“Love and Justice”
Rev. Douglas Taylor
There is a story that begins in a simple New England white-clapboard church. The minister was mid-way through the reading of the text when people in the back noticed a disheveled man walking up the aisle. He was not someone who had been there before. He had the look of a homeless person, unwashed and unpleasant. The people in the pews could smell him before they saw him. And people would lean a little, or move their bags up onto the pew making it clear to the man as he looked around the seats on his way up the aisle: “don’t sit here,” “there’s no room for you in this pew.” The homeless man made it all the way up to the front pew without finding a space to sit. With a shrug, he walked a few steps in front of the first pew and settled himself down on the floor in front of the pulpit.
The minister had noticed him by now, having reached the conclusion of the reading and looking up to see everyone’s attention was fixed on the homeless man as he sat on the floor in the front. The minister noticed the head usher making his way down the aisle and knowing the situation would soon be in hand, he launched into the pastoral prayer. Other people also notice the respected elder of the church who served as head usher coming down the aisle. He moved slowly and with great purpose, leaning heavily on his cane as he walked. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief as they saw the old pillar of the community coming forward. He would deal with the homeless man; he would kindly but firmly escort the man out.
When the elder arrived at the front of the church, he promptly dropped his cane onto the floor and to everyone’s great surprise and chagrin, they watched as he slowly lowered his stiff old form down onto the floor to sit with the other man. The minister had stopped his prayer mid-sentence. An awed silence filled the room.
After a moment, the minister spoke with wisdom and humility saying, “All of you here will quite likely not remember a word of the prepared remarks I am about to offer. But every one of you will remember for the rest of your lives the example of compassion and hospitality we have just witnessed.”
Today, we gather to re-imagine Valentine’s Day as something more than a day for candy and hallmark cards. We gather to talk about a love bound to justice rather than romance. Romantic love has its place, to be sure; and our re-imagining is not an effort to do away with romance. Instead, we’re talking about love that is bigger than romance. We’re talking about a love that orders our lives and our society so all may be included.
The Unitarian Universalist Association is sponsoring a new campaign called “Standing on the Side of Love.” In presenting this campaign, the materials say that “every major religion has compassion and love at its center.” And as Unitarian Universalists, we embrace not only the “wisdom from the world’s religions which inspire us in our ethical and spiritual lives,” but more specifically, “staying true to our religious values means standing on the side of love.” At least, that is what it says in all that is the literature. But who would be against “Standing on the Side of Love?” What are we not doing by standing on the side of love? From what I’ve seen, the answer to that is we are not letting fear take charge, we are not letting oppression and exclusion rule the day. “This campaign seeks to harness the power of love to stop oppression, exclusion, and violence.”
This summer, I was at General Assembly in Salt Lake City, UT where they unveiled this campaign. The convention planners had a huge banner, something over a hundred feet tall, hung outside the convention center where we were meeting. It made the news: Unitarians are meeting, big orange banner, standing on the side of love, banner ripped to pieces by fierce thunder storm with high winds. Yeah, the fact that the huge banner ripped down the center during a fierce thunder storm is what made the news. I can imagine what the Christian fundamentalists who still think God sends natural disasters as punishment were thinking about that.
At the end of the convention, the planners were handing out pieces of the banner for people to take home. Spread the love, they were saying. Don’t let the story end here; carry a piece of this work home with you, literally. (Hold up section of orange banner). So here is my piece of the love to share with you. I feel a little like that Shel Silverstein poem:
Ricky was “L,” but he’s home with the flu,
Lizzie, our “O,” had some homework to do,
Mitchell, “E” prob’ly got lost on the way,
So I’m all of (the love banner) that could make it today.
But we have our own banner, not just a piece of one. I left for sabbatical without telling you about the Standing on the Side of Love campaign and return to find a big orange banner hanging in the Fireside Room. I’m told it was in the Social Hall first. We keep moving it around. You know, the first thing I said when I saw the banner was “Why is it hanging inside the building, it should be hanging outside! It’s supposed to be a message for the world around out there.”
So I got an earful about the plan our congregation made through the Program Council. The Program Council was looking for a project the whole congregation could connect with. When they decided to adopt the Standing on the Side of Love campaign, they wanted to keep the banner inside the building for a while until we felt we knew what it really understood the message. The council wanted to internalize the message so it could really mean something before we displayed it outside the building as a message describing what is going on within. They wanted it to be real first.
The Standing on the Side of Love campaign is about inclusion. And we are asked to re-imagine Valentine’s Day. It imagines a concept of justice that is more focused on relationship than rules, it is a justice born of compassion for others. Standing on the Side of Love is about loving all people, especially those despised and marginalized in our society. In the Hebrew Scriptures, God is constantly telling the Hebrew people to care for the widow, the orphan, the alien. The scriptures tell us to care for those excluded from access to power in the system, people who are on the margins and too easily forgotten. This Standing on the Side of Love campaign carries in modern language the same sentiment of that old Hebrew scripture injunction to care for the stranger in our midst.
Around the nation, UU congregations are re-imagining Valentine’s Day with worship services, rallies, and educational programs using the Standing on the Side of Love concept. As one organizer put it (Potsdam Rally Co-Organizer Austin Kenyon), “This weekend is a symbol, it’s done purposefully, to re-imagine Valentine’s Day as a holiday. To re-imagine it not as just a holiday of candy and Hallmark cards. But as a day of love and acceptance for everyone.”
