Sermon: Tough Love Saves Us All by Rev. Gretchen Haley

Sermon Text (scroll down to find a video of the sermon):

When my partner and I were first together, our parents used to talk about us with their straight friends and co-workers by making sure they knew that we were “just like everyone else.”

“You know,” they’d say, “they pay their taxes.” 

This desire to point to our sameness, how we were just like them, was motivated by love, and it was an attempt to activate love. They were trying to overcome what they imagined or knew for sure their friends were thinking, trying to address whatever fears they might have, or image that came to mind when they thought about LESBIANS. If we were more the same than we were different, then we would be less scary, less “other,” more human. 

The Unitarian Universalist minister and historian Mark Morrison Reed talks about the central task of the religious community as revealing the bonds that bind each to all – the connectedness and the relationship across everyone everywhere that compels us to act on one another’s behalf.  This is the impulse behind this claim that we are basically the same. It is a way to invoke relatedness, and the duty to care, or at least the duty not to cause harm. 

Twenty years later, our parents don’t do this too much anymore. They and a bunch of others making the same argument seem to have convinced sufficient numbers of straight people that the “gay agenda” was often as boring as the straight one…I mean…we do pay our taxes.

And this works relatively fine for those of us who successfully pass or code switch our way in the straight community, those of us whose gender expression perfectly lines up with the societal expectations for the gender we were assigned at birth, those of us who are monogamous, aiming for marriage, and/or parenthood, those of us who are white, and who are citizens…you probably get my point.

When the bonds that bind each to all are grounded only in the ways that we are alike, or the idea that we must “like” each other –someone’s always going to remain outside the circle; someone is always going to be the definition of “regular human,”and someone else is always going to be…irregular.  Maybe even, sub-human, or “undermensch” as the so-called “scientific” field eugenics called it, or undermenschen as the Nazis came to apply it in their philosophy, picking up directly from the Jim Crow laws of the US. 

In her book, Caste, Isabel Wilkerson delves deeply into this history – if you haven’t yet found your place in our Common Conversation, check out foothillsuu.org/caste. In an accessible, compelling narrative, Wilkerson offers a framework to understand how we have found ourselves caught in a culture that ranks one another’s humanness based upon a certain sameness, a culture where some are perpetually assessed to be insufficiently human, and so therefore outside the circle of care, or love. 

Relying on sameness to determine a duty to care or the presence of love is not unusual, of course. It’s actually the norm.  Despite political or religious slogans affirming justice for all, as non-violence expert and activist Kazu Haga writes, “when we say ‘all,’ do we really mean all? Usually what we mean to say is that we are fighting for justice for all of our people, the people we like, the people on our side.  And too often, justice for our people comes at the expense of those people. When we are able to defeat those people, then our people will have justice.”

I think we all do this.  Intentionally, unintentionally, consciously or subconsciously. We’re trained through our culture, and rewarded in our politics – maybe now more than ever before – to set these limits around who we actually mean when we say “all.”  

I caught myself in this mindset earlier this week when I was working on vaccine equity. I felt that one of the groups was working against the goals that I felt were critical, and so, I wanted to shut them out. If they could be defeated, then our OUR people would win. I felt pretty righteous about my outrage for a while, and my strategy for success. Until I heard myself talking to a friend about it on the phone, and suddenly, I was like….hmm. maybe there’s another way…   

I feel some shame admitting this, especially assuming that any of those partners might be hearing or reading this, and wondering if I mean them. I want to just say – I’m being vague on purpose. Because the point is – my impulse was sincerely wrong. And it goes against a core commitment of our Universalist faith –that when we say all, we actually mean all

Universalism, as a religious tradition, started off as a theological claim about life after death. Our religious forebears asserted that there was no way that an all-loving God would damn any of God’s own people to eternal punishment and torment.

The idea was inconsistent with love in an ultimate sense. Universalism was a claim that whatever destiny any of us is meant for, all of us are meant for.

In the 20th century, this after-life affirmation became instead a claim, and a commitment we make about this life.  An affirmation that as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Whatever lines we may consciously or subconsciously seek to draw between us and them, enemy and friend, good or bad, worthy or unworthy –there is no escaping or undoing how interconnected we are, how interdependent.

No matter how different or disagreeable, no one is less or more human than any other of us. 

No one.

The outcome of this theological claim is what King described as the Beloved Community.  BeLOVEd as in fueled by and held together by the promises of love. Not just any love, but agape love. Whereas other types of love are directed at particular individuals –romantic love, or the love of friends, King described agape as the sort of love that “makes no distinction between a friend and enemy …it is an overflowing love that is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless and creative…the love of God operating in the human heart….” 

King went so far to call it “disinterested love” because it is the sort of love that doesn’t care whether it is loved back.   It is the love that will “go to any lengths to restore community.”

It’s helpful to remember that we are not always responsible for generating this love. Instead, our work is just to show up on its behalf, and further its reach.  It’s helpful to remember this when we encounter people who are distinctly difficult to love, that while we need not generate love that is unconditional and universal, it is there nonetheless.

Including for us. 

Maybe the fact that this is way harder than it sounds explains why – while we can glimpse pieces of Beloved Community, and these glimpses in their beauty compels us to keep moving forward – it is resoundingly a vision for the future. 

King was doing the life-saving work of moral imagination, the sort of work that moves us out of the limitations of what is into the infinite beauty of the possible. 

