What About When You Run Out Of Sermons On Love?

What About When You Run Out Of Sermons On Love? February 5, 2024

Death and the Preacher
Hans Holbein
16th century

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A colleague of mine has just retired as a Unitarian Universalist parish minister.  He had what some would call a storied career, serving our denomination at every level. Me, I personally consider him a good friend, as well as just being a wise and generous human being.

What people today mostly wouldn’t know is that he had a rocky start into ministry. Toward the end of seminary, he had a rough time passing the fellowshipping process. He was young, and perhaps if we’re being completely truthful a bit young for his years. Smart, smart as a whip. Always. But, not yet fully grown into who he would become.

The various problems came to a head when he preached his sample sermon for the Fellowship committee. Fellowshipping is shorthand for our institutional structure of ministerial formation and licensing. Ordination is held exclusively by our congregations. But this official fellowshipping process is, what can we say, our quality control. And noting it is, of course, flawed in various ways, it is nonetheless what pretty much all our congregations require of anyone who wishes to be called as their minister.

The Fellowship committee which consists of ministers and lay leaders, all volunteers, meet with the candidate at the end of a long process of formation. This included sponsorship by a congregation, seminary, which is a three-year graduate school, as well as various internships, and psychological evaluations; then writing up a summary of all these experiences which is handed over to the committee.

When my friend and I were going through the process the committee gathered at different places around the country three times a year. At these venues they met the candidates, possibly a dozen people a day for several days running. In that meeting each candidate was expected to start off with a ten-minute worship experience featuring a homily. You know a short sermon, emphasis on brevity. If it went seconds past those allotted ten minutes the chair would stop the service cold.

My friend gave it his all. He lit a chalice, said an opening word or two, and then threw himself into it, Expounding upon the nature of love. Ten minutes of love. Top to bottom, love. He ended on time. Then. When that part was over, after the anxious waiting silence as the committee gathered itself, came the first question. It was a hardball.

“What about when you run out of sermons on love?”

It was downhill from there. He ended up with a “three.” A numbering system we no longer use, I understand. It wasn’t exactly being thrown into the outer darkness, but it meant at least a year before he could come back to the committee and try again. Well, that and he was giving a list of things he had do with documentation before returning.

Now my friend was and is gutsy as well as smart. He took his wounds home, licked ‘em a bit, as they say put on his big kid pants, and then did what needed doing. Mainly he got a little more life experience. A powerful thing that. And it all turned out well. As I said, a storied career.

Over the years I’ve thought about that question.

What about when you’ve run out of sermons on love?

I mean love is a Unitarian Universalist minister’s stock in trade. Heck, you’re getting a month of sermons on love here at Neighborhood right now. And not just because of article two.

There are abiding questions at the front end. How do we define love? Love turns out to be a slippery beast. And. If we’re not about love, what are we about? And. After all that can be said about love has been said, what then?

Now, one of my Zen teacher friends heard this story and quick as a heartbeat replied, “Why preach a sermon on love.” She might have added, for clarification, “of course.” Her suggestion reminded me of my preaching life and those relatively few occasions that we visit a theme every year. Like MLK day, or Christmas. I’ve found in most cases it was only after I’d exhausted all the conventional things to say, you know visiting the dictionary, telling my personal stories, the more obvious analysis of whatever, and finally was faced with a void, a rather daunting silence; before things actually started getting interesting.

As to love, I’ve discovered over the years it really is an endless reservoir of hope for us all. That strange word love is a pointer to something as important as life itself. And definitely, returning to love over and over, is a worthy enterprise. Even when we are pretty sure we’ve said it all before, heard it all before.

In this month of love, especially today, when this afternoon if we’re not all washed away in the rains, this congregation and the Reverend Dr Omega Burkhardt are going to make explicit a covenant of relationship. This covenant moves us into what I actually think of as a ministry of love. So, what a great time to visit the mystery once again.

I suspect you’ve heard definitions enough for a bit. And really, I find the juice is in the illustrations.

With that I found myself thinking of Robert Fulgum. Fulgum, as he prefers to be called, is a UU minister. You may remember him. Back in the 1980s he was working as a parish minister in the Pacific Northwest. Someone took one of his newsletter columns, something about finding a rule for life in kindergarten, photocopied it and passed it around to friends. That little list ended up posted on refrigerator doors all around the country. Eventually a literary agent discovered it and that led to a series of books, nearly all hitting the New York Times Best Seller list. I understand he now lives on a small island somewhere off the coast of Greece.

In the heyday of his writing life, we, his colleagues, pretty much all of us would-be authors, took comfort in sharing among ourselves how Fulgum may have hit the literary big time; but you know, he really is pretty shallow. I mean do you really learn everything you need in kindergarten?

Well, maybe. The catch is that the surface of things is in fact where the action usually is. You want to know about living life as it is, you want to find depth, well, you can do worse than look at some of his little vignettes of very ordinary life.

