Sermon: Loving People Anyway
Almost exactly one year ago, 17-year-old Zachary Cruz was having a regular afternoon at the skate park when his mom’s friend showed up running towards him, in a clear panic….“Do you know what happened? Do you know what happened?”
It was in that moment that 17 year old Zach learned his older brother Nik had just opened fire on Parkland High School.
In that moment, he learned that his brother had killed fourteen students and three staff members.
And it was in that moment that he learned that his brother had survived, and was in police custody.
Zach and Nik’s life had not been easy or simple up until that point. Even beyond their father’s death when they were little, or their mother’s death in 2017, Nik struggled – with anger and violence, bullying, isolation and loneliness.
But still, he was Zach’s brother – and after their parents died – he was all Zach had.
After he had a chance to meet with the detective charged with making sense of the senseless, Zach asked if he could see his brother. The video of their meeting is – gut-wrenching.
“You probably felt like you had nobody,” Zach tells his brother. “But, I care about you. I know I made it seem like I hated you, but…I love you with all my heart. I know what you did today – other people [will] look at me like I’m crazy even – and I don’t care what people think. You’re my brother. I love you.”
After hearing all this, Nik starts shaking and crying, and Zach wraps his arms around him. “…stuck between loving, and hating him.”
I know, most of us will not have to figure out how or if to keep loving someone who has committed such a horrendous act.
But still, we all know a version of what Zach is wrestling with in that room. If we have loved anyone at all, we know what it means to have to come to terms with their accidental or on-purpose failing.
To face their betrayal, negligence, cowardice, or lies. To try to understand why they did what they did, what part we might’ve played in it all. (In the interview with the detective, Zach wondered if he could’ve been a better brother, if it might’ve made a difference….) We all know what it means to have to decide whether or not this thing they have done makes them once and for all un-lovable, or if there is a path to healing or restoration, to loving them anyway – and if so, what this would look like.
It is a complicated question, especially for those of us who claim a Universalist faith. After all, one of our core historical commitments says there’s nothing that you can do that would ever place you outside the reach of healing or redemption.
It’s the reason for our first principle – our affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It’s the principle that most people remember – not just because it’s the first – but also because it is often the reason that people come to our congregations, and why people decide to call themselves Unitarian Universalists.
Especially when held in contrast to religious traditions that start with an affirmation of human sinfulness and failure, or communities that make someone’s worth conditional – on right behavior, or right belief. And even more when offered as an antidote to much of the world’s tendency to link someone’s ultimate worth to their financial worth, or their race, their gender, their looks, or physical abilities.
The first principle denies all of this, and for this reason, it feels so good.
But also, for these same reasons, the first principle can also feel so wrong.
While we are drawn to this radically equalizing notion of humanity – eventually we do all find ourselves in that room figuratively or literally with someone we love who has broken our hearts. And in that moment, the first principle feels not just wrong, but also ridiculous, maybe even stupid. We think about moments like the one Naomi Shihab Nye describes at the airport – and we decide, these are just fantasies – exceptions, not the rule of human nature.
The real world requires not an affirmation of everyone’s worth and dignity, but a deep skepticism, distance, judgment, and thick skin.
If you trace the course of your life, you can probably still remember the first time you felt this pull – between loving and hating someone. The one that comes most clearly to mind for me is my 7th grade teacher.
She was in so many ways, glorious. She treated my class like we were real people – like we were actors in our own lives – that we were capable, and also deserving of making choices about the things that would impact us. At 12 and 13, it felt revolutionary.
But then one school day, instead of our glorious teacher greeting us as she always did, the principal was there. He told us that our teacher was taking some time away, at least 8 weeks. We’d have a substitute. That they weren’t sure if she’d be back, but they hoped so.
It was all really mysterious, and secretive, and especially painful because in that moment, my classmates and I didn’t feel like people anymore. We felt like kids.
Later that night, while listening to my mom’s side of a phone conversation, I learned that my teacher had checked into a treatment center for addiction.
Which in retrospect was clearly not an act of betrayal – likely, she was trying to heal betrayal – but at the time, I still felt betrayed.
I felt like she’d been lying to us the whole time, that she’d set us up, that she’d abandoned us. She did manage to come back to school before the year ended, but things were never the same. I still loved her, but also now, in some ways, I hated her.
And putting these two feelings together felt impossible. I couldn’t figure it out. So instead of either love, or hate, I chose distance, and denial. And I think, she did too.
These moments happen again and again across our whole lives. Until at a certain point we realize, it’s not just one or two or three people – but people generally. These individual moments scale out across whole systems, and societies, across time and culture.
In the most general sense, we want to believe that people have what Unitarian William Ellery Channing called in his 1832 sermon, a “likeness to God.” That, if given the freedom, opportunity, and resources, people will choose compassion, fairness, and love.
These ideals are central to our country, and our liberal faith. They are the values behind democracy, and the free society, and free religion. That we might put our faith in humanity is also the fundamental assertion of Humanism, a central force in our faith today – the 1933 Humanist Manifesto affirmed a vision where people “voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good.”
But then again, go to the Humanist website today to find that Manifesto. You’ll find also a caveat: This document is now considered historical record.
It was superseded by an update first in 1973, and then another in 2003.
Both updates still locate their faith in humanity – but they include a more notable ambivalence than was there in the first draft.
Which makes sense.
Not too long after the boldly optimistic vision of 1933, came 1939, and the start of one of the most brutal periods in human history.
