Living Commitment ()Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons, February 3, 2013
Part of the Misc. series, preached at a Sunday Morning service
In an arranged marriage, love is not the soil in which the marriage grows. At best, it’s the other way around: the marriage is the soil in which love grows. This is the theory – that in sharing a life, you grow to love each other. To test this theory you really have to be a couple in an arranged marriage who have been together a long time. This is the test run by Tevya and Golde in the song we heard earlier – “Do You Love Me?” – from the musical Fiddler on the Roof. They are a couple living in a 1905 Russian shtetl in an arranged marriage of 25 years and the husband, Tevya, wants to know whether the rich soil of this marriage has borne fruit in the form of love.
So he asks his wife whether she loves him. To her, the question doesn’t even compute. Love isn’t the point of marriage in their world. The point is sustenance, survival, getting things done, raising kids, making use of the economy of scale in warding off poverty. But Tevya really wants to know and he keeps nudging her about it and finally Golde concedes that for 25 years she’s washed his clothes, cooked his meals, cleaned his house, given him children, milked the cow; they’ve gone through 25 years of experiences together, good and bad, and that all of that somehow does add up to love. She asks, “If that’s not love, what is?”
Proponents of arranged marriage will say that a well-arranged marriage will start out cold and then heat up over the years, whereas in many of today's "love marriages," they start out hot and then cool to a dead ember, hence the soaring divorce rate. They would say that behaviors of commitment actually lead to feelings of commitment and connection and eventually, love. Not the other way around.
This is not the way we generally think of things in this country, in this era, and in this religion. We assume that love comes first -- with a partner or with a congregation. A group of people joined this congregation last Sunday in what we might call a commitment ceremony. In this case, the love definitely came first, and the dating and the exploratory moving in together on Sunday mornings. And finally, after all the vetting had been done, these people decided to take the plunge, as have all our members here. The analogy isn't perfect, of course. The expectations of membership are far less than those of marriage and commitment until death is not required and, you’ll be relieved to know, the experience involves far less intimacy than marriage. But nonetheless, there are expectations, it is a commitment, and it is intimate. Taking the plunge involves committing to certain behaviors - committing your time, your money, your participation, and your intention of bringing your best self to this community.
It can be scary for some of us. For post-Enlightenment liberals I would say that commitment is generally out of vogue. In relationships, some of us like to keep our options open for as long as possible, be ready to trade up at any time. Theologically, we want to be able to change our minds on short notice. We carry our institutions lightly. When we are asked to pledge a financial commitment for next year, a commitment that won’t even start for six months and then will continue for an entire year after that, some of us quail. Next year is so far away and who knows what will happen between now and then. We don’t even know what we’re doing next weekend. It’s like we’re waiting to be swept off our feet by love and appreciation and awe and passion before we will begin to commit.
But even among us post-moderns, this attitude gets old. I can’t tell you how often people complain to me that they can’t just make a date with a friend any more to get together at a particular day and time and place because the attitude is, “Yeah, let’s hang out sometime. I’ll text you.” Others bemoan that even when people do commit to be somewhere at a certain time and place, they sometimes have no compunction about just not showing up or cancelling at the last minute. Taken to its extreme, this commitment phobia creates a loveless world of individuals, isolated from one another.
So, in the chicken or egg equation, some say that commitment comes first, others say that love comes first. And the truth, I believe, is that both are right. Committed action and love are mutually reinforcing. If you love and value this congregation and all that it’s doing for the world and for you in your life, you’re going to feel inspired to wash its clothes, cook its meals, clean its house, give it your children, and milk the cow. And likewise, if you do all those things, you’re going to grow to love it here and to feel connected and committed. This is how community grows and works. Committed action and love are mutually reinforcing.
George Bernard Shaw wrote:
I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as I live it is my privilege — my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I love. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me; it is a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got a hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.
And so here we are at the beginning of this year’s pledge campaign, where we are being asked to make a very concrete financial commitment for the future – for our own future and those of future generations. We are being asked to make this commitment because commitment is life-giving to both the giver and the receiver. Commitment makes possible the things that matter most. Commitment to a partner gives us a lasting partnership. Commitment to learning a trade or intellectual discipline gives us a career. Commitment to learning an art form gives us art. Commitment to our congregation gives us a spiritual home.
Each one of us is only here – we only exist today – because of the commitment of a mothering presence during our infancy. It wasn’t necessarily a biological mother, but someone, somehow made great sacrifices and took care of each one of us 24/7 in our early lives or we would not be here now. It's as simple as that. Commitment brings things into existence and sustains them.
In the case of this congregation, too, financial commitment is life giving. It is the physical sustenance of this congregation, allowing us to continue expanding our programs, our worship experiences, our music, our small groups, and the reach of our pastoral care. It allows us to find new ways to engage newcomers and to take care of our beautiful building. We are growing quickly and if we have the resources, we can take advantage of this exciting moment to extend our reach beyond these walls and share our blessings more and more with the wider world. Commitment is life-giving to this congregation.
And commitment is also life-giving to each one of us who gives. “The harder I work, the more I love. I rejoice in life for its own sake,” says Shaw. When you make a pledge that feels like a stretch for you, when you serve on a committee, when you teach an RE class for a year, when you organize a TNT brunch, when you work with the Pastoral Care Group to bring meals to members recovering from surgery, when you participate in organizing UniFair or, better yet, clean up after UniFair, you move closer to the center of the heart of this congregation and it moves closer to the center of your heart. When you commit to something, you become part of it. It becomes part of you. You are inextricably bound up in it. You’re not alone.
I would like to see this entire community move in toward the center. It’s common for congregations to have a few people who give most of the money and time and a lot of people living around the edges. Those people at the edges may be enjoying the worship services, but they are not fully rejoicing in congregational life. I would like to see each one of you take one step in toward the center. If you’ve never pledged before, make a pledge of any amount. Doesn’t matter if you’re a member or not. If you always pledge, raise your pledge. If you’ve never been part of a committee or group here, join one. If you’re a member of a committee, offer to chair it next year. Step into leadership, start a new group, volunteer to make soup or sandwiches for coffee hour, sign up to usher. There are a million ways to step in toward the center. If you don’t know what to do, come talk to me. I’ll hook you up. And the beauty of it is that the more you commit of your money and your time and your self, the more you will love it here.
George Bernard Shaw’s metaphor of passing the torch to the next generation is a little cliché at this point, but it gets at a very deep and mystical truth: That it’s by investing ourselves in the things that we love – “using ourselves up,” as he puts it – that we actually transfer our own life energy to them and gain a kind of immortality. We lavish our gifts on those around us, supporting them financially, cooking, cleaning, milking cows, and after 25 years or so, we find that we are left with a life in which we can rejoice. And the people and communities into which we pour our energies over the long term tend to thrive.
I will leave you with one final example of how commitment is literally life-giving. A friend of mine from high school used to have trouble staying in romantic relationships because she was a classic commitment-phobe. She would always run away when things got too serious. She realized that this was a problem that had more to do with her than with any of the people she dated. So she decided to practice living commitment by getting a pet rat. She didn’t really want a rat but she figured that a rat would be the perfect commitment training wheels because rats need minimal care relative to, say, a dog, and they’re only supposed to live for two to three years. I spoke to her seven years after she got that rat. She had succeeded beyond her wildest dreams: She was happily married with a baby on the way. And the rat was still alive and in perfect health.
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