This thing called love
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
January 31, 2016
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
So let’s have a little fun. What do you think of when you see one of these? [I hold up a heart shaped box of Russell Stover chocolates. The people answer: Valentine’s Day, chocolate, etc.]
OK but what emotion are we supposed to think of when we see this Russell Stover box? [Of course the answer is love.] And of course it’s not just the chocolate industry that gets in on the commercialization of love at this time of year, right? The Sundance Catalogue features hearts all over the place in their Valentine’s edition to suggest that if you really love her, you’ll get her some of this jewelry. The greeting card aisles are about 75% filled with valentines. Even our parish is getting in on the love thing / as we’re trying out a new idea to share some love with the neighborhood as we sponsor a Parents’ Night Out / on the eve of the Big Day.
Love. We hear it so much around this time of year that the term has become way overdone, so over-identified with chocolate and hearts and candy and greeting cards that we may have trouble defining it anymore. (And, by the way, the chocolates will be appearing at coffee hour. Minus the one chocolate cream I already took out.)
Now, I start with this little riff on love because of this “lovely” passage from the first letter to the Corinthians that we have in front of us today. The love passage. I bet many of us have used this reading at our weddings.
But did you know that Paul didn’t write this passage for anyone’s wedding? Far from it. He was pretty upset when he wrote it, actually. If you remember the last 2 weeks of readings you’ll recall how Paul was scolding the Corinthians. In the church at Corinth some people were thinking that their gifts were better than other people’s gifts. And therefore some people thought they were better than other people. So think back to last week’s epistle where Paul taught that each member of the body plays a very unique and very important role. The toe is just as important as the nose or the leg or the belly. That was to counteract the elitism going on in that congregation.
Corinth also was quite the hotbed of sexual immorality back in the day. Reports reached Paul that there was at least one flagrantly incestuous relationship in that congregation. So Paul’s letter to them is an attempt to straighten them out.
So this chapter 13—the Love passage—is a lengthy finger-wagging from Paul / to tell the Corinthians that Love is a more excellent way to be in relationship. True love. Godly love, received from on high. Not cheap, misguided, wrong-headed human, self-serving love. Paul says that divinely grounded love is better than any of the second-tier spiritual gifts that some Corinthians were boasting about.
So when we read that love is patient, Paul is indicating that he knows there are issues with impatience in the congregation. Love is kind. Paul is saying this to counter some of the UN-kind behaviors of the congregation. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude: this tells us that in that congregation there were people who were flagrantly envious and boastful and arrogant and rude.
So I hate to burst anyone’s bubble over this passage. It is beautiful and soaring, but it’s also a kind of scolding.
And now let’s take a look at the divinely-grounded love that we’re being encouraged to practice. I think that the best way for us to be able to love others is to first allow ourselves to feel God’s love for us. What is that love like? It’s the total acceptance and compassion of the Holy One for us, even when we know we don’t deserve it. Despite our bad choices in the past or in the present, God loves us and wants us to let God get close. Despite maybe years and years of snubbing God, God is still there wooing us and urging us to let him in. Knocking at the door, if you will.
Look at St. Paul himself. He was a persecutor of the early church for years and years. He stood by and held people’s cloaks while they stoned Stephen, our first martyr. He traveled to Damascus to murder followers of the Way.
And what happened? Jesus knocked him silly, to the ground, blinded him with dazzling light, and then called him to his heart. And Paul was given instructions on what to do next after he basically surrendered to the Christ out there on the road. He accepted that he was loved—despite his murdering heart. He spent years away from people to get his head straight—then returned to Jerusalem a changed person, able to teach and preach about Jesus the Christ and the amazing grace and love of God for each one of us, having experienced it firsthand himself—at a time when he was most unworthy of it.
Now, we too cannot know what it is to love fully and deeply as God does, unless we experience what it is to be loved and accepted by God first. There is a verse from 1 John that is really apropos here: “We love because He first loved us.” [1 John 4:19, NIV]
I hope that everyone here today knows what I’m talking about—knows it deep in the gut. To be loved by God is our birthright. God made us and God loves us. Period. God would love nothing more than for each one of us to walk in the knowledge that we are totally accepted and supported and loved by the Holy One—deep down to our core. This is despite who we are and what we’ve done. Despite our struggles with self-love and with any number of addictive behaviors and sins. But if we’re not there yet, then here are some ideas.
Come and talk with me about opening up to God and allowing the Spirit to reach you. I love talking about spirituality. It’s one of the reasons you called me 10 years ago.
And try this. Sit in silence, in stillness, and imagine you are a little child crawling up on the warm, cozy lap of your Father or your Mother or your beloved brother or sister—whichever image is a safe and protective one for you. Imagine the warmth and the feeling of belonging here, your true home. This is actually the essence of the prayer that we give that fancy name to—contemplative prayer. In its simplest essence it’s being in the presence of God, warm and held safe, not much thought going on, just secure and knowing you are loved. It’s being in God’s embrace. And that is one of the strongest goals of spiritual practice, to know this place of oneness with the Holy.
And once we know at depth that we’re loved and worthy of love (no matter how we’ve failed in our lives), it’s so much easier to love ourselves and to love others. We love, because he first loved us. [1 John 4:19, NIV]
God’s heart yearns for us, as flawed as we are. It’s so much easier to be compassionate, and patient and kind, even with those we find “difficult,” once one has experienced those things straight from the source. As we have learned that God loves us no matter what, we can turn outward and love others with a depth of compassion that is rooted in the divine.
And we can say with St. Paul, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
So have a very happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! May we all find our true love in our true home—the heart and the lap of God.