Sunday, February 03, 2013

This Most Excellent Way

Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene:  1 Corinthians 13:1-13

And I will show you a still more excellent way.

          According to many people in my family, my great-grandmother, Pearl, whom we all called Gram, had a problem, a quite serious one.  Gram was an “any friend of yours is a friend of mine,” kind of gal.  And this did not mean that she was simply nice to them, she literally treated them like family.

She shocked us time and time again by doing that, sometimes long after our friendship with that person was over.  I remember her going on a couple of trips with former girlfriends of my Uncle Jimmy, her youngest grandson.  We’re not talking about a trip to Rochester to shop.  We’re talking places like the Rocky Mountains and Hawai’i.

The family spent a great deal of time behind the scenes weaving various conspiracy theories, mostly involving these people wanting to get ahold of Gram’s mysterious, and mostly mythical, stash of money.  There was a theory also that this was only an ego trip for her.  She loved these people “fawning” all over her.

I have no idea whether any of that was true.  I have no idea what the motivation was for those relationships from either side.  What I did and do know was how easy it was to be absolutely devoted to that woman.  If she could get me as a teenager to sit with her and watch the Lawrence Welk show on a regular basis then clearly she was someone people easily loved.

What exactly is love?  The apostle Paul introduces his great piece about the nature of love by saying, at the very end of chapter 12,

And I will show you a still more excellent way.

          What does he mean?  Well, he’s writing to a community about which he is deeply troubled.  It seems to him they are turning their backs on everything he taught them, all of the clear implications of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the good news.  There are factions, and hierarchies of importance have developed, and not everyone shares the Eucharist in the same way.  In short, the radical equality which made the Christian community so distinctive from the world around it in his day, was shattered.

          The last two weeks we have heard Paul speaking emphatically about the necessity of all gifts—of whatever type or “importance”—to the community, which needs to understand itself to be a body—Christ’s body, where all the parts work together and none can say, “I have no need of you.”

          That’s all very important stuff, but he knows that nothing is actually likely to change without some serious conversion to what he calls the more excellent way of love.

          And he begins to talk about love by saying that all the giftedness in the world, including generosity (!) and the deepest faith, is of little or no consequence without love.  “Noisy gongs or clanging symbols,” he calls those of us who stray of this most excellent way.

          But, again, what is love?  He goes on to say in beautiful words that almost everyone wants to read at weddings, which isn’t a bad thing, but Paul was not talking about marriage here. He was talking about how you and I relate to everyone and anyone.

          In the spirit of Paul’s words I want to talk briefly about three things we often confuse with love, especially in a community like this one.

          First of all, we confuse love with agreeing with each other or thinking and feeling the same way.  I experienced this in my Inter-Varsity group in college, where like belief, and even like experience, was very nearly mandatory.  People made up stories about being “born again” that fit into a very distinctive pattern in order to belong.  Eventually I was instead attracted to the Episcopal Church, that did have this common experience of the Eucharist, but I was told that different members of the Church believed different things were going on when we celebrated and received communion.  Conformity of belief was not necessary.

          Second of all, we confuse love with loyalty.  Now loyalty is not a bad thing. In fact, it can be a very good thing.  But loyalty implies an exclusiveness that love seeks to break open.  A key—perhaps the key—component of love is freedom.  How does this work in a marriage, where we take vows of exclusiveness?  In marriage, two people covenant together to share the nurturing of love that is to be shared with the whole world.  We think every couple is to be a self-sufficient world unto itself. No.

          I love my spouse, fiercely actually, and I am steadfastly loyal to him, but that does not mean that he gets all my love or that the love we share stays between us.  All of us are called to generate love in ever more widening circles.

          Third, we confuse love with attraction.  We like to say, “It was love at first sight.”  No, it was attraction at first sight.  Love is a journey, not a moment.  Attraction may result in love as a relationship grows.  But it does not necessarily do so.  How many marriages die when the attraction is over and no real, deep, abiding love had developed?

          So those I think are things love is not. You may have your own list.  And no doubt you have a list of what love is.  What I settled on to speak to you about this morning was this:  love is allowing the freedom from the fear of failure.

          This came up for me this week when I heard just a bit of an interview with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor about her new book, My Beloved World.  She was speaking about how deeply the fear of failure affects most of us, and I do believe she is right.  Personally, I think it is almost universal, at least in this culture, crossing differences of gender, race, ethnicity, orientation, etc.

          And I also got to thinking how prevalent it is in the church.  How much we foster it with this sense that hangs in the air of most churches that if you do not behave yourself, you’re going to wish that the worst thing that could happen to you was your mother getting mad at you.  One of God’s favorite words is wrath, what he does best is judge, and when he gets angry with you it’s for ever.

          But none of that is true.  Listen to St. Paul.

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.

          Do you know what the most important truth is about those words?  First and foremost, they are how God loves us.  Paul does not say that directly, but it has to be true.  Surely we do not hold God to a lesser standard than we hold ourselves when it comes to love, do we?

          The good news here is that you “are fully known” to God and all those things about love are true for how God feels about you.

          Now if we know that and believe down into the marrow of our bones, can’t we do better about banishing the fear of failure from at least this community?  What if this were the kind of place where people could shed their fear of failure like an old coat just inside the door?  Another way of saying that is, what if this were a place, a community, where there was absolutely no condition on our love for one another?  None.

          Paul obviously believed that such a community was possible, although he was enough of a realist to know that it does not just happen because you want it to, and it certainly does not happen with a snap of the finger.  That’s why he called it, “the more excellent way.”

          Let us pray that we may continue to learn this most excellent way of love that banishes all fear.

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