to love, serve and honor one another.

3 Mar

a sermon, delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY
on February 7, 2016

Note: This sermon was inspired by a song by Jason Shelton, which I simply could not get out of my head one week. The link to a youtube video teaching the song is at the bottom of the post.


Once upon a time, there were two brothers. We will call them Cain and Abel. Abel, the younger brother, was a shepherd. Cain, the older brother, was a farmer. And they worshipped a deity who was anything but a vegetarian. So their God loved the sheep sacrifices that Abel brought, but was not too fond of the veggies Cain provided. In this story, God sounds a little like a fussy toddler to me, but that is besides the point. I am sure there were some good reasons back in the day that have gotten lost over the ages.

What is the point is that Cain was jealous. His younger brother got all this love and attention from God for his lousy animal sacrifice, while Cain was reprimanded for providing the fruits of his harvest. But rather than take his anger to God, because this God was like an all-powerful toddler after all, Cain took his anger out on Abel, and he killed him. Which was really extreme, and a terrible decision, but that is what he did.

Well, God came looking for his favorite Abel. And asked Cain “Where is your brother?” And Cain got all defensive and he said “I don’t know. Am I my brothers’ keeper?”

Now, God could tell by Cain’s attitude that something bad had happened, and so he cried out “What have you done?” and then God proceeded to curse Cain so that his fields would never yield again.

Ahh, the story of Cain and Abel. The first brothers in the Hebrew Scriptures. The first murder. And so much more.

Now, God doesn’t really answer Cain’s question in the story – Cain’s question about “Am I my brother’s keeper?” But as God matures throughout the Hebrew & Christian scriptures, that question does get answered, again and again.As Kelli Trujillo writes in her article on this topic: “From laws about caring for strangers and aliens…to strident calls for justice for the vulnerable …to Jesus’ challenge to love our neighbors—even our enemies—as we love ourselves…to Paul’s teachings about hospitality…to John’s vision of the just, peaceful kingdom of God come to earth…the answer is yes, yes, yes” we are, indeed, called to be our brother’s keeper.

Trujillo continues: “God invites us to love, stand up for, and kneel down in humility to serve others in our lives. And that call challenges us to step out of tight-knit circles of loved ones and out of our comfortable routines…”

In many ways, this attitude of love is reflected in the golden rule: Treat others the way you would like to be treated yourself. This ethic of reciprocity is a moral maxim or principle of altruism found in many human cultures and in most of the worlds religions. I know Rev. Elwood Sturtevant of Thomas Jefferson Unitarian Church talked to you about the Golden Rule a few weeks ago.

What I would like to introduce you to today is the concept of the Platinum rule. This rule goes one step beyond treating others the way you would like to be treated and instead urges you to treat others the way they would like to be treated. George Bernard Shaw humorously wrote in 1903, “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.” More recently, business leader Dr. Tony Allesandra, puts it this way: “We need to practice the true intent of the Golden Rule, which is, ‘do unto others the way they want to be done to.’ ”

When we utilize the Platinum Rule, we have to pay attention to what others are feeling, needing and wanting. Allesandra says that we need to shift from at attitude of “this is what I want, so I’ll give everyone the same thing” to an attitude of “let me first understand what they want and then I’ll give it to them.”

Let’s connect this to our moment for all ages, and the exciting news that we will soon be having a New Roots Fresh Stop at First U, serving the people of Old Louisville. And let’s say we are like the deity in the Cain and Abel story in that we prefer meat. Utilizing the golden rule, we might say “Well, we are not fond of fresh fruits and vegetables, so others don’t need access to them, either.” Utilizing the Platinum Rule, however, we would say “Oh, I might not be too fond of fresh fruits and vegetables, but I know they are very healthy and that people in this community don’t have access to them, so even if it is not my preference, I understand this is one way we can fill a need in the community.”

