Lessons of Summer
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I Corinthians 13:1-8
Pastor Donna R. Buell
As we first began to plan this Lessons of Summer sermon series, Marty and I knew that we would need to include a sermon on weddings. I imagine a number of you have attended or will attend a wedding this summer. Over the years I have officiated at many weddings and I’ve attended many more. And one of the things I have learned is that weddings can stir up complicated feelings. For instance, nowadays it is not unheard of for a bride and groom to have as many as 8 parents and step parents. In such cases the relationships between all of these people are complicated at best. So I have often had to sit with couples as they wrestle with practical questions such as who will be invited, what role will they play, and where will they be seated during the ceremony. In some cases there have been serious worries about how former spouses will behave when in one another’s presence. Sometimes, in the case of a second marriage, there may be children to consider who are experiencing complicated feelings. And it can also be difficult for a bride or groom if one of their parents is no longer living. At such a special life event, the absence of a parent who has died is a very palpable and present reality, so we usually try to find a way to name or acknowledge that in the service.
Weddings can be complicated for many of the guests, as well. Some of the guests will be happily married, but not all of them. Some of the guests may be remembering and missing a spouse who has died. Others in attendance, who have been separated or divorced, are likely to be experiencing a complicated mix of grief, regret, relief, and guilt. Those who are unattached may long to be married or they may have no desire to marry whatsoever. And there will be those who are in long term committed relationships that have not been embraced by other family members or by current church practice, for whom the whole subject of marriage can be very painful. For all of these people, and others I haven’t mentioned, attending a wedding can raise a whole host of complicated thoughts and feelings. So although a wedding is meant to be a happy and joyous occasion, not everyone in the room is experiencing only happy and joyful feelings. Yet hopefully, in the midst of their own complicated feelings, those who are present can allow themselves to enter in to the joy of the couple who stands before them, and pray the very best for them.
Another thing I’ve learned at weddings is that attending a wedding and hearing the words that are spoken during a wedding often leads us to reflect on our own committed relationships. Those of us who are married are likely to remember our own wedding day and the vows we made to our spouse. We may find ourselves reflecting upon the health of our relationship and the state of our own commitment. And we may even sense a desire to recommit ourselves to the vows we made to our own partner, however many years ago that may have been.
Because so many weddings occur during the summer months, many wedding anniversaries also fall in the summertime. Perhaps some of you have had the opportunity to attend an anniversary event for a couple who are celebrating 40, 50 or even 60 years of marriage. Families in our Redwood Falls congregation often held their anniversary open houses in the church fellowship hall. It was fun to watch the couple as they greeted the friends and family who were there to celebrate with them. I always enjoyed looking at their display of photographs, including pictures of their wedding, and pictures of all the ages and stages of their family’s life. It was fun to see the generations come together and interact with one another on a happy occasion and to observe the family resemblances. And often they would have a time set aside to tell stories about the couple and to reflect upon the powerful witness of their long-standing relationship. I’ve often found myself thinking that, although young couples on the day of their wedding say “I do” to their marriage vows, these couples really know what it means to have and to hold, for better for worse, for richer for poor, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish until we are parted by death.
Through the years I have also come to recognize that sustaining a relationship over a long period of time, through all of those ups and downs of life, requires the kind of love we just heard about in our scripture reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Now although this passage is often heard at weddings, and most of us associate it with marriage ceremonies, I think it is important to know that Paul was not writing these words to starry eyed young lovers on the day of their marriage. He was actually writing these words to a church community whose members were not getting along very well.
Paul had gone to Corinth to share the gospel message and to establish a Christian community there. Corinth was a diverse place, and the church Paul established reflected that diversity. After about 18 months Paul moved on to establish another church in another community, as was his pattern. But it wasn’t long before he started to get word about problems back in Corinth. He was hearing reports of factions that had developed within the community; people were disagreeing about everything from morality and the practice of the Christian life, to worship and theology. And there were those among them who were claiming that their particular spiritual gifts set them above others in the community. So Paul wrote this letter to his friends in Corinth, hoping to address some of the issues they were struggling with. And at the core of that letter was this passage about love, for Paul believed that love was what would see the Corinthians through all the many difficulties they were experiencing. Next time you find yourself in a meeting or in a conversation here at church where divergent views and opinions or preferences are being expressed, try to remember these words about love, because that’s exactly the circumstance they were written to address.
Those of us who are members of the church have taken vows that reflect the covenantal relationship we are meant to have with one another. And as part of those vows we have promised, as members of the body of Christ, to be Christ’s representatives in the world. We have promised to be loyal to Christ through the United Methodist Church and to do all in our power to strengthen its ministries. And we have promised, as members of this particular congregation, to support the ministries of the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. We have made those promises and we have renewed those promises, again and again, whenever we have celebrated a baptism or a confirmation or the receiving of new members to our church family. Like couples who have taken marriage vows, we have taken vows of church membership.
Have you ever thought about it that way? And as you think about it, how do you think we are doing with those covenant vows? Are we being faithful to those promises in our own participation in the life and ministry of the church? Are we doing all we can to represent Christ in the world, and to strengthen the church’s ministries? And what happens when we are hurt by someone in the church? What happens when we are bothered by something the pastor said in a sermon? What happens when we disagree with a decision made at council or a position of the denomination on issues that are important to us? How do we continue to be faithful to those covenant vows? And have we ever consciously tried to apply Paul’s words about love to our life together as a congregation?
