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My distant cousin Rev. Frank Sledge, now a retired Southern Baptist pastor, had “Love Never Fails” over the church house door of the church he pastored—yet I am afraid to say his life to me did not speak of love. It spoke of pride, it spoke of hubris, it spoke of being certain of what was in God’s mind. Who God loved and who God condemned to eternally hellfire and brimstone. I can think of no passage from Paul’s Letters that is so widely recognized and quoted, which poses both a challenge and an opportunity for us.
Of course, the text is used often at weddings, because it is often understood as praising the value of romantic, human love. What is often missed, and perhaps actively ignored, is that this text was first written to a community that was having a very difficult time staying together. Maybe this is why it makes a surprisingly helpful text for weddings.
It is in the difficult realities of relationships and communities that the love described by Paul needs to be lived out in costly ways. So what kind of love is Paul talking about? What does a love that is that valuable really look like?
Well, it’s patient. (Oh, darn, I’m impatient all the time.) It’s kind. (Oh…I’m usually kind on the outside, but on the inside…Oh Man!!!.) It’s not envious or boastful.. (Did I mention I’m a frequent lecturer at colleges, universities, churches, professional organizations and public gatherings—but not famous?) It does not insist on having it’s own way.
(Wait a minute, but what if I’m right?…which I usually am…Crap.) It is not irritable (***will you please shut your mouth in the next room! I can hardly hear myself type!***) or resentful—there you go again God—guilty again. It bears all things. Believes all things. Hopes all things. It. Never. Ends. Everything else—everything else—will end. Everything else will all come crashing down. All will decay and crumble. All will be forgotten and lost.
But, not love. In the original Greek, verses 4-8, “love” is the subject of 16 verbs in a row; it happens in every phrase. It’s not clear in our English translations, where love is described by some rather static adjectives (“love is patient, love is kind”). Instead, Paul’s claims are that love “shows patience” and “acts with kindness.” Here, love is a busy, active thing that never ceases to work. It is always finding ways to express itself for the good of others. The point is not a flowery description of what love “is” in some abstract and theoretical sense, but what love does— especially what love does to one’s brother or sister in the church and in the world.
Ruby Sales a veteran of the Civil Rights movement whose life was saved when a young Episcopalian seminarian stepped in front of her just as a deputized rural Alabama storekeeper pulled the trigger on his shotgun intending to kill her for working for voting rights for African Americans recently said in her From My Front Porch observations published on her FB page: “Love is an action verb that must resonate in our treatment of others as well as believing enough in ourselves to become our most fully realized selves. Without these attributes, love is an empty proclamation that keeps us small and broken,”
Jesus in Matthew 22:37-39 reminds us as he reminded the Pharisee expert in the law, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” How do we love??? Who do we love? To whom do we welcome—I mean really unconditionally welcome. Only those who we know??? Who share our culture, our race, our town??? Georgia growing up “ya’ll ain’t from around chea are you”? Mascoutah Il when I was stationed at Scott AFB Love has everything to do with welcoming all—its about how we treat others. It has everything to do with how we deal with race, immigration, the poor, folks of different sexual orientations, women, children.
Many churches are today failing because they don’t love well—they think they do, but they don’t. My mother’s church is experiencing this now. They close their congregation next Sunday. Their church is a church that was once part of a vibrant cotton mill village and according to my mom, became not a welcoming community. Their community changed radically from a white cotton mill village to a neighborhood that is now predominantly African American and Hispanic—yet the church still lived in the past, didn’t welcome those neighbors in the changed community—or anyone else for that matter— and as a result, is irrelevant. This comes from a place of fear—fear of those people. The Sunday after next, it will emerge from the ashes as an African American/Hispanic congregation.
We can choose to act out of love or we can choose to act from fear. I attended the Act to End Racism on April 4, on the mall in DC. It was the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. There were many religious organizations, faiths, races, cultures represented to proclaim that we can act in love. We were reminded that: Dr. King once said: “We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world. Love is the only way.”
Dr. Charles Marsh, University of Virginia professor of religious studies and the director of the Project on Lived Theology, wrote in his book The Beloved Community that ‘Jesus founded the most revolutionary movement in human history: a movement built on the unconditional love of God for the world and the mandate to live that love.’ That’s pretty radical stuff…because Jesus even went so far as to tell us to love our enemies and folks that persecute us and despise us. WOW!!! Not sure if I want to follow THIS Jesus. Do you mean I’ve got to see everyone as created in God’s image? I’ve got to see them as people rather than an object? Do you mean I can’t generalize them as THEM?
During Prince Harry and Megan Markel’s wedding, Bishop Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the American Episcopalian Church, gave a sermon entitled “The Power of Love.” It was a hard-hitting sermon on the transformative power of love, not only for individuals and families and but for the world. It had a strong theme of social justice. He took us to church! Heck, he took the royal family to church!
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