A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fourth Sunday After Epiphany • January 31, 2016
“Jesus is Lord!” Two weeks ago, we heard Paul explaining to the Corinthian Christians, a divided church that this is more important than all their differences. Differences of opinion, differences of gender, culture, even belief, none of these compare to the unity of living with one Lord. We heard him compare this life to being a body, the body of Christ. “Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.” Last Sunday we heard how just as the body needs different parts for different functions—an eye to see, an ear to hear and so on—we need as one body different gifts. This is a core part of being a Congregational Church because we believe we are a complete church in Christ. We believe God has given everything we need here to do what God hopes. Surely among those hopes are that we will remember members not here; so we have members who are gifted at staying in touch. Surely among those hopes is that we will sing God’s praise; so we have members who play and sing and lead us in that way. Surely we need people to organize our missions, serve communion, and we have people who are gifted at these things. Each of us has gifts given by God and together, in the sharing of our gifts, God’s work is done, Christ is present, for we are the body of Christ.
“Jesus is Lord!” That is our faith and mission. How can we turn that faith into mission? How can we live it day to day? That’s Paul’s intention in this part of his letter to the Corinthians. After answering the Corinthians, after explaining how much more important their unity in Christ is than their differences, he comes to this moment. Steve Jobs used to stand on a stage each year and explain the great things the Apple corporation had done and various new products. But he was famous for saving his announcement of really ground breaking things like the iPhone for the send and introducing them with the phrase, “One more thing…” Now Paul comes to the end and says in effect, “one more thing: love”.
It’s a chapter often read in the context of marriage: at weddings, anniversary celebrations, recommittals. I once was asked to read it at the funeral of a beloved spouse. It’s one of the most familiar parts of the whole Bible. But if we know it by heart, if in your head you were saying the words as they were read, do we do it in life? Jesus said, “Love your neighbor” and his life is a parable of love. Paul has told the Corinthians to love; now he teaches them, and us, how to take that principle and turn it into verbs. He sets the issue squarely right at the beginning.
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. [1 Cor 13:1-2]
Now Paul knows, as we may not that in fact many of the pagan ceremonies his audience remembers did indeed involve cymbals and gongs other instrument, symbolic ways of getting God’s attention. He also knows some of the Corinthians claim to have more faith than others and finally, then as now, the ultimate sign of Christian commitment was being martyred; these are people who know people who have died for their faith. How could their sacrifice mean nothing?
But love is not an emotion, love is not a pretty poem, and Paul proceeds to describe it a series of verbs. They’re like a mirror. Just listen to them, let them roll around in you for a moment: love is patient; love is kind; love bears all things, love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Paul teaches by telling us what love is not as well: envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, irritable, resentful. None of these things are part of love. The toughest one for me is this one: love does not insist on its own way. That’s tough. You know, I work hard at being right about things. And when I’m right, when I’m sure I’m right? I know I tend to insist on my own way. I know I’ve insisted on it even when it wasn’t loving. God forgive me. I’m not the only one who does this, either. In fact, when we were first married, Jacquelyn got so tired of people, me in particular, insisting on their own way that she created a sort of rule. It works like this. If you insist on your own way, and someone else insists on a different way and it turns out you were wrong, you have to turn around three times to the right and say, “You were right, you were right, you were right” and then turn around three times to the left and say, “I was wrong, I was wrong, I was wrong.” We call it doing the dance. And honestly? I hate doing the dance. But when you do the dance, you discover something; you can’t do it without laughing. The other person laughs and somehow things are better; love is restored. Love does not insist on its own way.
One of my favorite movies is Harvey. It’s is an old black and white movie with Jimmy Stewart and the premise is simple. Elwood P. Dowd has a good friend who is a pookah, a sort of six foot tall rabbit with magical powers. Oh, one more thing: Harvey, the pookah? He’s invisible and given to hanging out in bars. It’s a comedy in which a simple, happy man is sent to a psychiatric hospital for being happy, for not living by the world’s values. He explains it this way, “”In this world, Elwood, you must be oh, so smart…or oh, so pleasant. Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.” Love doesn’t insist on its own way; it’s not smart, it’s pleasant.
Now if we are honest when we truly look in the mirror of these verbs, most of us will see our own flaws. Paul has a reply. He says that now we see in a mirror darkly and the we live as children who are still growing. So if we haven’t fully grown into this vision of love, it’s ok; we are meant to keep pressing on, keeping the prize in mind, keeping the vision alive. And this is the most important function of a church. We are a school for love. We are meant to learn here how to be patient, how to be kind. We are meant to learn how we can be together without insisting on our own way. We are not these things now; we do not always work together this way now. We insist on our own way, we measure our differences. But we are learning, we are learning to love.
The most important step is simply to decide to live this love. In Harvey, Elwood P. Dowd is seen by a psychiatrist named Dr. Chumley. Over the corse of the story, Dr. Chumley comes to believe in Harvey and near the end of the story he says, “Flyspecks! Flyspecks! I’ve been living my life among flyspecks while miracles were hanging out downtown.” Dr. Chumley has come to a realization; love trumps smart, love trumps being right, love trumps everything.
When Paul has held up the mirror of love, he says one more thing. The Corinthians are doing things day to day. Paul wants them to see that everything they are doing is temporary. Isn’t it the same with us? My father taught me lots of wonderful things but he also taught one thing that was wrong. He taught all of us, “Work comes first.” He taught us that our value was our profession. That’s our culture; that’s our way.
But Paul is teaching something beyond our culture, Paul is preaching something beyond our world. Paul is teaching and preaching the love of God in Jesus Christ and the final thing he says ought to be part of every thing we do here. He says this: “Love never ends” and he says that in all the world, only three things ultimately remain: hope, faith and love. Now we live day to day; we try to make a difference day to day. That’s a good and important thing. We are making a difference; we are making things better for some. But the most important thing we can do is be a school for learning to love because all these other things we do, all our work, our efforts—only the parts that have to do with faith, hope and love will last.
Jesus is Lord! Indeed: and our Lord has said love one another. We are meant to be his body, we are meant to live our lives as his, loving and loved, growing in love, sharing his love until the light of the love of God shines in every darkness every day.