Arms Grown Strong with Love

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, February 4, 2018.

You know that saying about Inuit people having many different words for snow, to describe the different kinds of that frozen stuff—dry and fluffy, hard and icy, heavy and hard to shovel? Why don’t we have multiple words for love?

The ancient Greeks did. They had four different words for love: storge, philia, eros, and agape. Eros is the love that romantic movies get made about, the hot passion that makes one’s heart go all a-flutter.

Philia is love among equals, is loyalty to friends, family and community. Philia is based on equality and familiarity. Philia can also be what happens to a couple when eros has run its course—it’s a love that burns with less heat, but more steadfastness.

Storge is the kind of love that exists between parents and children, it’s the affection family members have for one another. You know, someone you’re related to may drive you crazy at times, but you still will take them in. The love one feels for their county, or for their favorite sports team (Go Patriots!), this also falls under the category of storge.

Agape is a charitable love; it’s seen as a holy love—the love God has for us, and the love we are meant to have for God and one another. When Paul talks about love in his first letter to the Corinthians, he uses the word agape for love which “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

We have these different kinds of love: romantic love, loyal love, family love, and self-sacrificing love. And these aren’t distinct categories; they overlap one another. I’m not suggesting we start using the Greek words. But love is such a big and broad word; it may help for us to be particular about what we mean when we say it.

When we gather here on Sunday, and say together, “Love is the doctrine of this church,” we’re not saying this church is a dating site, right? Though sometimes people do meet one another here, and that’s great! If this church somehow helps you to have a richer love relationship, that’s wonderful—but no one has ever told me, “Our relationship was getting kind of stale, but then we started coming to church, and… whoa!” I guess it’s possible, I just haven’t seen any evidence of that.

Doctrine is a set of beliefs, an organizing principle, the rock on which you stand. And here we say that rock, that foundation, is love. We don’t say it’s the stories of the past, as good and important as they are. We don’t say it’s a set of rules or guidelines, though we have some of those. We say love is our doctrine. Like the quest for truth and seeing service as our prayer, saying love is our doctrine means that what we do, and how we act, how we are in relationship with one another and the wider world, that is what this church is built on.

So what does it mean to ground ourselves in love? I believe it means, that even if someone came in here today wearing a Philadelphia Eagles jersey, that you would welcome them. Right? It means that you are mindful of holding open a space for new folks here. Like last Sunday, when two of you came and lit candles and said how glad you were that these new members had cast their lot with ours. Even more important, if love is our doctrine, you seek out and go up to those new folks, and other newcomers here. Even when you might be looking forward to catching up with an old friend, the call to love asks you to make space for the person who is here, seeking connection too.

Or perhaps you get up your courage and approach someone, a friend or family member you’ve argued with in the past; you smile and ask how they are. You choose to not respond in anger when someone cuts you off in traffic. Who knows, maybe they are on the way to a funeral, you think, or maybe their spouse is about to have a baby and they are trying to get there. So you say a silent prayer for them, rather than flipping them off.

To act in love is to see that we are connected in spite of the surface things that could separate us. To act from a place of love is to not let past slights or arguments keep us apart. And this can be hard—it’s easier to gather with people we think are like ourselves, and cut ourselves off from opportunities to connect and learn and grow. But when you ground yourself in love, you understand there’s always this invitation to be opening your heart wider, and your arms wider, saying, “Yes, I will love you even when it hurts and when I’m disappointed and though I will do it imperfectly, I will try to love even more.”

And if love is our doctrine, if we really mean this, then we are taking it out into the world. Some of you got up early on Friday and braved the traffic and the cold to stand with Haverhill resident Jacob Leonce, who was turning himself into immigration officials in Burlington, about to be deported, separated from his wife and children. You were saying, “This is not right—breaking up families is not an American value.” And your presence there must have helped, because ICE officials gave Jacob his passport back, and allowed him to go home with his family for the weekend at least, thought they still plan to deport him tomorrow.

It’s one thing to love those it’s easy to love. It’s another thing to love strangers and to act from a place of love when we are anxious or afraid. But that’s what the call to love is really about. And it’s hard sometimes. It’s something we need to practice, if we want to get better at it.

I started divinity school on September 11, 2001. It was an intense beginning. The events of that day, and the days the followed, reminded us that the stakes are high. That people can do hateful and terrible things in the name of religion, and that people often don’t respond well under pressure or when threatened.

You remember those days. Our nation was attacked by a small group of zealots who were willing to die for their cause. Thousands of peace-loving people went off to work on that sunny September day, but never came home. This country entered a time when dissent was seen as unpatriotic; when civil liberties were set aside. People were arrested because of what they looked like; hate crimes against Muslim Americans went up. Our nation struck back with incredible force, even thought we weren’t exactly sure who to strike, or where. 

When my class finished our three-year program, our professors gave us signed note cards that pointed back to that first day we were together. On the front was an illustration and words from artist Brian Andreas, which I put at the top of today’s order of service. He created this art to remember those who died on September 11, to honor all who came to help. He wrote these words as a call to us, to remember who we are:

In those days, we finally chose to walk like giants
and hold the world in arms grown strong with love
and there may be many things we forget in the days to come
but this will not be one of them.

You could say that we haven’t done a very good job of living up to this call, to hold the world in arms grown strong with love. That too often, as individuals and as a nation, we have chosen to act from a place of fear rather than from a place of love.

But the call remains. To hold the world in arms grown strong with love. To practice loving our neighbors, and even our enemies. And when we fail, when we fall down, to get up and ask for help and try again. To build these muscles we have been given for loving—reaching out, opening our minds and our hearts, again and again.

This is the choice that lies before us—to choose love, when it would be easier to choose hate or fear or indifference. To trust that love is stronger than anything else. To trust that this is what we are made for.

One evening last June, eighteen hours after an armed man killed 49 people dancing at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Lin-Manuel Miranda took to the stage to receive a Tony Award. His voice breaking with emotion, he spoke a sonnet he’d written as testimony to the fragility of life and to the power of love, in the face of everything that stands agains love. He said

…senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day.
This show is proof that history remembers
We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;
We rise and fall and light from dying embers, 
Remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love
Cannot be killed or swept aside…

This is our calling, to have this faith, and to keep on loving, especially when it’s hard. Because it’s necessary. Because it’s needed. Because it’s who we are. And who we aspire to be.