What Moves Us?

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December 9, 2012

First Unitarian Church of Saint Louis

©2012 Rev. Thomas Perchlik



Jesus quoted Hebrew scripture, Deuteronomy and Leviticus, saying “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’.”  The Buddhists elaborate on this in the practice of Metta Meditation.  Metta is an attitude of unconditional kindness and positive regard.  Beginning with yourself and moving on through a loved one, a neutral person, a difficult person, an enemy, and then to all living beings, one extends the desire to each. 

“May (I, that person, all) be well, be safe, be happy and at ease.” 


I went to hear Conservative commentator George Will speak about religion and politics on the Washington University Campus this past Tuesday.  You will be happy to know that he mentioned Unitarians three times in his speech! Mostly he spoke of us in emphasizing that there is no religious test for any political office in America, and five U.S. Presidents have been Unitarians, despite those who argued against them on account of belief.  It is a funny thing that we, who have chosen to avoid creeds and doctrines as limiting to the soul and as unneeded restriction on the spirit, are so much defined so much by thought: we so often talk about belief, and freedom of belief, and rejection of foolish beliefs.  But our real power is not in our thoughts alone, but in the way thoughts empower our willingness to be agents of love and reason in the world.  During the past decade the Red Hot Chili Peppers had a hit song that ended “Can’t stop the spirits when they need you, this life is more than just a read through.”  This, I think, expresses the purpose of religion, of this church, and of this worship service today: to help each of us embody the spirits of ultimate goodness: love and peace, justice and compassion, joy and hope.  We help one another live by love as well as reason, to seek mercy as much as justice. 

That is one reason we have Choral music Sunday.  Of course we have a choir because they create lovely music and we like pretty things.   But their beauty in part is that they serve as a symbol of the church as a whole.  This “religion that puts its faith in you” (as the advertising slogan goes) is not only about the individual but about the individual in community.  In a choir individual voices, and individual’s love of music, blend and join into one larger harmony and complex wholeness. Church is about bringing our individual loves into one larger spirit of love. 

This is the beginning of Hanukkah.  (Last night I listened to the National Public Radio program on the holiday.  It was lovely, but I was a bit disappointed since all week they said that Mr. Spock would narrate: instead I only heard Leonard Nimoy.)  This is also the second week of advent.  The shared purpose of these holidays is to hold up the spiritual truths we hope to embody.   Hanukkah is about devotion, dedication and rededication.  The order and names of Advent’s themes vary across Christendom.  I choose Hope, Joy, Love and Peace, and what is more, I tie these to the Buddhist Brahmaviharas of  Compassion (karuna), Sympathetic Joy (mudita), Loving-kindness (metta), and Equanimity (upekkha).  Thus, last week, I spoke of equanimity and peace.  Today is love and metta.  Next week we have two different services on Sunday, one is lessons and carols about Universalist Hope and at 11:00AM our Children will present a pageant full of hope.  On the 23rd I will give a sermon about Joy and then peace, hope love and joy all come together on Christmas eve.   Though we draw on many sources, our taproot goes through Christianity into the deep soil of the Jewish prophets and Jewish ethics. 

Today the Choir sings five Hebrew songs of Love.  They are all in Hebrew, but I use the English translation in this sermon (by Hila Plitmann and Eric Whitacre).  One song evokes the light and uplifting quality of romantic love:

Light bride, she is all mine, and lightly she will kiss me. 

But Love can also be a very powerful feeling.  To be in love, to be attracted to another person, willing to please them, to be at our happiest when we see that person be happy, is beautiful.  We see that person not just as one of billions, but as uniquely beautiful, revealing of transcendent beauty in its fullness. One song takes an ordinary moment and holds it:

A picture is engraved in my heart;
moving between light and darkness:
A sort of silence envelops your body,
and your hair falls upon your face just so. 

Ordinary things become luminous with love.  But this love, the love between two people, is but the first step, the lowest rung on the ladder.  This love is fraught with difficulty.  In song I remember from studying Shakespeare, “Phillida Flouts Me”, the lyrics evoke the pain and trouble of romantic love: “Oh, what a plague is love! How shall I bear it?  She will inconstant prove; I greatly fear it.”  Sometimes love endures a lifetime, constant through all things, but just as often it falls quite short.  Human beings change, our feelings rise and fall.  The one you love may not return the love you feel for them and we even make errors and hurt the one we love. 

