1 Corinthians 13 Common English Bible (CEB)
13 If I speak in tongues of human beings and of angels but I don’t have love, I’m a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and I know all the mysteries and everything else, and if I have such complete faith that I can move mountains but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. 3 If I give away everything that I have and hand over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done but I don’t have love, I receive no benefit whatsoever.
4 Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, 5 it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, 6 it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. 7 Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things.
8 Love never fails. As for prophecies, they will be brought to an end. As for tongues, they will stop. As for knowledge, it will be brought to an end. 9 We know in part and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, what is partial will be brought to an end. 11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, reason like a child, think like a child. But now that I have become a man, I’ve put an end to childish things. 12 Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known. 13 Now faith, hope, and love remain—these three things—and the greatest of these is love.
Working with the lectionary is always a bit of a challenge. My preacher-teachers recommended following the lectionary because of the challenge. It will force us to study passages we don’t like or have an affinity for and that will cause us to look at ourselves more closely. Also, when preachers choose their favorite passages all the time they tend to stick to a handful that speak to their own particular points of view. Not only does the preacher not grow, but neither does the congregation. It’s not as if they don’t give us plenty to study and think about and struggle with. Every week there are four passages to consider - Hebrew scripture, Psalm, Gospel and Letter - and they rotate over a three year period. That means it would take me twelve years to get through all of them. I do sometimes deviate from the lectionary, but I stick with the lectionary readings most of the time. Sometimes I wonder why the lectionary committee chose such a short passage or such very long one. Sometimes I wonder why they chose the beginning and end of a passage and left out the middle. Other times I wonder why on earth they selected passages that are so packed with meaning that it would take four sermons to do justice to it.
This is one of those other times. I could preach a full sermon on each of these three short paragraphs plus a separate one on verses 11 and 12. That’s where I was focusing when I chose my title a few weeks ago - “Childhood’s End.” And then I was delighted to discover that the Children’s Song today would be “Jesus loves me.”
I’ve always believed that. I’m not sure how I came to believe that. What I learned in catechism class was more about Jesus’ death than his love. And before the 2nd Vatican Council in the mid 1960s we didn’t sing in church, so I didn’t learn it there. But I went to public school in the 1950s in a small farming town in Pennsylvania, and we sang hymns in class. I distinctly remember marching around the classroom singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in 4th grade. In earlier years we sang “Jesus Loves Me” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children” and listened to the story of Jesus telling the disciples to let the children come to him. Maybe that’s where I first learned to believe that. I know that even during all the years I stayed away from church, I always believed that Jesus loved me. I believed as a child believes - no matter what, Jesus loves me. No matter what, I could curl up at his feet like a child and he would love and comfort me. All I had to do was just sit there and let him love me.
I believed as a child. But then I grew up - I became part of a congregation and I discovered that Jesus love is much more complicated than I had thought. It could no longer be just something I accept, as it washes over me like warm sunlight. I started really listening to passages like Matthew 25:40, “‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” I started really hearing passages like this one, this “love is …” passage that we love to use in weddings, and realizing that love is not passive. And it’s not a feeling. It is not something I sit and accept - it is something I take strength from and go do. It is a response to God’s love, made manifest in Jesus. So as I sat in that congregation at Treasure Coast Christian Church listening to Pastor Betsy preach I learned that Jesus does, indeed, love me, and that I need to love him back.
So . . . love is . . . Consider that list of things that Love is. “Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, 5 it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, 6 it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth.” That is so beautiful! And easy, right? Love is patient . . . so standing in line at the DMV or Social Security office - not a problem, right? Love is kind [and] isn’t rude [or] irritable . . . so even, especially when I’m having a rough day I am sweetness and light to everyone I meet, right? Love doesn’t keep a record of complaints . . . so when I’m having a “discussion” with my beloved I am careful only to address the particular thing that’s going on right now, right?
