Sermons 2021-22

Do I Have to Love Everyone? (2)

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Do I Have to Love Everyone? (2)
Rev. Douglas Taylor
9-5-21

Link to video of sermon: https://youtu.be/cWJ-KWHi8p8

“Do I have to love everyone?” A Valentine’s Day sermon by Rev. Douglas Taylor. Part I

Yes!

(Turn and walk away from pulpit as if sermon is over; turn back to pulpit and continue.)

“Do I have to love everyone?” A Valentine’s Day sermon by Rev. Taylor. Part II

Yes. Because love, love will keep us together; love is a many splendored thing; love makes the world go ‘round; all we need is love; and love hurts. And Valentine’s Day has come upon us as the ultimate Hallmark holiday celebrating this romantic fancy we call love. I read somewhere that roughly 145 million cards will be exchanged this coming February 14th. One could almost suggest that we as a culture are love-obsessed.

The origin of our modern Valentine’s Day comes from the Roman festival “Lupercalia,” a day in mid-February when each young man in town drew lottery for the name of the young woman who would become his ‘sexual companion’ for the next year.

Around 500 C.E. Pope Gelasive decided that was not a good custom and swapped the Lupercalia festival for the feast day of a minor Christian saint – a common practice used to win over the local pagans. So, instead of drawing the name of a young woman, the men were supposed to draw the name of a Christian saint whom they would emulate for the coming year. For the life of me I can’t imagine how the Christians were so successful using strategies such as this.

They must have been experts at the ‘hard-sell,’ especially considering the full legend of the saint the church chose to host the day!

St. Valentine was a priest in the third century (or maybe a composite of several priests.) The Emperor Claudius had outlawed marriage for young men because he instead wanted to conscript them into the military. The priest Valentine continued to marry young couples in secret. Discovered, he was sent to jail and sentenced to death for disobeying the emperor. The legend continues that he fell in love with the jailor’s daughter, and wrote her a note, signed “from Your Valentine”, prior to his beheading on February 14, 270 C.E. (From Rev. Debra Haffner)

Then, over 200 years later, this defiant priest who lost his life to help young lovers is enlisted to be the poster boy to reign in the promiscuous habits of young lovers!

And so, our modern Valentine’s Day has gravitated away from a day to emulate saints but not entirely back to the original pagan custom. Arguably we strive on this day to emulate St. Valentine, I suppose. It has settled into our culture as a day of rejoicing for Romantic Love. And we teach our children, as Blanchard demonstrated in our reading, that indeed we need to give a Valentine’s Day card to everyone. But is this suggesting that we are to affect a romantic love for everyone we know? That would be ridiculous. You don’t need a degree in the humanities to know what a disaster that would be! That can’t possibly be what is suggested.

Perhaps the word ‘love’ is too broad a word to use with the assumption of clarity. Love is a much misused and misunderstood word. A friend once suggested we ban the word from the pulpit because it has grown meaningless and impotent through excessive exhibition. Indeed this is a common practice among Unitarian Universalists it seems. Great words like God, Peace, and Love can be overused and misused and worn-out to the point of either cliché or idolatry. One remedy is to throw the word out for a while, let it cool off, then later pick it up again, dust it off and discover again its depth of power. So allow me to do some dusting.

What first excited me about preaching on the topic of Love again was a scientific article in the National Geographic from 15 years ago about the Biochemistry of love. (National Geographic, Feb 2006: pp 32-49.) The description reads, “Scientists are discovering that the cocktail of brain chemicals that sparks romance is totally different from the blend that fosters long-term attachment.” This is another area of study where the hard sciences of biology, chemistry and physics offer corroborating evidence for what the soft sciences of psychology, sociology, and anthropology have been saying for decades; and which theology and philosophy have been saying for centuries!