Thus, when I talk of love I am not talking about romantic love alone.  The religious overlay on human love is to affirm it, but then expand that feeling: to connect it to the deeper and unshakable love that brings peace beyond understanding.  The ladder of love rises to agape, or unconditional and divine love.  Faith begins by seeing how love between two people, love for an infant, even love for things of nature, like a certain tree or a brilliant cardinal who sings in our winter garden, can change us.  It has a power to reshape people.  In one song the choir sings today the translated lyrics:

He was full of tenderness; she was very hard.
And as much as she tried to stay thus,
He took her into himself
And set her down in the softest, softest place.

Sometimes a person can change us, but this power of transformation can come through many channels.  I have read Sufi mystical poetry, and Christian mystical poems, that evoke this same idea.  Someone, who’s heart was hardened against the pain and terrors of life, hurt by war or violence or disappointment or oppression, can be taken into the divine spirit and then brought and set down “in the softest, softest place.  Realize that any love it is but one expression of the grander, transcendent, divine, and unconditional love, as the poet Dante said, “that moves the sun and other stars.” 

So it is that love, the highest Love, changes the world.  One haunting song to be sung today includes these words:

What snow!
Like little dreams
Falling from the sky.

Our dreams, if we live by them, change the world.  Just as the world is changed when soft snow falls and blankets the world, so the world is changed by our holy dreams when we are willing to live by them and let them cover the world.  The power of love even can be reconciling and binding, as in my favorite of the five love songs today, titled “Mostly”:

Mostly, said the roof to the sky,
“the distance between you and I is endlessness;
but a while ago to came up here,
and only one centimeter was left between us.” 

We are moved by love, sometimes to be reconciled to that which we thought would ever be divided.  Recently, I have been leading a class titled “What Moves Us”.  We explored how our UU theology is not merely speculative but flows out of our emotional lives, and thought about how such self-reflection, unrestricted by religious doctrine or dogma, inform our ethical behavior.  Thus, as one person commented a class on theology was not merely intellectual exercise, but was also an emotionally moving one. 


One of the theologians we studied was the Christian Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou.  He argued that "we ought not to argue truth which we have no knowledge of by experience." Emphasizing that God is love, Ballou insisted that it is when we feel this Love we are happy. He said,

"... if the Almighty, as we believe him to be, did not possess power sufficient to make all his creatures happy, it was not an act of goodness in him to create them...” And he emphasized:” If it be granted that God has both power and will to save all men, [then that] is granting all I want for a foundation of my faith."

Ballou believed that human emotions prompt us to moral or immoral actions, so we are invited to strengthen the emotions that reap happiness for self and others. The greatest of these is love. 

There is an old story about a Universalist circuit riding preacher who finds himself riding alongside a Calvinistic Baptist preacher.  The Baptist disparages Universalism, saying that we are motivated to do good in part by our fear of punishment and the fires of damnation.  Finally he argues, “If I were a Universalist there would be nothing to stop me from hitting you over the head, taking all your possessions and riding off to celebrate.”  The Universalist preacher responds, “If you were a Universalist you would never think of such a thing, for” he says to underscore his point, “where is the Love in that?” 

When we are moved by love we are moved to do good for others, to help others to ease the suffering in the world.  I said the Hanukkah story is about dedication.  The Rabbis have long underplayed this holiday because there are hard edges to is story.  The first person of many killed by the protagonists is a fellow Jew who is willing to sacrifice a pig to Zeus.  It is a story of war and violence.  But the point of this story is what moves them to create their vision of the Beloved Community. 

For us, the miracle of this holiday is not the small oil that burns for eight days.  That is just a magic event and we don’t place much stock in magic.  Our faith, our trust, is in the incarnated spirit of people and that moves us to do Good; to share love, to transform lives.  The miracle of Hanukkah is that out of love for their fellow Jews, out of love for their way of life, out of love for God, the people rose up against a superior military power, an oppressive government, and then struggled for years to reclaim and rededicate their homes, their land, and their holy place. 

Can we also be so moved by the power of love?  If we love someone we do things for them, ease their suffering and add to their happiness.  If we love the natural harmony and beauty of the world then we will work to preserve it and live in harmony with it.  If we love other people we will work to ensure that everyone has basic health care or equal and fair treatment under the law.  What is it that moves us?  I hope, above all else, that we are moved by Love.