Nancy Shaffer, “Prayer for this Church” (adapted), from Instructions in Joy
May each one among us have skin that longs to touch
other skin: fingertips that long for other fingertips;…
bodies that want to stand next to other bodies, not alone,
while singing [or working, or] stirring soup…
May our doors be so open it is drafty inside,
and people sometimes shout because noises without
come also within. May those sheltered here
sometimes cry, all at once, letting tear water clean
what words by themselves cannot.
In silent times, may every one present
hear every one else breathing, and know this is not
separate from how the world breathes all night.
May we always have enough room for those
many who want to come in.
May those who cherish
this church be so glad they cannot stop speaking [of it],
cannot stop [inviting], and may the crowding itself be a gladness
as we keep [making room].
May we notice each one who is new and invite her to stay.
May our list of names for the Holy not ever
be finished; and may we hear God [laughing]
with us as we find still more.
Sermon: Where Love Meets Justice: Canvass Sunday
Rev. Kathleen McTigue Sunday, February 14, 2010
Our worship services this month are gathered around the theme of justice. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that today is also Valentine’s Day, a day devoted to love – or at least to one kind of love – so it seemed logical to think together about the link between these two huge values in our lives. Where does love meet justice?
We’re saturated in our culture with romantic images of love – shallow and unrealistic images, most of the time. We know there’s a lot more to the love story than this: our love for our children and our parents, our friends and siblings, the love we feel for the planet. And at least on some level we know that the love of justice is a force that has moved our human world toward goodness for thousands of years.
Some of our most treasured philosophers from ancient times understood this. They devoted their considerable brainpower to an attempt to articulate human love in its deepest sense. Plato’s best sound bite on the topic was, “Love is the pursuit of the whole” (of wholeness). Socrates considered love the binding agent in human existence. He said, “Love is the mediator which spans the chasm that divides human beings and gods, and therefore in love is all bound together.”
To both Plato and Socrates, love is the redemptive will toward union: union with God, with the inner self, and with those who people our world. Love is not something that ‘happens’ to us, “falling in love” like stumbling into a hole in the ground. Instead, love is fundamentally intentional: it is not a feeling, romantic or otherwise; it’s an act of the will. It’s a stance we choose toward the world. When we think of it this way, it’s clear that love and justice are so intimately linked that it would be a hard thing to tease them apart. When we’re in tune with our heart’s deep commitments, we are tuned into our hunger for wholeness. And this hunger in turn moves us to act for justice.
The Catholic priest Henri Nouwen lived out the last years of his life as the resident pastor at Daybreak Community in Toronto. This is an intentional community in which people like Nouwen live with and care for adults who are living with mental illness or impairment and who would otherwise be confined to institutions. At Daybreak, the inherent dignity of each person is lifted up, no matter how abled or disabled that person might be. And consequently, there are sometimes reversals of expectations, times when the theoretically high-functioning or “normal” adults are humbled by what they learned from their housemates.
Henri Nouwen delighted in these reversals. In a homily he once said, “There is a man who lives in my community who asks me, ‘What are you doing here?’ every time I see him, and a woman there who smiles at me each day as if seeing me for the first time and says, ‘Welcome!’ I could regard these people simply as mentally handicapped, or I could see them as angels who are bringing me important messages every day: to ask myself what I’m doing with my life on this earth, and to remind me that I am welcome here.”
Those two messages of embrace and challenge perfectly capture the intersection between love and justice. Each of them is absolutely key in a community dedicated, as this community is, to the spiritual nurture and development of its members. The message of love and embrace is a simple one: Welcome! You are welcome here, with your joy, talent and kindness, with all of your rough patches and your failings, your uncertainties and your doubt. You are welcome here on your good days and on your crabby ones, and we do all we can to make this place a refuge for your soul, where you can breathe the easy air of homecoming and know that you are loved.
The message of challenge is a little more complex: What are you doing here? It can be heard in several different tones without sounding harsh or judging, and all of them are worth listening to. What are you doing here? What are you doing here? What are you doing here?
This religious community is founded on the core belief that each of us can grow, not only in mind or body but in soul and spirit. It’s founded on the belief that we each hunger to cultivate ourselves: that we know ourselves as complex beings, capable of new insight and wisdom that will in turn lead us to live more justly and mindfully.
Our existence as a community rests on our faith that it’s in this sort of place that we cultivate our best selves, our most whole and alive selves: a place that mingles the messages of embrace and challenge, which are the messages of love and justice.