Love is hard work! None of the items in that list of things love is are easy to do. Each one of them takes constant vigilance and practice on our part. Each of them can be a prayer focus - although I would caution against praying for patience. It has been my experience that when I pray for patience I am given the opportunity to practice being patient by being stuck in the longest, slowest lines or having something I need take way too long to arrive.
“Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things.” This verse is a bit problematic at first glance. As a survivor of domestic violence, I know that these words have been used to encourage women and men to remain in abusive relationships. “It is your duty to endure whatever comes in your marriage” we are told. And I’m pretty sure that’s wrong, because of the line that comes above - “love isn’t happy with injustice, but is happy with the truth.” Just as love would call us to put a stop to the injustice of someone else being abused, so we must not permit ourselves to be abused. And trust me, I know just exactly how hard it is. I think Jesus doesn’t much approve of anything that we do or allow to be done to us that results in damage to our bodies or souls.
I went to the Disciples Women’s Quadrennial Assembly in Indianapolis a while back and bought a Jesus doll. I claimed I was going to use it for children’s moments and possibly even when I needed to counsel a child. But the truth is, I like dolls. And I love Jesus. So when I saw these dolls it was pretty much a given that I was going to buy one. I walked around the rest of that day with my Jesus doll held close, facing me. Until I happened to look down at him while I was smoking a cigarette . . . and that loving expression that had so impressed me at the vendor’s booth had turned into a look of disappointment. I quickly changed his position so he was looking ahead instead of at me. That way I couldn’t see his face while I smoked. . . like a child hiding from my big brother.
I think it’s like that whenever we do or permit anything to cause damage to ourselves. You know, that whole “if I don’t love myself I can’t love anyone else” thing. If we are to treat others with love, we must love ourselves. Be patient with ourselves. Be kind to ourselves. Trust in ourselves. Hope in ourselves. That is every bit as much work as being patient, kind and trusting with others - maybe even more so. It seems that we are always harder on ourselves than we are on others.
There’s another thing that love is. Love is quiet. Love isn’t going around loudly proclaiming itself. Love is simply going about doing.
“Now that I’m a man, I’ve put an end to childish things.” At the very end of The House at Pooh Corner, Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh sat together, doing Nothing. Soon, Christopher Robin would be heading off to school and Pooh would be left behind. Christopher Robin tried to explain it to Pooh, without actually saying he was leaving.
"Pooh, when I'm --- you know --- when I'm not doing Nothing, will you be here sometimes?
"Will you be here too?"
"Yes, Pooh, I will be, really. I promise I will be, Pooh."
"That's good," said Pooh.
"Pooh, promise you won't forget about me, ever. Not even when I'm a hundred."
Pooh thought for a little.
"How old shall I be then?"
"I promise," he said.
Still with his eyes on the world Christopher Robin put out a hand and felt for Pooh's paw. "Pooh," said Christopher Robin earnestly, "if I --- if I'm not quite ---" he stopped and tried again --- "Pooh, whatever happens, you will understand, won't you?"
So as the sun sets they walk together one last time, before grown up things claim all of Christopher Robin’s attention and he starts looking at the world with different eyes. He will never forget Pooh, and Pooh will never forget him, but that pure childish delight in their adventures together will be a thing of the past.
So it is with our love of Jesus. Our innocent belief in that Jesus who sits surrounded by children grows into faith in the Jesus who asked the crippled man if he really wanted to be healed, who told the woman taken in adultery to go and sin no more, who turned over the moneychangers’ tables in the temple. . . and who says, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”
I still believe Jesus loves me . . . but now my understanding of that love includes the knowledge that love is really hard work. As we grow in faith, may we also grow in our ability to love, to be kind, to be patient, to call out injustice and insist on truth, to live as Jesus would have us live - as he himself lived. May our faith allow us to say yes when he asks if we want to be healed, and obey when he tells us to sin no more, and endure when it seems like Christian living is just too hard. May we go from this place to share the Gift of Love with everyone we meet.