Sermon preached January 31, 2010
Texts: Luke 4:21-30; I Corinthians 13:1-13
There’s nothing you do that can’t be done.
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game.
All you need is……
All You Need Is Love
Familiar words to many of us. All you need is love – it’s easy. One of the Beatles, Paul McCartney, once said he was very glad that most of The Beatles songs were about peace and love. He continued that tradition in his solo career. One song of his popular when I was in high school was entitled “Silly Love Songs” - - - “love isn’t silly at all.” It isn’t, nor is it really easy.
Silly Love Songs
Let’s go back a couple of millennium. In Nazareth, a hometown boy is making a public appearance. Jesus is in the synagogue and “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Yet apparently not all were amazed. “Is not this Joseph’s son?” Somehow, because he was familiar, his words seemed less eloquent, less amazing to some. He read Scripture and commented upon it, and the more he spoke, the more irritated the people became. Why should we listen to this guy. We know him. We know his family. One of the lessons of this story is that we can become immune to the power of something when it becomes too familiar, too well-known. We can become tone deaf to words we hear too often, immune to their power and potential.
There may be few better illustrations of that than the very familiar words from I Corinthians 13. Practically every wedding we attend in a church, or where a Christian clergy is officiating uses some of these words. I know I use them often in that context. We can buy posters and wall hangings and plaques with these words on them. But because they are so familiar, we risk missing their power. We risk making I Corinthians 13 some kind of silly love song. But love isn’t silly, and if we really listen, if we open our ears, our hearts, our minds, these words should shake us a little, should challenge us, should shape us and change us.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. For someone who gets up in front of people to speak a lot, these words challenge. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. For someone who has spent a great deal of time reading, and thinking and learning, these words put learning in a different context, a challenging context. If I give away all my possession, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. O.K., so I haven’t given it all away, but I believe in service, in doing good, and these words challenge all of us who believe in doing good – doing it without love is dangerous.
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. I appreciate the Contemporary English Version translation of the last phrase: Love is always supportive, loyal, hopeful, and trusting.
This is love, and when we read these words we should feel challenged to the depth of our souls. This is love, and when we read these words we should know that love wants to mess with us, to change us, to shake us up. This is love.
This is the love with which we are loved. It is fascinating that God makes no appearance in this chapter at all, nor is Jesus mentioned. But we need to read these words in the context of the letter of which they are a part, and this letter is written out of a sense that these people are recipients of God’s grace, God’s love (1:4), and that they have received this in relationship with Jesus as the Christ.
This is love. This is the love with which we are to live. Now living such love is challenging enough in our most intimate relationships. That’s why this chapter is a wonderful reading for weddings. In some ways, there are parts of love that may be even more challenging in our closest relationships. I don’t know about you, but little things can become irritants, and the chances for irritability seem greater at home. So love is a challenge even there.
But Paul was writing not for a wedding. He was writing for a church, a church like this church or any other church. And the church to which Paul was writing was having some problems. That remains true of churches today, but if you think we have problems sometimes, you should read this whole letter again. This church was mired in conflict. The very faith in Jesus Christ that brought this community of people together was being used to divide them. People began developing a hierarchy of spiritual gifts – these gifts made one more spiritual. A dangerous spiritual elitism was forming here, and if you were not among the spiritual elite, you might be excluded from parts of church life. The church was divided among rich and poor members. They would have a church meal, and in this part of the social hall was “the haves”, and they were eating and drinking becoming full and a little tipsy (this was not a Methodist Church); and in that part of the social hall were the people barely getting by, and sharing was not taking place.
Into that conflicted environment come these Spirit-inspired words from Paul. How do we measure deep spirituality – by love! How do we know the Spirit is working in our lives – when we grow in love. Nothing wrong with eloquent speech, or deep learning, or sacrificial giving – these are important, but without love they are next to nothing.
And this is love: patient, kind, rejoices in the truth, supportive, loyal, hopeful, trusting. Where love is active envy and arrogance and resentment and irritability are on the wane.
