The words of the responsive reading we shared earlier, as well as the words of the hymn we’ll sing when I finally get done talking this morning, are based, of course, on the immortal words of St. Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth:
Now, Paul is among the last people any of us would probably want to have as a friend or even as a dinner guest. He seems to have been quite a hard-headed and domineering type of guy, not to mention something of an encrusted chauvinist, even by the standards of his own time. (“Women are to be silent in the churches,” he is said to have written, as well as numerous things about wives being submissive to their husbands, and so on and so forth.) There is some irony, I know, in citing old St. Paul in a sermon about the joy of human love, which was going to be my Valentine’s Day sermon, originally (before all this February weather threw our church schedule into disarray). St. Paul was also the man, I would remind you, who counseled all of his followers to remain celibate while awaiting the Second Coming of Jesus. If everyone had followed St. Paul’s advice back then, there wouldn’t be very much use for Valentine’s Day today...
Paul, like all of us, was wrong about some things. But when it came to speaking of love-- of the workings of the Holy Spirit both within the individual heart and within the community of faith-- Paul did speak with the voice of an angel, it seems to me. His words are worth remembering, and repeating, and even lifting our voices in song about, as best we are able.
There have been other songs about love, too, of course. Lots of them. Remember when John Lennon and Paul McCartney told us that all we needed was love? “It’s easy,” they sang. “All you need is love.”
With all due respect to both Pauls-- McCartney and St. Paul-- and to John Lennon, too, of course-- it’s not “easy”, this thing we call love. Nor is it always, on the day-to-day surface of things at least, always patient and kind; never envious or boastful; never arrogant or rude.
Way back in the 15th Century, the French writer Francois Villon complained about the “debasement” of the word “love” in his own time. That was in the 15th Century! Think of what Villon might think were he to be transported into our modern age, with all of its squabble and squeal and meaningless babble and noise of our mass communications and incessant advertising. Way back in the 15th Century (which had its own problems, to be sure), Monsieur Villon couldn’t imagine the kind of “debasement” that still awaited that holiest of words. He couldn’t imagine the kind of assault that men and women in the modern world would face, day in, day out, from those forces always anxious to exploit and commercialize and sensationalize and cash in on the deepest of human emotions.
But the human spirit-- and the love that burns at its heart-- survives and abides, in spite of all those ads for Hallmark and AT&T and McDonald’s and Diet Coke and Folger’s and Calvin Klein underwear and the latest “Love Potion #9” that the pharmaceutical industry is currently peddling.
Love, if we are honest, is a subject that is better experienced than written about, or even preached about. For who can doubt that there is a language of the heart, so much deeper than our imperfect, imprecise human language?
But because this love touches us most deeply, we human ones write of it most often, perhaps, and speak of it most frequently, as well. Such is one of the many paradoxes of love.
Perhaps the most beautiful words on love in the Western tradition are those of St. Paul. But Paul sets the bar pretty high for us struggling everyday folk like us to meet:
That’s a very tough bill to fill. The danger is, of course, that those of us who, in the courses of our lives, have done our best to love one another, will compare the loves we’ve felt, the loves we’ve lived, to Paul’s lofty ideal and come away feeling kind of puny and weak and like failures.
Always patient and kind? Never jealous? Never boastful? Sometimes, to read idealized visions of love like Paul’s, we might well feel that try as hard as we can, we’ll never pass the test; try as we might, we’ll never be able to measure up. Our best will never be good enough.
It might help, then, to remember the context in which Paul wrote his words. He wasn’t just writing a love ditty that he hoped would make the Palestinian Top 40. Nor was he writing a self-help manual for struggling couples in ancient Anatolia. No, Paul’s ode to love are words found originally in a letter from a minister to a congregation whose members were struggling to get along-- who were squabbling among themselves; whose members, no doubt, were exhibiting more than their fair share of jealousy, boastfulness, arrogance, rudeness, I’m-a-better-Christian-than-you-are-ness, irritability, resentfulness-- and probably burnout, too.
So Paul, like any decent minister, is looking out at the situation and giving his congregation some subtle advice:
“DON’T DO THAT!” he says to them.
“DON’T BE THAT WAY!” he tells them.
