First Corinthians 13 is probably the most popular scripture for weddings – ever. Called “the love chapter,” it is absolutely beautiful. How many of you have EVER heard this scripture at a wedding? It’s beautiful and says wonderful things about love.
But it wasn’t written for a wedding. Paul wrote this passage of his letter to the Corinthians not because they exemplified these qualities or were looking starry eyed at one another – but because they were at each other’s throats. Instead of describing what is – Paul seeks to inspire the Corinthians – and all faithful people who have come after – of what we should seek to become. So we can keep reading this scripture at weddings – but in my pastoral meetings with couples, I’m going to encourage them to dust this scripture off – at their first fight.
Listen again to how Paul defines LOVE: Love is patient.
Love is kind… It rejoices in the truth…
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends.
Love never ends. In our world that is so full of heartache and pain, we could question Paul’s assessment. But while we sometimes fail to love and to be loving, Paul writes, “Love never ends” because God is Love and God’s love is everlasting. It is beyond measure.
As Vicar Katelyn noted in her sermon last week, the chapter prior to this “love chapter,” Paul speaks about the great variety of gifts that God has given to us. Paul ends that chapter and introduces this chapter by urging the Corinthians and us to: “strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.” This is not a bad translation. Love certainly is “a still more excellent way.” But literally translated, that introductory line reads “beyond measure.” Paul urges the church in Corinth and faithful followers ever since to embrace a love like Jesus’, a love “beyond measure.”
Beyond measure. The people in the church at Corinth were quite adept at measuring. Much of Greek society depended upon the ranking of people as well as professions. Those who were not “in” your group were not to be socialized with or even spoken to. But at the new church at Corinth, people of many different economic, professional, racial and ethnic groups were gathered into one. And Paul wanted them to act differently than how they had been taught by their culture. But he noticed that they were starting to jockey for position in the same way that they were accustomed to doing OUTSIDE the church – except instead of economic status or ethnicity, they were starting to measure themselves according to spiritual gifts.
Given the benefits of hindsight, it’s easy to see that the Corinthian Christians were falling into that trap in Greek culture. But what about us? While we pride ourselves on our diversity, our culture is just as prone to making distinctions based on race, ethnicity, socio-economic status and then treating people differently because of these distinctions. The lead poisoning in the water in Flint, Michigan is just one example. Officials are embarrassed now, but many have asked the question if that problem would have happened in a richer community. The point is, our culture has within it the same temptations – very human temptations – of measuring one group against another. A followers of Jesus, we, like the Corinthian Christians, need to guard against that temptation of acting like the culture instead of acting in love, acting like Jesus.
So what does acting in love, acting like Jesus look like?
One of my favorite theologians is Henri Nouwen. He was thoughtful, brilliant and renowned an author and scholar at Harvard University. It would seem to all outward appearances that Nouwen was the picture of success. But Nouwen felt something was missing. He tried going to Latin America to get involved in Liberation theology. But because he was famous and didn’t speak Spanish very well, he was more of a liability for the group – and they asked him to go home and to pray and teach about their work. He became very depressed. Then one day, he received an invitation to become a part of L’arch community in Canada. L’arch is a community of people with disabilities and people who come to work with them. In the midst of caring for the basic needs of a developmentally disabled man, including changing his diaper, Henri learned to love and to receive love.
Henri Nouwen found the need to make a radical change in his life in order to learn to love and to receive love. Likewise, our youth often report that the change of place and the intentionality of serving others on Mission Trips helps them to see Christ. But we don’t have to go anywhere in order to see Christ at work in our world. Ordinary acts of kindness, showing patience and care, and acting out of faith within the confines of our ordinary lives, may be the best place for us to begin acting in love. That’s what it means to show Christ to the world.
At the opening sermon of the Conference for Listening for Change, Episcopalian Bishop Curry shared a story that Howard Thurman used to tell. Howard Thurman was an African American professor, the founding pastor of the House of Prayer for all People and an eloquent poet and author and an inspiration for Martin Luther King Jr.
Howard Thurman said that he learned the power of love from his grandmother. Raised in a Southern state by his mother and grandmother at a time of segregation, they happened to live on the border of the segregation line. On the one side of their house lived a black neighbor and on the other side of their house lived a white neighbor.
The neighbor who was white resented the fact that she lived next door to a black family. And so, to show her disdain for her black neighbors, every day she cleaned out her chicken coop – and threw the “droppings” over the fence into the Thurman’s back yard.
Thurman said he wondered why this grandmother did not rise up in righteous anger. It happened almost every day. The white woman came out of the chicken coop and threw the chicken droppings over the fence. And Thurman’s grandmother did not do a thing about it. Granted, there probably wasn’t much she could do about it. These were times of segregation. So… like the old spiritual, she never said a mumbling word.
Then one day, years later, the white woman got ill. By this time, both the white neighbor and Mrs. Thurman were quite old.
Mrs. Thurman, a Christian woman, saw that her neighbor was ill and so she packed up some of her homemade chicken soup that she made with vegetables from her garden and she cut some roses from her backyard.
When Mrs. Thurman knocked on her door, the white neighbor suspiciously answered the door and said, “Can I help you?”
Mrs Thurman replied, “Well I came to help you!” and showed her the soup.
The neighbor was so weak she couldn’t resist. She let her in and then, because she was so weak she went back to her bedroom to lie down. Mrs. Thurman followed, got out a bowl and a spoon, poured a bowl of soup and then…quite literally… began to feed her neighbor soup, spoonful by spoonful.
When her neighbor was done eating, Mrs. Thurman asked, “Do you have a vase?” After finding the vase, she began to arrange the roses. The neighbor asked her, “Where did you get those flowers? They are beautiful!”
Thurman’s grandma smiled and said, “Well you’ve had a little something to do with it. You know all those chicken droppings that you’ve been throwing over the fence all these years?” Well… I’ve been using those droppings as fertilizer.
You’ve been eating the fruit of the land in that soup. And these flowers are the result of that fertilizer too. They are from my garden too. “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.”
Thurman later recounted that it was learning that lesson that helped him realize that the transformative power of love could change a nation. Or as Bishop Curry said, we can learn from the old African American spiritual: “If you cannot preach like Peter and you cannot pray like Paul you can share the love of Jesus and say he died for all.”
Sharing the love of Jesus, the love which is beyond measure. Sometimes it starts with sharing a bowl of soup. But regardless of who we are or where we live, opportunities abound. May we as a congregation and each of you in your own neighborhoods, schools and workplaces and with all the people you meet, love your neighbor as Jesus has first loved you. Amen.
Pastor Pamela Stalheim Lane
31 January 2016
Faith-Lilac Way Lutheran Churc