The Practice of Lovingkindness

a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
10:30 AM, Sunday, November 17, 2019



If you google the word “Lovingkindness” – that is how we initially seek information that is new to us nowadays, isn’t it? Google it? – and then from the links provided make your way to Wikipedia, you are going to come to a disambiguation page. Don’t you love those? You’re looking for information, and the first thing that happens is that you need to know which use of the word you are looking for:


“Loving-kindness” [the disambiguation page reads] “loving-kindness” may refer to:

  • an English translation of Chesed, a term found in the Hebrew Bible, [or to]
  • an English translation of Mettā or maitrī, a term used in Buddhism [1]


Isn’t that delightful? The same English word, which can be written as one word or two words or as a hyphenation of two words refers equally to more than one concept in World Religions. It is a borrowed concept with dual sources.


In our music this morning, we’ve already touched on the Budddhist notion of mettā, the lovingkindness meditation set to the music of my friend from seminary Ian Riddell. “May I be peaceful and at ease. May I be whole.” The idea of mettā is that you contemplate the highest state as a meaningful and ultimately attainable goal for yourself, for your friends and family, for people of no particular importance to you, for your enemy, and for the whole world. In ever widening circles, we desire the best and highest for more and more until all existence is taken into the circle of belonging and peace.


This ever-widening practice of inclusion, reminds me, at its heart of the amazing four-line poem written Edwin Markham, sometimes called the Universalist poet laureate. Remember this poem I’ve used over and over again:


He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in! [2]


This is a Western expression of mettā. The very ones who would punish, shame, and exclude you are also worthy of the ultimate inclusion of ever-widening circles. This is what Jesus was talking about when he instructed his followers to love their enemies. This great Universalist message that we are all saved or lost only together. The only way we make it is by making a place for the people who would not make a place for us. By building the world that includes, rather than excludes.


When I think of the word chesed, though, the Jewish idea that is also called “lovingkindness” in English, I also think of a song first. Rabbi Menachem Creditor wrote a song that I first learned at my synagogue in St. Louis, but which has developed a certain devotion among Unitarian Universalists, as well. A couple of years ago when I went to a mid-winter minister’s continuing education retreat in Florida, this song was an important part of every day of Unitarian Universalist ministers worshiping together. It’s a little bit Hebrew – three words, infact – a little bit niggun (that Chasidic form of wordless melody intended as prayer), plenty of English pointing to that quintessential Jewish ideas of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, and bringing justice and the wholeness and peace that is shalom. Rabbi Creditor explains how this song came to be written:


I wrote this song for my daughter, born right after 9/11. This world will be built by love: ours and God’s. In the best and worst of moments, non-fundamentalist “believers” and “atheists” are reaching for the same hope using different language. Amen to both. [3]


Its title is “Olam Chesed Yibaneh,” which means “The world we yearn for will be built from lovingkindness.” The song doesn’t require any specific belief of you, and it goes like this:


Olam chesed yibaneh…yai dai dai dai dai dai dai (x4)

I will build this world from love…yai dai dai dai dai dai dai
And you must build this world from love…yai dai dai dai dai dai dai
And if we build this world from love…yai dai dai dai dai dai dai
Then God will build this world from love…yai dai dai dai dai dai dai

Olam chesed yibaneh…yai dai dai dai dai dai dai (x2) [4]


A world built from lovingkindness is a concept that tells us that intention is not enough. It is a piece of the puzzle. Just as belief is not enough. It is a piece of the puzzle. We might have perfect intention and inspiring beliefs, but, if our intention and beliefs and our good heart does not prompt action, our goal of a world grounded in lovingkindness will not come to be. “And if WE build this world from love, THEN God will build this world from love.” Whether you are a theist who believes in a God who literally responds to the actions and pleas of humans to build the good or, instead, are a humanist who believes that the language of God’s action is a validation of something made real only by human action is all the same. The world changes through human action.


From time to time, I have used Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s poem “Unending Love” in our services. Remember how, after listing multiple ways we are loved by an unending love, the poet tells us that “Ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices; Ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles.” The unending love is the love we enact, the love we make real by changing it from an idea or an emotion or an obligation into action. Lovingkindness is a way of being in the world, actively engaging with the world, changing injustice to justice. It is an idea that transcends the divisions between religions and cultures, between religion and non-religion.


