In the first week of this sermon series, we explored the increasing dissatisfaction with traditional Christian teachings and how the disillusionment may be fostering a new reformation. Week two we examined the unfortunate transformation of the word faith. Originally, it meant to trust and to commit to God, but it has come to mean believing certain religious doctrines.
Last week, we studied how the word faith originally emphasized living a Christ-like life. We looked at a passage from Paul's Letter to the Romans where he prescribed practical guidance and spiritual wisdom which serve as a blueprint for following Jesus.
Beginning this morning and continuing throughout the fall, we will drill down deeper on several of the individual pieces of Paul's prescription in order to highlight essential elements of the Christian life. The place to begin is love because love is the root from which everything else in the Christian faith flourishes. Joy, peace, prayer, hope, justice, forgiveness, everything else stems from love. Jesus taught his followers that God loves us, and we are to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. However, this vital saying of Jesus runs the risk of being nothing more than a pious proverb if we fail to spell out some of the critical components of Christian love.
In our day, when people talk about love, they often think of an emotion. They believe love is primarily a feeling. Certainly this can be a significant feature of love. My love for my wife, my children and my grandchildren includes a depth of feeling so intense that sometimes my eyes water and I get a lump in my throat. However, Christian love is not dependent on emotion. It calls on us to act in certain ways toward others, regardless of our feelings.
This morning's passage, another from Paul, is the quintessential text on love because it helps us comprehend the breadth of the word. Recently I read that "a Presbyterian minister in an affluent section of Los Angeles was performing the wedding of a Hollywood film producer. It took place in the backyard of a mansion on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. As part of the wedding, the mother of the bride read a poem she had composed in honor of the occasion. When she finished, everyone burst into applause and said, 'That is so good!"
Then the minister stepped up to read 1 Corinthians 13: "Love is patient, love is kind...Love is not irritable or resentful...love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things...." When he finished, there was stunned silence. Then again, those gathered burst into applause saying, 'That is so good!' They thought he had written it himself, and afterwards people asked for a copy of his poem!"
"It comes as no great surprise that people in Hollywood are biblically illiterate. But the good news is that when they hear Christian love described they burst into applause and say, 'That is so good. I want that!'"1
Isn't that what our world so desperately needs? In our fractured world, where we are divided politically, economically, racially, ethnically and in countless other ways, we need to build bridges of understanding and respect. Theologian Karen Armstrong notes that while people of faith should be the primary shapers of a global community in which every person is valued, religion is frequently seen as more of the problem than the solution.
Armstrong says she has lost count of the number of times she has stepped into a taxi in London, and when the driver discovers she is a theologian, she is informed that religion has been the cause of every major war in history. Of course, that's not true. The causes of most conflicts are greed or a thirst for power or a land grab, but modern terrorists, clashes between Hindus and Muslims and past atrocities by the Christian church - the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and anti-Semitism - make religion an easy target.2 Yet every major religion has its own version of the Golden Rule, to treat others as you want to be treated; each has the principle of compassion at its core.
In today's world, we need to find a way to live together without wanting to kill each other. We need to be mindful of the values we hold in common and the dreams we share about our future. If people of faith appear too often to be part of the problem, it is also within our power to become the central part of the solution. We are the hands and feet of Christ in the world, and we have been called to be the peacemakers. Striving to embody Paul's description of love will go a long way toward healing the ills that plague our planet.
Paul begins by declaring the primacy of love. He says everything else ranks below it. Paul knows that God has called him to spread Christianity. Vital to his mission will be his ability to speak eloquently, to be knowledgeable, to be wise and to demonstrate a passionate faith. Yet, Paul says that if he does not exude love - if love is not in his heart, head and soul - then none of these other things matter. He says he could speak with the voice of an angel, but if he does not love, his words will amount to nothing more than someone banging a gong. He could possess prophetic powers, he could grasp all the great mysteries of the universe, he could have such a passionate faith to move mountains, but, he says, "If I do not have love, I am not worthy of the gift of life that has been given to me." Then he describes love's qualities. "Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or arrogant or rude. Love is not always 'me first;' it's not resentful; it doesn't rejoice in wrongdoing, it rejoices in the truth. Love bears whatever happens, love never gives up hoping, love endures."
How God wants us to live is no great mystery. We know what love requires. Putting it into practice is where the rub comes. We often fail at kindness, patience and compassion. Mahatma Gandhi was asked what he thought was the greatest enemy of Christianity. He replied, "Christians."
Responding with compassion is not always difficult. If a young child is injured, we scoop her up into our arms and shower her with kisses and comfort. If a person in a wheel chair approaches a door, we try to help him navigate it with ease. If a friend is unfairly berated by the boss, we patiently listen and empathize. We are eager to donate food to people who are hungry and backpacks to children who live in poverty.
However, responding to others with love can also require tremendous discipline. It's not easy to respond with patience and kindness to someone who is selfish and inconsiderate. If someone has hurt us, it's much easier to retaliate than to be compassionate.
Most would agree with the Hollywood set that Paul's words are beautiful, but many would also insist that they are simply not practical; not in the real world. Jesus would differ. He counseled not to fight hate with hate. The way to defeat darkness is with light.
