January 31, 2010

When I chose my sermon title today, I knew that I would owe a thank you to Joe DiPietro, who wrote the lyrics for this long-running musical comedy. It seemed to fit exactly what I wanted to say, and some of what Paul had to say as well. Remember that, in this letter to the Corinthians, Paul was writing to people who were in conflict. The Christians in Corinth were not getting along in the way that they should have been, and we have heard Paul telling them so in no uncertain terms for the past couple of weeks. At one point, Paul even said, I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. Pretty harsh words – it almost sounds as though as Paul is ready to give up on them.
But of course, we know that he didn’t. And why? It was because he loved them. Indeed, it is only because we love people that we sometimes say harsh things to them. We might say, as Paul did, that we want to show someone a more excellent way.
As we have learned in the past couple of Sundays, there were many wonderful people in Corinth. There were teachers, healers, and prophets. There were people who were wise, and people who could cast out demons. There were people who spoke in tongues, and people who could interpret what was said. You would think, wouldn’t you?, that they had everything a church could want? But they didn’t. Paul wrote them again and again, counseling them, telling them what they needed to do. And in today’s reading, we heard the most important advice.
Now, this particular passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is one which many people know very well. It is often used as part of a wedding service, and because of this familiarity, people often don’t really listen to the words. So I want to read this once more, and this time, pay close attention to the words. Don’t just let them drift over your heads as they have done so many times before. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
It is easy to see why so many people want these words read at their weddings. They seem to be ideal. But sadly, in this 21st century, we see that love often fails. With divorce statistics on the rise, we could be forgiven if we wondered why people even want these words used. But let’s have a closer look at what Paul says.
In order to do this, we have to look at the Greek text. In Scripture, there are three distinct Greek words used for love. The first iseros, which is erotic love, and which is an important part of the love between a husband and wife. Then there is the word phileo, meaning the love felt by brothers and sisters for each other. From this, we got the name of the city of brotherly love – Philadelphia. It also means a love between friends, which we know to be very important. But the word used by Paul in this text is agape, the love felt by God for us. This is a self-giving love, a love which protects, trusts, hopes and perseveres. This is the more excellent way which Paul promised to show the Corinthians, and which he is now showing us.
Of course, Paul is also known for his rhetoric, and one technique of getting people’s attention is hyperbole, or exaggeration, which Paul uses to great effect in this passage. He says that if you can fathom all mysteries and if you have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, then you are nothing. If you give away everything you own, and even sacrifice your own life, but do this without love, then you gain nothing. So we need to figure out the difference between this agape love, this love of God for us, and the other kinds of love, the love that so often ends in disaster.
Think about the different kinds of love you have known in your life. When my son was about three years old, every time we went to my mother’s house to visit, he would tell her over and over again how much he loved her. He liked nothing better than to climb into her lap, and hug her tightly, as though he were clinging to a life-line. Of course, the fact that she always had his favourite cookies close at hand may have had something to do with that. But that is love for a three-year-old.
Then a few years later, he announced that he was no longer going to kiss people good night, as he was too old for this. Nope, now he was going to express his love through a manly hand-shake. That didn’t last too long, thank goodness, but for a while, that was how he expressed love.
Now look back to a time when all of your friends were the same gender, when you wanted nothing to do with the opposite sex. Was that not also love? Even though you would never have used the word at the time, that was what you and they were feeling for each other. If you are lucky, some of these relationship have continued through adolescence and into adulthood.
Then comes first love, and we can all remember that. The feeling that this is it, that there will never be anyone else who can make you so happy, there will never be anyone else who can meet all your needs in such a perfect way. If I remember, this first love is usually short-lived, lasting until someone else comes along who catches your eye. But this is the kind of love that songs are written about, the kind of love that can cause hearts to be broken.
Eventually, if you are lucky, you really do find what we call true love, and this leads to a wedding. Then it all starts over again. We think that maybe, just maybe, everything will be perfect. If we are familiar with agape love, we think that this is it. We just know that we will do anything to make our partner happy, and we know that our partner will do anything to make us happy. And that brings me back to the opening of my sermon and the title. I love you, you’re perfect, now change. The mistake, I think, is the word “perfect”. We are not perfect. None of us can ever be perfect, and it is in looking for perfection that we will find disappointment. When we don’t find perfection, when we realize that our perfect mate has feet of clay, then we feel let down. Then we feel as though we have been cheated. The funny thing is that we don’t realize that we also have feet of clay.
Now just look at the love we have for another – this love starts with us and goes out from us, so it is colored by our own expectations, by our own beliefs. And, unfortunately, unlike God’s love for us, it usually goes out with a condition. We say, “I love you,” but we mean, “I love you the way you are now.” That is to say, “Don’t change, because if you do, I may not love you any more.” We say, “I love you”, but we mean, “I love you the way I think you are,” and when we find out that our vision is faulty, then we don’t love the person any more. We say, “I love you,” but we mean, “I love the person I think you can become, and I will help you change into that person.” Well, guess what? That change won’t happen. Luckily, God doesn’t put conditions on his love for us, or we would be in a sorry state indeed! God’s love for us is unconditional, and never-ending. God doesn’t ask us to change; he just asks us to love him.