The article begins with the story of Anthropologist Helen Fisher who is “looking for love, quite literally, with the aid of an MRI machine.” She and her colleagues look for couples who have recently fallen in love, pop one of them into the MRI machine and show them a neutral photograph and then a photo of their sweetie. Then the scientists watch to see which parts of the brain light up! (For the record – that would be the ventral tegmental area and the Caudate nucleus.) They note that the ‘madly in love’ areas of the brain are linked with the reward centers and the pleasure centers – a lot of dopamine spreads from those spots. Thus, “falling” in love is like an exciting amusement park ride. But, be warned, the figurative rollercoaster can make you sick, same as the literal one!

Another break-through demonstrating this is found in the work of Donatella Marazziti, a professor of psychiatry from Italy. Professor Marazziti has been studying what she calls the biochemistry of lovesickness. Not surprisingly, she has found similarities in the serotonin neurotransmitters and the chemical profile of both love and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I can’t stop thinking about you; night and day, you are the one; only you can make my dreams come true; I’ll sleep on your door step all night and day, just to keep you from walking away. Yeah, having a crush on someone comes out your neurotransmitters like OCD.

So, that is interesting, but the best stuff comes later in the article. While novelty triggers dopamine in the brain and thus feelings of attraction, it is a different chemical entirely that stimulates attachment. “Oxytocin is the hormone that promotes a feeling of connection, bonding.” Oxytocin is released in abundance when a mother nurses her infant, when you give or receive a massage, and when a couple makes love. Attraction and attachment happen in different parts of the brain with different sets of hormones. The chemicals in the brain that conspire to bring you together are not the same ones that work to keep you together.

So far, this indicates there are at least two forms of love expressed in the biochemical levels of brain function. Typically a serious philosophical or theological exploration of different forms of Love will consider at least three forms of love. The three categories are typically developed to follow the three significant Greek words that are generally translated as love: Eros, Philia, and Agape.

Romantic or sexual love was called Eros; this is easily linked with the production of dopamine and serotonin. ‘Friendship’ in Modern Greek is Philia, which in Ancient Greek denoted a love for friends, family, and community distinguished by loyalty and familiarity. Certainly this sounds like the sort of bond-strengthening love that is associated with oxytocin production in the brain. Well, this leaves me wondering if they could find the biochemical signature of Agape love. Which neurotransmitters are firing in the Dali Lama’s brain or in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Brain? Which bio-chemicals flooded the brains of Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King Jr.?

Agape is a type of love where the object to be loved does not need to possess any particular qualities such as beauty or familiarity. It is unconditional love. The New Thayer’s Greek to English Lexicon of the New Testament describes Agape as: “to love, to be full of goodwill and exhibit the same; to have a preference for [and] regard for the welfare of others; of the benevolence which God in providing salvation for men, has exhibited by sending His Son to them and giving Him up to death; of the love which led Christ, in procuring human salvation to undergo sufferings and death”

When I was in seminary I had a Methodist professor of New Testament say to the class of mostly Christians that the difference between Unitarian Universalists and most Christians is that Christians focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection while UUs focus on Jesus’ life and teachings.

The teachings of Jesus, in particular the ethical sayings found in the Sermon on the Mount, have stirred the souls of Unitarian Universalists through the centuries. It is in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:43-48) that Jesus says to love your enemies. He asks “If you love only those who love you, what good is that?” The Greek word in these verses is Agape, not Eros or Philia. The most famous discourse on Agape love is found in Paul’s first letter to the congregation in Corinth. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude … It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” In this letter from Paul, the word he uses is Agape, the same word the gospel writer used in writing down Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Of course, Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Greek – so I can’t tell you that Jesus was steering at this particular interpretation of Love, only that the authors of the gospels intended us to see it as such. Though, in fairness to them, the context of Jesus’ words about loving our enemies does fit with the Greek concept of love as defined in the word Agape.

