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Sermons at First Parish Church

A Tender Teaching

Sunday, September 17, 2017
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton

Social activist and one of the founders of the Catholic Worker’s Movement, Dorothy Day, wrote these words, “I really only love God as much as the person I love the least.” I first saw the quote on Facebook this summer and I immediately thought, “Oh I hate that!” I started internally arguing with the statement right away. I got defensive about it just privately, thinking, “Well, I don’t really agree with that, I’m not even sure that is good theology and a person could just as easily say I love God as much as the person I love the most.” But something in that quote touched me deeply and made me deeply uncomfortable, especially since I know a little about Dorothy Day’s work in the 1930s, living with and serving people who were homeless and desperately poor in New York City in the hospitality houses she helped create.

Because the idea made me uncomfortable, I most definitely did not cut and paste that quote or look it up or do a search on Dorothy Day or on “loving God but not other people” or anything else to change the algorithms of Facebook. And yet that Dorothy Day quote kept showing up. It has been showing up all summer — in my Facebook newsfeed, re-posted by Sojourner or On Being by Krista Tippett or other spiritual organizations and writers whose work I follow. When I finally said to myself, “Okay, fine, I will look at it,” and went to search the phrase, I just had to type the words “I really only love…” into the Google search bar and Google finished the rest, as if it had just been waiting for me to look it up. Unfortunately, this is the way it usually is when I need to work on something. Life is not a subtle teacher for some of us.

I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least. I am wrestling with it, struggling with this idea, which in my heart rings so true it resonates like a bell to me, as much as I don’t like it, and I don’t want it to. We really only love God as much as the person we love the least. I am asking you to wrestle with it too, to wrestle with me about what it means to love as an act of faith, love as part of our faith.

I know for some the idea of loving God in the first place does not feel entirely relevant but the phrase translates in all sorts of ways, all of them just as challenging and difficult as the original: I really only love humanity as much as the person I love the least. I really only love the world as much as the person I love the least. I really only love myself as much as the person I love the least. I really only care as much as the person I least care for. Could it be true that the depth of our compassion, our empathy, our generosity is most honestly measured not in its deepest places, the places where it is easy for us, and love flows freely, but in the shallowest places, the driest parts? Who do we struggle most to love? From whom do we withhold compassion? Who do we keep in that stark place in our hearts where there is little or no forgiveness or even trying to understand? Who have we cut off from our kindness? Why do we do that? What does it mean about who we are and what we believe in? I don’t like these questions at all. And I think they are very important.

This year in church I will be preaching a lot about the theology of social justice. The leadership board and worship committee and I all believe we need to understand this better. Why is social justice part of our religion? Why is justice a faith issue, a moral issue, an ethical issue for us? What does justice even mean and what does it ask of us? Why do we collect school supplies for kids in a shelter in Lowell as part of church? Why do we ask you for money to send to hurricane recovery funds? Why do so many of you go to prisons on weekends to spend time with those who are incarcerated? Why have you signed up for classes to learn about white privilege and racism and systems of inequality and oppression? Why do we do this here, in a faith community? To understand this better we need to go back to some of the very basics of who we are as a community of faith. What do we believe in? What are the purposes and principles and how do they guide us — what do they tell us about what justice means and what we are supposed to be doing about it? How do we decide what causes or issues are most important? What do we choose? And what happens when we disagree? Where are the limits? Are there limits? How will we know? How do we do social justice as faith? Does that mean doing more? Doing it differently? How do we go deeper, become more mature, more inclusive, more courageous?

After 17 years as your minister I feel like I can tell you the truth — I don’t have the answers to any of these questions, which makes me a little nervous. I don’t know where these questions will lead us. I have not studied this in advance. In general, ministers are taught that it is not a great idea to preach about things you don’t understand. And if we as ministers, as leaders, feel confused or conflicted or ambivalent or unsure, wait until the way is clear before trying to lead a congregation in that direction. I’m not doing that. I am not doing that because I think we need to learn this together, to wrestle with it together. And I believe that together our discernment and wisdom is far more trustworthy than mine could ever be alone.

One thing I do know is that social justice is absolutely related to love. Justice and love are not separate. Cornel West says “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Justice is love made visible, love made real, love writ large in the world. And one thing I believe for certain is that there is a love holding all of us, without exception, a love deeper and vaster than our capacity to imagine in which all of us are held. And this love insists that we belong to each other, even when we don’t want to. This love insists we cannot dehumanize one another, we cannot use hatred as a tool even to fight hatred.

I also believe that our faith calls us to love. Our guiding principles begin with our commitment to the inherent worth and dignity in every person. Our Universalist heritage gives us the legacy of universal salvation, no one being damned, a god of endless love and mercy who includes every single person in that mercy no matter what, no exceptions — not because people deserve it but because that is the nature of the universe. And our work, as people of faith, is to practice that love, right here, starting with the actual people around us.

It is hard work and we are not experts; we are still learning; some of us are beginners and the lessons seem to go very slowly and this is fine. As my colleague Gretchen Haley writes:

Every piece of ourselves,
every part of this earth, this life, this new day
reminds us
how we are all still learning
still studying
with more or less seriousness
the beauty and hope of this life
still refusing to concede the right
to practice joy in the face of loss
laughter in the midst of grief
surrender even while we are afraid.
It is a tender teaching we are after --
an opening of the human heart
that we might love more of this world,
and then still more.

3 Powderhouse Road … Groton, MA 01450-4700 … 978-448-6307 …   …  

Most recently updated 2017-09-27