“Strangers, Friends, Neighbors, Enemies and Us” (sermon with readings)

Put simply, love is life’s yearning for more life. It is the artist at work on a new painting. It is the conversation between friends on a winter afternoon that turns deeper, becomes livelier as it bares the soul of each friend. It is the weeds that sprout up in the most desolate places. It is the heartbeat that returns to the grief-stricken heart. To describe life as a steady march toward death is to forget about love’s part in it. As individual beings, as individual forms, we age, we die; our time is transient. Love outlasts every individual form. It is the light from a star, visible millions of years after the star has died. It is the light from a candle, remembered in the heart long after no wax remains. Love if life’s yearning for more life. It is always with us, and we live in it.



I invite you now into a time of meditation, reflection, and prayer. Let us join together into this contemplative time.

Spirit of life, that flows through us,

that is as near as our soul’s heartbeat and as majestic as the starry sky,

spirit whose name is love,

we come to you today with broken hearts.

The senseless killing of so many six- and seven-year-old children,

and their teachers and administrators,

is more than just another tragedy in life’s list of ups and downs,

it is an act that threatens to brutalize our very spirit, us

and so many millions throughout this country and beyond.

Our hearts rush out to all those families missing a loved one

in Newtown right now.

The children who were looking forward to Christmas,

or in the midst of Hanukkah,

The absence of those smiling, joyful, playful, lovely faces,

The families that are devastated beyond words, beyond what

anyone should ever have go through.

An elementary school, is, in its own way,

a kind of sacred place,

in the sense that it is a place for young lives to grow,

a place of innocence. A place of learning.

For all who value children, every single one of us,

we are experiencing a kind of devastation of the Temple.

Things like that should not happen

in a place like an elementary school.

This violence should not be a part of the life of little children,

and those who teach and serve them.

We are angry now,

we are sad,

we are hurting.

We are asking what kind of a world is this,

how a God of love could let this happen,

we are reeling.

Let us be open to our feelings.

Violence against children happens all over the world,

children are abused,

and children dying young has been a sad fact of life

since the birth of humanity.

But let us never ever accept these horrible events

as somehow normal or acceptable.

They are a part of life, we can’t deny that,

we all suffer from the death of children,

but they are never, ever acceptable.

May we never

treat them as normal events.  Every death of a child

stops the heartbeat of the universe.

In our outrage, grief,

confusion and despair,

may we commit again to chrish every child,

to treat every life as significant,

worthy of being saved.

Life is so frail, our hearts so fragile.

let us save each other in all the moments of our lives –

save one another by protecting each other,

save one another by making life meaningful,

save one another by waiting out despair together

until hope is born.

May saving love be present in the lives of all,

especially those who need it the most.




An ancient writer, Hesiod, says that love was created at the beginning of the universe, along with the earth. After chaos, came the earth – all the stuff of the world, all the matter – and along with matter, love. Love was first of all. Love, that makes matter matter, that gives this lump of clay and dirt its meaning. Without something to love, without people and animals and life and the beautiful starry skies, love would not be possible. Without love, it would just be so much stuff. So they were created together.

It is hard, two days after a mass killing, to imagine that love lies at the heart of the universe. The universe can seem a senseless, heartless place. In some ways, we love stronger after a tragedy: we hold our loved ones a little tighter; the people near to us have never felt quite so near. Our hearts love ferociously, but our minds are ill at ease.  Where the hell is love at a time like this? Where is God?

In the Jewish tradition, love is an obligation. The Torah teaches, “You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge; you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am God.” The Jewish tradition recognizes that love is also a feeling, a spontaneous emotion. Love is a blooming force of life, as natural as the flowers that grow back time and time again. Love will always return to life. Why, then, is it an obligation? It’s an obligation because we can forget to love. I don’t know about you, but I need to be reminded time and time again that love is at the center of my life. Every worthy thing I have ever done has been an offering of love of some kind. My marriage. My friendships. The raising of my kids. The work I do have done with passion and care, whether it was in the last six years in the ministry, or before in the coffee shops and offices that were the places where I had the chance to do the work of love. And every meaningful moment, I have been in love with someone or something, whether it be walking out in nature, or writing, or sharing my time with another human being. Everything meaningful I have ever been a part of has had love in there somewhere. Without love, as the Christian writer Paul says, without love we are resounding gongs or clanging cymbals. We are noises that go off in the night, without any meaning. So I am fine with love being an obligation. Tie me to that plough, Lord, because that’s where I need to be.