“BE THIS WAY (the “more excellent way”) instead.”
Don’t act toward each other in arrogance or rudeness or through lording it over one another or through coercion-- but act toward one another in a spirit of love. And I will show you what real love means...
Paul isn’t saying that love between two people has to be perfect for it to be valid. Nor is he saying that it has to exhibit all of these highest characteristics all of the time. Paul is simply saying that our love for one another is a gift from God, and that it is the most powerful gift—the most excellent gift--that the Holy Spirit offers us. It is the empowering force in human life which can ennoble us and deepen and strengthen us and make us so much more than we would be without it.
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things...”
With love energizing us and inspiring us, we can survive anything that fate and circumstance might mount against us. We can find triumph in tragedy, comfort in affliction, and peace and promise even at those times when our lives seem confused or dreary. Because we have love, we can bear any burden, believe in life, hope for the future, and endure the dark nights of our souls-- not only in our individual lives, but in the lives we share together in community, in our families, and in our world.
Love might not be all we need to get us through life. We need faith and hope, too. We need wisdom. We need courage.
Sometimes, we just need stubbornness and perseverance. But would we even have a place for faith and hope in our psyches if the fire of love didn’t burn within our souls?
Love gives us patience, as well. The patience to bear all things, to suffer through even the insufferable (for there may well be great gifts enveloped where least expect them, and suffering can teach us many important spiritual lessons).
In the Jewish tradition, there is a story about Abraham and Sarah. Abraham was a devout man of God, and so his tent, it was said, was always open to anyone. He believed that it was his religious obligation to provide hospitality to all who needed it, and to befriend those who wearily traveled across the sands of the desert.
One day, an old man happened by, looking for a place to rest from the heat of the midday sun. So, of course, Abraham and Sarah took him in at once; they were only too happy to oblige, to give the old man a place to rest, and something to eat and drink.
But, to put it mildly, the old man and Abraham didn’t hit it off—not at all. The traveler was loud and obstreperous; he had an opinion about everything-- opinions which Abraham disagreed with just about in their entirety. (I don’t know: it must have been like being trapped in a tent with Rush Limbaugh.) But not only that—this guy was a hog, a real glutton! He devoured every bit of food that Sarah put before him-- and even had the gall to ask for more! He was eating them out of house and home, consuming far more than his fair share of the stores they had so carefully laid up.
Finally Abraham could take it no longer. “Out of my tent!” he shouted at the old man. “I will have no more to do with a man like you! I can’t even bear to be in your presence! Get out! I’ve wasted enough of my hospitality already!”
So, the old man stumbled out, back into the heat of the desert. But before the traveler was even out of sight, Abraham heard the voice of his God, Yahweh, calling his name: “Abraham! Abraham!”
Abraham was used to this: “Speak, Lord, your servant hears you,” he answered.
Yahweh responded: “For eighty years, I have cared both for you and for the old man you threw out of your tent. I continued to claim you as one of my own, even though at times you seemed to forget all about me, and thought you had done it all yourself. You are interested in only your own voice, and don’t listen to mine. You satisfy your own wants, and forget about those of others. But I have waited patiently, because you are one of my children. If I could bear with you for eighty years, certainly you could put up with that old man for another hour or so.”
So, we are told, Abraham went out into the desert and found the old man, and brought him back to his tent to rest.
Love might not be the answer to all questions our world faces. But it helps us to open our eyes, and lets us know where to look first for the answers we need.
Love deepens us toward compassion. And compassion is the source of justice and the fount of wisdom. Compassion for all living creatures, for all life. Transcendence of the mundane earthly reality, toward the deeper reality of the Spirit. Transcendence of the illusion of our separateness, toward the deeper truth of our unity and interdependence.
Love is the voice of our God, of our higher power, speaking in our souls, moving in our actions. Love gives us the power we need to welcome the stranger (the other, the lover, the sister and brother) back into our tents, back into the innermost sanctuaries of our very beings.
Love does not make life easy. But would there even be a life worth living if there wasn’t love?
The many forms our human love takes are the closest we human ones approach unto the ways of the divine. That we love as imperfectly as we do is our greatest tragedy. But that we are able to love at all is the greatest miracle there is-- and our most profound hope for the future.