Sermon: Untamed Love

I Corinthians 13 

An audio version of this sermon can be found here.

This passage from I Corinthians is in danger of domestication due to overuse. Known as the “love passage,” I suspect many of you have heard it read at a fair number of weddings. And, in fact, I have preached on this passage at a fair number of weddings. And little wonder. It offers a profound message about the kind self-giving love that must form the foundation of any long-term commitment. 

But because of its association with matrimony, this passage also is in danger of being too narrowly applied to our lives. In fact, this passage resists all domestication, all attempts to contain it. It is like fire. This passage is talking about a love that will jump fences and cross freeways and send sparks soaring. It is a love that does not want to be confined to one relationship in your life — it wants to burn in every relationship  — in your relationship to your self, in your relationship to all living beings on this earth, human and more than human, in your relationship to the Creator and the creation.  According to Paul, who wrote this passage to the church he planted in the city of Corinth,  this love is the whole point of what he called life in Christ and what we might call following Yeshua (Jesus). 

Some context about this passage. The church in Corinth is clearly a hot mess. It’s a community that reflects the ethnic, cultural and religious diversity of Corinth itself, which was a large and prosperous city of that time. This church is trying to be community despite these divisions and power differentials, but, people are doing what people do. They are trying to one-up each other spiritually — kind of doing the 1st-century version of virtue signaling. They are arguing over leadership, whose vision for the church gets to win out. Those with more power are marginalizing the community members with less power. 

In the chapter right before the one we just heard, Paul is particularly addressing the issue of speaking in tongues. Those people who have been given this spiritual gift — which is a kind of ecstatic utterance — see themselves as having a higher spiritual status than those who have not been graced by this gift. And, in the category of “some things never change,” when I was in high school, my youth group went through a charismatic phase, and this same spiritual pecking order manifested itself. Everyone —  including me — saw those people who had “received the gift of tongues” as more holy than those who hadn’t. As one of the ones who hadn’t, I can definitely say that this was alienating. 

What Paul says in chapter 12 is that “life in the Spirit is about building up community, not about getting carried away with one’s own (spiritual) experiences in ways that undermine community.” (See Bill Loader’s commentary here.) People have different gifts, hey says— some are going to speak in tongues, while others teach and others heal and others are wise. Everyone and everyone’s gifts are equally important, and they are given for the sole purpose of strengthening the community.

And then, in chapter 13, our chapter, Paul lets loose. All our good deeds and spiritual gifts, he says, even the sacrificial giving away of possessions, even martyrdom — all of this, all this is pointless — pointless! — if it is not coming from love, if love is not at the heart of it. Wisdom and healing and ecstatic utterances and sacrificial discipleship — all of these things are good, the community needs all of them, but they are not the main thing.  The main thing is love always and everywhere. Paul is reminding his people of the message of Yeshua, who says that at the end of time, you will be judged not on whether you spoke in tongues or performed miracles of healing or were wise or devout or righteous or woke but on whether you gave food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, on whether you welcomed the stranger, took care of the sick, visited those in prison. On whether you lived a life centered in love and compassion.

It is serendipitous how well this message from Paul plays with the message Nekeisha brought two Sundays ago and the meditation Joanna brought last Sunday. Nekeisha said in her sermon on Martin Luther King Sunday that justice beings with a state of heart. Justice — and let’s remember that someone once called justice “what love looks like in public — justice asks for a reorientation of our bodies and beings, she said. When we work from the inside out like this, we act justly not because we feel the need to perform wokeness, not because we need to convince ourselves we are good people, that we are good allies, that we are not like those “bad” white people,  not because we need to expiate our guilt and shame; we seek justice because our hearts ache with love. Because we can not stand to see another beautiful child of God demeaned, harmed, treated as less than the beloved one that they are. Because we know ourselves to be the beloved one, too, in all our brokenness and beauty. Because we love this earth, this beautiful creation, this soil from which we came, and our hearts ache when it is treated with violence and lack of care. 

The poet, farmer and environmentalist Wendell Berry put it this way:  “Guilt as a motive is as bad as anger. The solutions have just got to come from somewhere else. My understanding is that it has got to come from love. Everything else is going to lead us wrong” (quoted in this article). 

And this is a love that will change us, that will transform us from the inside out. I love the way poet and artist Jan Richardson puts it: “Love is about being willing to have our heart become larger as we make room for people and stories and experiences we never imagined holding. It is about being willing to have our heart become deeper as we move beyond the surface layers of our assumptions, prejudices, habits (and fears) in order to truly see and receive what — and who — is before us. It is about being willing to have our heart continually shattered and remade as we take in not only the brokenness of the world but also the beauty of it, the astounding wonder that will not allow us to remain the same.”

The work of discipleship, it seems to me, is to continually allow ourselves to be reoriented toward this love. To go deeper and deeper into it. What is the work you need to do right now to be reoriented toward this love?  I’m going to tell a story on myself, a kind of confession. For some time now, I have felt capable of being a loving person in most areas of my life except inside the four walls of my home. While I am not a holy terror, I often find myself  more impatient and irritable at home than I want to be. I feel too far from the love that is patient, kind not irritable or resentful when I am relating to my beloveds. For a long time, I’ve been trying — and failing — to change. I would often think of what Paul wrote in Romans:  “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil (or the wrong) I do not want to do–this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it” (Romans 7:19-20).  I interpret sin as “missing the mark” — and so I have no problem applying this verse to myself. I kept missing the mark of being a loving person in my home.

So, the first week of my sabbatical, I went to a monastery near Big Sur for a few days of silent retreat. I realize silence and solitude don’t fill everyone’s cup, but they definitely fill mine. I’ve known for years — like 25 years —  that I need regular times away like this, that I am deeply nourished when I do, that it transforms me, even, but I hadn’t allowed myself what I needed for a long time. But finally, I went on this three-day retreat, and I came home changed. Since returning, I have been able to love my family the way I want to. I have been able to be more patient and kind and less irritable.  Because there is a wellspring within me now, a cup that is full and running over. 

And I know that I must keep giving my soul and spirit what they need or else that wellspring will dry up inside, and sin will again start living in me.  In fact, when I start getting irritable with my family, it is likely a sure sign that I need to fill my cup. In a very real way, I need to love myself enough to give myself what I need, so that love can flow out into the world, way beyond the boundaries of my home.

What is the work you need to do to deepen into this love, to be even more reoriented toward it?

I want to end with a blessing that Richardson wrote as a reflection upon this Scripture It’s called the “Blessing That Meets You in Love.”

It is true that
every blessing begins
with love,
that whatever else
it might say,
love is always
precisely its point.

But it should be noted
that this blessing
has come today
especially to tell you
it is crazy about you.
That it has been
in love with you
That it has never
not wanted
to see your face,
to go through this world
in your company.

This blessing thought
it was high time
it told you so,
just to make sure
you know.

If it has been shy
in saying this,
it has not been
for any lack of
wanting to.
It’s just that
this blessing
knows the risk
of offering itself
in a way that
will so alter you—

not because it thinks
you could stand
some improving,
but because this is
simply where
loving leads.

This blessing knows
how love undoes us,
unhinges us,
unhides us.

It knows
how loving
can sometimes feel
like dying.

But today
this blessing
has come to tell you
the secret
that sends it
to your door:
that it gives itself
only to those
willing to come alive;
that it vows itself
only to those
ready to be
born anew.