Agape love is not a feeling, it is a choice. Perhaps that is why we haven’t uncovered the biochemical signature of Agape love yet: it is a choice, a decision. If it were a feeling it would have a hormone linked to it. Instead it is a choice to be concerned for the well-being of others, to treat them with dignity and respect. A person may be difficult, obnoxious, and completely undeserving but you can still choose to offer this form of love to her or him by extending respect and a wish for that person’s well-being. With a modern global perspective, we might translate Agape using the Buddhist concept of loving-kindness. While loving-kindness is not quite synonymous with what Agape is meant to convey, they both carry the tone of unconditional regard.

And that, I believe, is the aspect of love that we are called to offer to everyone. Are there difficult people in your life? Are there folks you find “irritating, obnoxious, mean, aggravating, anxiety-producing, hostile, difficult, stupid, disturbing, or some alarming combination of the aforementioned attributes.”? (Blanchard.) Perhaps there are people from work or school or in your extended family you would fit in this category. Maybe there are certain politicians or celebrities for whom you’ve taken a particular distaste. Perhaps some of them are members of this congregation with you. Who would you balk at sending a Valentine’s card to? Do you hate anybody?

Our faith calls us to treat all people with compassion, to recognize the inherent dignity of each person, and to discern the ways in which our individual lives are interdependent with all life – including the life of that irritating, obnoxious, mean, aggravating, anxiety-producing, hostile, difficult, stupid, or disturbing person you have to deal with. This largely stems from our Universalist heritage that says we are all accepted, we are all loved – even the irritating, obnoxious, mean, aggravating, anxiety-producing, hostile, difficult, stupid, and/or disturbing people. Especially them, if for no other reason than that you may be one of them according to another person’s perspective.

Universalism since its inception has rejected not only the eternal punishment of hell, but also the reason for such a punishment in the first place: the concept of original sin. Hosea Ballou, an early leader in the Universalist denomination, said that the consequences of sin are manifest in this life alone; that “hell is not a place of punishment, but a state of rebellion against God and against the unity of humans and God.” (Robinson, David The Unitarians and the Universalists, p 65) The implication here is that we choose to make of life a heaven or hell. This is not exactly free will as the Unitarians would see it, but it does leave in the hands of humanity the capacity to respond to the love of God by loving one another or by making of this life a hell. We hold that power, and that responsibility!

When you withhold your Valentine from some people, you are in rebellion against the unity of humans and God; you are in rebellion against the interdependent web of existence; you are in rebellion against the nature of life; you are in rebellion against your better self – whatever theological framework you need me to set this in the outcome is still the same: Yes, you do have to love everyone. That’s part of the work. We have the capacity and the responsibility to respond to God’s love by loving one another. That is what life is all about: to further the human venture, to help each other and all life to become the beloved community.

So look through that list of names I know you’ve begun while I’ve been preaching. Make a choice. Find one that is really bugging you. Send them a Valentine’s card. Go ahead, give it a try. Take that step toward ushering in the beloved community.

In a world without end          

May it be so.

In Our Image We Create Them

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In Our Image We Create Them

July 18, 2021

Rev. Douglas Taylor

https://youtu.be/FfYJPQOIiLM

“God is queer”

The interviewer followed up, asking, “Would you care to elaborate on that?”

To which the person responded, “no.”

I looked all over the internet to find the source of this exchange. It would be good to provide a source for this quote; but alas, I have none. Instead, I will pick up the thread and offer an elaboration of my own. God is Queer. Let me explain.

First, let me acknowledge the word ‘queer.’ It may feel out of place to hear it in the pulpit, it may not. There was a time when it was used as an insult, as a slur against LGBTQ+ people. There was a time when it was not a kind term. You may remember such a time and find it jarring to hear me say it even though you know times have changed and our uses of words and language evolves. It has been a few decades now that the term queer has been used for self-identification. The way people are using the word queer to describe themselves is the way I am using the word to describe God.

God is not locked in a descriptive box or label. God does not always line up with our expectations. God is not what we would call normal or ordinary. God is changing from one day to the next and what we thought we knew about God last week may not be quite accurate anymore this week. That’s what it is like for people who identify as queer. That’s what it is like with my experience of God. God is queer.

