SERMON Epiphany 4c 2019
I Corinthians 13
First Corinthians 13 is probably the most popular chapter in all of scripture; it even has a nickname: “The Love Chapter” and I am sure I have heard it read out at just about every wedding I have performed or attended or played the organ for over the last fifty years.
But I have never preached on it and I was surprised to discover that I’m not alone in that. About three times a year, when I’m not sure how to approach a particular passage in the bible, I’ll go to Mother well, over and over again this week I heard YouTube preachers begin by saying they had never before tried to preach on first Corinthians 13.
That seemed really strange to me at first, but on reflection I think I know why: speaking love is hard enough, telling someone you love them; speaking about love – that is, speaking the truth about love -is exponentially harder.
Let me tell you what I mean: it reminds me of a time long ago when I was studying for the professional theatre in an intense conservatory program. Often, dance classes would be scheduled the first thing in the morning. After finishing rehearsal at 11:00 the night before, imagine the poor tail-dragging actors slogging to dance class at 9:00 a.m. How often we would beg the teacher: “Kathy, can’t we just talk about dance this morning?”
That’s the preachers’ problem: talking about love is like talking about dance: it’s not remotely the same thing. Dance … is dance: energy, movement, life, event. Talking about dance is just talk. Well: talking about love doesn’t dance it.
Which in first Corinthians 13 is Paul’s problem and his point. Love either is … or it isn’t. It’s like air: we need air to breathe. Or the light we need in order to see. Or the water our bodies need to live for two days. Talking about air or light or water is fine, but talk doesn’t help us breathe or see or live; only the elements themselves sustain us: air, light and water. Love is like that; love is elemental, life-creating, indispensable. It’s either there or not, you have it or you don’t, and if we have it, there’s really not much need to talk about it, like the old Norwegian man who loved his wife so much he almost told her. No, love shows itself in other and better ways than mere words, which is exactly what Paul means when he says: “If I speak like an angel but have no love, it’s just meaningless noise.” Welcome to my preacher world.
I was speaking about this in confirmation class this week. You may know that, in teaching confirmation, my way has always been to throw the book at the kids: I want them to know their bible, church history, liturgical practice, Lutheran theology, the commandments in order by heart, the Exodus and the Exile, all the stuff that interests ME … but of course that’s all for nothing and confirmation is a complete waste of time if they don’t know the Lord, if the love of God hasn’t found them yet.
Here’s the secret: As with so many things in life, what makes the difference in the economy of salvation is not what we know, but who we know. If we know God, if we love Jesus, if we accept the forgiveness and grace and love that pours out of the heart of God for us in real time, then, to quote a lyric from A Chorus Line, “the rest of the crap will get solved.”
I had a special needs student in confirmation some years ago – actually I’ve taught many such kids and I have always really enjoyed them. With her, it went like this: I would say, “Darling, there are four gospels. How many gospels are there?” and she couldn’t tell me. But with her, it didn’t matter: she was one of the most loving kids I’ve ever met; she was kind, patient, helpful, cheerful … she was great with old people, she had (has) a very loving family and she knows she is loved. I mean, she’s not Mother Teresa, but she’s on the spectrum.
This young woman had what I want to wave my magic wand and have every confirmation student know instantly in their hearts: trust in God, concern for others, love for the life God gives. Can any of that be taught? “Though I teach with the tongues of men and angels and have not love, what good am I?”
No, after all these years teaching the Christian faith, I really don’t think love can be taught. Certainly it cannot be manufactured; no, like the elements and energies of the natural world, it can only be discovered. Love is where you find it. Once discovered it can be cultivated: love can be planted like wheat; it can be mined like gold, it can be grown like tulips, it can be breathed like air. But we cannot make it, cannot create it, and mores the pity we cannot make people use it. Indeed, as we know, many lives are empty of love and instead are lived out in fear, or hatred, or despair.
Now, God’s answer to all this is his son. Not a message, not a metaphor, not a movie; God gave his own life to us and for us in Jesus Christ. As I said before, with God, it’s not what we know, it’s who we know. Divine Love comes to us as a person, a person with a body, a living person who is as close to us as our own hands and feet. This person loves us in real time, grows love in us, pulls love out of us. This person is Jesus, and knowing Jesus is the beginning and the end of our faith, the big picture, the whole enchilada, the sun in the morning and the moon at night. There are four gospels, ten commandments, twelve gates to the city … but there is one Lord, who is all we know, and all we need to know.
OK. I know. It’s just words. We’re not finished yet. Our world, our country, our city, perhaps even some of our own families, are scenes of injustice and cruelty. We are not at peace with ourselves; we know all too well what it is to fear, to hate and to despair.
No, we have tasted love but we have not feasted. We are still living into God’s future. In a minute, we will share the body and blood of Jesus – not a message, not a metaphor, not a movie – God will come inside us, again; the fullness of God’s love will infect us, again; and then, again, we will depart into a world just as broken as the one we left an hour ago. Amen. Come Lord Jesus.
I’m sorry. I can’t explain it. As far as this humble preacher can tell, that’s how love works. Faith means holding on. Hope means tasting joy. Love … is our next breath.
And now – Paul writes – faith, hope and love abide, these three. And the greatest of these is love.
Let us pray.