You could hear the sharp intake of breath as the tattooed and multiply-pierced young man walked forward to the chancel with the guitar under his arm. Stepping up next to him was a young woman in tight jeans and a streak of blue in her hair. They took a moment to plug the guitar into the speaker and adjust the microphones near their lips. Then with a chord that got everyone’s attention, their anthem began. “Woe to you hypocrites,” they sang, directly quoting Jesus, but somehow sounding very “un-Christian.” They listed the evident sins of the society they saw around them–the number of hungry and homeless people, violence in the streets and schools, drug and alcohol abuse, young people being judged for the way they looked.
It made even the woman who devoted much of her time volunteering in the soup kitchen feel uncomfortable. It certainly made the man who owned a business on Main St. angry. It confused the first-grader sitting with her parents.
When the minister stood up to deliver the sermon, you could see folks relax in their pews. The women and some of the men smiled and unconsciously touched their hair. The handsome young man standing in the pulpit made them feel sexy. He spoke so passionately and beautifully–he didn’t even use notes. The time during his sermon flew by, and if you’d asked anyone about it later, they most likely would have commented on how they loved to hear Rev. Jones speak, though they’d have been hard-pressed to tell you what he spoke about.
At coffee hour, a group of folks who were adamantly for gun control, upset about the growing violence in their own little town, glared across the room at a group of hunters and NRA members. The kids sat at separate tables, hurling cheetos at one another, while their doting parents looked on, reluctant to make a fuss. Older folks seethed with disapproval.
To everyone’s surprise, coffee hour was interrupted when a woman tapped on the microphone of the social hall’s sound system. “Excuse me,” she said, waiting for everyone to settle down and give her their attention. “Thank you,” she said when the room had quieted down. “I have a letter from our founding pastor, and it’s important that we all hear it. I received it yesterday in the mail, and when I first read it, I was almost insulted. Then I read it again, and, I’m sorry to say, I think we need to hear this.
“Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,”
the letter began. “I give thanks to God for you everyday for the incredible gifts that have been poured out upon you. It is one of the real privileges and joys of my ministry that I was a part of bringing you together and getting you started as a community.
But I have to say, I’m distressed at what I’ve been hearing about you. You’ve got all sorts of causes you’re trumpeting–that’s good. You’ve got musicians and artists coming out of your ears–that’s great. Rev. Jones is the talk of the town, and your prayer chain’s got a reputation for performing miracles–all wonderful.
BUT, what I don’t hear anything about is the Love you have for one another or for any of the people you’re supposed to be helping. In fact, I’ve heard that coffee hour is toxic, your worship service is just a fan club, and people feel like they should be kissing the rings on the hands that serve them food.
Listen–If I speak in the tongues of angels or celebrities, but don’t have love, I might just as well be feedback from a microphone. If I am engaged in all the right social justice causes and stir people up to act and demonstrate, but don’t have love, I am nothing.
If I contribute to the NRA, the ACLU, the Sierra Club, the 5 All-Church Offerings of the United Church of Christ, but don’t have love, I gain nothing.
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.
“I could be wrong,” should be added at the end of any one of your pronouncements, maybe even at the end of Rev. Jones’ sermons. “I don’t know. I could listen more deeply” should be part of all your coffee hour or parking lot conversations. We just don’t know everything. Only God does. Love is what matters.
Coffee hour at the First Church of Corinth would never be the same, as you can imagine.
I’ll leave it to you to decide whether they took the letter’s words to heart or filed a complaint against their former pastor. But that’s the setting of this passage on Love that we are more likely to have heard read at weddings, when everyone looks beautiful and beaming, when all seems right with the world. What’s not to love about Love? In fact, love is most important in times of struggle and confusion, when life is complicated and difficult.
The congregation in Nazareth couldn’t have told you that Jesus’ little sermon had anything to do with Love, but that was precisely what Jesus was pushing them to understand. Love isn’t confined to your little circle of family and friends, he was saying. I’m not here just to bring honor and fame to this little Galilean village. God’s healing and justice and mercy–all of which are part of God’s Love–aren’t limited to certain geographical or ethnic or religious categories. You are loved, but not just you.
There is a saying attributed to St. Augustine that says, “God loves everyone as if he or she is the only one.” That’s the scandal of God, isn’t it, and the scandal of Love? Where’s the integrity? Where are the standards? Where is the judgment? “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I now only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
“Now we see in a mirror dimly.” “That should be the motto of every theologian and lover,” Bruce Epperly writes (Adventurous Lectionary, 2/3/13) The love of God is bigger than we can get our minds wrapped around. The love of God includes each and all of us, yet is willing to struggle–even die–to teach us what that means. Love doesn’t mean the absence of conflict–in fact, conflict may be a way to teach us about love. Conflict is a given in human relationships–we are all different, have different experiences, different aptitudes and inclinations. Hiding or denying conflict is a recipe for failure. In healthy relationships, research has found, there is a 5 to 1 ratio between positive and negative interactions. While we need to accentuate the positive (as the song says), we really shouldn’t eliminate the negative. Working through conflict actually immunizes our relationships from the really big times of stress. Just like a wound that heals with a scar that is stronger than the original tissue, so acknowledging and working through conflict makes our relationships stronger. Conflict is actually necessary for the long-term success of committed relationships. (Tal Ben Shahar)
“This is my body, broken…this is my blood, poured out.” What we consider “perfect”– the perfect relationship, the perfect church, the perfect loaf or cup–cannot grow and become available and nourishing to others until it is broken open, until it is tested. Perfect Love willingly opened itself up to suffering and death–foolishness to mortals, the wisdom of God.
So we come to break the bread and pour out the cup, so that we might be nourished and made new, and so that we might become bread and drink for a hungry and thirsty world. What’s Love got to do with it? Only everything.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark