Something seems wrong
When the words won’t flow
With the force of a waterfall
There is cause for fear
When old faithful fails
And there is no release.
The waters churn
The ocean rolls
The spirit tries
The spirit yearns
The earth it slowly turns
Until patience brings
An unexpected delight
Love is more
Than a valentine
A sunset beach
Or a fancy meal
Love is more than
Than a roaring fire
On a snowy night
Or dreams of sweet delight
Love runs deep
Flows on and on
It lives in all we do
Washing the dishes
Raking the leaves
Tending the children
We sing a song
Hearing our days drift by
We pray that love
Will grow and spread
To wrap the world around
Feeding the hungry
Caring for the sick
Healing the earth
The work of love
Is what we all must do
We talk about love a lot here. A big banner outside of this hall proclaims that we are standing on the side of love. It is how we describe our national social justice work for immigration, for racial justice and for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights. Love is part of our tradition. It is the doctrine of our church. Our Universalist ancestors believed in a loving God, one that would condemn no one to hell, no matter what they believed or did not believe and no matter what they did or did not do.
But what is this love we talk about? That is a complicated question. Most of you know by now that this fellowship is not a place to come if you are looking for easy answers.
We are doing some songs about love today. Some of you likely remember the Frank Sinatra song about love being a many splendored thing. We aren’t doing that one today, but it goes…
“It’s the April rose that only grows in the early spring. Love is nature’s way of giving a reason to be living.”
The Greeks, who were quite excellent at philosophy, broke love down into four different types: Eros, a passionate and intense love that arouses romantic feelings,
Storge, (store gay) which is family or brotherly love, something you might feel for your children or your very best friend, Phileo, is the affection you feel for the people you like, and last, but not least, there is Agape, (ah gah pee) which is love in the verb form, an unconditional love that requires action.
The Greeks distinguished their forms of love not only by the qualities of the different types of love they were defining, but also about where that love was directed: to a lover, a family member, a friend, or to the world.
What they left out was love of self, which is an odd and significant omission I think. I have no clue as to why, except maybe it was just assumed that people love themselves. The Greeks were much less guilt ridden and prone to self-esteem issues than are people in our modern culture.
It is very difficult to love anyone else if you don’t love and respect yourself. Can we apply all four of the Greek forms of love to ourselves? Can we like ourselves as in Phileo? Other people like us, so it shouldn’t be that hard for us to like ourselves as well. Can we love ourselves like a close family member? After all, we know ourselves better than we know anyone else. I also don’t think there is anything wrong with self-love in terms of Eros. We are all sexual beings; passion is part of our nature.
Loving yourself, satisfying yourself sexually, is not a sin.
For me, a sin is something that actually causes harm, not just something that someone says you shouldn’t do.
And then there is Agape, love as a verb, love as unconditional. Agape love directed inward is a form of radical self-acceptance. It drives us toward spiritual health, and moves us to make the changes in our own lives that allow us to focus that Agape love on other people and on the planet.
And it is agape love that helps us love our neighbor, and we know that everyone on this planet is our neighbor. Agape also helps us feel love toward people we don’t like, and even toward our enemies. Both of those can be difficult, and it is important to remember that it is fine to set boundaries. Spiritual maturity can even mean that you decide not to be around people whose behavior is harmful to you or others. You can love them but you can also set limits on your interactions with them. Communities, and even churches, can also define what is acceptable behavior and what is not. That can be confusing in a liberal faith such as ours. We don’t judge people for who they are or who they love, and we say we welcome everyone, but we also don’t want to let pedophiles near our children. We don’t think it is ok to steal from the offering plate or another member’s wallet. We don’t think it OK to spread malicious gossip or to demonize other people.
Let me repeat that. It is not OK to demonize other people, even when their actions are really offensive. It is hard to do that when you are hurting. It can be hard not to see the other to a conflict as having purely evil intentions.
But love calls us to see that differently, to remember that everyone has pain, and that most of the time, unpleasant or even evil behavior comes from that pain. Abusers have often been abused themselves. Limits and boundaries are important ways that can help us still feel some love and compassion, even for those who behave very badly.
