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I have a “do not preach list.” It’s my version of Jimmy Fallon’s “Do Not Play List” — a list of bizarre songs that have been unburied from the junk drawer of the internet and shared on The Tonight Show, all for a good laugh and a lesson in avoiding bad music.
My liturgical counterpart is a list of scripture passages that intimidate me, frustrate me, or are saturated in controversy. Passages I would rather avoid. Anyone else? (I’m going to assume the answer is “yes.” If that’s not true, please let me live in ignorance.)
1 Corinthians 13 is on the list. I promise I am not a monster and I don’t hate “love.” I just feel overwhelmed by the baggage that comes with this passage every time I approach it. It’s covered in decades of confetti, rice, and birdseed. It smells of lilies and sentimentality. It bears the bumps and bruises of misinterpretation and misapplication. Nearly everyone has a favorite memory of a time they heard, “Love is patient; love is kind.” Some of us have memories that make us cringe. So, the pressure is on. The pressure to preach about love in a way that honors both the joy and the pain we associate with it. Pressure I would rather avoid.
Today avoidance is not an option. I (foolishly?) chose to preach through the Narrative Lectionary for the season of Eastertide because I hoped a slow pilgrimage through stories of the early church might offer guidance and hope for the church in these strange circumstances. So, this morning, May 17, my congregation and I will be camping out in Corinth for a second Sunday.
Here’s the thing about Paul’s first letter to Corinth that is turning all of my fear and reservation on its head: Paul’s letter was addressed to a community. The love he is describing in chapter 13 is not just for married couples (though couples are certainly included). That might be an overstatement of the obvious, but it is critical to me. If this message was and is for a community, for ALL of God’s people, then it is for me (and you) too. I don’t have to wait to be married or to become a parent to experience this patient, kind, humble, gentle, enduring love. I don’t have to wait until I “feel” it, because it isn’t a feeling. It’s a choice, an action. I don’t have to wait to “find” this love. It has found me. It has found us.
It’s a beautiful vision to be offered at weddings. It is also a terrific charge to be offered at a meeting of consistory, classis, Regional or General Synod (and their equivalents in denominations beyond the Reformed Church in America). It could be a powerful opening prayer for a congregational town hall, a choir rehearsal, or any gathering (even virtual gatherings) of the Body of Christ.
I wonder what might change if I prayed these words myself, each morning as I start my day.
Or right before one of those tough phone calls.
Or before a sermon that I have been trying to avoid.
Camping out in Corinth a little longer than I hoped has helped me see that I have been resisting the truth in chapter 13 because I have been waiting for someone to tell me that it includes me. Anyone else?
Now I see that the church has been teaching me about this kind of love all along.
It was the church, gathered at 202 West Hyde Valley Avenue, that baptized me into the covenant community.
The church taught my Sunday School classes, after a week full of meetings and running their kids to sports practices.
The church pulled her brown metal folding chair into the circle of elders meeting in a Northwest Iowa church basement. She looked at the others in the circle and, even though they had never sent a woman to seminary before, she encouraged them to take me under their care.
The church has brought me soup and tea, prayed with me and for me, challenged my privilege, and celebrated my call.
Sadly, it has to be said that there are many who have been overlooked or excluded from the love of the church. I wonder if that is because some of us, myself included, are still waiting for something. In some cases, I fear, we have waited too long.
1 Corinthians 13 is not an exhaustive definition of love, but a reflection on this specific variety: the love God has for God’s people (every one), which God’s people (all of us) are then asked to share with the world. Love as Agape. Love as charity. Love that is demonstrated in choices that serve the common good.
The first choice I will make today is to take 1 Corinthians 13 off of my list. Maybe I will get rid of that list altogether.