Over half a century ago, one of the most powerful preachers of our denomination, A. Powell Davies, issued this challenge to our religious communities: “Do you belong to the religion that says humankind is not divided – except by ignorance and prejudice and hate; the religion that sees humankind as naturally one and waiting to be spiritually united; the religion that proclaims an end to all exclusions – and declares a brotherhood and sisterhood unbounded! [Do you belong to] the religion that knows we shall never find the fullness of the wonder and the glory of life until we are ready to share it; that we shall never have hearts big enough for the love of God until we have made them big enough for the worldwide love of one another? As you have listened to me, have you [perhaps thought, Yes!] — that this is your religion? If so, do not congratulate yourself. Stop long enough to recollect the miseries of the world in which you live; the fearful cruelties, the enmities, the hate, the bitter prejudices, the need in such a world for such a faith. And if you can still say that this of which I have spoken is your faith, then ask yourself this question: What are you doing with it?”
What are we doing with our faith? What are we doing here? Most of the people in our world are suffering. In a world like this, the welcome we find here, the love we try to create for each one who walks through our doors, is filled with meaning. But it’s meaning isn’t only found here, where we gather. It’s meaning lies in the ways we then turn and put it to work.
Over time, I find there are lots of things I was once sure of that have slowly lost their grip on me. But there are also a few things that I’ve become very sure of. I am sure that our lives have meaning. I am sure their meaning is magnified beyond measure when we turn our attention and skill and generosity toward something larger than self-interest. I am sure that we move toward that larger thing, and learn to act for the greater good in our world, only when we find some way to grow in perspective, insight, wisdom and courage.
I am sure that these qualities don’t come to us accidentally most of the time, but grow within us because we deliberately make room for them. I am sure we make room for them both through spiritual practices that make us quiet enough to receive insight, and through communities that teach us, shape us, and keep us honest. I am sure that when we form these communities, we amplify the power and purpose of our own slow spiritual growth. I am sure that in ways we might never really understand, that increased power of transformation is one of the most important forces at work in our world.
For me at least, that hope for transformation is at the intersection of love and justice, and it’s the bottom line: it’s why I want to be part of a faith community at all, and why I choose this particular one. It’s what I am doing here, in the deep and loving welcome of our faith.
We are a troubled tribe, we human beings. But the message of our faith is this: as part of that tribe, we get to affect the way the story unfolds. It makes a difference, to one single soul or to thousands, when we serve a meal, teach a childe, shelter someone who is homeless, march for equal marriage rights, advocate for economic justice and protest the violence of war. But we also make a difference through the selves we carry into all those actions. Who we are matters just as much as what we do: who we are, and who we let ourselves become.
What are we doing here? We’re learning how to wake up. We’re learning how to greet transformation, how to make it manifest within ourselves and in our actions with each other, and in the wider world. I don’t think it’s grandiose, or an exaggeration, to say that there is nothing the world needs more than it needs this.
There is also one highly specific thing we are doing here on this day. Yesterday we did it with celebration, and today we do it with worship. This is our stewardship weekend. It’s the time we ask every member to think with clarity about what it means to you to keep this holy place alive and thriving. It’s the time we ask you to think not only with your head – pragmatic and logical – but with your heart.
Every Sunday when we take up the offering we ask that you turn to your own abundance and give as generously as you can. Today I am not asking you to make your pledge out of generosity alone, because I don’t think our generosity is enough. I’m asking you to make your pledge out of commitment: out of your desire, your need, to be part of a place that wakes us up to the intersection of love and justice, the essential point on the matrix of our lives where our own transformation meets the world’s need for us.
We are asking every member of this congregation to give this year based not on your pledge last year but on your income. We are asking you to give three percent or more. Here in Hamden, the average household income is $66,000. Three percent of that amount would be $41 dollars a week, $165 dollars a month. If every pledging household in this congregation had the average income in Hamden and pledged 3%, we would have no financial problems at all in the coming year. None. Zip. Zilch. We would restore our lost staff hours and be able to reach for more programs to nurture us, hold us together and send us out into the work of justice.
Some of us make much less than the average, and many of us make a lot more than that. Some cannot give three percent and some can give much more. This is your chance to sit in the matrix where love and justice meet, and to fill out your pledge card if you didn’t do it yesterday. Bill Braun is going to give us three minutes of love songs: three minutes for three percent! And then the ushers will receive your pledge cards, and we’ll sing our closing hymn.