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The Rev. Michael Bos The Rev. Michael Bos
The Rev. Michael Bos is senior minister of West End Collegiate Church in New York, NY.

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West End Collegiate Church, New York, NY


You're Nothing Without It

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

4th Sunday after Epiphany - Year C

February 03, 2013

Sadly, I can no longer hear today's text without thinking of the movie Wedding Crashers. In this box office hit, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn play best friends who crash wedding parties as a way to pick up women. They do so by developing elaborate cover stories to charm the crowd and become the life of the party.

In one of the early scenes, the two are at a wedding ceremony; and when the pastor announces that the bride's sister will now read scripture, Owen says to Vince, "Twenty dollars, First Corinthians." To which Vince replies, "Double or nothing, Colossians 3:12."  The bride's sister takes the podium and begins, "And now a reading from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians."

Like Owen, my money would have been on 1 Corinthians 13. It is one of the best-known passages in the Bible because of its use in weddings. It's easy to understand why. It represents one of the most beautiful expressions of love found in the Bible. And because the passage doesn't reference God or Christ, it is selected for its broad appeal to one's guests, whatever their spiritual orientation.

It has become one of those texts that we know exactly when to use. But I wonder if we've fully considered what it's saying to us. I know this is true for me. In the hundreds of times that I've heard or used this text, I've relished the beautiful views expressed about love. But I've never paused long enough to consider two questions clamoring to be asked of this text.

First, how can it be that love is more important than faith? Since I was a child, I have been taught that faith in Christ is the key to everything. And while this text includes faith and hope, it says that love is greater than both of them. How is it that we can extol the greatness of love at the expense of faith?

Second, if love is the most important thing we can pursue, as 1 Corinthians 13 states, why does the passage imply that we're still missing something? At the same time that it so poignantly conveys that love is what life is all about, it concludes by saying that we only "see dimly," and we only "know in part." This has to leave us wondering what it is we're missing. What is it that is still incomplete about us?

It is these two questions to which we turn today. Perhaps in our wrestling with them we will leave with a better understanding of faith, hope and the greatest of these, love.

There is something deep within us that knows love is the most important thing. It's true that it gets overlooked in our hectic pace of life, and it's easily forgotten amidst the many priorities vying for our attention. But in the truly significant moments of our lives, it always comes to the fore.

There is a line in the movie Love Actually that reminds us all of this (as you can tell, I'm a movie buff). The movie explores the different ways that love takes shape in our relationships. In the opening scene Hugh Grant's character says that whenever he is depressed he imagines the arrival section at Heathrow Airport. There love seems uncomplicated as people receive and embrace the ones they love. As he reflects on this, he adds, "When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge. They were all messages of love."

We know how important love is. We know that it is the key to relationships. We know that it is what gives meaning to life. And we all live in the hope that our lives will be filled with love.

But there's a problem. As much as we yearn for this, we're all fumbling our way through life trying to figure out how to do this thing called love. Think about it. Why is it that so many of us dread going home for the holidays? Why is it that so many of us begin marriages truly wanting to love one another, yet struggle day to day to express that love? Why is it that in raising our children, we can become so frustrated that we no longer know what love looks like?

Maybe it stems from the simple truth that we need help with love. I'm not talking about the "eHarmony" kind of help. I'm talking about the kind of help that aids us in tapping into the source of love itself. If this isn't possible, then I'm not sure there is any hope for us. We've all had times when our relationships have become so frustrating and painful that all we can muster is a veneer of civility that covers our anger and hurt. To ask us to love in those situations is well beyond our personal capacity. When this occurs, it doesn't help to ask us to look deeper within ourselves, because the love tank is empty. You might think less of me for admitting this, but not only have I been in situations in which my tank has been empty, I've harbored so much anger and bitterness that I've also lost my will to love certain people.

I don't think I'm alone. I think many of us struggle because when we look inside ourselves we can't find the capacity to love. It's not that we give up. It's not that we stop trying. We continue to hold the hope that somehow and in some way things will be different in the future.