I remember some radical conversations a few decades back asking what if God was a woman? Why were people always talking about God in the masculine? And it wasn’t just pronouns, it was the cultural valuing of men over women because God was a man, or at least that’s what we were reading in the books.

So, the Feminist Theology of the day said ‘Let’s do away with the he/him pronouns for God. Let’s say she/her instead.’ It was pretty cool. It was a way of reclaiming holiness for women. It was a way not only of challenging a theological idea, it also challenged cultural expectations and values of what it meant to be a man or a woman.

It was wild stuff to reject the masculine dominant version of the divine. Of course, I was in seminary around the end of the 90’s and feminist theologies had been raging for several decades by then. The conversations were not whispered by people in fringe groups. The conversations had arrived in the Mainline and middle-of-the-road communities. Feminist theology was respectable.

In fact, by the time I was paying attention in the late 1990’s, the conversation had begun to shift. Some people were still very strong advocates for using female pronouns for God. But I was not the only one at that time to refuse to ascribe masculine or feminine pronouns to the divine. I did not think of God as female any more than I thought of God as male. Putting a gender on God just did not fit my experience of the holy.

Early in my spiritual growth I decided God was non-binary, certainly in terms of gender and now that I consider it, likely in every other binary I could imagine. For such is life.

But let me drift, for a moment, into some interesting Biblical commentary. There is this moment in the Bible, right at the front in that first story, that has caused confusion and consternation to scholars throughout the ages. In that opening poem about creation, the one that happens over the course of seven days, there is a moment when the text has God say these words: “Let Us create humanity in Our image.” This is verse 26 of the first chapter of Genesis. In the very next verse, it says “So God created humanity in his own image.” The pronouns shift quickly back to the masculine singular, but for a brief moment God was plural.

There have been some interesting interpretations of this moment. If you were raised in a Christian church, you likely heard the interpretation that the ‘we’ is the trinity; that this is a hint way back at the beginning of Jesus. I don’t find this argument compelling. This bit of scriptural revisionism is untenable for anyone who will acknowledge Genesis as Jewish scripture instead of merely a pre-Christian text.

If you were raised in a Jewish community, you likely heard the interpretation that the ‘we’ is the celestial court of angels who accompany God in the creation of everything. This second explanation is also a little hard to take in given there is no mention of angels anywhere nearby this text.

A third possibility I’ve heard is the idea that God is using the ‘royal we’ that kings and queens will eventually start using around the late 12th century. This third option is only possible if you think God fancies themselves to be a 12th century European monarch. So, no.

A non-sensational option is that the author of this passage used the Hebrew word Elohim for the word God, which loosely translates to a generic role rather than a name or title – and according to the grammatical rules of that language, the 1st person plural pronouns were required; grammatically. I actually like this explanation best. The delightful stumbling block in this ancient text is not a hint or vague clue to doctrine and theology. It is a matter of little-known grammatical necessity.

Anyway, even though I am comfortable with the interpretation that says it’s a simple grammatical glitch, I can’t help but wonder about God’s pronouns. What if God is transgender and people just didn’t know how to talk about it back then? What is God is genderqueer and folks simply did not have words in the language at the time to say that?

Consider with me the context of this whole poem right at the top of the scroll of Genesis. The creation poem is filled with binaries and dualities. But when we really consider the world and how we experience it, these binaries are not as rigid as we think. Yes there is the binary of gender ‘male and female he created them,’ and I’ll get to that part in a minute. But first let me start with light.

And here I want to quote to you this elegant analysis by a non-binary Christian on Twitter named Michaela Nicola. https://wordsfrommichaela.blogspot.com/2021/06/a-little-reflection-on-genesis-1.html

God made “day and night.” this sounds like a binary, similar to “male and female,” right? but that isn’t quite all we experience in 24 hours. sunrises and sunsets do not fit into the binary of day or night. yet God paints the skies with these too.

