The Most Excellent Gift

“Love: The Most Excellent Gift”

1 Cor 13 love, ring

1 Corinthians 13:4-8 (12:31) – February 3, 2019

In less than two weeks, the yearly holiday of romance and love will be celebrated. Yes, the holiday of Valentine’s Day is right around the corner. According to the popular women’s magazine Woman’s Day, people here in the United States spend a lot of money on their Valentines: an estimated $18.2 billion in 2017, including 144 million Valentine’s Day cards. [1] Gifts, cards and chocolates are wonderful for that special someone in your life! But—is this idea of love what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote the Scripture passage we read today?

As we come to the end of our series of gifts from God, we can think back over the past month. As we celebrated Epiphany the first Sunday of January, we not only saw the gifts the foreign-born Magi gave to the toddler Jesus, but we celebrated the greatest Christmas gift of all time: the gift of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. We also rejoice as we remember our baptism and the tremendous gift of God’s grace bestowed upon all of us.

We consider what Paul was talking about in the previous chapter, 1 Corinthians 12. Spiritual gifts! We spent two weeks discussing the generous gifts God gives each of us—all of us. Gifts of helps, service, teaching, healing, wisdom, understanding—and then some. What is more, Paul encourages us to put these gifts into practice for the common good of others. And last week, we explored the interconnectedness of each of us and each of the gifts that we bring to this family of faith. We learned that we need one another in a fundamental way. [2]

Which leads us to our Scripture reading for today, from 1 Corinthians 13. Paul caps off this discussion of spiritual gifts with the most excellent gift of all: love.

Many people relate the reading of the this “Love chapter” with weddings. Romance and hearts and flowers—and Valentine’s Day—seem to go hand in hand with this chapter. That is, on the surface. But, when the Apostle Paul really gets going on the depth and breadth of God’s love, he does not mean hearts and flowers and candy at all. God’s love is what is offered to all of us.

What does God’s love look like? Paul gives us some vivid examples. Reading from The Message: “If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all God’s mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, ‘Jump,’ and it jumps, but I don’t love, I am nothing. 3-7 If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.”

Forgive me. I’ve just told you what God’s love does not look like. This is what happens when a person does not have God’s love living within him or her. A very sad, despairing state of affairs, to be sure.

Paul does tell us what love is, however. Again, from the Message; “Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, Doesn’t have a swelled head, Doesn’t force itself on others, Isn’t always “me first,” Doesn’t fly off the handle, Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, Doesn’t revel when others grovel, Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, Trusts God always, Always looks for the best, Never looks back, But keeps going to the end.”

This description from Paul tells us what love is.

Very sadly, if we read the newspaper and turn on the news, we see another expression of God-talk. This kind of black-and-white thinking, all-or-nothing talk comes from rigid or extreme religious groups. You know the groups I mean. Groups that say unequivocally “I’m on God’s good side, and you’re not. I’m going to heaven because I do the things God wants. You don’t, so you are going to hell.” It doesn’t matter whether they are stringent Christians, fundamentalist Catholics, extreme Muslims, or radical Hindus. Such hurtful thinking and corrosive speech lets us know these religious groups have likely not experienced God’s life-changing, wondrous love. You know, all of the wonderful, life-giving parts of love that the Apostle Paul just described to us.

Father Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest and director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico, has written and taught extensively on God’s love. He spoke of these hurtful religious groups, and then asked, “How can we do better? To begin, we might put ourselves in the other’s shoes and imagine why someone is so hateful.”

Father Rohr continues: “While working in the Albuquerque jail for over a decade, I met many men who had been raised in a punitive, authoritarian, absolutist way, often with an absent or abusive father. Understanding another’s story can teach us compassion. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t set some healthy boundaries. But it does open our hearts and help us recognize that other people are victims, too. They’ve been wounded, too. Yet they are still objectively an image of God, created in God’s image.” [3]

We are not all called to work in prisons, like Father Rohr. But, God has gifted each of us to offer our gifts to others. Each of us have been given gifts to reach out to our friends and neighbors with the love of God. Remember what we talked about last week, how all of our spiritual gifts are interconnected? Each of us is needed by the others in this family of faith. And, God’s love is one of the greatest connectors of all.