UUA President Peter Morales wrote this in a public note yesterday, “Today, two groups especially bear the brunt of rejection: sexual minorities and undocumented immigrants. ‘Standing on the side of love’ means standing at their side. Just look at the ugly battle over legalization of the marriage of gays and lesbians and our inability to reform hopelessly outdated and dysfunctional immigration laws.”
So what exactly are we to do with this? What would it look like for it to be real? The Social Justice Council has organized a set of workshops focused not on immigration reform and marriage equality as one might expect. Indeed, we’ve had workshops on those topics in the past and will have more of them in the future as the need persists. Instead of that sort of workshop, the Justice council has organized workshops this afternoon on topics like forgiveness and non-violent communication, topics that bridge the internal and external work implied in this campaign. And the Justice council also added these paper hearts.
The paper hearts are part of re-imagining Valentine’s Day. You could consider them a challenge. What is one thing you can pledge to do for this Standing on the Side of Love version of Valentine’s Day? The hearts will be taped up on a paper banner in the Fireside Room after the service. It’s easy to come up with something for the normal version of Valentine’s Day, give the person you love a card, flowers, dinner, a massage, maybe jewelry. The ads out there offer a steady supply of what you can do for Valentine’s Day. But here we are talking about a different kind of day and the gift you can give is on a different order.
Do we stand on the side of love? What would it mean for you in your life to stand on the side of love? Something out of the ordinary, I think. Something that would put me out a little, is what we’re talking about. Not necessarily about immigration reform or marriage equality, of course. Those are the two main national efforts tied to the campaign, but that is not intended to limit the possibilities. And if we as a congregation are focused on figuring this out and developing a sense that we understand ourselves to be standing on the side of love before we hang the banner outside, then what you and I can write on the paper hearts should be something we can do as individuals rather than what we can do as a community.
Donate your hair to Locks of Love. Volunteer at an animal shelter. Help make and serve the salad for free community meal with others from the congregation. Visit someone in prison. Pay for the meal of someone you don’t know at a restaurant. Shovel your neighbor’s driveway. But this “Standing on the Side of Love” is more than being kind to someone, more than being a nice person. It is also that kindness being directed toward those left on the margins of our society. Can you imagine yourself doing things like that? I can imagine myself doing things like that. And I’m sure you can too. But too often, something gets in the way of making and keeping the kinds of promises that we can write on these paper hearts this morning.
One verse in the anthem this morning (Standing on the Side of Love by Jason Shelton #1014 in Singing the Journey) says: “Sometimes we build a barrier to keep love tightly bound, corrupted by fear, unwilling to hear, denying the beauty we’ve found.” We hold back in fear. And the excuses come rolling off the tongue: “I’m too busy, I don’t have the time.” “I wouldn’t know where to begin.” “It wouldn’t make a difference anyway.” At least these are the reasons I list in my head when I start thinking about doing something that is a bit of a sacrifice, something that is out of the way for me to do, these are some of the barriers I find that keep love tightly bound.
I suspect I am not alone. I often hear “I’m too busy, I don’t have the time,” not only from my own lips but from the lips of many of us. Being busy is the perfect shield today. Being busy is a sign of success, a sign that I’m important. I would volunteer at the crisis hotline, but I’m too busy. Have you ever felt a desire to do something that would make a difference in the world and then not done it because you just didn’t have the time? It may well be that you do not have the time. It may well be that you already have many things you are doing and these things make a difference. It may be that you really are busy, but it is worth double checking. Are you busy with the work you really long to do, or have you abdicated the authority of your life to your calendar? That may be a barrier for you. I think it is one for me.
“I wouldn’t know where to begin.” This one comes quickly and can be dissipated as quickly. There are thousands of things one can do to make the world a better place. It’s rather overwhelming. And if this “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign is about immigration reform and marriage equality, then what single action can I take as an individual to make a difference? Well, the Standing on the Side of Love campaign is not only about those two national initiatives. It is about standing in relationship with people in need. The best advice I’ve ever heard about how to figure out where to begin is from Howard Thurman who said, “Don’t ask what the world needs, ask instead what makes you come alive and then go do it. Because what the world most needs are people who are alive.” Find your passion. If you like food, maybe you can help feed people. If you like animals, maybe you can help out at a shelter. If you like the earth, maybe you can gift house plants to people. Find what makes you come alive. Follow that passion to a gift you can give to others.
Of course, there remains the most insidious voice in my head, the one that tempts me to give up despite it all: the voice that says, “It wouldn’t make a difference anyway.” But I know I don’t have to save the world, I only need to do my small part. You have heard, I trust, that story of the person walking along the beach at low tide throwing sand dollars back into the ocean. Another person comes along and sees the beach just filled with the sand dollars caught out of the water after the tide went out and shouted to the first person, “You can’t save them all. Give up; what you’re doing won’t make a difference.” The first person holds up a sand dollar and says “It makes a difference to this one.”
Mother Theresa said, “there are no great deeds; only small deeds done with great love.” What promise will you put on your paper heart? What will you do this week or next to stand on the side of love? Is there something you’ve always wanted to do? Serve at a soup kitchen, help someone file out their taxes, meet with a senator about marriage equality, build a wheelchair ramp for someone’s home? Stretch yourself a little. This is meant as a challenge. Let’s re-imagine Valentine’s Day as a day to make a difference for the disempowered and marginalized in our world. Let love step in to welcome the stranger among us. Let grace spill out and heal the world through even your small deeds.
In a world without end,
May it be so.