What the World Needs Now

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading was the poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” by Joy Harjo.

The second reading was from the essay “Friendship” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Gender-specific language has NOT been changed, since it may be central to Emerson’s argument.

Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins. We parry and fend the approach of our fellow-man by compliments, by gossip, by amusements, by affairs. We cover up our thought from him under a hundred folds. I knew a man, who, under a certain religious frenzy, cast off this drapery, and, omitting all compliment and commonplace, spoke to the conscience of every person he encountered, and that with great insight and beauty. At first he was resisted, and all men agreed he was mad. But persisting, as indeed he could not help doing, for some time in this course, he attained to the advantage of bringing every man of his acquaintance into true relations with him. No man would think of speaking falsely with him, or of putting him off with any chat of markets or reading-rooms. But every man was constrained by so much sincerity to the like plaindealing, and what love of nature, what poetry, what symbol of truth he had, he did certainly show him. But to most of us society shows not its face and eye, but its side and its back. To stand in true relations with men in a false age is worth a fit of insanity…. Almost every man we meet requires some civility, — requires to be humored; he has some fame, some talent, some whim of religion or philanthropy in his head that is not to be questioned, and which spoils all conversation with him.

Sermon: “What the World Needs Now”

Back in the 1960s, lyricist Hal David was working regularly with pop composer Burt Bachrach. One day, while commuting in to New York City to work with Bachrach, Hal David came up with the line, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love / It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.” Then for more than a year, he couldn’t make any progress with the lyrics. He knew the song was talking to God, but he wasn’t quite sure what the song wanted to say to God.

Now it would be easy to jump to conclusions about what Hal David meant by the word “God.” In this decade of the 2020s, it seems like the only people who talk about God are the right-wing Christians; as a result, when we hear the word “God,” we often think of their god, the stereotypical old white guy sitting on a cloud wearing long white robes and advocating for school prayer and the Ten Commandments displayed in every classroom. Hal David was most definitely not a right wing Christian. He was the child of Jewish immigrants who left Austria in the 1920s and settled in New York City, where they ran a delicatessen. On his website, when discussing this song, he left the interpretation of God wide open; it could, he said, be the “someone or something we call God.” In other words, not the narrow, sectarian notion of God so beloved by right-wing Christians, but an open expansive understanding that could include a range of ideas from a traditional Jewish God, all the way to “God” as a humanistic or even atheistic metaphor.

In any case, Hal David finally figured out what he wanted to say to God: we don’t need some transcendent all-powerful God to create any more mountains, we don’t need any more oceans, we don’t even need any more rivers or meadows; what we really need is enough love to go around. Once the lyrics were done, Burt Bachrach wrote music for it, they both looked at the song, and decided it was “a flop.” (1) Burt Bachrach had hoped that Dionne Warwick, whom they felt was the singer who was best at performing their songs, would record it. But, as he later recalled, “Dionne rejected that song. She might have thought it was too preachy and I thought Dionne was probably right.” (2)

Well, Dionne Warwick was right. The song is indeed too preachy. It begins with the chorus: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love / It’s the only thing there’s too little of.” How very mid-1960s. Not only is it too preachy, but it’s hard not to make fun of the lyrics. If we all had just a little more love, then all those 1960s problems would just go away — the racial prejudice, the Vietnam War, the assassinations — just a little more love, and they’d go away. Just another pop song about love, and the problems will all go away.

In 1965, Jackie DeShannon finally recorded the song, and to the surprise of the songwriters, it became a top ten hit. Since then, it has been recorded and performed over and over again — by singers, by jazz groups, by hardcore punk rockers, by high school bands. It even got performed at the Democratic National Convention in 2016. The song still sounds preachy. It still sounds too much like a willfully naive and saccharine 1960s pop song. Most performances of it wind up sounding schlocky. But somehow the song has managed to strike a chord in our popular unconscious.

There’s a good reason for that. Hal David was actually correct. The world actually does need more love. Maybe it wouldn’t solve all the world’s problems, but with all the hatred and violence in the world — yes, we do in fact need more love.

