The Greatest of These
Sermon on 1 Corin 13 and Luke 4:21-30
Recently, I passed a billboard I had never seen before, I think it was for an insurance company: “Family is always there for you” it said.
Instantly, I finished it in my head, “except when it’s not…”
And I thought about how all of us -- no matter how happy or contented our family circumstances -- have had moments when it felt that our family, whatever that means for us, were NOT there for us:
-perhaps it was your parents who were not there for you, distracted by worries and work you could not understand.
-or was it your children who made choices guided by values you could not fathom.
-or the friendship that faded away
-or maybe it was your spouse, who made promises to love and to cherish, only to break those promises.
We don’t have statistics on absentee parents or disappeared friends or difficult to understand children, but we do have stats on marriages. We know that slightly more than one half of marriages in our culture will end in divorce. And yet, people do still keep getting married. And people keep planning weddings that have a lot to do with romantic ideas of what a wedding should be – sort of pasted together from movies and childhood hopes and storybooks. And, people keep choosing the passage we heard from Corin to be read at those weddings.
In a way, it’s ironic that the Corin passage we heard earlier is so often read at weddings. It wasn’t intended for the storybook wedding at all – it was written by Paul to his chaotic and cranky congregation in Corinth. But it’s not hard to see why these words are so often read at 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; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.Love never ends.”
Because, what a beautiful ideal – what great hopes are expressed on that day in which two people look into each others eyes and say “always.”
But, knowing what you know about marriage, your own or others, it might be easy to hear these words a little cynically, because with a statistic like “half of all marriages end in divorce,” it is pretty much certain that your own life has been touched by it in some way – a family member, a friend, or you yourself. The pain of these separations is very real, and the shame and embarrassment of making vows that cant be kept for a myriad of reasons is very real. This is your community of faith, a place of healing for amny kinds of wounds including those of shame – how?
In our denomination we have 2 sacraments – baptism and communion. Other denominations have more - as many as 7. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of god’s invisible grace – a very special moment and situation in which god breaks into our lives to make the holy known in a unique way.
Now, in churches that celebrate more than 2 sacraments, marriage itself is often considered one of the sacraments. Not so in our tradition – the UCC. I think that is because we understand that while marriage is very important to many people, and can be a blessing to many, marriage between a man and woman, with children to follow, is only one way to make a family. In this very room are people whose most significant family relationships are between two men, or two women, or grandparents and grandchildren, or siblings, or importantly connected groups of very good friends.
In the UCC, we believe that God, and the Bible, has put blessing on these and many other kinds of relationships. In this letter to the Corin, Paul wasn’t talking about marriage, he was talking about building community. So if you’ve heard these words at a wedding, or a lot of weddings, or even your wedding, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
I would like to invite you today to start seeing it as a scripture less about the institution of marriage and more about building community thru all kinds of diverse relationships – grandparents and grandchildren, siblings, co-workers, cousins, neighbors, friends, children, parents, nieces and nephews and the guy who sits behind you in the pew every Sunday.
This lovely scripture, this elegant and poetical writing, what does it have to say to us of the many and varied relationships in our lives? “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
We certainly, many of us, know how relationships DON’T work. Even for the relationships we don’t have those statistics for, we have experienced abuse, alienation, or just plain irritation. Even Jesus knew about that. Remember just last week, how Jesus was wowing all who heard him in his home town temple as he read and taught from scripture? Nazareth, Jesus’ tiny home town was made up of not much more than a couple of hundred people and those who weren’t related certainly knew each other very well.
But Jesus, hometown favorite, speaks the most dangerous words you can say at a family gathering “I’m going to tell you the truth.” In the blink of an eye, the warmth and regard that his hometown buddies – Jesus’ cousins and siblings and childhood friends -- turns to dangerous disdain. “We know you,” the crowd sneers “We know all about you. We don’t have anything new to learn from you.” And then, they take him out, those pals of Jesus, to heft him over a cliff.
And Jesus, who knows about death, who in a very short time will bravely face the most horrible death anyone can imagine, doesn’t stick around to be tossed over the cliff. He slips away and before you know it, he is gone. Jesus doesn’t stay in a relationship that is about to kill him.
It is good to remember this, the way Jesus slips away from this dangerous crowd of those who are supposed to love him, because it is one of the darker parts of Christian history that, having interpreted the Corinthians words about love (as well as a few other passages) in a very narrow way as about “marriage between a man and a woman with children to follow,” we have explicitly or implicitly blessed relationships based on sacrifice, especially for women. “To endure all things” has been a one-way ticket into an abusive relationship for countless women, while clergy have either looked away, or actively encouraged them to stay, to “endure.”
But today we are freeing this scripture from its rigid interpretation, and in so doing, freeing ourselves from the violence that it has tacitly encouraged all these years. Where to start? With the word love itself?
The thing is, in English we have only one word for “love,” and so we use the same word for our first born grandchild, our favorite sweater and the team we’ll be rooting for next week in the superbowl. It was not so with the ancients – there were different words of love to express the different kinds of love we feel in different situations. The kind of love expressed in this passage is agape love, God love. Since we have only one word for love, we might read this word and think of grandchild love or sweater love or Colts love. But the ones to whom Paul wrote knew differently. They knew he meant God Love. So, for them, this passage would read: “God’s love is patient; GOD’s love is kind; God’s love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. God’s love does not insist on its own way; God’s love is not irritable or resentful; God’s love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. God’s love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. God’s Love never ends.”
GOD’s love is always here and God’s love endures, believes, doesn’t resent, even when our love falters. When our relationships break, any relationships – we tend to feel so embarrassed, so ashamed. But that’s not what God wants for us, because through all of it - the silence or the shouting that marks that brokenness - God’s love has not ended, God’s love has believed in the best in you, God’s love has endured.
If every time we feel impatient, unkind, or resentful in our relationships – whether those are partnerships, friendships, marriages, relationships between parents and children - if whenever we feel those things, we berate ourselves, beat ourselves up for not trying harder, it’s like we are doing the opposite of the hope that God has expressed for us in this passage. God looks on us, all of us, with kindness, with patience, with faith and hope and LOVE, in spite of, or maybe because of, all the ways we cant begin to live up to the wonderful words of this passage.
Look, this is a passage about creating community. But you don’t create community by loving everyone, all at once. You create community one by one by one. As you do, let these words guide you. And as you do, sometimes you’ll stumble into impatience, resentfulness, or unkindness. Then, remember these words and remember that it’s not just the 2 of you, or the 4 of you, or the 90 of us trying to figure it out – God’s love is moving in and around, upholding and supporting, enduring, neverending.
Speaking of love, Valentines Day is coming – this was an important holiday in my family growing up - my mom made my brothers and me homemade cards and heart shaped toast on that day. So it was always a sort of sweet day for me, but when I grew up I learned that Valentines day was the day that many people loved to hate – a day of unfettered commercialism, of unmet expectations, of imperfect romance. Listen, remember this passage from Corinth, God love isn’t about a fantasy world in which you or someone else will be perfect. This kind of love is about god looking at you, seeing you clearly, and loving you anyway, loving you fully, eternally.
(In case you’re the kind of person who needs reminders of this there’s a Valentine on the wall for you to take on the way out today, each one with a message on it from this passage. Feel free to take the one you most know need to hear and to remember.)
Because God’s faith, God’s hope and God’s love abide. And the greatest of these is God’s love. Amen