Imagine: In the Beloved Community, all people share in the wealth of the earth, and all people care for the earth. There is no hunger, or poverty, or homelessness. There’s no racism or other prejudice, and there is no war.  

Which is not the same as saying there is no conflict; King understood that conflicts are inevitable in human communities that embrace rather than shun differences.  It’s just that these conflicts are resolved through a commitment to non-violence, and grounded in a mutual respect for one another’s dignity. 

Which again, is not the same as mutual agreement, or liking each other, or even spending time together.  As Kazu Haga reminds us “… the Beloved Community is a big place, so we have can have love for people, and they can live all the way over there in Beloved Community.”

I appreciate this reminder for many reasons –first, it affirms the role of boundaries in Beloved Community (that Sean and Elaine talked about last Sunday),and, in affirming Beloved Community’s bigness, it reminds us that in the Beloved Community, there’s enough of everything for everyone. 

It’s a big tent with big resources with big love.

In the Beloved Community, no one hoards resources, and power is shared – we practice power with rather than power over; and there is no need to compete for some small slice of pie that is already stingy and insufficient – we can lift each other up, ensuring that each person, and each community has what they need. 

This is one of the most radical ideas embedded in the vision of Beloved Community, because it stands in direct contrast to 21st century capitalism where we are taught there’s never enough, that you need to hustle to get what you need, and if you don’t have what you need, that’s on you.    

I’ve seen this too in the work for vaccine equity. 

Each organization is so accustomed to needing to compete for funding to meet the needs of their community, the idea that we could work together for a common good requires trusting that there will be enough for everyone – enough vaccines, enough funding support, enough acknowledgment of the labor and expertise and care to go around. 

Given the realities of funding, the bureaucracy of government, and the overwhelming number and loud presence of white people in Northern Colorado, I get why these communities who serve people of color and immigrants would be doubtful and suspicious, and always wondering if they should instead pull out of collaboration and instead look out for themselves. They haven’t done this, but I get why they would.

The system we have created rewards competition and isolation, and the loudest and fastest movers get the attention from those who hold power-over and without any idea or model for power-with….It’s not really any one person’s fault, I want to be clear – it is the system that we have all inherited, the system we are caught in. In this system – this slow, messy, non-hierarchical emergent collaboration seeking to creatively meet our shared needs means it’s really unclear, for example, who will sign a Memo of Understanding, or receive funds with the appropriate 501c3. And to be clear – we want that memo of understanding, and the funds to the c3s – because that is the only way to move through the system as it currently exists!

It’s just that – in the end, however, this slow, messy and hard to document type of collaboration for the common good across deep differences and divides, the work of inviting folks out to tea and dinner and beers – the work of building the relationship that endures – this is the work that it actually takes to build the Beloved Community.

It is agape love not in the generic idealistic sense, but agape love in the particular. Where you have to find ways to overcome your instinct to defeat the person who annoys you or who seems like they are actively working against you or who you just don’t get – and instead find an authentic way to widen the circle so it includes them too. 

And by you, I obviously mean, me.

The term Beloved Community was actually coined by philosopher Josiah Royce in the early twentieth century. He spoke of Beloved Community as that community worthy of our ultimate loyalty – what he called, the loyalty of loyalties. Unlike partial communities that seek to put limits around love or duty, the Beloved Community is that community that keeps drawing the circle wider and wider still. 

It is a loyalty that is based not in our sameness, but to the Love that holds us across our differences. To call this Love holy, to pledge our allegiance to it. 

Which in turn requires critical awareness of our own tribe, and our own trauma

Our own tribe so that we can be aware of our implicit bias, that is, the hierarchy we hold deep in our brains and our bones for who is more, or less, our people; and in turn, perhaps, more or less human. 

And then, our own trauma. We need to be aware of the struggles we carry from our own lifetimes, and those we inherit from past generations.  We need to know when we are acting out of our wounds, rather than our hope; we need to know, so that we can heal – backwards, and forwards -and together. 

Grounding our understanding of Beloved Community in Royce’s original ideas of loyalty reminds us that the heart of Beloved Community is not a belief in an idea, but a steadfast, unshakable commitment –  a tough love.

Martin Luther King Jr was very clear that Beloved Community is possible in this life, but it is only possible when a critical mass of people make this commitment, based on an understanding of what it means to be loyal to this love.    

This commitment is what drives the proposal for an 8th principle – because our principles are the covenant we make as Unitarian Universalists – our promises to ourselves, to one another, and to life itself.   The 8th principle says: we commit our loyalty to the building of the Beloved Community, and our loyalty to the love that binds us each to all, the love that meets us across all of our beautiful diversity. 

I wish I could say that making the commitment to the tough love of Beloved Community is is the hard part.  Like the vote we’ll have in May is the end, when really it’s just the beginning. 

Because the hardest part is what comes next.  When we live as if all actually means all, “there is no easier way.”  “…the work of justice often asks us to do impossible, hard, terrifying things.” 

It asks us to risk things that actually matter, especially our own comfort, our sense of order, or control. It asks us to risk our own safety, our privilege, our hearts.

But the good news is that along with the hardest part also comes the sweetest part – because in following the hardest part we also more often get to to see, and we get to know the beauty. The goodness. We get to glimpse the promise of true Beloved Community, and the freedom that is based in a love that is unconditional, transformational, and universal. 

The tough love that saves us all. 

May it be so, and amen.