A powerful Mister Rogers quote has been going around, in response to this tragedy. Fred Rogers reflected that when he was a boy, and he saw scary things in the news, his mother would say “look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Part of our obligation to love is to find it, to look for it. You won’t need to look far. The helpers are always in there somewhere. Where is love? Where is God? Teachers shielding their children from the terror at their door. First responders, the firefighters and the EMTs and the police officers, bringing the survivors to safety, all the while tears streaming up within them.  A hundred million people sending prayers, saying whatever I have in my heart is yours, I’ve never met you, but I’m praying for you, whatever I have in my heart is yours. Where is love, we ask ourselves? Where is God? Wake up. “Love is the heartbeat of the universe.” Love is right there. It is always right there.

An early Christian writer asked us to imagine human beings as on a kind of a <> compass, with God at the center. We’re all points on a circle. Then he said when we get closer to God, the circle contracts, we get closer to each other <>. To be closer to God is to be closer to our neighbors, and vice versa. It’s a wonderful image. This actually works even if you don’t believe in God, provided you believe in love. To be closer to love, or God, requires us to be closer to our neighbors.

And so we are called to love each other. Make no mistake, this is hard work. Anyone can feel attracted to others. We do that without a moment’s thought. It’s our personal gravity to feel attracted to one another, to feel special feelings around particular people. Love includes these feelings, but it’s much more than that. Love is the work of a lifetime. Love is too important to be left only to our feelings. It requires all of us – our mental faculties, our intention and will, our actions. Love is not confined to heart, it is contained in the hands that build a home for the poor, it is contained in the mind that thirsts for justice. Love needs all of you.

In the Jewish and Christian traditions, we are asked to make a commitment. I’m not talking about dogma. As the Jewish sage Chasdai Cresdas said in the year 1410, “Salvation is attained not by subscription to metaphysical dogmas, but solely by the love of God that fulfills itself in action. This is the cardinal truth of Judaism.” Or as it is written in First John in the New Testament, “everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God, whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

We are asked to make a commitment. Loving sounds so easy in the abstract. Loving our friends – of course, we say. But we forget how to love them well; we take them for granted. Loving our neighbor? Of course!, we say. But then we forget to open the front door, literally and spiritually. Loving the stranger, of course!, we say. I love everybody! But how easy it is to forget they even exist, to get so busy in our own lives, the stranger is not even on our radar screen. Loving our enemies? <> We don’t say “of course” to this. We don’t say of course to loving those who have caused us harm.

Loving our enemies is hard. It’s so hard I’m not even going to stand on this pulpit and tell you that you should love your enemies. I want that decision to be yours to make, not handed down from on high. How could I in good conscience, I haven’t been through what you have been through. I don’t really know what it’s like to be you.

Instead I want to tell you what love means to me. It involves my view of the universe, which takes some explaining.

In Jewish and Christian tradition we are said to be created in the image of God. One meaning of this is that if you want to find a picture of God, you can find that in human beings. Everyone. Black, white, Asian, Latino, 3 years old, 103 years old, big, small, in a wheelchair, in a hospital bed, with Down syndrome, with HIV/AIDS, all are pictures of God.  When you see a human being you are seeing God’s Polaroid.

This is also true when you look in the mirror. We are asked to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, and sometimes, loving ourselves is the hard part of that equation. Being self-centered is easy, truly loving ourselves takes work. It requires us to be aware of who we are, beyond the natterings of the ego, and to truly love that person at the core of our being. Loving ourselves is not about being thin enough or rich enough or smart enough or even good enough. It’s about loving ourselves in our fundamental incompleteness, the fact that we aren’t enough, that we’re frail, finite, and fickle, and even that fundamental incompleteness we are completely and utterly beautiful.