Healing, reconciliation, restoration, is always possible. The God imagined by the Universalists loved everyone and they believed that everyone would eventually find salvation in that holy love.
So what do you think love is? Do you think it can be divided into categories like the Greeks did?
Some quotes about love:
Rita Mae Brown: “Sorrow is how we learn to love. Your heart isn’t breaking. It hurts because it’s getting larger. The larger it gets, the more love it holds.”
Marianne Williamson:”Love is what we are born with. Fear is what we learn. The spiritual journey is the unlearning of fear and prejudices and the acceptance of love back in our hearts. Love is the essential reality and our purpose on earth.
Lord Byron: “There are four questions of value in life: What is sacred? Of what is the spirit made? What is worth living for and what is worth dying for? The answer to each is the same. Only love.”
Everyone, it seems, has something to say about love. The minister who officiated at my wedding asked both Anne and I what we had learned about love what was then our 39 years together. This is what I wrote:
“What I have learned about love is this: it doesn’t come easy. It isn’t a happily ever after riding into the sunset with a prince or princess by your side. Soul mates aren’t magic mirrors reflecting back how you want to see yourself or them. Reach through the mirror, pay attention to the cracks. They are how the love – and light gets in. Leonard Cohen taught me a lot with that line. You aren’t royalty either, just a frog like other frogs. Life is the swamp can be lovely though. It is not necessary to sing every song in tune or dance in time with a perfect rhythm.
Marriage means so much more if you have been engaged for decades.
I know this from experience. Because engagement is the thing, one of them, that can make a marriage, a partnership work. Be real and honest and yourself. Listen carefully. Pay attention. Hold your lover’s hand, but don’t hold them back, and try to catch them when they fall. You will stumble too. Stay engaged even after you are married. I think that might be the key. In any case be grateful. If someone really loves you, it is a miracle
Love, like justice, does not come easy, but with enough grace, with enough effort, it comes. Engagement is the key, in marriage, in justice work, and in congregational life.
After the wedding reception, our daughter gave a toast that expressed what she had learned from Anne and I about love. It really moved me, and I am going to read part of it for you.
“Some of you might know that last summer, I hiked the John Muir Trail. It’s a backcountry trail that runs 218 miles from Yosemite, over 8 mountain passes to Mt. Whitney, all in the backcountry. This is something I would never have considered if not for the wonderful summers my mothers spent taking the three of us camping in Yosemite, in Yellowstone, in Glacier national parks.
One of the things I was thinking about as I was hiking, was my moms. I had called them from an outpost a week into the hike, and they told me that they had been officially married in California.
It’s good I had my moms to think about because while the trail was beautiful, actually hiking it was also the hardest thing I have ever done.
My backpack was too heavy; it weighed 45 pounds. I had to clamber up these endless 10-mile inclines, up thousands of feet in elevation, to get to each peak. And then I had to do it all over again. Those climbs were absolutely horrible.
But then, I’d get to the top.
And the top was unfailingly the most beautiful place I’d ever been, each peak more breathtaking than the last. There were turquoise alpine lakes, wildflowers, and snowcapped peaks, the whole world spread out below your feet.
And I realized, this is what I know about love. And I learned it from my moms. It is hard sometimes. It can be horrible. There are endless switchbacks and sometimes you don’t know if they’ll end, you’re not sure if you’ll make it to the top.
But you keep working at it, you put your head down and put one foot in front of the other and you make it to the top. And at the top is the most beautiful place you’ve ever been.
And then you do it all over again.
Her words made me cry when I heard them, and they still make me a bit teary-eyed.
All of us here have known many hard times over the years. This congregation has also suffered some hard times. There has been conflict and there has been grief. Life can be like that. But even in the midst of pain, we know that life is better because of love. Love can make life better.
I want to end this sermon with some words paraphrased from 1 John 4.
Let us love one another, because love is from God.
No one has ever seen God, if we love one another, God lives in us.
