Sermon for August 4, 2013:
The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant and Marriage
“Jesus said, “The first commandment is this: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength; and the second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There are no other commandments greater than these.” Amen.
Good morning my beloved brothers and sisters. It is a joy to look out at all of you on this blessed day. I am Deb White, your seminarian, but (other than at the 8 o’clock service this morning) I have never preached at Christ Church before – and what an amazing morning to be able to do it – because today is all about love. It is about the love between Mitch and Scott, as well as the love they share for their son Mitchell Marcus; it is about the love that is at the core of this Christian community and, most importantly, it is about the love of God.
This morning’s Epistle reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is often chosen for weddings because of its beautiful and poetic description of love. Among other things, according to Paul, “Love is patient and kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not insist on its own way…it rejoices in the truth.” Now, perhaps when listening to this reading today, Scott and Mitch looked at one another with gratitude for having found such love with one another. Or maybe they imagined their future together where they can eventually achieve this prescription for romantic perfection. Or, given that they have been together for 18 years, maybe they are just a tiny bit more realistic and recognize that living up to this description of love is – well – impossible. Let’s be honest: how many couples in the congregation today can honestly say that their relationship meets Paul’s lofty standard? And yet, if you ask people to talk about love, particularly Christian folk, they are likely to begin by quoting this passage.
I think there a couple of reasons for this. First of all, we like it because it is so eloquent and lyrical. But I also believe that we are profoundly affected by this passage because it describes a love that we all crave intensely. Because who doesn’t want to be loved with a love that bears all of our pain, believes in all possibilities, holds up hope in our darkest hours, and will never, ever leave us? And yet, who really believes that we can expect that kind of love from any other human being? The good news is that I don’t think St. Paul is suggesting that we should expect it – or try to provide it to one another. Why? Because I don’t think this passage is about the love human beings are supposed to feel for one another. I think it’s a description of the love that God has for us.
What we call the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians is actually a series of letters that Paul wrote after he left the Christian community he had founded in Corinth. Many of these letters contain advice. Several attempt to solve arguments that the Corinthians were having among themselves. This morning’s reading from the thirteenth chapter of Corinthians comes right between two sections in which Paul writes at length about spiritual gifts. And indeed, the passage we read today begins with the words, “Strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a more excellent way.” That’s because Paul has just finished describing a variety of gifts – such as prophecy, discernment, and teaching- when he appears to take a detour for this meditation on the nature of love. But I don’t think it is a detour. I believe that Paul’s discussion of love is just a continuation of his advice about spiritual gifts. It is Paul’s way of telling us what the greater gifts are. In this chapter, he admonishes the Corinthians to “strive for the greater gifts,” and then describes the most excellent way – the greatest gift of all: God’s love for us. You see, Paul’s words are a description – not a prescription.
Nonetheless, his words do seem to demand some kind of action on our part. So how do we strive for this greatest of gifts? I think the answer is found in today’s gospel. What does Jesus say? Love God and love each other. Of course we can’t love one another as perfectly as Paul describes – only God can do that – but we can love one another – and we can open ourselves up to accept the perfect love of God. Here’s what I mean by that: most couples I know have a division of labor in their relationship. They may enjoy the same activities – Scott and Mitch like to travel – and usually embrace similar values, but successful partners also tend to divvy up the “work” of the relationship according to who’s best at what job. For example, in their family, Mitch is the stay-at-home parent and Scott is the working dad, which means that Mitch is the one left holding the packing crates when Scott changes jobs and they have to move. (And, for those of you who know my husband Gary and me, you are probably not surprised at which one of us is in the pulpit today).
The same can be said of our spiritual gifts. Instead of looking at Paul’s words as a single ideal to try to live up to, we can think of each one of the attributes of God’s perfect love as individual spiritual gifts. No one person – and no couple – can possess all of these gifts – but perhaps each of us can strive to demonstrate one of them –be it patience, kindness, self-sacrifice or something else – and then to share them. This, I think, is what Jesus means when he tells the scribe that the second greatest commandment is to love one another. We must love each other not only for the joy and pleasure of experiencing human love, but also because by loving each other we move one step closer to understanding and embracing the love of God. And I believe that by supporting Scott and Mitch in their effort to strive for the greater gifts, the Christ Church community is exercising our spiritual gifts. And, if it opens a window in their souls for the Holy Spirit to enter and dwell when a couple shares their spiritual gifts, how much wider can we open that window if an entire community does the same thing?
When Mitch and Scott exchange vows, they will pledge to support and care for one another by the grace of God, to hold and cherish one another in the love of Christ, and to honor and love each other with the Spirit’s help. That is what St. Paul is asking both them and us to do. It is what he tells us it means to be a Christian. Strive for the greater gifts. Love God with an open and vulnerable heart. Love one another by sharing your spiritual gifts – and you will not be “far from the kingdom of God.” Amen.
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