Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
I remember a fellow seminarian who had something of a born-again experience while we were students. Being born-again is a rare occurrence in the United Church of Christ. In general, we prefer the slow, learning, deepening kind of faith experience, but there she was – face aglow, eyes bright, smiling to beat the band. We were all surprised, to say the least. When we left seminary for the summer break, she was her usual recalcitrant self – cynical and sharp with a biting sense of humor. But then September rolled around and she was a new person. I have a built-in wariness of people who make such abrupt changes in their personalities. In my experience, mood swings of the sudden variety signal instability and emotional instability makes me nervous. But there she was, clearly a changed woman. Eventually I learned her story. No, she said, it isn’t that I accepted Jesus into my heart and I didn’t turn myself over to Jesus. For her entire life, up to a particular moment over the summer, she had felt unloved. She was the only child of what she described as a vicious, loveless marriage. Neither parent wanted her particularly. She wasn’t beautiful in any of the ways our culture defines beauty. She was very, very smart and quick-of-tongue and so could keep human entanglements pretty much at bay by employing her sharp edges. She doesn’t know why she came to seminary in the first place except that she knew, deep inside herself, that she wasn’t living the way she wanted to live and she had a vague sense that there was something more. She had taken a job in a hospital over the summer and she had met a nurse, an older woman, who befriended her. It was like coming to life, like being watered after a long draught, like seeing the sun after years of cold, gray skies. I was loved, she said, for the very first time and by someone who neither needed nor wanted anything from me except my company, and she was willing to endure the cuts and bruises to be in my company. For the very first time, she said, she understood the words I just read from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. For the very first time, she experienced love.
It’s almost impossible for any of us to imagine living a life devoid of love. We can cite example after example of things our parents might have done better, or ways our friends have disappointed us or our are significant others have irritated us, but very few of us have not experienced love. Eventually this woman leveled out a little bit – it’s hard to sustain that kind of emotional euphoria, but I’ll never forget hearing her speak about the difference between being unloved and then being loved. It was for her, the difference between death and life.
Paul wrote these incredible words as part of a fairly harsh letter to the church in Corinth – a church full up with pettiness and jealousy and religious righteousness. They had been fighting among themselves about pagan rituals. They had even been fighting about fighting. It was difficult for them to find a place within their congregation for the “new” Christians – the ones who weren’t circumcised, the ones who weren’t Jewish. They made judgments about their fellow members’ faithfulness based on things that couldn’t be changed. We know that Paul wrote to the Corinthian church several times, that he tried to instruct them from a distance, that his letters were sometimes harsh, sometimes critical, sometimes complimentary. We know that the two letters we have in our Bible are probably compilations of Paul’s several letters. And we know that Paul’s letters really, well, irritated some of the members of the Corinthian church.
These were hard lessons for the members of First Church, Corinth. An amalgamated group of Jews and Gentiles, impoverished and wealthy, women and men, this young congregation believed Paul’s message of the imminent coming of Jesus Christ and wondered, as a consequence, if the imminent arrival of their savior should cause them to behave in different ways. The Corinthians had some questions for Paul. They wanted to know about marriage and fidelity, about disassociating with the lawless but nonetheless wealthy business people in Corinth, they wondered about the ritual laws of cleanliness, especially related to the eating of meat from pagan butchers, and they did not understand the depth of the experiences of suffering that would have to be endured to maintain their new faith. They wanted to know, in other words, if some of their supposed members shouldn’t behave a little better before Jesus came again – a little like the younger sister suggesting her older brother should clean his plate and change his socks and finish his homework before the parents come home. This new religion Paul taught them was to accommodate Jews, proselytes and Gentiles. Never-the-less, the Corinthians needed guidance about their lives together as a church.
I wonder how the Corinthians felt when they read Paul’s words about love. Were they so self-obsessed when they received his letters, so concerned about the behaviors of their fellow parishioners that they didn’t recognize the poetic genius of the passage that begins “Though I may speak in the tongue of mortals and angels, if I do not have love, I am like a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal”. Did they have any idea how often these words, written to tell them about the higher spiritual gifts, would be read at significant occasions over the years? Could they even begin to imagine how these words would change lives? Probably not.
In the preceding and subsequent chapters of First Corinthians, Paul wrote about the varieties of spiritual gifts and gifts for leadership in the church. His words about love had more to do with the exercise of those spiritual gifts than about the romantic love of an individual for another individual. The gifts of the Spirit have meaning and significance in the community of faith when they are recognized and used in love.
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. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
What a fortunate congregation we are. We are blessed with quantities of truly remarkable lay leadership. We worship together in a sanctuary that is, by all standards, beautiful and inspiring. We perform and listen to music that lifts our hearts and stirs our spirits. We have in the membership of this congregation the intellectual firepower to solve most any problem that confronts us and the financial wealth to take care of our congregation’s needs. We are generous, both in our individual giving and in the giving we do collectively to our denomination and to alleviate human suffering. And, have we love, as well? for clearly Paul is telling us in this letter that our many gifts, our abilities, our treasures and our knowledge, our glorious worship and our generous giving will gain us nothing if we do not also have love.
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.
I wonder how many of us think, deep down, that we could be, would be more loving if only other people would be, well, more lovable. Wouldn’t it be easier to love those parents over there if they would just make their little boy behave? And couldn’t we love that woman over here if she would just mind her own business? And what about that man who grumps all the time or that woman who passes judgment on your words, or this man who is so quick to let you know that in his previous experience, they did it better, or this woman who exploits her self-sacrifice to make it seem like more than it is? Those who are smug, do they have love? Those who belittle, do they? Those who stopped listening back in 1974, those who want to take care of their own, feed themselves first, those who have stopped laughing at themselves…
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
If I were to ask you to take out a pen and write in the margins of your bulletin, the qualities that separate children from adults, what would they be? It’s really quite remarkable how many adults I know, including myself, revert to childish behaviors at the least provocation – when we don’t get our own way, when we think no one is listening to us, when we’re tired, when we don’t get our own way – wait, did I say that already? Behavior I wouldn’t tolerate in my children, I see played out in the supposedly adult world all the time – all the time. What’s that about, I wonder? What would it take for us to put an end to our childish ways? Do we even know?
Faith, hope, and love abide these three, the greatest of these is love. My seminary colleague, all those years ago, learned about love for the first time when she experienced being loved. But her experience is not typical of those of us here in this room today. She had never known love. We know love, most of us, we know it, we have received it, we have given it. But we still think of it as a passive event – we will be loved, or we will love, accidentally, when someone or something catches our fancy or is beautiful to us.
See, here is what I think Paul really meant when he wrote these words to the Corinthians – you have to choose to love. You have to love actively, even when you don’t like what you’re seeing. You have to decide to love, commit yourselves to actively love. You have to love, - you, you have to actually love. That’s what it means to put as end to childish ways. It’s what it means to rejoice in truth. It’s why selflessness is its own reward. Choose love. Do it. It’s worth the work. Amen.