Love in Unexpected Places

On January 31st, 2016, I preached on 1 Corinthians 13, at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Georgetown, Washington, DC. Enjoy! Audio link, here!

The sermon for today is one of those that has been written in my head for months, if not years. I have actually been published on 1 Corinthians 13. I’ve given short messages on it a few times. And in seminary, I took classes where I studied this text in great detail. This is the sermon I have been waiting to give since I started preaching. And so when I saw it pop up in the lectionary, I immediately called dibs. This is a message I wanted to give and to share. I wanted to talk to you all about what Paul actually means here. Put the entire text in the historical context. Take a field trip of sorts to first century Rome!

And then something happened, as is so often the case in life. Something that changed how I think about myself, how I understand this world, and how I understand love. And I knew that what I had planned to say about 1 Corinthians 13, a rather academic message that would place Paul and his words in their historical context, I knew that message would be woefully inadequate.

Originally when I was laying the blueprint for this message in my head, I was going to start with a story. A story about meeting a baby boy whom I love unconditionally, even though I’d never met him. My best friend from law school gave birth to a beautiful baby boy just before Christmas. As I was headed to the airport to fly out and meet him, I got a phone call. From my Mom. She’d been to the doctor that day, and the doctor immediately sent my Mom to the hospital. I preface this story with my Mom is okay and she is here today.

I drove just within reason of the posted speed limit from Fredericksburg, Virginia to Calvert County, Maryland, and arrived just as my Mom was receiving the first of what would ultimately be three blood transfusions. I sat by her side and I watched as the blood of another human being, selflessly given, quite literally saved my Mother’s life. The people who donated their blood sacrificed a part of themselves, not because they knew my Mom and wanted to help. These three people gave blood to a stranger, without ever knowing what happened to their sacrifice. I can’t thank these individuals, and even if I could, they didn’t give blood to receive thanks. They gave blood because it’s the right thing to do, and for a cookie.

Hopefully most of us here today are familiar with Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. At the end there’s a moment when the Grinch’s heart grows 3 sizes, and I have to tell you, that’s what the transfusion profess felt like to me. It felt like my heart was growing warmer and larger. While I’m sure there is a physiological explanation for this I don’t know what it is, and the theological implications are what I want to talk about today.

There are times in life where I feel a more direct connection to God. In the Celtic tradition, these are called thin spaces. I tend to call these moments places or times when the veil is thin. The veil was thin that day for me. I think it was the closest I have ever come to experiencing, or at least partially understanding, God’s love for us. And I have to tell you, it was absolutely overwhelming. It was such a powerful feeling, that my heart felt like it grew, and I left an incredibly difficult experience knowing that I was forever changed because of the beauty of what I experienced.

This experience, I believe, is what Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 13. I’ve loved before. In many different ways. I’ve loved deeply, and even in the sense of loving someone over and above what is best for myself, which is what Paul means by the word translated as love in this text.

But I’d never felt anything like that before. And so these words, words I have heard hundreds of times, they meant more. As I stand here today, I understand these words, not just on an intellectual level, but on an emotional level. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

For the first time, those words were inside of me. I felt God’s love. In my most vulnerable moment, quite honestly ever: there was God. I didn’t have to intentionally let God in, God was already there.

I say these words often, and I mean them, that in the midst of our hardship, struggles, fears, God is with us. I don’t think God causes the evil things that happen in the world. I’ve stood here and talked about that enough times that I doubt anyone would like me to do so again, but I’m going to, so I’ll try keep this short. It’s not just a matter of God being with us, offering a hug or support from the outside. God is in us. Making beautiful what the outside world has tried to tarnish.

In the story of Jacob’s ladder there’s a moment, when Jacob awakes, having slept on the ground, alone and vulnerable in the desert. Jacob wakes from his dream and declares: “God is in the place and I, I did not know it!” I think that in so much of Scripture we have things that indicate God is on the outside looking in. Looking down on us, or joining us in human form. In the Psalm today in says: “In you, my Lord, I take refuge”. That indicates we are going to God. In Jeremiah today in the Old Testament reading it says: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

What so much of Scripture tells us is that God is with us, from the outside looking down on us, or over on us if we happened to have been lucky enough to meet Jesus in the flesh. The idea that God lives within us gets missed a lot. It’s a big thing in Episcopal theology; called incarnational theology. This idea that God lives inside of each of us. Until 2 weeks ago, until I had this experience, I struggled to find the words to explain for God to live within us.

This thing that lives inside of us, that’s what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 13. It’s not just love as in marriage, or children, or deeply intimate friendships. Those are wonderful loved filled things that are part of what makes the human experience so incredible. But what Paul describes is something different, something more. He writes: “But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.”

I will admit to you that I have a very complicated relationship with the Apostle Paul. Before seminary, I didn’t like him very much. After taking Intro to New Testament, I liked him even less. That’s why I took classes to understand him and his writings better. Paul has a belief that we live in an in between time. A time of what is already, and what has not yet come.

What we know of love, is the already. But God’s divine love, this thing we should remember and strive for according to Paul, that’s yet to come. He lays out the basis of this belief in line 12: “Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Here’s what I think about that idea though: is that yes, for the most part we only know in part. And yes, God fully knows us. And even though we don’t know fully yet, we get glimpses of this love.

I glimpsed it two weeks ago, as I sat by my Mom’s hospital bed. I glimpse it in the eyes of those gathered here who have volunteered to care for our unhoused and under privileged neighbors over the last few weeks. I see it when someone holds the door for a stranger, or says good morning to a stranger. I saw it during the snow storm when a stranger took off their gloves to give them to a person doing emergency snow removal who didn’t have any.

Little acts of love are everywhere. Everywhere. Love surrounds us. What sets us apart is when we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

I choose to have eyes to see the beauty. And I challenge everyone gathered here to do the same. Choose to see the beauty. Choose to be the beauty. I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again, but God doesn’t have hands and feet in this world anymore; it’s up to us now. We must be God’s hands and feet. We must spread God’s love. And by spreading the love from the outside, we allow the opportunity for God’s love to be felt and experienced on the inside.

I experienced God’s love when I became overwhelmed with thanks. With thanks for an unknown stranger who gave up their time, and a part of their self, to save my Mommie. I wasn’t looking for God, and I doubt the person that gave blood did so, so that the daughter of the recipient would have an opportunity to experience God’s love. But that happened. At my most vulnerable, and when I wasn’t looking, there God was. And what I discovered was that God had been there all along.

My hope and prayer is that each of you hearing these words has the opportunity to experience God too. And that each of us here today gives someone else that opportunity as well.

Amen

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