Sunday, January 31, 2010

How to really love

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 (Luke 4:21-30)

It’s a couple of weeks until St. Valentine’s Day, when we celebrate love, especially between husband and wife, girlfriend and boyfriend. But, the reading from 1 Corinthians reminds us that love is about more than human romantic relationships. It’s about how we treat each other as God’s beloved children.
I remember sitting with my brother and sister at the kitchen table in Mom’s house. We were all young adults at that point, but we had also grown up under Mom’s sarcastic tongue and her abusive ways. I had by then recognized that I needed to change – I’m still learning, I know. But my brother Dave hadn’t figured that out yet. He said something particularly critical to me. I looked at him and said, “If you can’t say anything nice to me, please don’t say anything at all.” It was about a year before he spoke to me again!
This thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians is frequently read at weddings. It is used to remind the couple getting married the way in which they should love one another and speak to one another. But it’s rare that a couple can actually love in this way for long, or at every moment. But it does provide an excellent goal, a worthwhile vision for them to look to for guidance.
In context however, in the entire letter to the Corinthians, the passage is not about the love between a man and a woman. It’s about how a congregation should live out the love Jesus lived and died to demonstrate.
Chapter 11 highlights some serious abuses in the congregational practices. In the earliest days of the church, worship began with a meal, perhaps a potluck. It seems the wealthy believers, who could get to church early brought their food and ate it, and drank their fill of wine. By the time the poorer believers arrived, when they could get away from work, the food was all gone. This caused dissension, serious conflict in the church. There was a definite lack of love.
In chapter 12, Paul explains that in Jesus’ view, no one is more or less important to God. Using the image of a person’s body, Paul writes about the value of each person in the congregation. Every person has gifts to use, different gifts for different people, and if even one of the gifts is lacking, the whole congregation suffers. Without eyes, the person cannot see; without hands, the person cannot lift or touch or hold. Seen as a whole, the congregation is the Body of Christ.
So, then in Chapter 13, Paul gives us this hymn to love, and holds it up as the model for the congregation to use, for how they are to think about and treat one another. Paul begins with what love is not, and then turns to what love is.
No matter how beautiful our voices are, or how well we express ourselves, if our words are not loving, we are like a police siren or fire alarm. If we have wisdom and experience, if we do not share what we know with love in our hearts, we are worthless. If we are the most generous person in the congregation, and work tirelessly for church ministries, if we do those things without love, our efforts are nothing in the eyes of God.
On the contrary, true Christian love is patient, kind, and respectful. Christian love does not have to be right, or have its own way; it does not delight when someone does something wrong, but seeks the truth for all people. Christian love seeks to view all things through God’s eyes, and keeps its focus on faith and hope.
When we have Christian love we attempt to look at life through God’s eyes, but recognize that we do not see clearly through our human lenses, but have a clouded vision. Remembering this, we are patient, respectful, and loving with one another. Rather than trusting in our own beliefs, we seek to keep our focus on Jesus, and live in faith that what Jesus wants will become clear.
In Chapter 14, Paul gives some concrete suggestions to how to handle the differences. Essentially, he says that everyone is called to use the gifts God has given them to build up the congregation, to build up the Body of Christ. If each person recognizes the gifts of others, and if each person offers those gifts respectfully and with love, then all are blessed and the church is built up.
Every congregation has conflict. Paul’s congregations were at times conflicted. Conflict itself is not a problem; but how the conflict is managed may be the problem. If we approach conflict with a desire to see where God is calling us to go; if we approach conflict with the recognition that we may each have a different opinion of where God is calling us to go; if we approach conflict with the attitude that we may each be partly right and partly wrong; if we approach conflict with respect and love for each other; then we can manage conflict and grow into God’s future.
We do not need to be of one mind on everything; indeed, we need diversity of thought, differences of opinion; but in the midst of our differences, we do need to accept each other as God’s children; we need to see one another through God’s loving eyes.
I’ll close with a story. In Nazareth, the group Mike and I traveled with spent a few moments with Elias Chacour, Archbishop of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. In 1947, his family owned and tended the olive grove their family had had for at least 2,000 years. The Palestinians, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, all got along well with each other, cooperating in local affairs, and so forth. In 1948, the UN ordered that Palestine would now be called Israel, a home for Jews, in compensation for the way they had been treated by Hitler and his regime.
Zionist Jews (called Zionist here mostly to distinguish them from the Jews who were already present in the land) entered the land and kicked the Chacour family, and all other families, off the land, claiming it was now theirs. The Palestinians, both Muslims and Christians, became refugees in their own land. Many fled to Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt. Others stayed and worked the land for the Zionists who now claimed to own it. Today, sixty years later, the Israelis continue to steal Palestinian land, and there is a 75% unemployment rate among Palestinians, in great part because the Israelis refuse to permit them to work in anything other than menial jobs. By contrast, among Israelis, the unemployment rate is around 7%.
Chacour himself, as taught by his father, sought to understand and respect the very people who had stolen their land from them. Known as a peacemaker, his comments to us that day were to love the Jews, but also to love the Palestinians.
So, how do we at Hope love each other? How do we respect each other, even as we disagree on some topics? How do we love those who are not church-goers? How do we love those who do not even know how much God loves them?
Especially today, with the Annual Congregational Meeting just ahead of (behind) us, we can love each other and respect each other as we face a somewhat different future. Economic necessity has forced some unpopular decisions upon us. How will we love each other during the transition and into some new circumstances?
No matter which way the vote for one service goes (has gone) we all lose something, but we gain something as well. Staff pay cuts mean staff members have less cash to work with, but we have more free time. Staff members will be less available, and more Hope members will need use their gifts for ministry. That can be a very good thing!
My challenge for you is to speak and think of one another with love and respect. Let us not be critical of each other, but remember we are all God’s beloved children, trying our best to discern God’s purposes. Let us not remember only our own interests, but seek to build up this one part of the whole body of Christ.
Please pray with me: Loving God, we are in particular need of your grace in our lives today. Help us look with hope to the future you have called and are calling us to. Grant that we may look with love and respect at one another, and seek to live out your purposes in this time and in this place. In Jesus’ name, Amen