Teresa of Ávila was what I lightly call a sexy saint – a Sixteenth-Century Spanish nun, a mystic, one of the small group of saints honored by the Catholic Church with the posthumous title “Doctor of the Church,” who, though she chose to live as a Christian and a monastic under the pressures of the Spanish Inquision, she was a Jew. And as she was a sexy saint, it was easy to latch onto her and identify as her words this oft-quoted poem nearly universally misattributed to her:


Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes. You are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours. [5]


These words were, actually, an anonymous amalgamation of the words and thoughts of two Protestant leaders of the late Nineteenth Century: Methodist minister Mark Pearse and Quaker medical missionary Sarah Elizabeth Rowntree.[5] Late Nineteenth-Century Methodism was an important home of the growing movement of the so-called Social Gospel, religious Christians who believed that Christianity’s mission was best expressed in care of what Jesus, in King James translation, called “the least of these.” Similarly, Quakers believed in changing the world, not just believing proper doctrines and being personally pious. “Christ has no body but yours” was a rallying cry to action, a call to change the world through human action.


Faith separate from action is meaningless. “Faith without works is dead,” as the writer of the Epistle of James immortalized in Christian scripture. “Deeds, not Creeds,” as has often been said in Unitarian Universalist settings. We save the world – with God, in the place of God, perhaps inspired by God, for God – through our meaningful actions.


A few years ago, as part of an short animated series on Jewish Ethics in a segment on chesed, Hanan Harchol told the story of a baby on a plane. As the plane took off and started climbing, a baby near him on the plane began shrieking. And it didn’t stop. It wouldn’t stop. So adults nearby were scrambling to relocate to the plane’s few empty seats farther from the baby’s ear-splitting noise. Our narrator was stuck right where he started near the baby. There was no place he could go. He had a baby at home. He knew about babies’ crying. But he had hoped he would be able to relax on this flight. And the baby continued to shriek. Unconsoled. And then a three-year-old boy squirmed out of his seat, walked over to the baby, took the pacifier out of his own mouth, and reached it out to the baby. As the narrator interpreted this event, everyone was busy tending to their own need for the baby to just be quiet or at least to be distant from the noise. And this young child was the only one trying to solve the baby’s problem.


Toward the end of this animated discussion between the narrator and the narrator’s father, the father admits that he had not been a good father, a good husband, a good employee, a good neighbor. The narrator asks him how he turned things around and developed the better qualities he now had. The elderly father says:


I guess it happened after the divorce. I was dating a woman named Barbara. She had two dogs, two big hairy mutts, and one day she brought those dogs to my house broke up with me and left me the two dogs. So I gave them a haircut. I didn’t even like dogs. But it was summer, and I figured they must be hot, I guess. When I was cutting the dog’s hair there was no reward or calculation, I just felt they must be hot, and I cut their hair, and it felt good. The dogs felt good, and I felt good. It felt good to make them feel good.

The dogs, they lived with me for a while, and then, eventually, they died. All we can do is try we can try to do the best we can. But kindness usually happens in small steps. It’s so difficult for us to be kind to each other. I think it’s because we’re afraid – afraid of making a mistake, of missing out, of being taken advantage of, afraid of failing to live up to people’s expectations – especially our own – but when we choose to connect with another person in a selfless act of kindness we break the cycle of fear, and we quickly discover that everyone is a human being just like you and me.

We’re all the screaming baby on the airplane longing for someone to heal us and help us meet our needs. [6]


Letting go of fear to then respond to the realities, the needs of those around us. This is that baseline of lovingkindness captured in this congregation’s Vision Statement:


We envision the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waynesboro as a diverse and vibrant spiritual community. Rooted in the practice of loving-kindness we are moved to act with justice and generosity in our Fellowship and beyond.


There is an old Jewish saying:


“Many people worry about their own stomachs and the state of other people’s souls. The real task is to do the opposite: to worry about other people’s stomachs and the state of your own soul.” Or as [Nineteenth-Century] Rabbi Israel Salanter used to put it: “Someone else’s material needs are my spiritual responsibility.” [7]


“Rooted in the practice of loving-kindness,” our vision says. Rooted. This is the beginning, the ground, what is first necessary on the path of action toward the goal of a world of justice and equity. This is not the end but the baseline, the starting point, the foundation on which we then build our commitment to action, our commitment to building justice in the world that goes beyond helping people survive a system filled with evils and inequities. Lovingkindness is the crucial starting point.


Amen and Blessed Be.



© Copyright 2019 by Rev. Paul Oakley