For instance. It turns out one day Fulgum decided to collect stories about love. It would be for his eighth book. And last, I believe. In preparation he went to his favorite Seattle coffeehouse. There he took over a small table and set up a sign. It read “Tell me a love story and I’ll buy you a cup of coffee and make you famous.”

The hard requirement was that the stories had to be short. And those stories had to be true. True as in factual. There are, as we know, other truths out there. Which are also valuable. But here he wanted the flesh and blood of it.

As Fulgum reported it, at first there was hesitation. He noted some of the people would “roll their eyes and laugh and say they had a love story all right, but it wasn’t short, and it wasn’t sweet.” He persisted and finally people began telling their stories. A small band began to circle around listening and sometimes joining in.

The shortest story came from a four-year-old girl. She was sucking her thumb while clinging to a yellow blanket. Fulgum asked, “Do you love your blanket?’ The little girl nodded an affirmative. Then he asked, “Does your blanket love you?” She shook her head and replied, “No, silly!” Me, I’m half an animist. So, I’m not sure she was right. Still, I love four-year-old wisdom.

Rita from Denver shared a story that I found especially helpful. She was somewhere in her thirties and just escaped an abusive relationship. She told how she felt unattractive and unlovable. She recounted how one day “on my way to work, I pulled up at a stoplight and a gray car pulled up to the right of me. In the car was the most handsome man I have ever seen… no one has ever looked that good.

“I looked at him to see if he was going to turn at the red light. He didn’t. He looked back at me and smiled as though looking at me had made his day worthwhile. I was instantly in love with this gorgeous gray-haired man… a minute later he turned right, and I turned left. But I knew then that there was life after divorce, even if for only a moment at the stoplight.”

In the Hindu and Sufi traditions there’s a lot made of the power of glance.

Clearly, we speak of love, and we speak of many things. Ministry, and blankets, and passing glances barely start a list. This word love is a complex and, we need always to recall, sometimes it’s a terrible term. Lots of lies in love. I think it is important to recall how in George Orwell’s 1984, there’s another ministry of love, literally the Ministry of Love, which is charged with controlling the populace.

So, love can speak of horrific wounds, of betrayal and degradation. It can be about cruel parents or lovers singing a dark melody of abandonment. It can be about estrangement or resentment or jealousy. That word love can hint of hurts so deep no one can ever fully plumb their depths.

Love as good, love as ill, love on the surface of things, love as a force holding the world together and tearing it apart.

As we all know many say love is God.

Now for me, having the brain I have, I have to pick and poke and try and be as accurate as I can. Even when things are slippery. Maybe most so at such times. So, I have problems with the word God when it is meant to stand for a consciousness separate from us, from you and me and the world that somehow plans and directs things. I find scant evidence for that kind of God.

But there is image and dream. Reverend Omega in one of her sermons tells us “What would Love do here?” Here. This place. The messy place. This moment. The messy moment. And she answers, “I think love would sing.” The harmony presents and it invites. Love has many melodies, some harsh and dissonant. Some astonishing and subtle and beautiful. And always with invitations. No wonder people might witness this many splendored thing which rises singing among and within us and call it God.

So, what does all this mean? For us here? For us as this afternoon some commitments are being made? As promises are being promised? As a song of call and response is sung?

Last week Reverend Omega spoke of covenants. Our gatherings are covenants of presence. And they are informed, at their best, by a willingness to be of service as much as to be served. As Omega said in another of her sermons “Here, now, we gather, not independent, but interdependent…”

 

I suggest the whole project for us here is a matter of clarification. Clarification of our lives. Clarification of how we live together, symbolled and lived within our shared lives in this congregation.

It is within this profound intimation of interdependence we can find pointers to what love is when lived. The worthy love. The god love. The dream of human possibility love. But not ignoring the lesser or more shadowed loves, either. It all has to come along, the broken and the healed. We’re not complete unless we bring it all. But, with attention and care the right harmony is found, and the several truths of love are revealed as divine.

This project is about the loves that are, and the Love that can be. The love that is found with care and attention and action. So, a path of clarification. A path of song writing, of hearing the ancient melodies more clearly; and out of that co-creating this world.

I think of my ministerial colleague. In both his incarnations, young and callow and older and venerable. I think of Robert Fulgum. I think of blankets and glances. I think of songs. I think of that covenant into a ministry of love that many of us will be attending with Reverend Omega this rainy afternoon.

If you are wondering what follows when we run out of sermons on love, I suggest you come this afternoon. It will reveal a lot of what that is and can be. Some laughter. I bet some tears. I hear there will even be some jokes. And maybe cake.

But most of all it will be people who promise things, and who try to live into those promises. Love on full display.

There is always a next step. Of course. But that’s for tomorrow.

And, you know, love will show the way.

Amen, friends.

Amen.

 

About James Ishmael Ford
The Reverend James Ishmael Ford is a Unitarian Universalist minister as well as an authorized spiritual director in two Zen lineages. His sixth book, the Intimate Way of Zen: Effort, Surrender, and the Spiritual Journey is forthcoming in July from Shambhala Publications. It is currently available in preorder at Amazon. You can read more about the author here.
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