(a sermon for February 9, 2014, the 5th Sunday after Epiphany; second in a series, based on 1 Corinthians 13 and 1 John 3:11, 16-24)
Love, as they say, is a many-splendored thing!
And as conclusive proof of that, there was a wonderful survey done a few years back amongst children, ages four through eight, on that very subject; and some of what they had to say was just terrific. For instance, one kid, when asked what love is, answered, “Love is that first feeling you feel before all the bad stuff gets in the way.”
“When you love somebody,” says another, “your eyelashes go up and down and little stars come out of you.” (Methinks that child has seen a few too many Disney cartoons!)
But then there are the more practical aspects of this; as one child puts it, “Love is when you go out to eat and give somebody most of your french fries without making them give you any of theirs.”
Or, “Love is when you kiss all the time. Then when you get tired of kissing, you still want to be together and you talk more. My mommy and daddy are like that,” this child adds. “They look gross when they kiss but they seem happy.”
Or how about this, which is sort of on the opposite end of the romantic scale: “Falling in love is like an avalanche, and you have to run for your life!”
And this one: “Love is when a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on shaving cologne and they go out and smell each other.” This smell thing does seem to matter; another kid says that “love is when mommy sees daddy smelly and sweaty and still says he is handsomer than Brad Pitt.”
And finally, get this, because in a lot of ways I think this gets to the heart of the matter: “When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn’t bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too. That’s love.”
Isn’t it true that for all the feelings we usually associate with love, in the end it’s action that truly makes it so? Yes, we do tend to define love in emotional terms, and things like infatuation, physical attraction and passion are all a part of that: to fall in love is truly to have your head in the clouds; as the owl explained to Bambi (speaking of Disney!), it is “to be twitterpated!” But feelings, by their very nature shift and change, depending on the situation or even our mood on a given day. The realities of life can bring us from floating in the clouds to crashing down to earth; and even doctors will confirm that the chemicals in our bodies that fuel physical attraction can recede over time.
So if love is merely about the feeling, watch out; because ultimately that kind of love lacks real staying power! It’s only love in practice, love girded in action that will stand the test of time; or to put it another way, love is demonstration, not an inclination! And while that’s true for us in our lives and relationships with one another, it’s particularly true for you and I as followers of Jesus Christ.
This is what’s at the heart of Paul’s evocation of love in 1 Corinthians 13. Now, if you were with us last Sunday you’ll recall that we established that as far as Paul is concerned, love is “Priority One” in everything we do; that our words are at best ineffective, our knowledge incomplete, our giving insignificant and our accomplishments inadequate if love is not at the heart of it! As we heard this morning from The Message, “no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.” So what’s clear is that love is essential to all aspects of the Christian life; love is what gives our lives its meaning and its integrity. But that being said, the question then becomes: what does this love actually look like? What kind of shape does this love take in all of what we say, or believe, or do? How do we know that our lives are girded by love and thus have the kind of power and purpose it should?
Actually, as I ask this question, I’m reminded of something an old woodcarver said when he was asked how he was able to carve an old hunk of wood into the beautiful shape of a dog: he said, “That’s easy. You pick up the piece of wood and just cut out everything that doesn’t look like a dog.” Well, this is essentially what Paul does in this passage: he shows us how to recognize genuine love not only by what it is, but also by what it isn’t. In four short verses, Paul offers up here what might be referred to as a “checklist of love,” and lets us know that the choices we make regarding each item on the list goes a long way in determining the sincerity of our love; and, might I add, its spirituality.
You know the words; we’ve all heard them hundreds of times, recited at dozens of weddings: “Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful…” All very familiar, basic assumptions, and full of feeling; of course love is to be patient and kind, right? Just the warm fuzzy stuff of greeting card verses; that is, until we remember that when Paul wrote these words to the Christians at Corinth (who, as we have said, were most assuredly not known for their patience or kindness to one another), they were meant to be taken quite literally and very personally – by the Corinthians, and by us!
Actually, what I’ve always found helpful in this regard is a little exercise I first learned years ago: if you really want to get to what these four verses are really about, simply replace the word “love” with your own name. In other words, in my case, it would sound like this: “Michael is patient. Michael is kind. Michael is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Michael does not insist on his own way. Michael is not irritable or resentful; he does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Michael bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Michael never fails.”