Those who say “I love God” and hate their brothers and sisters are liars, for those who do not love a brother or sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.
God is love, love is God. It is all we need.
Namaste my friends, Namaste.
How many of you have seen or read, “The Hunger Games”? Quite a few of you have, I see. I haven’t read the book yet, and probably won’t go to see any of the movies. I get a large enough dose of violence just reading about world events. Watching violence on the big screen just freaks me out.
But from what I have learned from reading about it, the hunger games are very deadly.
So, unfortunately, are many of the gender games we play.
It is much more than just stunting the potential of more than half of our population. We do that when we limit the possibilities and career paths open to girls. We are still guiding them mostly toward the caregiving roles. We are also stunting the emotional growth and the career possibilities for our boys, trapping them in the stereotypes of what it means to be a man.
That is deadly enough because it means that we are killing people’s spirits by not allowing them to flourish into their own individuality, with their own unique gifts. It is a huge loss for the person and a huge loss for the world.
The rules of the gender games are enforced primarily by social pressure. If someone really breaks the rules, however, the penalty can be not only violence, but too often it is death.
When Malaya Yousafzai broke the rules in her native land of Pakistan by trying to get an education, an attempt was made on her life. That young girl’s courage and persistence should inspire us all.
How much would you risk to get an education? How much would you risk to be what your culture tells you is not only impossible but wrong?
Every year, on November 20th a day is set aside internationally to remember those who have been killed in the last year because of their gender identity. Transgender Remembrance Day reminds us that Pakistan is not the only country where the penalty for breaking gender rules is violence and death.
For many years, I have held either an evening service on that day, or addressed the issue during a Sunday Service. We missed it this year here at the fellowship; there were just too many other things going on at the same time.
Part of the format of a Transgender Day of Remembrance service is to read the list of names of those people who have been killed in the last year. It is always a partial list. It also includes only those who have been murdered, not those who took their own lives.
I want to lift up the story of one young person who died by suicide on December 28 of this year.
Leelah Alcorn was born Joshua Ryan Alcorn on November 15, 1997
Alcorn was raised in a conservative Christian household in Ohio. At age 14, she came out as trans to her parents, Carla and Doug Alcorn, who refused to accept her gender identity. When she was 16, they denied her request to undergo transition treatment, instead sending her to Christian conversion therapy with the intention of convincing her to reject her gender identity and accept her gender as assigned at birth. After she revealed her attraction toward males to her classmates, her parents removed her from school and revoked her access to social media. In her suicide note, Alcorn cited loneliness and alienation as key reasons for her decision to end her life and blamed her parents for causing these feelings. She committed suicide by walking out in front of oncoming traffic on the Interstate 71 highway.
Alcorn arranged for her suicide note to be posted online several hours after her death, and it soon attracted international attention across mainstream and social media. (info on Leelah Alcorn from wikipedia)
Dominic wrote an original song about Leelah, which he will sing during the offering.
Leelah was a victim of our static gender roles no less so that those who have been murdered by direct violence. She broke the rules by not living within the cultural norms of how women and men should be.
Those norms are maintained by violence, and people who appear to be transgender bare the brunt of that violence.
As horrible as these crimes are, it is important to understand that that they are not isolated aberrations. They are not simply crimes committed by warped individuals. They are part of the gender system. It is hard to call it a game because it is so deadly, but they are only the most obvious means of social control and punishment for when you break the gender rules.
You know this. How many of the men here have been called a sissy when you were young simply because you dared to shed a tear or two? How many of you were beaten up or called a faggot because you were lousy at sports?
Girls are called dykes if they are too assertive. If they are brave, they are told they have balls.
It is crazy. It is mean. It does damage to people’s souls and their sense of wholeness and worth.
It is where a lot of homophobia comes from I think. If gay people have all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities that heterosexuals do, then what will we threaten our children with if they want to do something that is out of the norm for their gender?
Telling a child that they “must be gay,” loses all of its negative punch if it is no big deal to be gay.
There may be some natural differences between the genders. Anne and I have three children. One of our sons is an accountant and the other is a chemist.
