Sharing the Love



DEBUSLove is a way of life.

It should be how we make our way in the world. And truth be told, we should be preaching love every Sunday.

I think at our best, those who are fortunate enough to fill Unitarian Universalist pulpits each week are preaching love every Sunday. But sometimes we need to be woken up, given a spiritual wedgie, and reminded to actually talk about love, not just talk around it.

Love is vital to who we are as Unitarian Universalists. Many of our congregations use an affirmation each week that begins “Love is the doctrine of this church.” Probably half our readings and hymns contain the word love. Others use “compassion,” but I like the word “love.” It’s both simple and complex, particular and all encompassing.

And it’s no wonder—love is central to all the world’s religions.

In Hinduism, love is one of the three central virtues (along with charity and self-control). In Judaism, love emerges in many forms, most strikingly in the image of God as a loving, steadfast father. So too in Islam, where the first prayer of the morning is to God the Compassionate, the Merciful. In Buddhism, the cultivation of loving-kindness and compassion is at the heart of practice. We see writings on love and compassion in the Transcendentalist and humanist texts as well. Love is everywhere—in our practices, prayers and in our sacred texts.

One of the most famous passages in sacred texts is about love, found in Christian scriptures: 1 Corinthians 13. We hear this passage all too often, generally at weddings. But while it can be applied to romance, the writer’s original purpose was quite different. I think it has something to say to us today: for all our talk about love, love is not easy. It takes work, because it is something we do with one another. This passage in 1 Corinthians is all about sharing the love.

Now, it’s interesting that this is perhaps the most famous passage in the Christian scriptures and it doesn’t mention God or Jesus. This tells me it’s about how we are with one another, how we act in the world. So whether you are humanist, pagan, theist, Christian, atheist, Buddhist, something else or somewhere in between, let us today reclaim this passage for our own and hear what it has to say to us.

It’s a digression of sorts. Paul, a first century Roman Jew turned Christian, ministered to the churches he founded across what is now Greece and the Middle East through letters, some of which are collected in the Christian scriptures. In the first of such epistles, to the people in Corinth, Paul addresses a number of issues that have come up in the church, including some divisive arguments over immorality, marriage and the resurrection.

But in answering the church’s questions, the notion of spiritual gifts arose. It seems that some in Corinth were making a show of their ability to prophesy or speak in tongues, and that was causing a major rift. Paul addresses them this way:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

For the Corinthians, and indeed most of the early Christians, spiritual gifts were signs that God was working in their lives, and they understood them to be ways to manifest God’s kingdom on earth. These gifts are not unlike our own; where the Corinthians embraced prophesy, healing, and speaking in tongues, we embrace prophetic witness, reason, and generosity.

Now, these gifts themselves are fine; in fact, just as Paul preached on them to his flock, we preach on our gifts. They are important ways in which we move through our days, putting our faith into action. Some of us are great at hospitality, others at caring for one another, still others at speaking with a prophetic voice, or using intellect to understand the world.

But the problem in Corinth, and the danger among us, is when gifts become a sign that divides the believers from the non-believers, the good UUs from the bad. The gifts are not the thing. They are useful to encourage and develop, but they are not the point.

The main thing—and the reason for Paul’s diversion—is love. Without love, Paul says, “I gain nothing.”

And frankly, neither does anyone else. Love is what allows our gifts to function.

And what a thing it is. In the middle of this passage, Paul outlines love’s characteristics as a reminder about behavior that is and isn’t loving:

Love is patient.
Love is kind.
Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way.
It is not irritable or resentful.
It does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Paul may not be able to tell us exactly what love is, but he sure knows it when he sees it.

How many times have we gotten irritated when our justice endeavors run into road blocks? Maybe the volunteers don’t show up. Maybe we don’t get the donations we expected. Maybe the people we’re helping don’t appreciate it. We get resentful—a sign that we may not be acting out of love.

How many times have we limited ourselves or expected the worst, so we didn’t go the full distance? There’s a sign that we may not be acting out of love.

How many times have we been so angry at injustice in the world that we’ve become paralyzed? There’s a sign we may not be acting out of love.

How many times have we been so proud of our own actions that we look down upon those who don’t—or can’t—do as much justice work? There’s a sign we may not be acting out of love.

How many times have we simply gotten burned out? There’s a sign we may not be acting out of love.

I told you it’s not easy. But love is permanent. Paul emphasizes this point in the next three verses:

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when that which is perfect comes, the parts will come to an end.

We could rewrite that for our own time:

Love never ends. But as for our prophetic witness, it will come to an end; as for speaking truth to power, that will cease; as for intellect, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we reason only in part, but when justice and inclusion and peace are complete, the parts will come to an end.

No matter what else is going on, it’s all about love. Love is where we begin, whether with each other, with the Divine, with our families, our communities, or our world. Without love, anything we do is half a loaf, ineffective, uninspiring. It can cause bitterness.

I think about how large corporations are forced to pay for mistakes like cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico after an oil spill, or when philanthropists give large amounts of money just to get the tax breaks, and those acts always feel empty to me. Yes, the money is important to solve the issues, but if they walked through the world in love, maybe they wouldn’t have caused problems in the first place.

What if we shared love from the start—not just when things get bad, but pre-emptively? UU theologian Rebecca Parker implores us to “Choose to bless the world”:

The choice to bless the world can take you into solitude to search for the sources of power and grace; native wisdom, healing and liberation.

More, the choice will draw you into community, the endeavor shared, the heritage passed on, the companionship of struggle, the importance of keeping faith, the life of ritual and praise, the comfort of human friendship, the company of earth, its chorus of life welcoming you.

None of us alone can save the world. Together—that is another possibility, waiting.

Together, we must share love, because it is the greatest gift of all. Ultimately, it is all we have. It burns in us; it is our pilot light, which we can keep low and hidden under a bushel or we can turn up so it is a beacon bright and clear—a beacon stoked by hope and faith. Everything else may fade away, but first and always, share the love.

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