At the Center of Things

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, February 11, 2018

“Though I may speak with bravest fire, and have the gift to all inspire, 
and have not love, my words are vain, as sounding brass, and hopeless gain.

Or as Paul put it, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” 

Where does love come from? Are we born with it? Or do we have to seek it and find it?

Some of us grew up with some amount of unconditional love. And if there is a gift every child should receive, this is it. The sense that you are loved, and lovable, just as you are. That you don’t have to do anything to earn or deserve that love. 

But even if you grew up with some of this love, my guess is that you still have to learn to trust in it, because we receive so many messages that tell us otherwise. And what if you didn’t grow up with that foundation of unconditional love? What if you were taught, at home and in church, that love has to be earned and deserved, that it’s only given out to sparingly? 

I think of those lines from Marianne Williamson about trusting the light that’s in us. She says, “We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us, it is in everyone…” The question is, do you believe that? Can you trust in that?

Most of us got mixed messages about love. And too often, the church didn’t help! So if you are still working on and working out this idea that you are loved just as you are, then take heart, you’re in good company. And I don’t think it’s a one-time thing. It’s a lesson that we have to learn, and remember, over and over. At least that’s true for me. 

One of my spiritual heroes is Kathleen Norris, who, like many of us, drifted away from church because it didn’t square with her adult view of the world. But then she made her way back to faith; to a new and deeper understanding of these truths. She’d tell you this took a lot of time and effort, and it was worth it.

“Not long ago,” she writes, “I was asked by a college student how I could stand to go to church, how I could stand the hypocrisy of Christians. I had one of my rare inspirations, when I knew the right thing to say, and I replied, ‘The only hypocrite I have to worry about on Sunday morning is myself.’”

She says we tend to forget that worship is not primarily a gathering of the like-minded, but rather, in the words of Margaret Miles, a gathering of people “to be with one another in the acknowledgement that human existence originates in and is drawn towards love.”

Kathleen Norris says, “Even when I find church boring, I try to hold this in mind as a possibility: like all the other fools who have dragged themselves to church on Sunday morning, including the pastor, I am there because I need to be reminded that love can be at the center of things, if only we will keep it there.”

If you are anything like me, you come to church because you need to be reminded of this possibility, that love can be at the center of things, and that life is good. That we can orient ourselves toward love, the way a compass needle swings back to north. If you are like me, you need to be reminded that there is love and goodness in us, and in the world. 

When I bless or baptize a child here, I put my hand on their forehead and say, “Know that you are beloved on this earth.” Who among us couldn’t use that blessing every now and then? “Know that you are beloved on this earth.” 

You heard this in the story I told our children this morning, about the prodigal son. This story Jesus told to show what God’s love is like. That no matter what we do, or how far we wander, or what mistakes we make, God is always waiting for us, is always longing for us, to be like the prodigal son, to come to our senses and come home. That God is less like a judge or an angry king, and more like a mother, longing for her child to come home. 

Isn’t this why, no matter how often we hear them, Paul’s words on love (1 Corinthians 13) can move us so? Because they touch something deep within us, because they resonate with the core of our being? Because this is who we are, and how we are meant to live.

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

Our society and our human egos say we should put ourselves at the center; should look out for number one. And then we wonder why we feel disconnected and adrift, why life seems to have lost its meaning and purpose. It’s because we need to orient ourselves toward something larger and longer-lasting than our own immediate needs. Because if we put ourselves at the center, that throws things out of balance. We need something bigger, something more at the center. Like at the ending of the movie Casablanca, when Rick says to Ilsa, “I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” 

Please don’t hear me as saying that you shouldn’t practice good self-care, shouldn’t get enough rest and exercise, shouldn’t do what you can to tend your own soul. You need to love and care for yourself, if you’re going to be of use to others.

Please don’t hear me as saying, the ego is bad and we ought to be hanging our heads, and apologizing for who we are, and hiding our light under a basket. No! Let’s affirm that we come into this world with what Matthew Fox calls “original blessing,” and that we are meant to live as fully as we can, to develop our talents and gifts. We are here to let our light shine, to share the love we have known, to help bring more love into this beautiful and broken world. The second century saint Irenaeus understood this; he said, “The glory of God is a human fully alive.” When you put love at the center, when you realize it isn’t all up to you, but that you do have a vital part to play, then doesn’t that help you to be more fully alive?

The dancer Martha Graham says, “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. It is not your job to determine how good it is or how it compares to anyone else. It is only your job to keep the channel open.”

We are here to remember that we are part of a great Love. It is our job to trust that. to know it and feel it deep in our bones, and let that knowledge—that we are loved already! that we don’t have to do anything to earn that love!—to let it inspire us, to be conduits of that Love. To share it widely and wildly. 

Do you know what the word “prodigal” means? It means “spending freely and recklessly, giving extravagantly.” In the parable of the prodigal son, it’s the parent in the story, who welcomes his wandering child home with open arms, who is the true prodigal, because of how he gives his love freely, without counting the cost. And Jesus said this is what God’s love is like.

So please, know that you are beloved on this earth. And if you ever forget this, wander over and take a look at those two windows that our forebears installed here. That they put here to remind us, down through the ages, that this Love, freely given and meant to be freely shared, is at the center of our faith. That we are here to keep love at the center of it all. 

“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Now and forever,