By Rev. Joe Connolly
“I give you a new commandment: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you truly love one another.” — John 13:34-35.
Well, I have some bad news for us. We are being manipulated. The kind of manipulation I want to address is subtle, so subtle we do not even notice it. Let me give you an example of how we are, in that subtle way, manipulated.
Who here has ever gone to a supermarket just for a quart of milk? My bet is mostly everyone has done that. I, personally, have never been in a supermarket where the milk is in the front of the store. It’s always in the back of the store.
Indeed, in case you have not noticed, supermarkets are not only purposefully constructed to send you to the back for milk. They are constructed so the most inviting food, the fresh food, is located around the edge of the selling space.
Here’s what this means: you are forced to go past all this good stuff to get a quart of milk, itself good stuff, but also something most people buy with great regularity. And do you know what the result of making you walk through the whole store to buy milk is?
Well, who here has gone to the supermarket just for a quart of milk and left with other stuff? My bet is the answer to that question is: “most of us.”
All of which is to say, yes— we are all being manipulated— manipulated into buying more than we intended. And, in this case, it’s my bet we are manipulated in a way so subtle we do not even notice it.
The first time I came across this kind of manipulation was back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth in Nineteen sev [mumble, mumble]. I worked for Bloomingdale’s in New York City. The main New York City store takes up the square block between Lexington and Third Avenues and Fifty-ninth and Sixtieth Streets.
Well, back when I was working there a decision needed to be made about ‘should the store put in new elevators or new escalators on the Third Avenue End.’ That was not a small or a minor decision. Elevators would have cost about two million dollars. Escalators would have cost about six million, back then a hefty sum. Even today, a hefty sum.
They chose escalators— the expensive choice. Why? Whereas escalators cost about three times more than elevators, a study showed escalators would generate three times the business in real dollars per year than the cost of the elevators. In short, putting in escalators in that store instead of elevators would pay back their cost in just one year and add profit year after year after year.
Why do escalators make a difference in what people purchase? Just like a supermarket where people walk past merchandise to buy milk, escalators entice people to make a purchase by letting them see merchandise as they glide up and down those moving staircases.
The long and the short of this is, even though we rarely realize it, we are regularly manipulated but do not know it. We are blissfully unaware of it.
Now, the example I just used says we are manipulated by architecture. But we are also manipulated by social pressure. We are also manipulated by the culture which surrounds us. And we are, most of the time, still unaware of those factors also.
So, I think the challenge for us is straightforward: how do we become aware of the ways in which we are manipulated? And once we are aware that we are manipulated, how do we manage our lives in such a way as to overcome that. (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the Gospel According to the School of John: “I give you a new commandment: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you truly love one another.” (Slight pause.)
When the reading from Luke/Acts was introduced it was said this is one of the most pivotal readings in all Scripture. That having been said, at Bible Study on Wednesday— by the way, everyone is invited to come to Bible Study, 6:00 p.m. on Wednesdays— except this Wednesday ’cause choir is taking vacation so we are going to take vacation one week from Bible study. At Bible Study I noted it was fascinating that those who compiled the Revised Common Lectionary, these assigned readings, placed these two readings on the same Sunday. Indeed, a reading from Acts is standard in Eastertide. But the reading from John, instead of continuing with post Resurrection stories as the lectionary has been doing, went to a scene from just before the crucifixion.
So, I would suggest the pairing of these readings is purposeful. Why? I think the Acts reading points directly at the reading from John and is a reflection about love.
You see, part of what Peter says is this (quote:) “At that very moment three couriers arrived at the house where we were. They had been sent to me from Caesarea.”
Let me unpack that for you. These people were from Caesarea. That is a city built on the Mediterranean coast by the Romans, for the Romans, inhabited by the Romans. In short, since they came from Caesarea they were Romans. Romans were gentiles. Jews did not mix with gentiles. Gentiles were unclean.
But Peter had this vision. And the vision told Peter clean and unclean in the way Peter had always looked at it, in the way that Peter’s culture looked at it and in the way Peter’s tradition looked at it, was completely and totally a cultural understanding of reality and had no basis in a real faith.
The revelation for Peter was simple. Peter suddenly realized the old way in which the disciple saw things was an example of manipulation.
The culture had manipulated how Peter saw the world, Peter’s ability to see reality. And what had been Peter’s cultural way of looking at the world was not the way God looked at the world. (Slight pause.)
At the start of my comments today I said I have some bad news. We are being manipulated.
But there is also good news. You see, we need to work at being aware of how God might see the world. And God sees past manipulation, even subtle manipulation. And my main concern is that we need to strive to overcome the culture of the world— the secular culture and the religious culture— and come to an understanding how these cultures manipulate us.
But how might that happen? How can we be empowered to see the world as God might see the world, not as our cultures might see the world?
That question brings me to what Jesus said in that quote from John. Let me say it one more time: “I give you a new commandment: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you truly love one another.”
This is clear: Jesus was a doer. It was in doing that the love of Jesus is expressed.
So, that poses one more obvious question: ‘how can we learn to express love?’ You see, I believe most people learn not by hearing or by seeing or by reading. Most people learn by doing.
And when we do for each other is when we often come to a recognition that cultural barriers— all kinds of barriers— are things that manipulate us. And we learn that all kinds of barriers can get broken down simply by doing. (Slight pause.)
In a couple of moments we shall bless, dedicate, these wonderful quilts.  Therefore and needless to say, today we have a clear cut and tangible example of doing. And by doing, by making these quilts, those who made them are expressing not just their love.
Those who made these quilts are saying that no child should have a barrier placed in their path due simply to their station or situation. Those who made these quilts are saying we give these freely.
Those who made these quilts are saying there are no barriers because we of what we do. There are no barriers because we take action. And it’s action— it is action— that breaks down walls. It is action that breaks down barriers. (Slight pause.)
So, how is love, deep love, expressed? Love is expressed in the action that breaks down barriers. Love is expressed by example. Love is expressed by doing. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I’d like to leave you with a thought from one Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. (Quote:) “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
BENEDICTION: Hear now this blessing: God is with us, always. When we love one another, God is pleased. And may the steadfast love of God and the peace of Christ, which surpasses understanding, keep our minds and hearts in the companionship and will of the Holy Spirit, this day and forever more. Amen.
 There was, in fact, a Blessing— a Dedication of 34 quilts after the sermon. These quilts are destined for newborns at Chenango Memorial Hospital and for the Domestic Violence Program at Catholic Charities.