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January 31, 2010
Pastor Caroline Satre
I Corinthians 13:1-13
I flipped the page on my calendar on Friday... yes, you electronic wizards, I "flipped" my calendar and noticed that February 12 is highlighted for two reasons. First, it is the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. I am a big fan of the Olympics. Secondly, this is the day I must send Valentines with Ellie for her playmates at daycare.
Last year I picked Ellie up on Valentine's Day and was handed a stash of lollipops, candy hearts, and cute cards. As a novice at this kind of thing, I told Ellie's caregiver, "Look, you have to warn me about these things. I missed Christmas, now I missed Valentine's Day... I'm flunking daycare!"
The truth is that Valentine's Day has never been high on my holiday priority list. It's not that I'm against pink and red and flowers and romance, it's just that Valentine's Day seems like something dreamed up by florists and greeting card manufacturers... and the message we all receive is that romantic love is the cure for everything that ails us.
But any of you who have ever been in love, in a romantic way, know how notoriously short-lived are our feelings of romantic love. Research indicates that, at least in part, what we call "falling in love" can be attributed to the presence in the body of a drug called "phenyle-thalamine," that is a form of natural amphetamine. The problem is, as research also reveals, we build up a tolerance for this chemical in two to four years. That means that romantic love comes upon us quickly like a fever but burns out with time.
I really like the story about a couple celebrating their fortieth anniversary with a quiet dinner for two. The wife picks up her champagne glass and says, "In spite of everything!" Saint Valentine might not approve, but I think St. Paul would. Based on our first reading, that's St. Paul's kind of love.
When you heard today's first reading, the first thing that came to mind might have been flowers and greeting cards... days of pomp and circumstance and wedded bliss. But even though this text shows up in our three-year cycle of appointed readings a mere two weeks before Valentine's Day and even though this text is heard at a majority of Christian weddings, it has nothing to do with the stuff that Valentine's Day is made of and (unlike the Song of Solomon which is straight love poetry of the most romantic kind) these words were not intended for a bride and a groom or any other romantic pair. No, these poetic words about love were first written to a church that was having trouble getting along.
The people in the church in the city of Corinth were feuding, and so Paul wrote to them about love, not in the sense of romance... not in the sense of flowers and greeting cards... in fact, not as something that lies primarily in the heart or with one's emotions. Instead, Paul was talking about what I tend to talk about even at weddings... .that love is not as much an emotion as it is a commitment. Love is not an act of the heart; it is an act of the will.
Did you ever notice that, even at a wedding, the bride or groom is never asked, "Do you love each other?" Instead they are asked, "Will you love each other?" Love is spoken of in the future tense. In this way, even the service of marriage suggests that love is the result of our commitment, rather than its cause.
As one author put it "Love at first sight-that's easy to understand. It is after forty years that it becomes a miracle." That's true in marriages, it's true in our churches, it's true in any of our human relationships.
It follows, then, that in ALL of our human relationships... in all of our communities and connections... we need something that keeps us close to people even when they are difficult... even when we are difficult. We need something to keep us together even when we don't feel like it... even when we're convinced that we are right and the other is wrong... even when it would be easier to simply walk away.
As St. Paul suggests, we need something that doesn't insist on its own way... that isn't irritable or resentful or rude... that doesn't rejoice in the wrong, but rejoices in the right... that bears, believes, hopes and endures all things. St. Paul calls that something love-but not in the sense of flowers and greeting cards... not in the sense of "The Bachelor" and "The Dating Game," but more as eight-year-old Rebecca described. Rebecca said, "When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn't bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too. That's love."
Of course, as good as it sounds and as much as we would like to love as Rebecca and St. Paul describe, the truth is that our humanness tends to get in the way. As mere mortals, we are not able to stay faithful and committed on our own. That's why, when Paul wrote these words about love to the feuding church in Corinth, he did so in the context of their commitment to Christ. St. Paul understood that, when we love committedly, faithfully, we do so because God in Christ has loved us in those ways.
Frequently we explain God by saying "God is love." That's true; but there's more. In the Old Testament, when there is a reference to God's love, the word "steadfast" is usually connected to it. The Old Testament talks about the "steadfast" love of God. In other words, God is committed to us... God is faithful even when we are not... God's love is not a sprint, but a marathon... not a burst of high-powered energy, but a solid and steady promise to endure.
In any discussion about love as a commitment, I must say that there are times when relationships become so far out of whack that the most hopeful thing to do... the most loving thing to do is to walk away and start again. As I said, our humanness tends to get in the way. Yet, even when we face the dissolution of a marriage... separation from family... disagreement within a community of faith... even we are not able to bear with and believe in each other, the steadfast love of God holds firm. The steadfast love of God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
May God give us the grace to love one another... not perfectly, but so that we, too, may bear, believe, hope and endure in and with each other.
God of steadfast love, we need your promise... your commitment to bear with us and indeed to love us "in spite of everything." Help us feel this love, that we might extend it to each other, through Jesus Christ our Lord.