Another meaning of being created in God’s image is that all of humanity – all of life, I would say, actually – is God’s image. To get a complete snapshot of God, you would need to somehow hold in your mind every single human being who has ever lived, and will ever live, every single snapping turtle, every single ant. All the life forms on other planets, wherever they are. If you could somehow capture all of this in your mind, you would have a picture of God.  We’re all a part of the whole; we’re all connected. And what connects us is matter and love. We are physically connected – we breathe the same air, what I do affects you and vice versa. We are also spiritually connected, by love.

If you were to examine love scientifically, I think you would find that what love actually is, is the organism’s attempt to honor life. Whether it’s the mating of rhesus monkeys or a mother cow crying over its dead calf, love is fundamentally, scientifically, at root a respect for life. And this respect for life, this passion for life, brings us outside of ourselves. A biologist might say that an organism typically values its genes more than its own life – that’s why it will often goes to such lengths to try to find a mate, that’s why it will die defending others. As a scientific-minded person I can understand that – and as a religious person I affirm that love is the recognition that we are fundamentally incomplete, and love completes what is incomplete in me. My life will be over someday – love will go on. Love isn’t my possession, to go into the grave with me when I die. Love is much more than my own neurological state at any moment. Love doesn’t belong to us. It’s the water we swim in; we live in love.

I’ll tell you what love is: when a few of us were by the Jersey Shore helping out with house projects there after the hurricane, the kids at the local church there had made Valentines to hand out to people. So every house we arrived at with our vans full of shovels and crowbars, we also came carrying a little card with crayon and tinsel, saying happy holidays in a kid’s handwriting. You can imagine that the recipients of the cards got choked up being handed these cards. Heck, we were choked up, too. Now, who do those Valentine’s cards belong to? Well the love in them went to the kids, the volunteers, the people in the houses. It went everywhere. That’s what love is. It doesn’t belong to any of us. It’s our responsibility to send it out in the world, and then it goes everywhere.

So I try to love everybody, which has absolutely nothing to do with thinking that’s everybody is a good person. I love everybody because that’s the only way I know to be effective. I’ve never made the slightest positive difference in the lives of people I don’t care about. Oh, maybe I’ve served them a cup of coffee, or fed their lawsuit through a copy machine, but I haven’t made a meaningful difference. I’m sure I’ve made negative differences in peoples’ lives I don’t care about, but I don’t want to do that. I love everybody because I am desperate to use my limited term on this earth to make life more beautiful, not less. I want to honor the respect for life that’s in my own bones, that makes me a part of the universe of life, that makes me a part of God. We do that through loving action. The time is always now.

One more story, one more love story. On Friday night, because joy is also an obligation, my family went into town for a night out. We almost stayed in – perfectly understandable under the circumstances – but my wife and I decided we wanted to be amongst people, to be in community. We got into town, and a business association had set up a little event: folks gathered around, holding candles, and a little girl singing an old carol. You could feel the energy in that group. How we were all thinking similar thoughts, the sorrow, the love.

The little girl sang beautifully, and then two young men – burly guys, looked like football players, walked up and broke into song. They sang an old showtune, from years and years ago, that only a couple of folks would have known. They sang in two-part harmony. Their voices were absolutely angelic.

And I knew then, something I’ve always known: love will prevail. Love is the most fragile thing in the world. It’s so fragile,. In our country, unfortunately, anyone can walk into a gun shop and utterly destroy love. Just wipe it away from an individual, a family, a community. But love will always return. Love is the strongest force in the universe.

Sisters and brothers, know that you are loved. Deeply. I love you, this community loves you, God and the spirit love you. Live that love out loud, bring it to all who need a candle. Love was here from the beginning, will outlast all of us, and makes our life meaningful.

About bobjanisdillon

Unitarian Universalist minister, poet, husband, father, three-chord guitar wonder.
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