One of my absolute favorite people ever is Mister Rogers. Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, ordained to ministry in television and mass communication by the Presbytery of Pittsburgh in 1963. He had a marvelous, moving ministry to children—and to adults—for decades—in public television.

One of the ways Mister Rogers reached out and communicated to children with his television show was through music. He wrote over two hundred songs about important things and things that concern children very much. Like this one: “There are many ways to say I love you. There are many ways to say I care about you. Many ways, many ways, many ways to say I love you. Cleaning up a room can say I love you. Hanging up a coat before you’re asked to do it. Drawing special pictures for the holidays and making plays.” [4]

Important words from a loving, honest, generous man, Fred Rogers. He let us know that love can be as simple as hanging up a coat—or doing the dishes—or sending a greeting card. Mister Rogers would definitely agree that showing love is being kind to others, and being your honest, caring self. No matter what.

A reminder, from the Message: “[Love] Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, Trusts God always, Always looks for the best, Never looks back, But keeps going to the end.” That is the kind of God we have. Love is a gift God offers to all of us, freely.

It doesn’t matter how each of us expresses God’s love. God gives many gifts to all of us, freely. Let us give love away to everyone, no matter what. Just as freely as God gives to us.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] https://www.womansday.com/relationships/a4702/10-fun-valentines-day-facts-103385/

[2] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/season-after-epiphany-2019-part-1-worship-planning-series/february-3-fourth-sunday-after-the-epiphany-year-c/fourth-sunday-after-the-epiphany-2019-year-c-preaching-notes

[3] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Exploring and Experiencing the Naked Now, disc 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2010).

[4] http://www.neighborhoodarchive.com/music/songs/many_ways.html

(Many thanks to the Rev. Jeff Campbell and http://www.umcdiscipleship.org for ideas and assistance for this series on spiritual gifts.)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

A Wise Answer

“A Wise Answer”

love God, love others

Mark 12:34 – November 1, 2015

Rule books are handy things to have around.

What about the rules of the road? Doesn’t it help everyone to know and understand the rules of driving? Plus, the rules of the road give us a handy guide for safe, reliable, consistent driving. Also, we can think of rules in sports; in football, baseball, hockey, and basketball, just to name a few. All of these rules help teams, individual players, and referees to understand what to do—and what not to do in a game.

Do you know one particular person who knows the rules of one particular sport backwards and forwards? I mean, this person can call balls and strikes faster than an umpire behind the plate. Or, can figure out exactly who went offside before a football snap, or when a player got fouled in a fast-moving hockey game? It doesn’t have to be one of these sports, but any sport. And, that person is really proud of their exceptional sports knowledge, too?

That’s a lot like the situation Jesus is dealing with. As one of the commentators said, “Throughout Mark’s Gospel, the scribes [and teachers] were always evaluating Jesus’ activities. They judged Jesus theologically.” The Rabbi Jesus and some high ranking teachers of the Law are having another in their series of continuing discussions. These teachers really enjoyed discussing the Law, and both the major as well as the minor points of Judaism. Some teachers would get all excited and rub their hands at the prospect of a good argument! I mean, discussion.

That’s where we pick up our thread of the narrative. Different rabbis or teachers had different opinions on what was the greatest of all commands. I am certain some of these teachers wanted to know what Jesus considered the “most important” of the 613 laws in the Mosaic law code, which was (and is) the official, orthodox Jewish rule book.

Jesus does not name one of the “big 10,” the Ten Commandments. Instead, He responds with the Shema. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” from Deuteronomy 6:5-6.

Are you familiar with the Jewish custom of the mezuzah, put on the doorpost of observant Jewish homes? I quote from www.chabad.org: “Regarding these words, G‑d has commanded us, “And you shall inscribe them on the doorposts of your home, and on your gates” (ibid., verse 9). Hence the mezuzah: a parchment scroll inscribed with the verses of the Shema prayer is affixed to the right doorpost of every room in a Jewish home.”

