that I had decided to come that morning. At the top of the stairs, the assistant minister, an outgoing guy named Gene Navius, welcomed me with a huge smile, while someone else offered to get me a nametag, gave me an order of service, and then ushered me into the sanctuary to help me find a seat in the crowded pews. Now, you might argue that such a welcome was too much, over the top, or would intimidate or scare away a shy newcomer who simply wanted to creep anonymously into the sanctuary. Au contraire. What it did was make me feel cared for. What it did was show me—not tell me—that this was a community of people who made the choice to care. When, at the beginning of the service, the congregation together proclaimed: “Love is the spirit of this church,” I knew that it was true. I knew that I would return. I knew that I had come home.
Love is caring. Love is a choice. I look forward to the day we choose to have our greeters back again. I look forward to the day we choose to train our greeters on how to engage our newcomers in conversations that are meaningful. And, just as it happened at our sister church in Sherborn, I look forward to the day we offer an after church workshop on “Welcoming the Visitor” and 3/4 of the congregation shows up.
In the meantime, without any official greeters, we’re all going to have to take on that role. It means we all have to take responsibility for reaching out to someone we don’t know. A smile is a good place to start. “Hi, I’m Tim and I don’t know you, but good morning. What brings you here?” is a good place to start. But don’t stop there—continue the conversation. Share with them why you first came here—and more importantly, why you stayed. Offer to introduce them to someone else. Take them to meet the minister. If you aren’t sure who’s new, it’s a good bet that the folks with stick-on nametags are first or second time visitors. It’s a good bet that anyone with a pastel colored nametag is somewhat new to the church. (White nametags mean you are a member, or have been here long enough that you should decide to become a member on our next new member Sunday on March 6th).
A third and final thought about love. Love is caring. Love is a choice. Love transforms everything. Gandhi knew this when he said: “Love is the strongest force the world possesses.” Martin Luther King knew this when he said: “Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it.” For the last three weeks, the people of Egypt knew this when they stood up in the streets and the squares and said: “We want our freedom. We want our voice. And we will use the moral force of non-violence to obtain it.” Egypt became the embodiment of what Martin Luther King meant when he said: “We must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” The foundation is love. Love was alive on the streets of Cairo—as ordinary people chose peaceful protest to bring about the transformation of their country. Love was alive on the streets of Cairo as the army made the choice not to shoot their sisters and brothers, but to practice non-violence. Love transforms everything.
When we care, when we choose, we can transform things. Sometimes that transformation is small, as small as a handshake and a hello that turns a nervous newcomer into a Unitarian Universalist. Sometimes that transformation is epic—as epic as a country collectively throwing off the yoke of thirty years of despotism.
What is this crazy thing called love? It is caring. It is a choice. It can transform the world.