A Still More Excellent Way

Sermon for Sunday, January 31, 2016 || Epiphany 4C || 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

AStillMoreExcellentWayWe’ve all heard those words from the Apostle Paul a hundred times. “Love is patient. Love is kind.” I read them at my sister’s wedding. Perhaps you had them read at your own. Statistically speaking, if you go to a wedding there’s a better than average chance you’ll hear First Corinthians 13. Now, it is true beautiful chapter can stand apart as an ancient ode to love. But when we sequester these verses to the marital service alone, we miss how Paul uses them in the greater context of his letter. We miss how love is the corrective for the issues facing the church in Corinth. We miss what love is for. So let’s put these famous words back in context, and with a little help from Harry Potter, we’ll remember a thing or two about love.

First, I’m glad we get to read these words outside the wedding. Of course, with the snow last week, not many of us got to hear Paul’s words leading up to this chapter. So here’s a quick recap: the Corinthians are having a problem welcoming all people into their community. Apparently they have been sorting people out into greater and lesser classes depending on their material wealth, social circumstance, and (this is the one that gets Paul really worked up) their spiritual giftedness. “We need all types of people and all sorts of gifts to make the Body of Christ function,” he argues. “We are all part of the one Body and don’t you ever dare say someone else doesn’t belong because that person doesn’t share your particular set of gifts or your elevated social status.”

Paul punctuates his point by asking a series of rhetorical questions at the end of Chapter 12. “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts.”

And next we have the verse that links the two chapters beautifully, which the framers of our reading schedule left out. “But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way. 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.” The still more excellent way is the way of love. Love is the antidote for the Corinthian disease, the symptoms of which include “welcoming only those who are like me” and “judging others solely by how they might be of use.” The first symptom limits our welcome to the least diverse group possible and siloes us off from any point of view that might expand our own. The second symptom discounts the value of persons who contribute to the community in ways that are not readily apparent. As the medicine for this Corinthian disease, Paul prescribes love.

But Paul isn’t sure the Corinthians have any idea what love is, so he instructs them. The still more excellent way begins with a recognition that love is the motivator of all God’s gifts. If I have all the spiritual gifts listed in the surrounding chapters – speaking in tongues, prophesying, understanding mysteries, possessing mountain-moving faith – but do not act in love, then it’s all worthless. Without love, I do everything for myself alone. I seek pleasure at the expense of others. I self-aggrandize. Eventually, I die deserted and embittered. But with love motivating action, our gifts do not enrich ourselves alone. With love, our gifts enrich everyone we encounter. Love is the powerful weaving force that stitches our actions into the tapestry of God’s story. Acting without love, we unravel the tapestry; we pull ourselves out until our individual threads are just wafting in the wind. A single piece of thread doesn’t tell a story until it’s woven together with other threads. The desire to be woven together is better known as love.

With this desire expressed, Paul moves on to what love does. Our translation messes this up. It should not read, “Love is patient; love is kind.” The original language involves much more action: “Love shows patience; love shows kindness.” The old song goes, “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they will know we are Christians by our love.” But how will this nameless “they” know our love? There is only one way, and it springs from the only piece of advice an aspiring writer ever really needs: Three little words: “Show, don’t tell.”

If we have to tell people, “No, seriously, we are a loving community,” you can bet dollars to donuts that we aren’t. But if love is the desire to woven together, then we show love when we start weaving: you learn someone’s name and remember it. You ask, “Want to have coffee on Tuesday?” You look past the red doors of this place and notice the threads of God’s movement running in all directions, towards all people. And you begin to realize that this church is not bounded by these walls and doors; this church is unbounded because the Body of Christ goes forth from this place to show love in every place. You bear witness to the love of Jesus in your homes, in your businesses, the ball field, the gym, the grocery store, the street corner, the Internet. (Especially the Internet! Please show the love of Jesus online. The digital world is in dire need of the healing power of love. Just look at YouTube comment sections.)

I know it may sound tired or quaint to be preaching about love. Indeed, when Albus Dumbledore tells Harry Potter that Harry’s greatest gift is love, Harry just rolls his eyes. He would much rather be gifted with more talent or better intellect or greater weapons to contend with the dark wizard Voldemort. But no. In the end, Harry is stripped of all the trappings of talent and privilege and pride. He has only the love for and of his friends and family – both living and dead – to give him the courage to face his foe. To die. And then to live. (Sounds like another story I’ve heard somewhere.)

For Harry (and for Jesus) love is the true motivator. Not pride or glory. Not fame or fortune. Love: the desire to be woven together. For an orphan like Harry, this desire first manifests in finding a loving home with the Weasleys. And it last appears when he sacrifices himself to save everyone he loves. To quote Jesus, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Jesus and Harry and, say, the heroic soldier who dives on a grenade literally laid down their lives. Perhaps we might be called to this someday, but it will only happen once. In the meantime, we can show great love by laying down our threads on the loom of God’s tapestry, side by side with each other and everyone else whom God loves.

The still more excellent way is the way of love, this weaving power that heals and reconciles creation. True love will never be tired. True love will never be quaint. True love will never end. Because God’s tapestry has no borders, only edges for more thread to be woven in.

Art: Screenshot from the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2), when Harry meets Dumbledore at Kings Cross Station after being killed by Voldemort.

