I’m going to start our message today with a confession. Most weekday nights last week, as the PBS Newshour signed off the air, I found myself standing about five feet from my television, watching intently, usually in tears. My heart was deeply touched by the stories anchor Judy Woodruff tells at end of the newscast of a selection of people who recently lost their lives to COVID-19. Their stories are sweet and inspiring and capture what was precious about their lives, what lives on in the goodness they shared. Their families have sent in photos of their loved ones at their happiest. These lives—all of them–are so rich with love, so beautiful, so varied. It is not only easy to notice God’s goodness in each of the smiles and stories—you literally cannot miss it. God blessed each of these lives and through them, the lives of all who knew them. That is what God’s love does—it shines into our lives and then outward, through us, reflecting on others like millions of tiny suns. God’s nature is sharing and God’s own image—planted deeply in these souls it takes us a lifetime to know—God’s image will shine naturally through all the moments of our lives, if we don’t cover it over with rancor, distrust, selfishness, and greed.
In those few glimpses at the end of the Newshour, Friday evening viewers met a 21-year-old college junior who coached his little sister’s softball team and was her best friend and biggest cheerleader; a woman soon to be 106 who spent her career as the Dean of Women at a southern university and recently went fishing with her son, one of her favorite things to do. There was a 77-year-old African American firefighter who was his daughter’s everything, and an Asian American pharmacist who insisted on going to work during the pandemic even though he was at risk because, he told his family, “This is when people really need me the most.”
So much goodness in these single lives, evident in the tiniest of snapshots on the evening news. These lives together represent an ocean of love, flowing over the ocean of darkness and despair that George Fox wrote about so long ago. The fact that these dear people are gone is our great heartache and national tragedy. The realization that there are 170,000 more like them, uniquely good and uniquely blessed, is beyond our capacity to grasp. The fact that they lived—and brought such love to the world through their presence—is ongoing and glorious mystery, a gift so monumental and so lasting that we have to go back to God to even begin to understand it.
Early in the book of Genesis, we learn that God purposefully set out to make humankind, “in our image,” God said, “according to our likeness.” When I was in seminary, I wondered, who is God speaking to? Who is this “our,” this singular deity is addressing? Some scholars say God is addressing the heavenly court, similar to the scene that starts the book of Job, when God and all the archangels are present. I prefer the commentary in my Hebrew bible, which offers that God was speaking to all life already created–animals and living plants, plus angels and other heavenly beings–a great conversation with all living souls present at the time humankind was added to the mix. This places humans on par with all life—not above or below it—which fits gracefully with my Quaker ideas of equality and harmony.
I think it’s important to see that God was intentional about creating us—there was a purpose to God’s effort and the purpose was this: so that we, too, would share the image and likeness of God. God blessed us and said to us, “Be fruitful and multiply,” giving us a profound insight into the nature of God’s love. We are meant not only to share in the image and likeness of God, meaning that we, ourselves, have that of God within us, but that we are hard-wired to share with others the image and likeness of God that is in us. That is how God’s spirit moves from one to the next to the next, blessing and inspiring and healing and loving. That’s what is lasting in each of the lives on the PBS Newhour that made me cry. It is God’s image and likeness within us—God’s living presence in our souls—that does the work, that brings healing to the world, that gradually—if we are willing—enables us to do our part in bringing about the kingdom of God in the here and now.
That is one reason why learning how to be still and making space for quiet in our lives, is such a vital spiritual practice. When we are all about the happy business of living, going here and doing that and planting this and buying those, we rarely slow down enough to let ourselves settle into an awareness of deep connection with God, feeling a living sense of God with us. I believe God understands this—God is the one after all who created this beautiful garden with its unlimited abundance of things that interest and attract us. But it is given us to learn to manage our attention, to choose purposefully what we believe and use and share.
Evelyn Underhill was a deeply spiritual writer who was born in the late 1800s who spent much of her adult life leading retreats and writing about Christian mysticism. The term mystical experience refers to a direct encounter with spirit, a personal feeling of God’s presence or leading, not something you’re read about or heard about or learned through another’s story. George Fox’s experience of Christ when he heard, “There is one, Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition,” that was a mystical experience. Quakers are quite open to mystical experience because we believe strongly in Spirit traveling through life with us, revealing new things and helping us grow.
We Friends don’t often refer to our time of waiting worship as an invitation to mystical experience, but that is what it truly is. We prepare our hearts and minds to receive something directly from God during those quiet moments, whether it be an answer to prayer, a feeling of comfort, a new way forward, or simply the grace of a felt presence.
In her book, The Spiritual Life, Evelyn Underhill writes,
“We mostly spend [our] lives conjugating three verbs: to Want, to Have, and to Do. Craving, clutching, and fussing, on the material, political, social, emotional, intellectual—even on the religious—plane, we are kept in perpetual unrest: forgetting that none of these verbs have any ultimate significance, except so far as they are transcended by and included in, the fundamental verb, to Be: and that Being, not wanting, having and doing, is the essence of a spiritual life.”
Being, she offers, is the doorway in to a personal experience of God. She goes on to describe what it feels like when we can let go of our personal ups and downs, cravings and efforts, and let our close horizon widen out into a vast landscape, the larger realm of God’s ever-extending peace. It takes Being to get us there.