Listen. Hear. Hear not just with your ears, but also with your heart, your mind, your soul. We are in danger of making these words a silly love song, but love isn’t silly. It is true, all we need is love – but it is this soul-challenging, heart-stretching, Spirit-inspired and spirit inspiring love that we need. In the end, Paul says, “love.”
And while we are thinking about love, let's add the strong word about love that is also in the story about Jesus. The crowd was bothered by the familiarity of this Jesus. They were especially bothered by his reminder to them that the love of God opens arms wider than we are usually comfortable with. You might imagine that the hometown crowd wanted Jesus to say really nice things about them, how growing up with them helped make him such an amazing preacher. I hope he said some of those things in other places. Here Jesus reminds the folks that the God they worship has a love that reaches out beyond the usual boundaries. Elijah reaches out to a widow in Zarephath in Sidon – non-Jewish territory. Elisha heals the leper Naaman, a Syrian. The love with which we are loved challenges us, stretches us, inspires us to love widely and with abandon. In the end, love.
In 1181 in Assisi, Italy Francesco di Pietro Bernadone was born (1181-1226) into a wealthy family. Francesco enjoyed the privileges of wealth. While he was a kind person, he also appreciated fine food, fine clothes, laughter with friends. There was something in him that began calling him to a different kind of life. In 1205, a searching Francesco made a pilgrimage to Rome. There he witnessed incredible splendor and incredible poverty – poverty about which he knew little first hand. Something whispered to him that he needed to know more. Approached by a beggar on the street, Francesco asked if he might trade clothes with him and then he spent the day in Rome as a beggar. Something moves inside the heart of Francesco – love is stirring in new ways.
As he rides back home, Francesco confronts one of his greatest fears – leprosy. This is how one writer describes the situation at the time. Many lepers on the roads around Assisi were frighteningly and pathetically hideous, their skin discolored and their limbs crippled – they had often lost their hair, fingers, and noses; their bleeding or suppurating sores often gave off the stench of putrefying flesh (House, Francis of Assisi, 57). As he rides Francesco spies a leper. Since childhood, he has feared these people. He could simply ignore the man. He could, if he wished, drop a coin as he passed by. Love is stirring in Francesco, a love that will stretch him, that will open his arms wider than he ever imagined. Francesco comes upon the leper and dismounts. He reaches into his purse and hands him a coin. Francesco then takes the hand of the leper and kisses it. The leper gives him a kiss of peace in return. Days later, Francesco takes a large sum of money to the leper hospital and gathering all the inmates together, he distributes the money, kissing the hand of each. Years later, Francesco, St. Francis, would write that this was the time when God was inviting him to a new life. This is love – demanding, life-changing, energizing, soul-challenging, heart-stretching, Spirit-inspired and spirit inspiring love.
Sean Tuohy is a rich, successful Southern white man. He played basketball for Ole Miss, and married an Ole Miss cheerleader. He owns a chain of restaurants. He is a part of a growing evangelical Christian Church in Memphis. His former cheerleader wife, Leigh Ann, grew up with a firm set of beliefs about black people. Her father was a United States Marshall who loathed black people and wanted to pass that attitude on to his daughter. In 1973 when Memphis integrated their schools, Leigh Ann’s father pulled her out of the public school system. When she married Sean, a number of his former basketball teammates were present, some of them black, and her father asked, “Why are all these [niggers] here.”
Love does strange things. God’s love challenges and stretches. This family ended up welcoming into their home a young black man named Michael Oher, age sixteen, Michael - who hadn’t seen his father in years, whose mother was chemically-dependent, who had a sister he hadn’t seen in years, who had had seven addresses and gone to fifteen different schools in his sixteen years of life. He became a part of their family. A year into this unusual relationship, Leigh Ann would tell people who kept asking her about it, “I love him as if I birthed him.” [information from Lewis, The Blind Side, 65, 67-8, 140, 146]
This is love. If we had no other Scripture than I Corinthians 13, it should shake us and rattle us because it challenges us to the core. In the end, love: demanding, life-changing, energizing, soul-challenging, heart-stretching, Spirit-inspired and spirit inspiring love. It isn’t silly and it isn’t easy, but it is all we need. All you need is love. Amen.