“Why a Mezuzah? In addition to its role as a declaration and reminder of our faith, the mezuzah is also a symbol of G‑d’s watchful care. The name of G‑d, Sha-dai, which appears on the reverse side of the parchment, is an acronym for the Hebrew words which mean ‘Guardian of the doorways of Israel.’ Placing a mezuzah on the doors of a home or office protects the inhabitants—whether they are inside or out.”

Just from this short excerpt from Chabad, an orthodox Jewish website, you can see how serious this was to the scribes and teachers of the Law, in Jesus’s day as well as today. So, yes. Keeping rules properly was really high on the observant Jew’s priority list.

Going back to Jesus, and His response, what IS the greatest commandment, anyway?

Jesus did say that the greatest command was the Shema, a basic, fundamental, foundational statement of faith. Love God. Period. This was also a standard daily prayer in Jewish tradition. I suspect everyone in the room with Jesus knew Deuteronomy 6:5-6 so well they could say it backwards, or in their sleep.

But, Jesus doesn’t stop there! No, He makes another definitive statement. “31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Did you follow that? Jesus made “the greatest command” into a two-part command.

Love God, love others. Two sides of the same coin.

Jesus quoted from another verse in the Hebrew Scriptures, Leviticus 19:18b. Yes, it was included in the Mosaic Law Code. In the Jewish rule book. Except this particular law wasn’t considered so all-important in Jesus’s day. That is, until Jesus reached back and pointed to it.

Love God, love others.

You’d better believe this two-part law applies to a modern world torn apart by arguments, resentments, mourning, sadness, bitterness, and downright hatred. Not to mention war, violence, drought, hunger, and natural disasters, just as much as it applied to similar situations in ancient times and places. Even though this modern world finds it difficult to come near to God, even to believe in the concept of a Higher Power; this two-part law still applies.

Yes, this two-part law also applies to us, today. I encourage us all to avoid the trap of thinking that those old stories from the Bible, and from the Gospels, just apply to those people, two thousand years ago. False! Wrong-er than wrong! Jesus’s words apply just as much to us, today. To modern people, running on the treadmill of our daily routines. Yes, us up-to-date folks, who don’t have time for God, or for church. “Don’t you know? My life is so full I won’t have time to make it to church this week.”

Love God, love others. Remember, these are the words of Jesus.

In this vignette from the Gospel of Mark, one particular scribe engages with Jesus. “Well done, Teacher!” the scribe responded. “You’re right when you said: ‘He is the only God and there is no other god besides him,’ ‘Love the God with everything you have,’ 33 and, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ Obeying these commandments is worth far more than all the worship in the Temple at Jerusalem!” These words are not combative, or argumentative. This scribe agrees with Jesus! The Gospel describes this teacher as sincere, affirming of Jesus and His statements. Plus, this teacher acknowledges that the institutional aspects of Jewish ritual and observance are less important, secondary to loving God and loving others. Isn’t it true that religious ritual so often gets in the way of truly loving?

This scribe, this important teacher of the Law gets where Jesus is coming from. Listen to what Jesus responds: “34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, He said to [the teacher], ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’”

Summary statement? “When we hear these words, we know that we are close to the center of Christianity, that we are close to the heart of God. The cross of Christ, the most important symbol of the Christian faith, has two dimensions: a vertical love to God and a horizontal love towards our neighbors.” (from a Gospel analysis by Edward Markquart)

The simplicity, truth and wisdom of love is at the heart of the Good News. Are there things we are engaged in right now that are secondary, less important that Jesus and His call to love God and love others? Think about it. If we truly love, what else is necessary?

Love God, love others. Jesus’s greatest command.

Alleluia, amen.

@chaplaineliza

Thanks to Rev. Edward Markquart and http://www.chabad.org for their assistance in the formulation of this sermon!

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!