Our daughter has been a special education teacher and she is now working for an educational non-profit. They all seem well suited as individuals for what they are doing, even though they have chosen careers that match the stereotypical gender roles in our culture.
Our children should be able to choose the lives they want for themselves, but we have to make sure that they are real choices, not just the results of the limitations imposed upon them because of their gender. We always told our kids that they could choose to be and do whatever they wanted. There was no guarantee of success, but ours was definitely a family that did not have specific gender roles that they felt compelled to follow.
Which is why the legalization and acceptance of same gender marriage really is a threat to traditional marriage. It isn’t a threat to heterosexual marriage at all, but it does directly challenge traditional gender roles. Guess what, though, all you straight couples who try and equalize the power dynamics within your relationships, you too are a threat to traditional marriage.
Congratulations! It is work well worth doing for your daughters and for your sons.
But let me go back to the issue of violence for a minute. The violence against people who are transgender is the most extreme example of punishment for breaking the gender rules. Anti-gay violence is another.
We also have sexual violence, usually used against women and girls, but sometimes against men as well. Some have referred to it as a culture of rape. Women and even young girls are sexualized to the extent that their bodies are seen as primarily objects of sexual desire. Fashion and popular culture play into it. Girls are cautioned not to go out at night unless they are in a large group or have a male escort. The risk of assault and rape is high, so it is understandable that parents offer this advice. The fear of rape limits the choices of women. It too is a form of social control based on violence or the threat of violence. The killings in Santa Barbara last year were only an extreme example of why women (#yesallwomen) too often live in fear.
Let me share some statistics:
Average number of rape cases reported in the US annually 89,000
Percent of women who experienced an attempted or completed rape 16%
Percent of men who experienced an attempted or completed rape 3%
Percent of victims raped by a friend or acquaintance 38%
Percent raped by a stranger 26%
And perhaps the scariest statistic of all:
Percent of rapes that are never reported to authorities 60%
That is a truly horrifying number. All the numbers are disturbing because violence is disturbing, but why are so few rapes reported?
If someone is robbed or their home is burglarized, it is almost always going to be reported to the police. People are not afraid of admitting that their wallet was stolen. They know that no one will say it was their own fault. No one will consider them “damaged goods.”
So we have the violence of rape, coupled with the social stigma that, in some circles at least, becomes attached to the victim. No wonder young women are afraid to go out alone at night. No wonder some boys learn that they don’t have to take no for an answer.
But some young women do go out at night. Some, like Malaya dare to learn what girls are not supposed to learn. Some young men learn that no means no and that the freely given love and respect of an equal is so much sweeter than anything they can demand or try to force.
The gender games don’t have to be so violent. We all really can be just who we are, respected and treasured. We need to recognize the courage of those who dare to live authentic lives. I am so proud of and grateful for the openly transgender people who are a part of this community.
They are heroes who refuse to play the gender game by someone else’s rules.
In my sermon blurb describing this service, I said there were theological issues about this topic.
You will discover, if you haven’t already, that I think there are always theological issues. Defining God as male is a problem. It is also not an accident that the religious institutions that refuse to ordain women are also the most homophobic and trans-phobic. If you need examples, think of the Southern Baptists, the Missouri Synod Lutherans, the LDS church and the Catholic Church. Think of all but the most liberal of the many Muslim groups. The rules of the gender game were written by these conservative faiths so unlike our own.
Our Universalist ancestors believed God loved everyone, no exceptions. Our Unitarian ancestors believed that every human being had the potential within them to be divine.
Holly Near wrote a song that has the words:
“Something changes in me when I witness someone’s courage. Something changes in me anytime there’s someone standing. For the right to be completely all the good things that we are
Do not forget the children, they are singers in the storm
And when their hearts are threatened, well a fire is bound to start. It wakes us up at midnight, we feel an ancient pain
And I do believe that loves directs the flame”
May we let love direct our own flames. May we let its bright light shine upon the gender games and help us know we can play by healthier and happier rules. Blessed Be