On the second day God separated the sky from water. seems like another binary. yet the clouds hold water for us in the sky, the condensation and rain cycle refreshing our earth constantly. the sky, separate from water, contains and releases water.

God also said “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” that isn’t the full story, either. consider marshes, swamps, bogs, and fens. not fully land, not fully waters. there is such glorious variety in God’s creation.

That’s pretty cool, yes? Our experiences of the world reveal such binaries and divisions to always have blurring and blending at what some think of as the edges. But what if those are not the edges? What if the words we’ve been using to describe our experiences were simply the best words we could find at the time? What if those lines we drew were just our attempts at understanding, at figuring this all out?

I have found that’s what it’s like for everything. We draw a line between land and water. There is either land or there is water – and yet, as Michaela Nicola put it “That isn’t the full story… consider marshes, swamps, bogs, and fens.” Nicola continues to reveal the binaries of that creation poem. The creation of the sun and the moon are written as if they are a binary, when in truth they are merely the closest bright objects in a vast multitude of “planets, asteroids, black holes, supernovae.”  They continue to unpack the next days of creation with the creatures of the sea and winged birds of the air. To which Michaela directs our attention to the reality of the penguin; “definitely a “winged bird,” they write but do not fly and instead walk and swim.”

I love that they mention penguins. I love penguins. Consider all the other flightless birds and all the diving birds. Consider the amphibians and those creatures that transform from land to air like a caterpillar to butterfly. These are not exceptions and anomalies. We live in the blended experience of these so-called binaries. We are not limited by them.

So, when we come into this conversation of gender non-binary, of trans and queer people – how can we refuse to see this blending and blurring of this binary! The world is bursting with examples of how this works.

“Male and female he created them.” Sure, that’s what it says. But we live in a world of sunsets and penguins. How can we pretend God is so creatively limited as to not allow a profusion of ways to be people in this glorious world?

Michaela Nicola wrote their post to honor God and to honor those people who don’t fit into the boxes of “male” or “female.” It just means there is more to the story. They conclude saying: “and so we worship the God of more. The God of the marsh, the penguin, the God of the sunrise, the cloud, the supernovae. The God of the nonbinary.” 

Nicola names God as “God of the nonbinary.” And I work my way through this argument to say that God is nonbinary. God is love, and is in all things. God must be queer. I know that small textual curiosity in Genesis where God uses ‘we/us’ pronouns is not God revealing their non-binary status. I know. But I still believe that the rest of the story points toward a God not contained by either/or binaries.

Scripture is a form of seeking. What we have in this Good Book is the earnest efforts of people seeking to understand the worthy mysteries of God and life and our wonderous experiences of the universe. It is not a book of answers. It is a book of seeking. We are all just trying to figure this out. And life does not line up evenly. How can we conceive of a God that lines up evenly when most things in creation do not? When things that do line up evenly are considered note-worthy rather than normal?

And when we give such value to God, we will, by extension, give such value to people who live in the blurring and blending of the binaries such as gender. All of creation sings of this blending. If you don’t feel like you fit – consider the sunrise and the beauty of that blending. You are beautiful, you are part of God’s love.

As my colleague Rev. Leslie Takahashi wrote in our reading for today,

The day is coming when we will all know that the rainbow world is more gorgeous than monochrome. That a river of identities can ebb and flow over the static stubborn rocks in its course. That the margins hold the center.

Following this wisdom, I say God is in that river with us, ebbing and flowing over the stubborn rocks of ignorance, injustice and exclusion. I say, God is in the margin; God is in the rainbow and the supernovae, God is queer. And everyone is included. If you think you don’t fit, if you have been told you are not right – hear me when I say, you are included and God’s love is not bound by our small boxes and expectations.

Let us all learn to love the blended beauty beyond the binary

In a world without end,

May it be so