By Rev. Ellen Sims
Texts: I John 3: 16-18; John 10:11-18
Because of who you are, I am daring to read you a poem I’ve always wanted to read in church. It’s called “After Making Love, We Hear Footsteps” and the poet is the masterful Galway Kinnell, who died last year. The situation is this: a married couple has just made love—when their young son Fergus, sleeping down the hall, awakens. (This link allows you to hear the poet himself reading the poem).
This poem shows us a marriage that has made space for the unexpected, for gentle humor, for quiet passion, for awkwardness and messiness, and for sweetness. This couple understands that making love includes making room for love of others. Fergus’s parents have loved, and their love has created a child to love, and that child returns to “the ground of his making” as an offering of more love. Love begets love. Making love makes more love.
That’s why I don’t understand people trying to “protect” marriage by excluding same-sex couples from “wedded bliss.” Seems to me that all the happily marrieds would want others to enjoy the same opportunity to make covenants of love and fidelity. Seems our society should encourage such devotion since love between two people spills over onto others. When society supports loving and lasting relationships, everyone benefits. Extending marriage rights to same-sex couples—legitimizing and upholding their relationships, too—is a social good. I hope the Supreme Court of the United States will agree with this, too.
I want to say more in support of marriage equality and name qualities of healthy relationships in general. But I first want to say what I’m not saying: I’m not exalting marital love above other forms of love. I’m neither pitying nor criticizing those who live singly. I’m not condemning committed couples who choose not to marry. I hope I’m not further marginalizing same-sex couples through the poem that launches this sermon. Because I do believe there are many ways to be in loving relationship. But I do want to honor and commend the hard, patient, selfless work that covenanted relationships require and foster—and the benefits these well-tended relationships confer upon others.
Galway Kinnell’s poem understands the marriage bed paradoxically both as a protective cocoon sequestering the lovers and as an incubator for birthing more love for others. Love between the couple has created a child, indeed has created a beloved child, and has also invited the reader into the warmth of that intimate love. Galway Kinnell once said, “A poem expresses one’s most private feelings and these turn out to be the feelings of everyone else as well.” I think this particular poem of his extends that point. It seems to say, “A loving relationship expresses the most private of feelings and these turn out to affect the feelings of everyone else.”
Our most intimate moments with our lovers and with our God remain entirely private, unknowable to others; nevertheless, they equip us for loving the entire world. Love grows most beautifully within sacrosanct boundaries—but then flows out beyond those carefully guarded borders. Your love for your life partner is deeply personal—yet never for your benefit alone. The way you love your lover, your child, your friend, your neighbor—is the way this world gets loved. If your love making doesn’t teach you a greater generosity of spirit, something is wrong. If you cannot wish for others the kind of love you and your life partner experience, maybe your love making is not making love, is not creating Love’s progeny in the world. If you can’t make room for all God’s children in your heart, what kind of love has been growing in your marriage bed? Marriage benefits the couple and the community.
The uniting and self-giving acts of marriage picture humanity’s purpose. We were made for uniting—so says the story of Adam and Eve. Okay, according to the Bible’s creation myth, the first two human beings were Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. But that Genesis account offers an even bigger story about the impulse to unite and to recognize creation’s intrinsic unity. We were made for uniting.
Which brings us, at last, to today’s Gospel reading from John. The love of the Good Shepherd for his sheep is another “poem,” if you will, that extols a love that initially seems constrictive. Verses 14-16 underscore the Good Shepherd’s devotion to those only within his flock: “14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as our God knows me and I know God. And I lay down my life for the [my] sheep.” Like the love of a spouse, the love and care of the Good Shepherd seems narrowly focused, provincial. He intensely focuses on just a few sheep he knows well and who know him well.
But read further: “16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
The love for one flock doesn’t prevent the shepherd from caring about sheep outside his flock. Again, love is both intimate and expansive. A deep love can stretch our hearts in ways that teach us how to love others who are not intimates. Intimate love opens us up to love the stranger.
To call Jesus the Good Shepherd is itself a challenge to love strangers. After all, shepherds were rough, marginal figures who didn’t fit in with polite society. Jesus was not actually a shepherd, but he was like a shepherd in his proclivity for seeking out the people on the margins, the outcasts. Shepherd-like, he went in search of the wandering ones to include them in the fold. So we return again to that Christian paradox: We love God through deeply intimate communing—yet in broadly inclusive community.
In a few verses in John just before today’s reading begins, Jesus described himself not as the shepherd who invites all sheep into the fold—but as the gate: “9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Love must also set up protective boundaries because love does not permit harmful encroachments on our relationship with God or one another.
What boundaries have you put in place in your relationships that will allow your love to flourish and you to flourish? What must be kept outside the gates of your marriage that could threaten it or could stifle your own healthy development? What kind of thieves might come in to rob your relationship? Especially in this context of marriage, your thoughts may first go to people and circumstances that could weaken your or your partner’s fidelity. But there are also subtler thieves who rob your relationship of its joy, comfort, priority, honesty, mutuality, peace, trust, and intimacy. In addition to thieves, there are the “hired hands” (John 10:12) who, unlike the Good Shepherd, simply run away when things grow difficult.
Today’s scriptures have caused me to consider that a relationship is healthiest when it fosters the development of the individuals in that relationship as well as the betterment of those touched by the relationship. A home that is a retreat for loved ones—is often a refuge for others, too.
Because love is all of a piece. Making love is the act of uniting. It’s a physical and spiritual union that pictures with our bodies the fundamental spiritual reality and goal: we are not separate; we are one. How, then, my friends, can we justify excluding same gender-loving people from the sacrament of marriage? To do so further divides humanity.
If we ever truly grasp the reality of our unity, we will want for others what we want for ourselves. Which is love.
Theologian Reinhold Nieburh once said: “Nothing we can do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.”
Our congregation has proudly joined hands with many others to play our small role in support of marriage equality. It’s a goal that cannot be accomplished alone. Thank God thousands of others are connecting to do this saving work.
During our time of Holy Communion, we’ll hear a song from Weaver, an operetta written by Ken Medema. It’s a modern Christian interpretation of evolving creation. In a song called “I See You,” the first human creatures sing a duet, a love song filled with verbs: “I see you, I touch you, I know you, I remember you, I imagine you, I help you, I comfort you . . . .“ Verbs that add up to love. They sing, “Together we’ll find what we won’t find alone.” Near the song’s conclusion they sing, “We were made for uniting.”* This is not one couple’s song alone; it is the song of all Creation.
Christ’s Table is a table that unites. Each week we come together, sheep returning to the fold for food and shelter. We come forward separately. But here we are reminded we are not separate. We are bound together in love. Let’s recommit today to protect this faith community, our marriages, our families, our friendships, our community bonds, our planet. As you eat from the one loaf, remember it was created from many separate grains of wheat. When you take the common cup, remember it is comprised of many individual grapes. Remember that “nothing we can do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.” Jesus’s saving love is here.
*Note this particular recording is a solo, not the original soprano-baritone duet Medema composed.