I’ve thought a lot about Paul’s words this week as they relate to marriage and family relationships and as they relate to our relationships within a church family. But I also couldn’t help but think of them as I have reflected upon our covenantal relationship with one another as citizens and residents of this country. In the midst of this rapidly changing environment, there are a great many issues pulling at the fabric of our national life. Many diverse voices are speaking out, from their own particular perspectives, some more thoughtfully, some more stridently. These past few weeks have provided daily reminders of just how many and great our challenges are. And in the midst of it all, I have been especially grateful to those who have been calling us to listen more carefully to one another, and especially to those whose life experiences may be quite different from our own. I think that is a good thing. We need to have a number of serious conversations as a nation, because as important as they are, elected leaders and laws and policies are not going to get us out of this. And so I have been grateful to hear and read a number of deeply thoughtful and reflective pieces from people who are trying to share their particular lived experience and from those who are seeking to listen and learn from the lived experience of others. These are things that have given me hope, because our default way of responding to the issues that divide us hasn’t been working so well for us.
How do we, as Christ’s representatives in the world, participate in this effort to deepen our dialogue around the complex issues that we face in our community, our nation and our world? What would happen if we committed to taking seriously the words Paul wrote about love? After all, they were written for a community of people who weren’t getting along very well.
We throw the word love around a lot. And sometimes we associate it with romantic and sentimental feelings. But this love Paul is talking about is not about feelings. He is talking about the way we choose to behave toward one another. Somewhere this week I read that this passage has influenced Christian ethics more than any other passage outside the gospels because it so filled with spirit of Jesus…In this passage Paul doesn’t describe sentimental feelings or some “naïve perfectionist utopia, but rather a community of fallible persons who are called to a way of life that models both freedom and holiness, both humility and confidence, both tolerance of differences and articulation of truth.” (The Discipleship Study Bible)
In this passage Paul describes a love that is patient and kind; that is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. This love does not insist upon its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
When couples choose this passage for their wedding, I usually tell them that for Paul love is not about what they happen to be feeling at any given moment, for feelings come and go. So that is why we have to consciously choose to behave this way toward one another, even in those times when we don’t feel very loving, especially in those times when we don’t feel very loving, because that is exactly the time when we most need to practice love. Most of us have to admit that we have a hard time measuring up to the love Paul describes here. This kind of love is hard work. In many ways it goes against the grain of our natural inclinations, especially in those times when our relationships are strained.
Okay, Donna, sounds good, but how do we go about doing that? As I thought about that this week I came across a spiritual practice suggested by N.T. Wright in his “For Everyone” commentary series. It’s a little long, but I think it is worth sharing. He wrote:
Perhaps the best thing to do with a passage like this is to take it slowly, [one] line at a time, and to reflect on at least three things: first, ways in which we see this quality in Jesus himself; second, ways in which we see it (or more likely, don’t see it) in ourselves; and third, ways in which, if we were like that, it would work out in practice.
Such an exercise should never be undertaken simply in order to feel either good about oneself or frustrated at one’s lack of moral growth. It should always be done in prayer; and at the third stage, as we ask for grace to envisage situations where we could behave differently; we should try to imagine what doing that would feel like, what steps we would have to take to make it happen, to avoid lapsing back into our normal behavior. Then, when we’re faced with the relevant situation, we will at least have a choice which we have already thought about, instead of behaving as creatures of habit. And of course the ultimate aim is for this way of life…to become the engrained way we habitually behave. Some people have taken steps along that road ahead of us. When we meet them its like hearing gentle music, or seeing a beautiful sunrise. But this life is within reach of each one of us; because it is the life of Jesus, the life inspired by the spirit, the life which is our birthright within the [Body of Christ]. What’s more…this is the life which will bring the right sort of order to the chaos of faction-fighting and spiritual jealously within the church.
N.T. Wright Paul for Everyone: I Corinthians pg. 174-5
Wise words, whether applied to family life, life within the church and community, or our life as citizens and residents of this country, and as members of the whole human family. We’ve got our work cut out for us, don’t we? And this love is hard work. But it is also important work – critical work – kingdom work.
The good news is that we don’t have to do this kind of love by ourselves. For this love that Paul describes is the love of Christ at work within us by the power of the Holy Spirit. And this love has the power to bear all things, to believe all things, to hope all things, to endure all things. This love, the love that is grounded in the steadfast love of God made known to us in Christ, never ends. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, we give you thanks for your steadfast love and faithfulness which provides the surest foundation upon which we can build all the loving relationships in our own lives: relationships within our families between spouses and partners, between parents and children, between sisters and brothers, between those who have separated or divorced; relationships with friends, neighbors, and colleagues; relationships in communities of support and encouragement, and particularly in communities of faith; and relationships we have as residents and citizens of our local, state, national, and global communities.
In the midst of all these varied relationships help us to hear your call, as followers of Christ, to a way of life which is grounded in Your steadfast love and faithfulness – a way of life which You reveal to us in Christ. Help us to hold this call ever before us and to seek to live in its spirit – treating others with the kind of love that Paul has so powerfully described. Help us to be people who are wise in making promises and faithful in keeping them. And when vows and promises we have made to one another and to you are strained or broken, help us to discern the most loving and faithful way through. Help us, by the power of your Spirit, to live, each and every day as Your people, who seek to live in accordance with Your will for us, for the sake of Your kingdom coming. For we pray in the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.