Saturday, February 2, 2013

Love Never Fails...

A bit of a reworking of an old sermon, but I dearly love any opportunity I have to tell the story I've included from author Robert Fulghum.  I found amazing insight on eros-love vs. agape-love at "Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary," and especially a linked excerpt from Robert Hamerton-Kelly's "Sacred Violence: Paul's Hermeneutic of the Cross."

I almost named the sermon "Buddy Bars and Bacon..." Almost.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13
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.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Our reading this morning comes from the part of First Corinthians which is often called the “Love Chapter.” We’ve heard readings from this chapter at weddings and such. It's one of those passages I love to read out loud simply because it is so poetic and lovely. Reading it makes me wish I had the voice of James Earl Jones or Morgan Freeman… I’d settle for Sam Elliot in a pinch. But since this is Scripture, nothing's ever just poetic and pretty for the sake of beauty and poetry, especially when it comes to the Apostle Paul... and this is especially true of his letters to the church at Corinth.

The church at Corinth had so many problems, and was doing so many things wrong... well, if the Jerry Springer Show married every reality-TV program ever created, the Corinthian church would be their child. This church fought over who was “better” based on who got baptized by who, members were getting drunk during the agape meal, there were weird love connections going on, and in the midst of all of this they were forever at each others' throats over who was more spiritual.

The Corinthian church was broken, sick, and an embarrassment. Things were so bad that you really couldn’t have blamed Paul if he had thrown up his hands and walked away when he heard about the mess they had created and were wallowing in. He was, after all, a man on a mission, and there were far more areas which needed to hear the message of new life in Christ. These folks knew better, why not tell them to wash their own dirty dishes?

Instead, Paul sat down and dictated a letter. It must have taken hours, carefully picking at the knot they had created, slowly untangling the mess they had made.

There were actions they needed to take, tough decisions to make, changes to enact. One example is with the Agape Meal I mentioned – following worship, members would share in a meal, a practice that grew out of the final meal Christ shared with his Apostles. The idea was similar to a potluck, where everyone got something to eat, fellowshipped and generally enjoyed time in community. What it had become was a cliquish gathering, where the folks who had plenty of food ate and drank themselves under their table, while next table over they watched and listened to their empty stomachs grumble.

Paul took it back to its basics… we know his solution as the Words of Institution for the Lord’s Supper. Bread, wine, and remembrance.

But for the underlying problem, the deep divisions, the hurt and the anger and the separations that were tearing this young church apart at its seams, there was only one solution. The solution was not an easy one - no disbanding the church, splitting it up and starting two or three factions somewhere else; it wasn't to declare one “side” right and the other wrong, and it wasn't to come in screaming and breaking chairs over the offenders’ heads.

The solution was love.

The English word “love” embodies a wide variety of ideas and experiences, and it’s used, and misused, in wildly diverse ways. I love my wife and my daughter, I love my mom. I also love my dog. I’ve been known to say I love bacon and Buddy Bars, too. And considering where I am at and where I am standing, it is not at all controversial to say that I love God.

In each of those instances, though, I mean different things, don’t I? I mean, if I loved God like I love bacon, well, that’d just be weird.

In Greek, there are three words we most commonly translate “love.” “Philos” is the kind of love we feel for friends, a “brotherly love,” if you will. Then there is “eros,” which we commonly view as romantic love, but which has a deeper meaning.

Eros, in its finest form, was seen by the Greek philosopher Plato as “the desire of the soul for good.” Scholars and poets alike have defined eros-love as a triange between the lover, the beloved, and the obstacle or challenge separating the lover from the beloved: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy fights to regain the girl, boy and girl live happily ever after.

Yet eros-love, even defined Platonically, is less a triangle than it is a tight circle, and at the center of that ever-spinning circle is the self. The desire that drives eros is for self-fulfillment, overcoming obstacles to attain romantic companionship, yes… but eros also encompasses the desire for affirmation and recognition and wealth and security and control and authority and power… all in service to the individual, the self. Eros-love views the individual as a container that must be filled – whether the need is for love or for material possessions or for security, eros-love is lack-driven – we cannot have too much romance, too much money, too much recognition or security or power or entertainment. There is never enough because, as containers, we are broken, leaky… we attain that which we desire and find that it is not enough, we need more.

If the Corinthian church knew and practiced love at all, it was most certainly this eros love… and in their struggle to fulfill themselves, to be recognized, to be special, to be first, to be better than that person, more spiritual than him, more important than her, more right than them, the Corinthians had become impatient, unkind, envious, boastful, arrogant and rude, they insisted on their own way, were irritable and resentful, they celebrated wrongdoing, and avoided any truth that didn't agree with their preconceptions. They used spiritual gifts and manifestations of the indwelling Holy Spirit as badges of honor.

This brings us to the third word we translate as “love:” Agape. Like eros-love, agape-love can be seen as a triangle – only the agape triangle is lover and beloved, and at its apex is God. Where eros-love is lack-driven, always wanting – or more honestly, needing – more, driving against obstacles real and imagined to gain that which it does not have, agape-love is predicated on the knowledge that, through the provision of our loving creator-God, all of our needs are fulfilled. If I may be forgiven for overworking an analogy, when we are filled with the Holy Spirit, our brokenness, our leaks, are repaired. There is no lack.