Well, that’s embarrassing!
I don’t even come close to living up to that standard – believe it or not (!) – but then neither, I suspect, do most of us in this room. If we’re being honest about it, we’d have to admit that as Paul has describes it in these verses, we are often “love challenged.” After all, it’s far easier for us to give in to impatience and the temptation toward verbal assault, than to be patient and kind to those who are causing us that frustration; much more satisfying to brag on ourselves and our accomplishments than to be humble enough to not have it always be about us; much more delectable, if you will, to revel in old wounds and past hurts than it is to truly forgive those who have hurt us, to rejoice in what is true, and good and loving.
The bottom line, especially for us as people of faith, is that we cannot simultaneously talk about how “we should love one another” while making a working list as to why we really shouldn’t have to love them! Ultimately, you see, love is never about “them,” whoever they may happen to be; love is not about who they are, or what they’ve done or not done, and it’s not about how deserving we think they are in receiving our love. True love is about what we do; about how we love, and the choices we make to love one another. When Paul says that love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,” he is talking about our love and how we extend to others.
And no, it’s not easy. In fact, William Willimon says it very bluntly: “Love,” he writes, “is not for babies. It isn’t easy, [and] it’s [definitely] not doing what comes naturally… love, of the kind described here, takes every ounce of your maturity, hard work over a lifetime, waking up every morning for the grace to help you love despite others, despite yourself.”
It’s hard work! But the good news is that we have a model for living this kind of love; and in fact, what you and I are called to give is that which we’ve already received. As we heard read in 1 John this morning, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” As you and I struggle to do which we already know, deep down, is the right thing to do, Jesus has already set the example. Sometimes I wonder if when Paul wrote those words to the Corinthians about love, he was thinking that “Jesus is patient. Jesus is kind…” that “Jesus bears all things. Jesus believes all, things. Jesus hopes all things, endures all things. Jesus never fails.”
We are called “to love one another, just as he has commanded us,” to love by faith, and with extravagant welcome because our God in Jesus Christ has already loved us in just that way. This is how love can move beyond mere “word or speech” but become “truth and action,” because true love is both the fruit of our relationship with God, and God’s gift that we have to share with others. These virtues of patience and kindness, trust and endurance become ours when we begin to understand how God first loved us, and then make the choice to live – and love – by example.
Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of officiating at 241 weddings: wonderful celebrations of love that have run the gamut from small, intimate ceremonies to mega-productions that would put the royals to shame! And I can tell you some stories… (!) But I can also tell you that while no two weddings have been alike, they’ve all had at least one thing in common, that they’ve all been beautiful weddings in their own way. BUT… as I am quick to point out to the couples involved, in the end that it’s not the beautiful wedding that will make the difference in their lives; it’ll be the beautiful marriage that takes root in that special moment.
And that will come down to the choices made along the way, the love lessons learned as the years go by. Patience, for one. Tolerance. A sense of humor; definitely essential! Forbearance and forgiveness; the ability to compromise; the discretion not to say “I told you so” even though you have the opportunity and perfect right to do so! All this, and of course, little things like honesty, trust, fidelity, and commitment! As I am fond of saying, marriage, like anything precious, requires constant care and nurture in order for it to grow; but even more than this, it requires the full intent and determination to love “for better, for worse,” come what may.
And friends, it’s the same thing whether you’re talking mother to daughter, father to son, friend to friend, or in the ways that we are the church together. It’s one thing, you see, to speak with great eloquence about the wonders of love, to hold hands in a circle and sing with great joy and satisfaction that “they’ll know we are Christians by our love;” it is quite another to make that real by the way we are determined to live and relate to one another.
Every day, you and I have choices to make: as to how we speak to one another, as to whether we will truly respect and value those with whom we are walking on this journey; as to the ways our “acts and attitudes” will either put ourselves first, or serve others and thus honor God. It is up to us, beloved, and we can go whatever way we choose to go; but for life to become something that is filled with beauty and meaning – that requires the choice of love, a true love that never ends.
Thanks be to God, who in Christ, gives us that kind of love to give to others.
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry