Psalm 36:1-10; 1 Corinthians 13
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” (I Corinthians 13:4-6)
This scripture has been read at practically every wedding at which I have presided in 36 years of ministry. The text has been treated as if it were a marriage manual, a guide to getting along with your life partner. There is a lot of good advice here for couples, but this passage aims at something else.
The letter to the church in Corinth is written to a city and a people divided and wrestling with contentious issues in their life together. These words about love are not written to an amorous couple, but to people living in the same city who are at fierce odds with one another. A people as polarized as we are in this land, in this time.
First Corinthians 13 addresses what it takes to build genuine community. We should listen carefully.
“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.”
There have been a lot of noisy gongs and clanging cymbals in recent years in our nation. Not much building up, but a lot of tearing down. Not much in the way of shared purpose or common vision, but a lot of accusation and fear. Not much listening, but a lot of shouting. Not much humility, but a lot of hubris.
“And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
A community in which some have power and others have little or none is not sustainable. People do not want to belong to that in which they have no ownership, in which they have no place. The great sorting-out of America along rural-urban, racial, economic, and other lines has left us splintered and separated. How can we love one another when we live in different worlds?
“If I give away all my possessions…so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (I Corinthians 13:1-3)
In my sermon planning last summer I chose this well-known scripture for today, for this Sunday, not knowing which way the presidential election would go, but fully aware of how fractured we were then, and fully aware of how fractured we would be now – and will be in the future – no matter the outcome on November 3rd. The rancorous campaign has now concluded. The bitter election is over. But we’re still in the midst of the same roiling cultural and political cauldron that is America today. Racial injustice has not suddenly been resolved. Covid rages on. Creation continues to groan in travail. And our differing responses to all of that shred national unity.
We need a refresher course on what holds us together, and so this morning we turn to I Corinthians – a biblical teaching on love that we hope will remind us of our deeper commitments as a people, and, perhaps, awaken the better angels of our nature.
This week I had the privilege of interviewing Eddie Glaude, Jr., Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, for the Westminster Town Hall Forum. The program will air on Tuesday at noon and 9pm on MPR, and also will be livestreamed on the Forum website. I encourage you to watch or listen – and it will be archived.
Glaude has written a book titled Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. The title comes from Baldwin’s view that for African Americans, the history of this land is littered with unsuccessful attempts to right the historic wrong of racism. Post-Civil War Reconstruction was overtaken by Jim Crow and the lynching season. The Civil Rights movement was met with calls for law and order, mass incarceration, and growing disparity.
Baldwin calls the period when the promise of liberty and justice for all slips further away, the after time. In each after time, when Black folks have found themselves still left out of the American dream, in Baldwin’s words, they have had to begin again.
“Not everything is lost,” he says.
“Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated. If one refuses abdication one begins again.” (Begin Again [New York: Crown, 2020], p. 193)
Professor Glaude says that when we begin again,
“We reexamine the fundamental values and commitments that shape our self-understanding, and…look back to those beginnings not to reaffirm our greatness or to double down on myths that secure our innocence, but to see where we went wrong and how we might reimagine or recreate ourselves in light of who we initially set out to be.” (Begin Again, p. 194)
Glaude thinks we’re in another after time today in our nation, a time when we might reexamine ourselves, a time when we might look and see where we went wrong, a time when we might imagine how to set out once more to recreate the people we were meant to be.
As of yesterday, we may already have begun again.
“Love,” Glaude says, “Fortifies the soul and offers a cure for what ails our living together.” (Begin Again, p. 142)
Love offers a cure for what ails our living together
At the heart of our Christian faith is the mandate from Jesus to love God, to love one another, to love self, to love neighbor, and even to love enemy. The Greek word Jesus uses for love is agape, the same term the Apostle Paul employs in the love chapter in I Corinthians. Agape should not be mistaken for what typically passes for love as we use the word. There’s nothing emotional or romantic about agape; it’s not a feeling, but an action; not a sentiment, but a doing. Love not as a noun, but a verb.
The love that builds community makes itself known as we care for one another, as we feed the hungry, as we visit the sick, as we advocate for the poor, as we welcome the stranger, as we work to change systems that deny the fullness of anyone’s humanity.
That kind of love leads to justice.
The Hebrew equivalent is the word hesed – steadfast love or loving kindness. Hesed describes an essential quality of God. Hesed is who God is and what God does. We hear it over and over again in this morning’s psalm and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. “Your steadfast love, O Lord” – your hesed –
“Extends to the heavens. Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgments are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike, O Lord. How precious is your steadfast love, O God!” – your hesed – “All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.” (Psalm 36:5-7)
All people are covered by God’s hesed.
Hesed, like agape, is the love that builds community, and it will not be stopped. It keeps on coming. It can be delayed for a time, even for a long time, but God will not let it die. Hesed encompasses all of creation, and like agape, it gives itself away unceasingly.
The opposite of this love is not hate, Glaude says, but selfishness. The love that builds community, the love that begins again, always centers on the other. Authentic community springs from a desire to care for one another, to treat others as we would want to be treated ourselves, and to yield some of our space to make space for others, especially those not in our circle.
Our nation needs that kind of love if ever we are to form “a more perfect union,” if ever our effort to begin again would be fruitful.
Our fall stewardship program took as its theme this year as it did last year, Building Beloved Community. That theme captures the urgent call in our time to reimagine how we might learn to live together in ways that are just and kind and generous. Each of us will have a chance this week to give evidence of our own willingness to join in building such a community by making a financial commitment for next year – to fund the mission and ministry of our church.
We can begin again. We’re motivated to do this by love, which Glaude describes as “The one force that transcends the differences that get in the way of our genuinely living together…Love opens up the rusted lid of the heart.” (Begin Again, p. 213)
There are a lot of heart-lids that have rusted shut in our nation. To build beloved community they will have to open.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., used the phrase Beloved Community to describe the goal of the movement for racial justice in this land. The American philosopher Josiah Royce, born in 1855, first developed the idea of beloved community. “My life means nothing,” he said, “Unless I am a member of a community…We have no life alone.” (https://idp.springer.com/authorize?response_type=cookie&client_id=springerlink&redirect_uri=https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12111-011-9171-4)
W.E.B. DuBois was a student of Royce. “The essential humanity of all people,” DuBois said, “Is…the greatest fact in the world.” (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12111-011-9171-4)
The essential humanity of all people is the greatest fact in the world. We would say the image of God can be see in every single person – and every person deserves dignity and respect.
Believing in the essential humanity of all people leads to what Ralph Ellison called “that condition of being at home in the world, which is called love, and we term democracy.” (Began Again, p. 142)
From the start, the American experiment in democracy was an imperfect system because it only worked for some. Women and indigenous people and Black Americans were left out by design. Only in 1920, 100 years ago, when our mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers were alive, were women granted the right to vote. Native peoples were given citizenship only in 1924 and the rights that come with that. And it was not until 1965, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, that the nation sought to ensure the vote for African Americans.
And, then, this week, we elected the first female vice-president, who is also the first black vice-president. And her parents were immigrants. Maybe we can begun again.
What will be our nation’s most powerful motivator, going forward? Concern for others, or selfishness? Justice, or greed? Mutuality, or consolidation of power? Hope, or anger and fear?
We cannot go on as we are now. But we can begin again to reimagine our nation. There’s a new world waiting to be born, and it starts with asking ourselves what kind of human beings we aspire to be.
Will we remember these words:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
You and I, we follow Jesus. We know the power of love. We’ve seen how it can help people gather strength to tell the truth, which is where we have to start. We know how love can support people in finding the courage to work for change against great odds. And we know, you and I, how love can sustain us through the long night, through the after time, confident that the dawn will come.
Thanks be to God.