The story is told of a young man in his 20s who was riding the subway through Tokyo one afternoon. His car was relatively empty - only a few mothers with their young children and some elderly out shopping. At one of the stations the doors opened and a large man stepped in and began cursing in a loud voice. He was large, he was dirty and he was drunk.
He shoved a woman holding a baby. She stumbled and fell into the laps of an older couple. Somehow, she held onto her baby. Terrified, the woman and the older couple scurried to the end of the car. As they ran, the loud oaf aimed a kick at the older woman, barely missing her. He grabbed the metal pole, let out a yell and tried to jerk it loose.
The young man in his 20s thought: "This is my moment." He was in excellent physical condition because he spent hours each day in aikido training. He knew all the moves and kicks but his skill was untested in actual battle because students of aikido were not allowed to fight.
"Aikido," his teacher lectured, "is the art of reconciliation. Whoever has the mind to fight has broken his connection with the universe. If you try to dominate people, you are already defeated. We study how to resolve conflict, not start it."
But the young man felt like a super-hero about to strike a blow for justice. This was his opportunity to save the innocent by destroying the guilty. "This is it," the young man said to himself, "If I do not act quickly, someone might get hurt."
So he stood up and stared at the drunk. The brute glared back at him and bellowed, "Looks like you need to be taught a lesson, little boy!"
The young man smirked to provoke him. The bully was outraged and gathered himself for a run at the young man. But a split second before he charged, someone in the car said, "Hey!" Both men shot a glance in the direction of the voice where they saw a small man who must have been in his 80s. The elderly man beamed at the drunk as though he had an important secret to share.
"Come here," the older man said, "Come here and talk with me."
The drunk stomped over to the elderly man, stood defiantly before him and almost spitting, said, "Why should I talk to you?"
He now had his back to the 20 year-old who thought to himself, "If he makes the slightest threatening gesture, I'll drop him with a single blow."
But the old man continued beaming at the drunk and said, "What have you been drinking?"
"Sake! And it's none of your business!" he responded.
"That's wonderful!" the tiny man said, "I love sake, too. Every evening, my wife and I warm up a little bottle of sake and take it out into a garden where we sit on a wooden bench. We watch the sun go down and check on our persimmon tree. My great-grandfather planted that tree and we worry about whether it will recover from those ice storms we had. But, our tree has done better than I expected. It's very gratifying to look at the tree and watch the sun go down and enjoy the evening together."
As the drunk struggled to follow the conversation, his face softened. The elderly gentleman asked, "Do you also have a wonderful wife?"
"No, my wife died." The monster of a man began to sob. "I don't got no wife, I don't got no home and I don't got no job. I got nothing."
The elderly man said, "Oh no, that's terrible. Please sit here and tell me about it."
As the train pulled up to the stop, the 20 year-old who moments earlier, in his save-the-world righteousness had been ready to fight, now felt ashamed. As he stepped off the subway, he saw the drunk sit down beside the small man and lean his head over onto his shoulder.
The 20 year-old realized that what he had wanted to do with muscle was accomplished with patience, kindness and compassion. He had witnessed love in action.3
How would you act if you were caught on that train?
Heart, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), p. 121-124.
Prayers of the People: €œLove€
By the Reverend Dr. Anne R. Ledbetter
God of all creation, you are more than our minds can imagine. You elude scientific proof, and cloak yourself in mystery. O God, you are invisible and beyond our understanding. And yet, and yet, we know what love is and we know in the deepest part of our being that You are Love.
We bless you this day, for the myriad ways we have experienced your love €“ in the affection of family, the comfort of a friend, the kindness of a stranger. We thank you for the continual advent of Love in our lives €“ in the adoption of a child, the care of a colleague, the forgiveness of one we have wronged. We marvel at the resurrection of Love €“ in a long awaited reconciliation, through a worship service that washes over us with grace, in the healing that happens as we grieve.
Remind us, Sovereign Love, that you abide in us, and inspire us - breathing life and light, wisdom and worship, faith and forgiveness into our very souls. Rouse us each today to embody your love €“ by feeding the hungry, listening to someone who is distraught, or reaching out to someone in need. Make us the hands of love, give us the fragrance of love, commission us ambassadors of love.
God of our lives, remind us that love is patient and kind, not envious or boastful, and never insisting on its own way. Give us grace to grow in our ability to emanate that incarnate love we see in Christ €“ to empty ourselves for others, knowing that your love is like an ocean, surrounding us, flowing through us, and buoying us through any turbulence in life. Help us each day to live in faith, abound in hope and grow in love, as we seek to mirror the One in whom your Spirit dwelt most fully, Jesus the Christ, who taught us to pray saying€¦
OUR FATHER WHO ART IN HEAVEN HALLOWED BE THY NAME
THY KINGDOM COME THY WILL BE DONE ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN
GIVE US THIS DAY OUR DAILY BREAD
AND FORGIVE US OUR DEBTS AS WE FORGIVE OUR DEBTORS
AND LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION BUT DELIVER US FROM EVIL
FOR THINE IS THE KINGDOM AND THE POWER AND THE GLORY FOREVER
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