 Love, Paul writes, “is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

I rather like the way the New American Standard translates that last sentence: “Love never fails.”

Eros is an imperfect, inwardly-focused love. Agape turns love outward!

One of the earliest names given to those who followed Jesus was “Christian.” This was meant disparagingly, and it translated originally as “little Christs.” The idea was that these early believers were acting like little replicas, little reflections of their God. Not “love cups,” not “masters of their own domain,” or “first among equals,” not “the most spiritual person,” but reflections.

If you’ll bear with me, this idea of being reflections of the love of God is related beautifully in a story shared by author Robert Fulghum:

“Are there any questions?” An offer that comes at the end of college lectures and long meetings. Said when an audience is not only overdosed with information, but when there is no time left anyhow. At times like that you sure do have questions. Like, “Can we leave now?" and "What... was this meeting for?" and "Where can I get [something to] drink?"

The gesture is supposed to indicate openness on the part of the speaker, I suppose, but if in fact you do ask a question, both the speaker and the audience will give you drop-dead looks. And some fool-some earnest idiot always asks. And the speaker always answers. By repeating most of what he has already said.

But if there is a little time left and there is a little silence in response to the invitation, I usually ask the most important question of all: "What is the Meaning of Life?"

You never know, somebody may have the answer, and I'd really hate to miss it because I was too socially inhibited to ask. But when I ask, it's usually taken as a kind of absurdist move – people laugh and nod and gather up their stuff and the meeting is dismissed on that ridiculous note.

Once and only once, I asked that question and got a serious answer. One that is with me still.

First, I must tell you where this happened, because the place has a power of its own. In Greece… [on] the island of Crete sits a Greek Orthodox monastery. Alongside it, on land donated by the monastery, is an institute dedicated to human understanding and peace, and especially to rapprochement between Germans and Cretans. An improbable task, given the bitter residue of wartime.

This site is important, because it overlooks the small airstrip at Maleme where Nazi paratroopers invaded Crete and were attacked by peasants wielding kitchen knives and hay scythes. The retribution was terrible. The populations of whole villages were lined up and shot for assaulting Hitler's finest troops. High above the institute is a cemetery with a single cross marking the mass grave of Cretan partisans. And across the bay… is the regimented burial ground of the Nazi paratroopers. The memorials are so placed that all might see and never forget.
Hate was the only weapon the Cretans had at the end, and it was a weapon many vowed never to give up.

Against this heavy curtain of history, in this place where the stone of hatred is hard and thick, the existence of an institute devoted to healing the wounds of war is a fragile paradox. How has it come to be here? The answer is a man. Alexander Papaderos.

A doctor of philosophy, teacher, politician, resident of Athens but a son of this soil. At war's end he came to believe that the Germans and the Cretans had much to give one another--much to learn from one another. That they had an example to set. For if they could forgive each other and construct a creative relationship, then any people could.

To make a lovely story short, Papaderos succeeded. The institute became a reality--a conference ground on the site of horror--and it was in fact a source of productive interactions between the two countries.

At the last session on the last morning of a two-week seminar on Greek culture, …Papaderos rose from his chair at the back of the room and walked to the front, where he stood in the bright Greek sunlight of an open window and looked out. We followed his gaze across the bay to the iron cross marking the German cemetery.

He turned. And made the ritual gesture: "Are there any questions?"

Quiet quilted the room. These two weeks had generated enough questions for a lifetime, but for now there was only silence. "No questions?" Papaderos swept the room with his eyes. So I asked.

"Dr. Papaderos, what is the Meaning of Life?"

The usual laughter followed and people stirred to go. Papaderos held up his hand and stilled the room and looked at me for a long time, asking with his eyes if I was serious and seeing from my eyes that I was.

"I will answer your question."

Taking his wallet out of his hip pocket, he fished into a leather billfold and brought out a very small round mirror, about the size of a quarter. And what he said went like this:

"When I was a small child, during the war, we were very poor and we lived in a remote village. One day, on the road, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had been wrecked in that place.

"I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine--in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find.

"I kept the little mirror, and as I went about my growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child's game but a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of the light. But light --truth, understanding, knowledge--is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it.

"I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world--into the black places in the hearts of men--and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life."

And then he took his small mirror and, holding it carefully, caught the bright rays of daylight streaming through the window and reflected them onto my face and onto my hands folded on the desk.

Much of what I experienced in the way of information about Greek culture and history that summer is gone from memory. But in the wallet of my mind I carry a small round mirror still.

Love that bears all things and believes all things is not found in how spiritual we are, how pure our theology is, or how rigidly we hold to doctrine.

Love that hopes all things and endures all things is not found in taking care of number one, and is not a commodity we can own. The love that never fails is a thing to be done, and to be pursued, and shared, and enacted. Done. Reflected.

Are there any questions?

Let us pray.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this. A thought about us being a reflection of God's love,but not the sorce; the scripture when Jesus asks, "Why do you call me good? Only God is good" always bugged me.I was always taught that Jesus said this to point out that he was God,but it didn't seem that way to me.During the holidays I saw that scipture quoted on a reader board and it hit me...if all goodness comes from God, why are we competing over who is good and who is bad? And instead of that scripture making me feel bad about myself and humanity(we are all incapable of goodness--except Jesus)I felt peace and a sense of letting go of critical thoughts I was having.(ironically, towards Christians)