February 3, 2019

The Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany

Scripture Reading: 1 Corinthians 13

13 If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, 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. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues,they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Footnotes:

  1. 1 Corinthians 13:1 Or languages
  2. 1 Corinthians 13:3 Some manuscripts body to the flames


Sermon: “What Love Can’t Fix

The world is full of people trying to strike it rich. Some stand a better chance than others, as this clip shows.

Stooges

You don’t have to break into the Treasury’s vaults to strike it rich. In fact, riches of all sorts have a way of turning up in the everyday and commonplace.

In March 2006, Michael Sparks was browsing at a thrift shop in Nashville, Tennessee. He came across a yellowed, shellacked, rolled up piece of paper. Sparks bought it for $2.48, took it home, and did some research.

When John Quincy Adams wasn’t president, but secretary of state, he ordered that 200 copies of the Declaration of Independence be made. The then-40-year-old calfskin document was already hard to read.

It took two years to painstakingly trace the original and then hand engrave it on copper plates. The copies went out in 1824–two to each of the surviving signers, with the rest going to Congress, state governments, colleges, and universities.

 Sparks had one of those copies. In March 2007, it brought $477,650 at auction.

Today’s Scripture lesson is a treasure hidden in plain sight, too. It’s a declaration, not of independence, but of dependence, of giving, not taking.

Miroslav Volf, in his book Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, wrote:

We live in a culture in which, yes, extraordinary generosity does happen. But at the same time, that culture is largely stripped of grace…. We’re set up to sell and buy, not to give and receive. We tend to give nothing free of charge and receive nothing free of charge…With only our own interest in mind, we try to squeeze the last drop out of those with whom we are dealing.

Jesus taught that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35), and part of growing up is learning the art of giving. If we just keep taking or even trading, we will squander ourselves. If we give, we will regain ourselves as fulfilled individuals and flourishing communities.

“With only our own interest in mind, we try to squeeze the last drop out of those with whom we’re dealing.” That describes the church in Corinth as well as we ourselves.

People were arguing over spiritual gifts, ranking those gifts and, naturally, those who had them. Paul spent considerable time telling them that all spiritual gifts are equal and must work together for the good of Christ’s body.

He then promises, at the end of chapter 12, to show the Corinthians a way which surpasses all others. We know what he said next.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but don’t have love, I’m 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 don’t have love, I’m nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but don’t have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

Without love, Paul said, even the greatest of the spiritual gifts of which you’re all so proud isn’t worth a hill of beans. Paul was helping the Corinthians find themselves both as faithful people and as the body of Christ. For that to happen, they had to give. They had to love.

The Greek word we translate as “love” in 1 Corinthians 13 is agape. We can’t measure it by how good it makes us feel. In fact, sometimes it won’t feel good at all, but challenging, difficult, and hard to bear.

Agape love acts. We see it most powerfully at work binding people together, especially in times of tension and disagreement.

Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love doesn’t brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. Love doesn’t traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love isn’t easily irritated or quick to take offense. Love joyfully celebrates honesty, and finds no delight in what’s wrong. Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up. (Passion Translation)

That kind of love is extraordinary, as well as extraordinarily hard. It often seems like too much for us―because, in fact, it is.

We can love only because, in Jesus Christ, God has already known us and loved us. God is working to make our lives in this community of faith more like the busy, active, tireless love that Paul talks about in First Corinthians 13.

There are some things even love can’t fix. The title for my sermon came from an article in the Christian Centurywritten by Matt Gaventa, describing his father’s battle with depression.

Eventually, Matt’s dad ended up in the acute wing of an inpatient psychiatric care facility. Matt describes a visit.

Mom and I didn’t…know what to say to him, so we just said we loved him. I told him I loved him because I loved him, and because I thought no one so well love could be sad. And I said it because I knew Paul’s words: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” If we loved him enough, surely he’d come home.

Eventually, following a suicide attempt and other hospitalizations, Matt’s dad did get better. But, Matt says, “Love didn’t beat his depression, because love couldn’t get in. The only way to fight a chemical imbalance is with chemistry. Thank God for pharmaceuticals.”

Matt goes on to say:

Depression and anxiety disorders affect about one in five adult Americans. If we understand such disorders as failures of love, we… fling wide the door to our own worst demons….

On my darkest nights, I felt the weight of my father’s illness: I could have been there for him. I could have convinced him that he was loved. That’s what depression does: it asks a thousand dark questions on a thousand dark nights, each one an opportunity for anger, guilt, and shame.”

We all face those dark nights, those struggles with anger, guilt, and shame. Love may sometimes fail. But love never takes failure as defeat.

Matt later points out that, in First Corinthians 13, Paul doesn’t so much talk about the powerof love as he does its persistence. Prophecies and tongues and knowledge will end, but love endures.

This is an International Harvester refrigerator that faithfully kicks on every year around Wurstmarkt time, doing its bit for the country store.

Here’s the tag on back. In case you can’t make it out, it says the date of manufacture was March 10, 1952. This sixty-two-year-old refrigerator has lasted.

Love puts even old faithful in the coal bin to shame. Faith will one day become sight, so Scripture promises. Hope will end in fulfillment. But love will always remain, because God’s love won’t fail, falter, or fall.

That kind of active, self-giving love is God’s gift to us. It’s the realtreasure we never stop longing for, our declaration of dependence on God as well as on this gathered community we call the church.