Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
January 31, 2016
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
January 31, 2016
Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 13: 1-13
Love is in the air. Love it or hate it, Valentines Day will be upon us soon and the stores are already overflowing with pink and red hearts. This week, I talked with five couples who are already on my schedule for weddings this summer or would like to be. By the way, just as a fun fact – I’ve now officially don’t more same-sex than opposite-sex weddings in the state of Kansas. Who woulda thunk it?
And, then, of course, there is the scripture passage that came up in the lectionary this week from 1 Corinthians. I have read this passage at almost every wedding I’ve officiated. It’s a beautiful passage and it always makes everyone smile. The problem with reading it at weddings, of course, is that it has very little to do with romantic love.
I’ve long thought that romantic love is tricky because it seems to be beyond our control. Those life-altering, sweeping and swooping emotions that make us fall head over heels for another human being are really difficult to manage. We can, of course, control whether and how we act on them, but that flip-flop that happens in your tummy is pretty much out of your grasp, I think.
But romantic love is not at all what Paul is talking about in this letter to the church at Corinth. Paul is talking about agape, which is, in all honesty, not one of the types of love we talk about too much in our culture. If you are familiar with the King James Version of this text, you may even recall that agape is not translated as love in that version, but as “charity.”
However you translate it, I think two of the key aspects of agape are these: it is active and it is a choice.
Agape is not primarily about how you feel deep down inside. It’s not that flip-flop in your tummy or even a gentle warming of your heart. Agape is not a feeling at all – it’s an action.
Agape is a way of being. A sense of duty and allegiance and responsibility and charity and kindness and hope and openness and fidelity all rolled into one tiny word. To live into agape is to make a choice to act a certain way in the world.
Now, this action may be driven by emotions at times. For example, I feel driven to work for justice. My heart breaks when I think about our society taking away people’s God-given rights because of their sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, race, nationality, economic status, ability, or any other number of things. I have had so many friends who have faced discrimination and I love them. I feel that love - down in my gut – and that emotion of love is translated into agape when I decide to act upon it.
But here’s the really wild thing about agape: it can also exist in the absence of feeling love. I have some dear friends and family with whom I am in deep and abiding disagreement on some issues that are close to my heart. We get into conversations where my primary emotion is not love but anger. Fierce anger! I do not feel much love in those moments, but on my good days, I can get in touch with agape – that love which I can choose to act upon – and I can find the strength to treat them with dignity and respect. I know many of you have had this same experience – a sense that we can be decent and kind and respectful even in the face of great diversity of opinion and anger. That choice to love actively, in spite of emotions that feel not-at-all-lovey-dovey – that is agape.
So, why is Paul talking to the Corinthians about this? Well, we believe that the church in Corinth looked a lot like Corinth itself – that is, it was extremely diverse. Some think the church was also physically fractured with small groups meeting in various places all over the city and then coming together occasionally to worship and act as one church. We know that these people had a lot of disagreements. That’s why Paul is writing to them about things like spiritual gifts and trying to help them make peace in the midst of arguments about who is the coolest kid in school – the one who can speak in tongues or the one who can prophesy.
In the midst of this divided community, Paul speaks a word of love. This beautiful poem was not written for a couple about to be married. It was written for a group of people who look a lot like the big-C-Church today – divided, at odds, confused, seeking answers.
Into this context – and, I would argue, into our context – Paul sends some very specific instructions on what it means to love in the spirit of agape.
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
I don’t know about you, but if I did nothing else but simply try to live by those words each and every day, I would have my hands full. Because I have all these other emotions that pull me away from a life that is rooted in agape. I get cranky and tired and scared and angry and proud and that’s just a list of where I’ve usually been by the time I eat breakfast!
Living into agape is seriously difficult work. It’s enough work for a lifetime.
Blogger and nonprofit organizer Glennon Melton of Momastery.com tells story after story of how difficult it is to live into agape. One of my favorites is her story about what happened to her after the shooting that took place a few years ago in Aurora, Colorado. Melton says that she was in a hurry to get gas, which she really hates to do, and got very snippy with the cashier because the equipment wasn’t working right. After driving away, Melton turned her car around, went back in and apologized to the cashier. She writes:
I walked in and waited in line, and when I got to the front I looked the same lady in the eye and I said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for being such a jerk and making your day harder.”
I didn’t add anything else. Because an apology with an explanation attached is not an apology at all. Then I left.
That was my response to the Colorado shootings. I have no explanation. There is no way to make sense of it. So first, I want to do no harm.
I want to be kind to the people who cross my path, because just like that shooter changed the world- so can I.
When the world feels loud, we must be quiet. When the world feels violent, we must be peaceful. When the world seems evil, we must be good.
Making the effort and taking the time to go back and apologize for unkind words – that’s living into agape. I am inspired by stories like this one because they make me realize I’m not alone in my brokenness. I’m not alone in regretting things I’ve said and done. And there are ways to move back towards healing and wholeness after I’ve sinned. Apologizing is one thing I can do. It’s not easy, but it is part of what it means to live into agape.
This week I also found inspiration in the words of Rachel Held Evans, who is an accomplished theologian and author. This past week she was named, along with UCC pastor Traci Blackmon and Kansas City pastor Adam Hamilton, to the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Held Evans came out of an Evangelical background and has often made waves in the Evangelical community because she won’t stay in a nice and neat box.
Held Evans is an active blogger and one of her posts is called “The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart.” In it, she takes some Evangelicals to task for their inability to teach a message that is coherently based in love. She shares a conversation she once had with a Christian leader who gave her a hard time for voicing her dislike of the story of the Battle of Jericho. She explained to him that she found the mass slaughter of men, women, and children to be horrifying…especially since it was supposedly orchestrated by God. The man who was speaking with told her that he didn’t find genocide to be troubling if it’s in the Bible. As long as it’s in the Bible, it was okay with him. Evans goes on to write in a follow up post about how the word “love” ceases to lose its meaning when we disguise acts of violence and cowardice as “love.”
I have a lot of respect for Evans. She and I are not likely to agree on everything and that’s okay. What I respect about her is her ability to cut through the self-imposed divisions in the current Church and make a claim to what she believes to be true. She is bridging a gap – more like a chasm – between conservative and progressive Christians. She is speaking out of conviction and love. And she does so in a way that is patient and kind. She is choosing to live into agape.
People like Glennon Melton and Rachel Held Evans give me strength to try to live into agape as Paul describes it. And the image of living into agape really resonates with me because it makes me feel like this love – this way of being – is accessible to me if only I will allow myself to find it.
This is true, I think, because God is love. God is that force that lives within and beside and around and beyond each and every one of us, moving us towards love. To live into agape is to live more fully into the reality that we are never, any of us, separated from God for even a moment. That Divine Spirit of Love is within us at all times, calling us to take a risk and dwell more fully in love.
Agape is a way of being in relationship that is active. It is a type of living rooted in our choice to act graciously, patiently, and with great kindness and humility. Most days, for me, living into agape seems incredibly difficult. Paul’s words are so beautiful, but they seem so difficult to attain. On days like this, I allow myself to rest in the knowledge that God is love. God loves me. God loves everyone I encounter. And if I will allow myself to rest into that love, I may just find the strength I need to live more fully into agape. Here’s hoping.