Trouble in River City

(Sermon for Sunday, January 27, 2013 || Epiphany 3C || 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a)

rivercityWe got trouble. Right here in Corinth. With a capital “T” and that rhymes with “P” and that stands for “pool.” Wait a sec. That’s the trouble in River City in The Music Man. Let me try again. We got trouble. Right here in Corinth. With a capital “T” and that rhymes with “G” and that stands for “gifts.” Spiritual gifts, that is. And while the con artist Harold Hill makes up the trouble in River City in order to sell marching band instruments, the Apostle Paul is intensely earnest in his diagnosis of the trouble in Corinth. The trouble in Corinth was certainly Trouble with a capital “T.”

Last week, Margot hinted at this trouble when she mentioned the Corinthians bickering over the dramatic spiritual gifts God had showered on the community. Our second lesson today picks up right where last week’s left off, and now we see Paul lay out the trouble plainly. The new church in Corinth has many problems – rival groups trying to assert dominance, questions about marital relationships, even issues concerning what to wear and what to eat. But none seems as contentious as the trouble Paul addresses in today’s reading.

When you boil Paul’s words down, you find that the trouble he sees is, in the end, the most common trouble of all – people not valuing one another. The very commonness of this trouble wrenches it from the dusty pages of scripture and puts it front and center in our lives. The capital “T” Trouble of people not valuing one another happened back then in Corinth. But just look around this world today – in our society’s discourse, in our communities, even within our own families – and you’ll see the effects of people not valuing one another.

But let’s start with the trouble in Corinth, the trouble that began over their spiritual gifts. Paul goes to great metaphorical lengths to teach the Corinthians that they are all part of the same body. Each part of the body has value, no matter if your part is the hand or the foot, the eye or the ear. Apparently in Corinth, certain people had been made to feel that their contributions to the body just didn’t matter, that because they were “feet” and not “hands” they had nothing to offer. I can only imagine how angry Paul got when he heard about such hurtful nonsense.

Paul first addresses these people who were being denigrated. Don’t believe what they tell you, he says. Just because you don’t fit their exact specifications for membership in the body doesn’t make you any less of a member.

Then Paul addresses the other side. (In certain other letters he doesn’t seek to cover up his anger, but here he manages to keep his indignation just below the surface.) To the ones engaging in the denigration, Paul says: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor.”

This has always been the way of God, hasn’t it? To lift up the lowly, to shield the easy targets of denigration and devaluation, to bring people together as one body. But even in those early years of the church, when everything was fresh and new and exciting, even then the brokenness of human nature reared its ugly head. Even then, the forces of division (you might say the forces of evil, of Satan) tried to halt the spread of God’s good news. In today’s lesson, the good news is that all people have value. All people belong to the body. I can think of nothing that the powers of darkness and division would abhor more than this simple truth, which Paul reminds the Corinthians and us.

After Paul speaks to these two sides of the trouble, he circles back to the issue, which sparked the trouble in the first place – the gifts God had showered on the people of Corinth. How utterly broken their community must have been if the forces of division had been able so easily to turn God’s gifts into sources of strife. But that is what they became. So Paul lists a sample of the gifts again and notes that no one has all of the gifts. That’s not how this whole “body” thing works. Each member has a gift to share, he says to the Corinthians, so you will not tell people they have no value just because they don’t display the gifts you think they should.

(Next Paul tells them and us about the greatest gift of all, which is an antidote for the trouble in Corinth, but we won’t read that part until next week. I’ll give you a hint, though. The gift is love, and the passage is one you’ll be familiar with if you’ve ever been to a wedding. But I’ll let Margot tackle that next week.)

For now, let’s stick with the capital “T” Trouble because we haven’t yet seen how this trouble exists now in our society, in our community, and in our homes. Remember, the root of the trouble is the utterly broken human tendency not to value one another. We witness this brokenness in our political discourse when partisan differences degenerate into personal attacks. We witness this brokenness in our community when our children can’t go online without fear that a cyberbully is waiting to tear them down – anonymously. We witness this brokenness in our homes when relationships of trust and respect erode into ones of suspicion and convenience. In each of these instances, the other is not valued for one reason or another and the body is broken.

Let’s dwell for a moment on the example of marriage. With our second anniversary approaching in a few weeks, I’ve had extra cause to thank God for the gift of my wife Leah. But along with this wonderful gift I am also aware of the scary capacity, inherent in my own brokenness, of failing to put in the effort to make sure she knows that she is valued. So many marriages fail because of this kind of inattention, and with God’s help, I am determined never to give her cause to question her value.

Remember, the good news is that all people have value. All people belong to the body. Each of our relationships is a microcosm of this great reality. Our relationships are opportunities to show one another how much we value each other, and by extension, how much God loves us. Being active members of Christ’s body means participating with God in healing the brokenness that keeps us from valuing the other.

So this week, I challenge each of you, and I challenge myself, to act on the reality that we are members of Christ’s body, each with our own inherent value. Seek out your partner – your spouse if you are married; a friend, sibling, or relative if you are not. Sit down with that person. Look her right in the eye. Hold his hand. Dwell in a moment together where nothing at all matters except your connection to one another and your joint connection to God. Say a simple pray of thanks for that person’s presence in your life. And then let her know how much you value her. Tell him how valuable he is – not because of what he has done or not done – but simply because of who he is.

If you are having trouble in this relationship, perhaps this will be the chance for a new start, with God inviting you once again into the reality that each of you has inherent value as a person. If you are not having trouble in this relationship, perhaps this will be the chance to add a recurring practice to your interactions that will confirm your value to each other. Either way, I offer this challenge to you as a way to participate more deeply in your own relationship with God.

As we notice and celebrate the inherent value we see in each other, we will be working with God to heal the brokenness of this world. And we will be helping to fulfill the prayer we prayer every week: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Because, is heaven not the place where each of us will finally and forever know in the deepest recesses of our souls that we are truly valued, that we are truly loved.