Though we need to be careful what kind of love we’re talking about here. The English language uses the single word “love” to smush together several different concepts: romantic love, love between family members, love of oneself, love among good friends, love extended to strangers, a kind of selfless love that includes all beings, and so on. Even though this was a 1960s pop song, Hal David’s lyrics are not talking specifically about romantic love. Nor are Hal David’s lyrics talking specifically about love between family members, or love of oneself, though these might be a part of what the world needs now. The song is talking about a love that is “not just for some, but for everyone.” This is a love that is inclusive, that includes all of humankind.

Back in the 1960s, there was an ol-fashioned term for this kind of love. They called it “brotherhood.” Brotherhood meant that people should extend idealized feelings of sibling love to all of humanity. Political conservatives like Hubert Humphrey referred to “brotherhood” in their speeches. Progressives like Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of lifting “our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to solid rock of brotherhood.” Indeed, some Unitarian Universalists in the 1960s, when asked what they believed, might have responded with the words of Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke: the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and progress of mankind onward and upward forever. Brotherhood, the brotherhood of man — those old words and phrases aimed to capture the kind of love that the world needs now. If all men are truly my brothers, how could I do anything hateful to them? — brotherly love would prevent me from acting with hate.

Of course, we now know the big problem with the word “brotherhood” — it ignores women. The second wave feminists pointed out this uncomfortable fact in the late 1960s. At first, some people pushed back against the second wave feminists saying that of course the word “brotherhood” included women and girls. In response, there were a great many women and girls who bluntly replied that they did in fact feel left out; oh, and by the way, if that’s the way things worked, then they were going to start using the word “sisterhood” to include all people. The men who liked the word “brotherhood” decided they didn’t want to substitute the word “sisterhood.” By the 1980s, we Unitarian Universalists had stopped using the term “brotherhood.”

We really haven’t come up with another word to put in its place. I’ve been thinking about this recently. We know what we want to say: that all human beings are interdependent, we are all connected, we are all part of the same human race. What single word or short phrase might we use that communicates this rather complex idea? And it is a complex idea. Rabbi Hillel said: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah, and the rest is commentary. Now go and study.” (3) Here is a very simple statement that gets at the same basic idea — If you wouldn’t do it to yourself, don’t do it to someone else — but then Rabbi Hillel ends by telling us to go study the Torah. It looks like a simple idea on the surface; then we need to study the rest of the Torah to help us fully understand this seemingly simple idea.

It is this same seemingly simple idea that Emerson was getting at in his essay on friendship. Friendship, in Emerson’s essay, is the meeting of souls. Friendship is when we can be utterly genuine with another person, speaking directly to each other’s consciences; not speaking falsely, not falling into gossip or chit-chat, but a meeting of souls that is entirely honest and lacking in pretense. If we could be this genuine with others, if we could know another’s soul in this way, then we would naturally follow Rabbi Hillel’s maxim; if I fully encounter another’s soul, how could I possibly do anything hateful to them?

But I’ve finally decided that Emerson is missing something in this essay in this essay. Yes, there are those intense friendships where you feel like your soul is directly meeting another person’s soul. Emerson writes, “to most of us, society shows not its face and eye, but its side and its back.” But I realized that many of my best and strongest relationships with other people have taken place, not face to face and eye to eye, but side by side.

For example, I think about the times when I helped prepare a meal for a certain homeless shelter that aimed to provide not just food and warm housing, but human interaction as well. While we were cooking dinner at this homeless shelter, we spend quite a lot of time seeing the sides and backs of other people, because everyone was working; not just the volunteers, but some of the guests would also come help prepare the meal. Then, before COVID hit, an essential part of this homeless shelter was that the people cooking the meal would sit down with the guests and everyone would eat dinner together. When you’re eating a meal with other people, you don’t spend all your time staring at their faces and eyes. When you’re sitting at a table with half a dozen others, you’re going to see the faces of some people and the sides of others — and maybe the backs of other people who are sitting at other tables. And then when everyone joins in cleaning up together, once again, more often you’d be side-by-side than face to face. Emerson would say, this was society showing its side and back. But it seems to me that there was just as much real connection happening in that setting as in some intense one-on-one face-to-face conversation with a Transcendental friend.