Maybe we need to change the way we think about love. After millennia of human history, if there were some secret to tapping into the love within us, surely we would've found it by now. It certainly isn't for lack of wanting or trying to generate love between us. Maybe we're looking for love in the wrong place. Maybe, just maybe, we are not the source of love. Maybe it doesn't come from within us. Maybe it comes from something outside of us. That would explain why, when no matter how hard we try to force some sense of love from within us, it's just not there.

Many years ago I was traveling with a colleague. And being away from our spouses, we were talking about them. It came up that my colleague was struggling with his marriage, and he admitted that he had never expressed the simple words "I love you" to his wife. Unbeknownst to me, he decided to give it try. That evening as he was wrapping up his conversation with his wife, which was very tense, out of no where I hear him say in a very stilted tone, "Ah, I ah, I love you." "How sweet," I thought, expecting to witness a magic moment between them. But the next thing I heard him say, this time in an angry tone, is "Yes he's here. And no he didn't make me say it." Apparently the state of things was such that his wife felt his expression of love was forced or fabricated. Love doesn't work this way.

The good news is that they were able to work through this, and I share this with their permission. But things only changed when they looked beyond themselves. They needed help finding a way to love when they could no longer generate it from within. What they discovered is that their faith became a conduit to God's love, which allowed love to weave its way into their relationship once again.

Their experience helps us answer that thorny question raised earlier: how can love be more important than faith? The Apostle Paul's answer, in my words, would be that it is because faith is the instrument and love is the goal. This makes love "the greatest of these." But we must never forget, and this is critical, that while love may rank higher than faith, we may not be able to love without faith.

Emil Brunner speaks of this in his book entitled, big surprise, Faith, Hope, and Love.  Brunner was a theological superstar in the 20th century. And in probing the relationship between faith and love, he said that "...faith is nothing in itself but the openness of our heart to God's love" (75). Faith is the instrument that opens us to God's love. It puts us in touch with the source of love itself. Faith allows us to draw from that source so that the love of God shown to us in Christ can also show itself in our lives.

This is crucial in being able to love. You know those tense moments, when all you feel is anger or frustration. You know those moments in a relationship when things have become so complicated you no longer know what love looks like. Rather than trying to generate love from within us, perhaps we need to turn to our faith so that we open ourselves to the source of love itself. It's then that love can find its way into our relationships. This gives us the hope that no matter what is going on inside of us, through our faith God is able to help restore our capacity to love and to be loved.

Paul's counsel on love doesn't stop here. He also placed a warning label on love. Paul points out that as great as love is, we're still missing something. He warns us that we only "see dimly" and "know in part."

In my ruminations about this, I looked at the cognates for "love" in the Bible. I found an interesting connection with the Hebrew word for "compassion." Among the many obvious meanings, it also carries the meaning of "womb" or "womblike." At first I found this perplexing. Then it dawned on me that to love or have compassion for someone is to give birth to something. And as more and more love is shared, it nurtures that which was born within us. There is a life-giving quality to love.

I remember when my aunt and uncle used to take in foster children. Some of them came from very frightening situations. They had been subject to things that no one should ever experience, let alone as a two or three year old. My aunt and uncle always had the same priority with every child: love on them. It was amazing to see how this love would give birth to something new in a child's life. It wasn't always immediately evident, and there were always surprises along the way, but their love always introduced new beginnings into their lives.

As one of the children blossomed, he even gave birth to new life in our church. He was sitting on my aunt's lap, and after the choir performed, he clapped. Now in our church no one ever clapped or showed emotion. We were God's frozen chosen. Yet his little clap set off a round of applause, and our church was never the same! Little did my aunt and uncle know that their journey of love would lead to this.

In all of this we see that though love may give birth to something new, we don't control or fully understand where the journey of love will take us. It is filled with twists and turns, and it will have highs and lows. We won't always see the results of our love. Paul tells us that we only "see dimly" and "know in part," but what we do know is that we should always have the hope that any love shared is never in vain. Though it may not always be evident, love always nurtures new possibilities within us and between us.

May Paul's words remain with us and God's love flow through us as we embrace faith, hope and love.

Let us pray. O God, the source of love, may our faith open us to the mystery of your love, and may the love shown through Christ show in us. In Christ's name we pray. Amen.

 


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