Sunday Sermon by Stephaine Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School, May 2, 2021. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)
By Professor Stephanie Paulsell
Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School.
The testimony of the passage from the first letter of John that Maggie Beazer read for us this morning—that God is love and that we are closest to God when we love one another—brought back to me the voice of our former minister, Professor Jonathan L. Walton. As many of you will remember, Jonathan loved to draw upon the life and work of Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, former president of Jonathan’s alma mater, Morehouse College, and one of the intellectual architects of the civil rights movement. Dr. Mays once wrote words that Jonathan frequently invoked: the love of God and the love of humanity are one love. Jonathan signed all of his letters and emails to us with those words—one love—to remind us of this abiding, and challenging, truth.
Also within this passage are the words that Jonathan often used to invite us into the practice of passing the peace. How can we say we love God whom we’ve never ever seen, Jonathan used to ask, when we don’t love the one who walks beside us? And with that question echoing in the space around us and between us, he would invite us to cross into that space with our arms outstretched, to reach out to one another, to reach out for one another, to catch a glimpse in gestures of love and peace the face of that unseen God.
What we practice during the passing of the peace is the heart of this passage and the heart of Christian life: “No one has ever seen God,” the author of 1 John writes. But “if we love one another, God lives in us.” How do we know this? We know, the author says, through the experience of loving.
Amor ipse notitia est: love itself is knowledge. Gregory the Great coined this phrase in the sixth century to describe how we come to know an invisible God. John’s letter says the same: if we love, John says, we already know God, because God is love. Love braids us into the life of God: if we abide in love, John says, we abide in God, and God abides in us. Over and across, up and around, love intertwines our lives into life itself.
If loving is a form of knowing, and if love can lead us to know God, then there is no limit to what we can know through love. We can know ourselves and others through love as well. We can know the world through love. The knowledge born of love is relational, shaped not only by our experience but by the experience of others. And, as we’ve heard proclaimed from this virtual pulpit by Terry Tempest Williams and Rev. Mariama White-Hammond over the last two weeks, that knowledge is shaped by the experience of the earth itself and all the life it supports, from the most microscopic to the most immense. Loving the world God created and called good, we learn that all our lives and destinies, human and non-human, are intertwined.
One John insists that love is not only a way of knowing; it is also a way of being. This short letter captures the heart of Christian theology in one short verse: Beloved, John writes, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.
But what does it really mean to love one another? To offer one another our tenderest feelings? Sometimes. But those of you who read Martin Luther King Jr’s Where Are We Going: Chaos or Community last year in our Pilgrimage Reading Group will remember that Dr. King believed love was much more than that. He argued in that book that love was “an absolute necessity” for human survival. King knew that some would dismiss love as too weak a response to unchecked power, so he made himself clear: “When I speak of love,” King wrote in the year before he was assassinated, “I am speaking of that force which all the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life.” For King, love was a force. And without it, he believed, the juggernaut of racism, poverty and war would plow our civilization under.
Dorothy Day, whose autobiography The Long Loneliness, we read this year in our Practicing Hope reading group, had a similarly unsentimental view of love. Where there is no love, she once said, put love, and then you will find love there. For Day, love is not a matter of waiting for good feelings to fill us up and soften our edges. Love is something active, something we have to take responsibility for. One of her favorite passages from literature was a sentence from Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov: “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing, compared to love in dreams.” That’s what Day and King were both talking about: love in practice. The force to which we must risk harnessing ourselves; a practice that we have to learn.
In the Song of Songs, that great poem of love, one lover says to the other: remember when I woke you up under that apple tree? It was the apple tree under which your mother labored to bring you into the world. I love the ground your mother lay on, the lover seems to say. I love your humanity. I love that you were born from a woman. The lover reverences all that we share that makes us human: even the labor by which we came into the world. When she sees her lover, she sees more than his body, more than his possessions, more than his job, more than his education, more than his politics. She sees all the way back to his birth, all the way back to his laboring mother, all the way back to the tree under which his mother pushed until he entered the world. What would take to see everyone as someone’s child, whose origins are precious, whose dignity is worthy of reverence, who is owed care and protection and respect? It would take practice. Love in practice.
It would also take a greater consciousness of how our lives, our destinies, and our survival are intertwined. Hopefully during this time when we have had to rely on each other—and especially on essential workers—we have grown in our understanding of our interdependence. But that consciousness could easily slip away as the pandemic eases. The philosopher Simone Weil once wrote that if she were what she ought to be, she would make a vow of love inwardly that was renewed each second of each day, each time eternal and each time wholly complete and new.
That’s a tall order. But I think she’s onto something with the idea of making a vow. The vows we make—in weddings, in religious life--they’re meant to help us stay conscious of what we want our lives to mean even in times of stress or anger or fear or doubt. Vows help us stay turned toward love no matter how we are feeling.
We may not be able to make a vow every second of every day the way Simone Weil, in her usual radical way, imagines, but what would it be like to cultivate a practice of remembering, at moments throughout the day, that our lives are intertwined with everyone else’s in ways, as Dr. King once said, beyond our knowing. What would it look like for the officer sliding behind the wheel of the squad car, the teacher rising to her feet before a classroom of children, the doctor entering the hospital room, the minister before she steps into the pulpit, the politician before the vote on the floor, to renew a vow of love, a vow to see and cherish the dignity of each person we’ll encounter? What kind of difference might that make?
In the passage Jeromel De La Rosa Lara read for us from the gospel of John today, Jesus is speaking with his disciples for the last time before his arrest. He is urging them to keep their lives intertwined with his. Abide in me, he says, as I abide in you—in and out, over and across, he is braiding their lives together in the last hours he has with them. I am the vine and God is the vinegrower and you are the branches, he says. It is the intertwining of the vine and the branches that bears fruit, and it is the vinegrower who tends to them so that they can make more. It is the intertwining of vine and branches that is generative, the braiding of our lives together that makes us capable of more than we could have imagined—more reverence for each other’s humanity, more love, more care.