Emerson levels another criticism at society: “We parry and fend the approach of our fellow-man by compliments, by gossip, by amusements….” And in every homeless shelter I’ve volunteered at, in every communal living situation, in every family — there are always the little dramas going on, just as Emerson pointed out: people who are temporarily angry with each other, people who have stopped being angry with each other, and so on. But I think Emerson got it exactly wrong. Gossip, compliments, amusements: these are how we hold our fellow human beings at arm’s length; these are all ways that human communities can become more closely interwoven. When you think about it this way, Emerson’s use of gender-specific male language actually makes sense. In nineteenth century America, middle class and upper class men were able to have time to have intense face-to-face, one-on-one conversations with other men, because women took on much of the burden of housework. Since women were considered inferior to men, the kind of social interaction associated with women — small talk, exchanging news with others, keeping each other entertained while working around the kitchen table — these kinds of social interactions would also be considered inferior. Yet it is in these daily mundane tasks that the complex love of human communities becomes apparent.

Which brings me to the first reading, the excerpt from the poem by Joy Harjo. “The world begins at a kitchen table,” she tells us, and then she lists all the other things that happen at kitchen tables: food is prepared and served; babies teethe; children are instructed in how to be human; we gossip; we dream; we laugh when we fall down; we pull ourselves back together again. Births happen next to the kitchen table, bodies are prepared for burial there. We sing there, we pray, we give thanks, we laugh, we cry, we eat “the last sweet bite.” Joy Harjo says the world begins and ends at the kitchen table.

Emersonian friendship is a lovely ideal, especially for those who have the time for it. But I think it is the kitchen table kind of love that the world needs much more of. It begins with the love that comes when preparing food and eating it together. This love includes gossip too: not hateful hurtful gossip, not the mean gossip of junior high school, but gossip that is actually the exchange of everyday life-and-death matters: who is ill, who is caring for whom, who is well, who is falling in love with whom, all the little bits of news that come with the ordinary life of a human community. It is through this kind of talk around the kitchen table, this talk of ordinary life — who is dying; who just gave birth, who has grown up, who has become a wise elder — this is how children learn to become human. It is through these ordinary conversations that adults are reminded how to remain human, to remain humane. And sometimes the deepest conversations on becoming human happen when we are working side by side with our elders, with our children.

Maybe this is what we should mean if we want to talk about the kind of love the world needs more of. I would not call this brotherhood, nor would I call this sisterhood; but it is a way of being human together. Like Emerson, I want to be genuine and to stand in true relation with other people; but in my own life I’ve found that is most likely to happen when human beings are cooking a meal together, when we are cleaning up together, when we are gossiping (in the best sense), when we are helping one other.

Not that sitting around a kitchen table is going solve all the world’s problems. No more did “brotherhood” solve the problems of racism and war in the 1960s. No more did “sisterhood” solve the problems of sexism in the 1970s. But in a era when we spend more time staring at screens than we spend sitting around a kitchen table, I would say that it would be worth our while to spend more time sitting around kitchen tables than staring at screens. It is more difficult to do something hateful to another person if you have sat down with that person at a kitchen table. Once someone sits down to dinner with a homeless person, they have to see that person as just another human being. We also saw this phenomenon during the fight for marriage equality: acceptance for same-sex marriage increased as more and more heterosexual people had friends who were same sex couples. These experiences are even changing the right-wing Christians: younger conservative Christians are more likely to be tolerant of same sex marriage than older conservative Christians. We are slowly seeing this phenomenon play out in the struggle against racism: as our society becomes more and more racially diverse, racial attitudes are being changed; when you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner with your cousin or in-law who is of a different race than you are, it’s harder for you to be racist.

This is where it begins, and this is where it ends: seeing ourselves in the other, and seeing the other in ourselves. For some, this might happen in great Emersonian moments of Transcendental friendship. But for most of us, it happens in day-to-day life. It happens around the kitchen table, if we would just notice it. This is the love, sweet love, that the world needs more of.


(1) Hal David, “Words: What the World Needs Now,” Hal David: Official Website, https://www.haldavid.com/words.htm accessed 28 April 2023.
(2) Burt Bachrach in an interview with Ken Sharp, “Burt Bachrach: What the World Needs Now,” Record Collector [UK magazine], May, 2006, issue 323.
(3) Talmud Shabbat 31 a