This year, I did an experiment.
I didn't mean it so much as an experiment. I had a sermon where I talked about Forrest Church and why he ended his sermons with "Amen. I love you. And may God bless us all."
According to Rev. Galen Guengerich:
“... when I say, “I love you” from the pulpit,” (Forrest) said, “something connects—I get connected to the congregation and they get connected to each other. It’s almost like, for a moment at least, we all part of each other—of something larger than ourselves. It’s the human form of love divine, as Blake put it.” “And besides,” he added, “someone once told me that I’m the only person in her life who ever says “I love you.” She comes to church to hear someone say that she matters.”That last part kills me. Every time I read it. Each time we walk into church, we must realize that there is someone who is there because they need to hear that they matter.
I knew what I wanted to do when I got to that part of my sermon. I'd heard Rudy Rasmus do it in a sermon, and it fit. It felt, to me, necessary. A way of taking a sermon concept and immediately putting it into practice.
Did I dare?
I was going to ask the congregation to do something. Something uncomfortable. In our independence, in our belief that each person is responsible for their own beliefs and actions, this could be seen as blasphemy.
To make the stakes even higher, the first time I did this, I was preaching at a Fellowship famous for their no-nonsense approach to life and worship. "Give us the intellectual sermons and save that
belly-button-gazing touchy-feely stuff for someone else." A fellowship where one member literally walks out of the service as soon as he hears the word, "I," because he doesn't think first-person should be used in a sermon.
"She comes to church to hear someone say that she matters," I repeated. I took a deep breath then said:
"Turn to someone right now and say 'I love you and there's nothing you can do about it!'"
There was an intake of breath. There was a half a second of silence that stretched on for about an hour, it seemed to me. All the nightmares I'd envisioned ran through my head -- people walking out, sitting stone-faced, throwing tomatoes ...
Half a second of silence. And then ... total BEDLAM.
People said it, left and right. Little old ladies hugged each other. A tall gentleman crossed the aisle to say it to another. Men said it to men. Men and women turned front and back, saying it to those in front, in back, to the side, patting each other's arms ...
Three times I tried to start my sermon again. But love had been let loose and it needed its time, first.
Since then, I have done that Love Experiment at four other churches. So, five churches total. Intellectual churches, family churches, dignified, casual. The result is always the same. Oh, I'm sure there's an occasional person who could do without it, but for that experiment, I get the best seat in the house. I'm up in the pulpit and there, I'm the audience. And I have seen some amazing, beautiful expressions of agape and friendship. Things that are in my heart, still. The young woman walking over to the frail man in the wheelchair, kneeling next to him, taking his hand in hers, looking straight into his eyes and telling him she loves him. And there's nothing he can do about it. And the light in his eyes as he slowly, tentatively, pats her hand.
A few months after I'd given the sermon at one of my favorite little churches, I was at an area UU workshop. There was a woman sitting across a large table from me, peering at me intently. Suddenly, she burst out, "I love you and there's nothing you can do about it!!!"
Okay, that was a Truly Great Moment in my life.
My friend, Good Ole Boy, was sitting next to me. He'd never heard that sermon. He looked at her a little curiously, then said, "Wow, that is just wonderful. We need to all be more willing to say that." She and I grinned at each other.
Our Unitarian side emphasizes free will. Our Universalist side emphasizes divine, unlimited, extravagant love. Balance is important, but if I have to err on one side, I'll take the latter. Because I've seen what happens when you give people permission to say, "I love you."
But preachers, be prepared. It'll be a few minutes before you can start talking again. And you may be a little choked up by what you witness.