As the preface to the 1973 edition says: “Events since then make that earlier statement seem far too optimistic.”
Which is a gigantic understatement, and also, it underscores that this whole emphasis on human goodness in our country, and in our faith tradition – had to come from the perspective and experiences of white upper or middle class men.
I mean, for example, Native Americans would not have needed World War 2 to help them realize how capable humans are of brutality.
At the same time, as Unitarian ethicist James Luther Adams acknowledged in 1941, while the dominant narrative of post-Enlightenment western thought has emphasized a positive view of humanity – it’s not actually a secret among actual people that we contain within us what Adams called both a “will to power,” and a “will to mutuality.”
Or that this duality plays out across human history, as well as in every human heart. Including our own.
Despite this steady awareness, however, it is also true that we continually find ourselves surprised by, which is to say, totally unprepared for the moments when this reality presents itself. I mean: the way many of us reacted to the results of the 2016 national election and the related rise of white nationalism, for example. With shock, and surprise, and overwhelm – as if such realities were unthinkable, or counter to the way humans have acted across history.
Or: the shock we feel when someone we know, and trust, lies to us, acts inappropriately – seeking power instead of mutuality. As if these instincts could not also exist within this “good person” that we know someone to be.
In her new book, After the Good News: Progressive Faith Beyond Optimism, Nancy McDonald Ladd points out that if you look at the current Unitarian Universalist hymnal – or attend one of our Sunday services, you’ll eventually notice that while we have moments for gratitude, songs of joy, and explicit mentions of sorrow and loss, we do not have regular moment where we acknowledge, let alone confess that we – as individual people, and that people generally – are not always good. That we hurt each other, sometimes even on purpose.
Instead, she says we tend to perform our well-being for each other. Which I believe is not just something particular to liberal religion, but actually endemic to our age. This time in history where on social media we reveal ourselves to each other – in ways that appear real – but are actually intensely curated and edited – we perform our well-being – the “story” we want to share, usually leaving out the moments we fail our friends, our family, or ourselves.
This perpetual performance means that over time, we’ve lost the language, skills, and resilience to deal with our pain, especially in any sort of communal, collective way. Which doesn’t mean this pain goes away.
More like, it goes underground, becomes sub-conscious, as in – ensconced in shame. And more likely than not, it ends up guiding our lives and our actions in ways that we don’t even realize. Because you can’t heal the pain you aren’t willing to see. And As Richard Rohr says, “pain that is not transformed is transmitted.”
Which I think explains a lot about our world today. A lot of pain that has not been transformed – transmitted.
At least in terms of our faith tradition, however, this wasn’t always the case.
If you go back to the 1937 edition of our hymnal, Hymns of the Spirit, you’ll find there plenty of options for Unitarians to acknowledge human shortcomings, including our own version of confession.
But by the 1964 edition – these were gone.
As McDonald Ladd says, “Between 1937 and 1964, Unitarians stopped confessing to anything. We just weren’t into that anymore. It wasn’t our thing…We got so darn busy celebrating life every Sunday that we forgot how to authentically examine it….Existential reckoning….was…I suppose, too much of a bummer.”
While I don’t disagree about the “bummer” factor, I think the reason we’ve stopped explicitly engaging human failure in our communal life is actually more connected to that tension I described in our first principle – the ways it can feel so good, and then also, so wrong.
Because I’ve noticed in these tensions, that we tend talk about the first principles as if is about us. About humans. About our dignity and worth as if connected to our actions, our words, our living – which means that it’s actually not unconditional – it’s dependent – as in, there is something that anyone (including us) might do that would make us outside the reach of love.
Luckily, however, the first principle actually has basically nothing to do with us. Like I said, the first principle came out of our Universalist (rather than our Unitarian) tradition. Which means….well…to quote the 19th century minister Thomas Starr King’s description of our two traditions….
“Universalists believe that God is too good to damn humanity, while the Unitarians believe that humanity is too good to be damned.”
It’s an over-generalization really, and a semi-joke, but Starr-King’s focus is right.
While Channing and other Unitarians focused on human perfectibility, the Universalist claim was not about human nature.
It was about God.
So that when we speak about an affirmation of our inherent worth and dignity, it has nothing to do with our actions, but rather is an affirmation that regardless of our actions, nothing could ever make us unworthy of love. Nothing.
As McDonald Ladd says – “God can work with whatever raw materials He was given to work with, even when those materials are imperfect, slightly dumpy, and occasionally weird – like us.”
If you get tripped up by the theism here, you might try replacing God with different language – try Love. Infinite, ultimate, Courageous love. Love can always manage to work with whatever raw materials it gets. No matter what we do, Love will be there, meeting us not in our performed and curated stories, but in the fullness of our actual stories, in our will to mutuality, and in our will to power – no matter what, love is there, anyway.
Which means that when it comes to humanity, we can let in the whole of who we are – and trust, that regardless, love will meet us there. We don’t have to provide it, or prove it. It’s just there, always. Which means we can prepare more honestly and non-anxiously for those moments when humanity will reveal itself once again to be brutal, and cruel – because it will. So that when it does, we don’t get so stuck between love and hate that we find ourselves backing away in distance or denial, but rather we lean in with practices of accountability, reconciliation, redemption – and with truth-telling and the courage to turn towards rather than away from conflict.
So that we can be a part of the change that Love keeps calling us towards, and makes possible. Anyway.