When we can become aware of that widened landscape—the one we often miss because we don’t see the forest for the trees—we discover for ourselves what God’s love will do—extend and expand itself forever. It flows outward, blessing and widening as it goes. Think about something like a flower’s blossom emerging from a tiny bud, or a bird hatching from an egg, or perhaps something more practical like a business that employs dozens of people today. It likely started as a single good idea that popped into someone’s head while they were sitting with coffee at their kitchen table. And then it went on to bless hundreds, maybe thousands—employees, contractors, customers, and more. That’s what God’s love does. It extends and expands, blessing by growing.
Early Friend William Penn, a contemporary of George Fox and the founder and first governor of the state of Pennsylvania, was a pacifist and a devout student of spirit who brought forward some foundational ideas about equality, democracy, and freedom and justice for all. In fact the early document that helped create Pennsylvania’s government—based on freedom and assembly and a first effort at representative government—was used by the framers of the U.S. Constitution as they began their work decades later.
As a young man, Penn was given a massive amount of land–what became the entire state of Pennsylvania and more– as a land grant from the king of England, who owed a debt to William’s father, Admiral Sir William Penn. Penn boarded a ship to the new world, sailing up the Delaware River, determined to found a colony based on the core testimonies of Friends.
Penn was not only a dedicated student of spirit but a powerful writer and speaker who felt the spiritual values at the core of a life should blossom into the outer life as well—in love, charity, good works, and respect for all. And he lived his beliefs. He developed good relationships with the Native Americans who lived on the land and he insisted they be paid fairly for any land purchased from them. If any problems arose, Penn required that an assembly with equal representation of Native Americans and settlers work to find the solution. In talking about his policy of peacemaking with all people, Penn gave us one of his most beloved quotes:
A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil, that good may come of it… It is as great presumption to send our passions upon God’s errands, as it is to palliate them with God’s name… We are too ready to retaliate, rather than forgive, or gain by love and information. And yet we could hurt no man that we believe loves us. Let us then try what Love will do: for if men did once see we love them, we should soon find they would not harm us. Force may subdue, but Love gains: and he that forgives first, wins the laurel.
There is so much here. First, Penn says it’s a great presumption—in other words, it’s arrogant of us—to want God to act on our passions or for us to justify our passions in God’s name. This connects to Evelyn Underhill’s idea of how caught up we get in our three verbs—wanting, having, and doing—at the expense of our realization of the nearness of God. But she also tells us there’s an antidote to our tendency toward self-absorption: when we back up and let ourselves remember God’s larger landscape, peace, stillness, beauty emerge and we remember Whose image and likeness we share.
Next, Penn points out that so often in our relationships with others, we are quick to retaliate, to take offense, to think others are judging or criticizing us. This is especially likely with those we don’t know, even more so in times like these, fraught with conflicting views and strong opinions. But there is another way, an antidote to our reflex of making war with each other when we don’t understand or feel at risk. We could try what Love will do, remembering that of God in us—the image and likeness that leads and blesses us. We could hold everything loosely, we could forgive all trespasses, even as our own are forgiven. We could remember the larger landscape. We could let Spirit lead us that direction.
God’s Love must extend itself, moving from soul to soul, expanding outward like the shining rays of the sun. That’s what God’s love does. If the person right in front of us could feel that love, we wouldn’t need to feel defensive or threatened or at risk, because God’s love can only bless. We could set down our childish weapons once and for all and realize that there is only peace around us. We would all be safe—and free and at ease—living in touch with divine harmony.
In our New Testament reading today, we heard the parable of the Great Banquet as Jesus tells it in the book of Luke. The story is about someone giving a big dinner for invited guests. But when they were called to come to the feast, the guests offered many different excuses. When the servant told the host, he was angry and said, “Go out and invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” The servant did what he asked and still the table wasn’t full, so he was sent out another time to welcome everyone he found—everyone and anyone—to the table of God. Those who had received gilded invitations and dismissed the significance of the gift had let a great opportunity slip through their hands. They were caught up in the very human endeavors of Wanting, Having, and Doing and as a result, their hunger for peace and connection with God—gifts of that larger landscape—would go unfed.
God’s love has to give. That is what Love does. It extends itself. It sets a creative, abundant, mind-blowingly rich and beautiful feast for us each and every day.
As God’s children, we feel most at peace, most fulfilled, most in harmony, when we, too, extend the love that is at the center of our being. It is not ours to keep and hoard and protect; it meant to flow through us to bless others. We know deeply this is true—that is what we celebrate in each other’s lives, even in brief moments on the PBS Newshour. God’s love must flow outward until every single one of God’s children is included in His embrace. When we can be part of that, our lives are blessed in ways that last across time.
In closing I’d like to share a simple and lovely poem by Hafiz. He writes,
All this time
The Sun never says to the Earth,
“You owe me.”
With a love like that,
It lights the whole sky.”
- OT Genesis 1: 26-30
- NT Luke 14: 15-24
- Underhill, Evelyn. The Spiritual Life. https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Spiritual_Life.html
- William Penn, biography: https://www.ushistory.org/penn/bio.htm
- Hafiz. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/hafez