Or let’s take a non-food related example. If a friend of mine experiences the death of a loved one, I might think “Oh, wow, if I were in her place, I don’t think I would want to talk about it.” Utilizing the golden rule, when we get together, I won’t say anything, not wanting to make her feel bad. But what if my friend is the opposite of me, and really does want to talk about it? Utilizing the platinum rule, I would first ask her “Do you like to talk about your loved one?” in order to make space for her to either accept, or decline my invitation based on her preference, not my own. In the long run, practicing the golden rule and distinctly avoiding the topic of her loved one may well stress our relationship beyond what it can handle, whereas if I make space for her to share what her preference is, it allows her to feel how much I love and care about her.

Practicing the platinum rule is one way that we can love one another – not by assuming that others are just like us, but by realizing each person has their own distinct story, and their own distinct needs. And then treating them accordingly, because we are all connected and what benefits our neighbors benefits us as well.

Connected to this is the desire to serve one another. To be of use. One of my favorite lines in our hymnal is from a Marge Piercy poem: “Greek amphoras for wine or oil, Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums but you know they were made to be used. The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real.”

There is a debate over whether the golden rule, or altruism, is something that is learned behavior, or if it is something that is genetically hardwired into us. Recent studies indicate the answer is both. Let that sit for a moment – we are genetically hardwired, biologically, to want to be helpful to others, to want to be of use, to serve one another. No wonder it is found across the worlds religions!

Indeed, there is a parable about this – one that has been attributed to a variety of different sources, and is perhaps an ancient Chinese story. Now, though this story compares heaven and hell, I don’t think this parable has anything to do with the afterlife. I think it has to do with this life, here on earth, right now. So I invite you to listen to it with that in mind. It goes somewhat like this:

One day a curious person said to God, “God, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.”

God showed the curious person two doors. Inside the first one, in the middle of the room, was a large round table with a large pot of stew. It smelled delicious and made the person’s mouth water, but the people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished.

Stuart McMillen

Everyone was holding a spoon with a very long handle. And though each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful, because the handles were longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths.
The curious person shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering. God said, “This is what hell is like.”

Behind the second door, the room appeared exactly the same. There was the large round table with the large pot of wonderful stew that made the curious person’s mouth water. The people had the same long-handled spoons, but they were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking.The curious person saw that, rather than each trying to feed themselves, they were feeding one another.

Stuart Mcmillen

God smiled and said “This is what heaven is like. These people have learned to share and feed one another.”

Heaven and hell – exactly the same. What makes it different is our attitude – it depends on whether or not we decide to serve one another.

Of course, this version of heaven never would have worked if each person were not only serving one another, but receiving that which was given to them. I think this aspect of the story gets left out too often: sometimes we need help.

Our society tells us it is better to give than to receive. As William Sloane Coffin pointed out, “Many of us overvalue autonomy, the strength to stand alone, the capacity to act independently. Far too few of us pay attention to the virtues of dependence and interdependence, and especially the capacity to be vulnerable.”

Being vulnerable, and allowing someone else to meet our needs, can be difficult. We may not like what is being offered. We may be afraid we don’t deserve their help. We may feel embarrassed, that somehow we have failed to be self-sufficient; that we are not good enough; that we didn’t try hard enough.

But think for a moment how good it feels when we are able to meet someone else’s need. Isn’t it its own form of blessing to give someone else the experience of being useful? What we miss when we focus on serving one another is that giving and receiving are two sides to the same coin. When we receive with gratitude and grace, we allow someone else to experience the joy of being of use. We honor their need to serve.

And this is how we love the hell out of the world: by loving, serving, and honoring one another.

We love, serve, and honor one another by taking care of each other’s needs, making sure they are fed, and knowing that in the process, we will be fed as well.

We love, serve, and honor one another by practicing the platinum rule to treat others they way they want to be treated, and by giving others the opportunity to serve us in return.

And we love, serve and honor one another by knowing that we are called – by God or by the Interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part, to care for one another and to be each others’ keeper.

May we find the strength, curiosity, courage, and wisdom to practice this in our own lives, by learning to give generously and to graciously receive that which is lovingly given to us by others.

And so that you can have this earworm, too 🙂

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