And Paul is asking us to feel this same kind of love for others, this love that allows us to see others as God sees them. We have heard the characteristics of love. Now let’s try to apply them to ourselves. And be honest! I won’t be checking, and I won’t give you my answers, but let’s just think about it. Am I patient? Really? All the time? Am I kind? Am I not envious? Not boastful? Not proud? Not rude? Do I keep a record of wrongs? Now, think again – what would your spouse say in response to these questions about you? What would your friends say? I wonder if the answers would be the same? I know that I lose patience frequently. If I am busy and the phone rings, I would just as soon toss it through the window as answer it. The old trick of counting to ten sometimes helps, but at other times, I probably need to count to 100. Much as I try to be perfect, much as I try to feel love all the time, there are times when I am not perfect; there are times when the last thing I feel is love. I know this is hard to believe – that your minister is not perfect! I know this is hard to believe – that your minister does not love everybody all of the time! But there it is. I am not perfect. I do not love everybody all of the time.
But you know, when I feel like this, I think of one of the songs we sang in my high school choir – Whenever I Feel Afraid – which says that I can pretend to feel something even if I don’t. The point of the song is that, after a while of PRETENDING not to be afraid, we actually overcome fear. So does this mean that, after a while of pretending to be patient, I will actually become patient? Does it mean that if I pretend to love someone, I will actually find something lovable in that person? I think it does, and I think that this is one of the things Paul wanted to happen in Corinth. He wanted them to love each other, but in a special way. He knew how difficult this kind of love – this agape love – was to achieve, but he told them that it was necessary, if they wanted to be the kind of people God wanted them to be.
For us, in the 21st century, this means several things. If you don’t feel like being kind to someone – for whatever reason – be kind anyway. Say something nice to or about that person. You might be amazed at the results. If you are on a committee, and you just KNOW that your plan is the best one, but someone else’s plan is chosen, what should you do? Well, if you are going to listen to Paul, you will let your plan fall by the wayside, and do your best to make the other plan work. But we have to do it with love, or it is less than nothing. We have to do everything with love, or it is useless. However, being human, we find this kind of selfless love the most difficult. And this is the kind we need to work on. There is one way we can achieve this kind of love, and that is to start with God.
Richard Foster, a Quaker, who is also one of the leading contemporary writers and speakers on Christian spirituality, wrote: Today the heart of God is an open wound of love. He aches over our distance and preoccupation. He mourns that we do not draw near to him. He grieves that we have forgotten him. He weeps over our obsession with muchness and manyness. He longs for our presence. And he is inviting you, and me, to come home, to come home to where we belong. His arms are stretched out wide to receive us. His heart is enlarged to take us in, for too long we have been in a far country; a country of noise and hurry and crowds, a country of climb and push and shove, a country of frustration and fear and intimidation. And He welcomes us home.
And I ask you, isn’t that what we all want? To be home? To be where someone loves us best of all? For without love, we might as well be with Max, the little boy in the book and movie Where the Wild Things Are. Without love, we are a part of all the noise and hurry and crowds; we are the people who push and shove. Without love, it is no wonder that we are frustrated and afraid or intimidated. With love, however, with love, we will be home, home where we are safe, home where we are loved.
How often have we wished for someone else to change? If only my husband would change, then I would be happy. If only my neighbours would change, then I would not feel so alone. If only my co-workers were not so competitive, then my job would be more fun. If only my boss were not so demanding, then I would not live in fear of losing my job. As I said earlier, these people are not going to change. These conditions are not going to change, so it is no good asking for it. The only thing you can change is yourself. The only thing you have any control over at all is your own behaviour, and your own reaction to the behaviour of other people. With God’s help, you can change. With God’s help, your reactions to other people can change. If we listen to Paul, we will know how God wants us to change. We will know all of the things that God wants to do and to be. And the thing he wants us to do most of all is to love.
Most of us have spent our lives asking God for things, and most of us have been disappointed. But when we listen to God’s answers, when we figure out what his answers mean, then the disappointment will go away. Then we will know that we have found the more excellent way. A friend sent me this a few days ago, and I thought that it would be appropriate to use here.
“I asked God for strength, that I might achieve; I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey. I asked for health, that I might do greater things; I was given infirmity, that I might do better things. I asked for riches, that I might be happy; I was given poverty, that I might be wise. I asked for power, that I might have praise; I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God. I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life; I was given life that I might enjoy all things. I got nothing that I asked for — but everything that I had hoped for.”
And what do we hope for, if it is not love? My friends, if we do not have love, we have nothing, we are nothing. If we have love, then we have everything that we need. Thanks be to God.

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4 Responses to “January 31, 2010”


  1. 1 Ann Cochrane February 9, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    Thank you Katherine for this reminder. This passage on love is one of my favorites. This week it reminds me to gracefully accept that I cannot always get my way and that it’s probably for the best. It helps me to rally to the group decision when I would rather keep beating my own drum.

    Thank you for making me think this week.

    Ann

  2. 3 William February 17, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    Feb 17th.
    It is so true !
    if we do not have Love,we have nothing,we are nothing.

    Those are wises words !

    Friendly yours
    Jake « e tenebris lux »


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