Love’s Paean

Dear readers,

This week I’m posting an excerpt from a sermon I gave this week in Keffer Chapel. The text for the day was 1 Corinthians 13, often referred to as the Hymn of Love.

Allen

“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. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Paul writes that if we do not have love we are a noisy gong, that we are nothing, that we gain nothing. And here he describes this love we are to have. This is quite a list describing this little four letter noun. But I must tell you that we have a problem with the English translation here. Most of the words describing love – patient, kind, envious, etc. – most of these are adjectives. They modify the noun love, but in Greek the language of the New Testament, absolutely all of these words are verbs.

Our translation has turned verbs into adjectives. In other words, in the Greek text love isn’t patient, but love bears and abides and undergoes. Love isn’t kind but love cares and cries and caresses. Love might be a noun here, but it is a busy noun. Love acts. It endures, it hopes, it believes, it suffers. Love in other words, sounds a lot like a person – after all these are verbs we normally associate with people, and so the apostle seems to invite us to think of a person when we hear of this love that we have, this love we possess: a person like Immanuel, like God with us, like Jesus.

The apostle John writes that God is love and the apostle Paul writes that if we do not have love we are a noisy gong: if we do not possess love we are nothing. John indicates that we have love in Jesus. But can we really talk about having love, about having Jesus, about having God? Is God willing to be possessed by us? Is God, is love willing to

Be sullied by our lust

To be marred by our mistakes

To be tainted by our far from sainted steely stares.

Does love really want to live in this heart?

 

What might happen to such a love? It will surely be betrayed. I will sell this love for 30 pieces of silver; I will crucify this love to show that I am in power; I will bury this love rather than be burdened by it.

I will be Judas Iscariot: I will be driven by a greed that colonizes.

I will be Pontius Pilate: I will exercise privilege in feigning power over

the indigenous, the immigrant, the poor

I will be the soldier at the tomb: frightened that people will see my vulnerability.

 

I will crucify love. I know I will, because I know that I have. I remember it all too well.

But the good news is that the love that we betray will not stay in the tomb. The hymn-writer sings us into hope

“In the grave they laid him, Love by hatred slain

Thinking that he would never wake again,

Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen

Love is come again, like wheat arising green.”

 

Love is come again, like wheat arising green. Love never ends.

No love never ends, but it bends its bearers

So that we who have love find that love finally has us

We who bear this holy possession find ourselves borne by it,

We start to see the world through the eyes of love,

instead of seeing love through the eyes of the world

We find that our desires are chiseled true

We become agents of truth and reconciliation

We, like God, begin to so love the world.

 

And so

we do justice by opening our minds, our hearts, our hands,

we love kindness by loving our bodies and the body politic,

and we walk humbly with God, treading ever so lightly on the earth, our Mother.

Amen. May it be so.

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Of Sermons and Such

Last weekend I attended the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting in Atlanta.  While I had opportunity to hear some marvelous papers, and reveled in the occasion to meet with old friends and to greet new ones, by far the highlight of the weekend came on Sunday morning.  After a hearty breakfast at “The Diner,” I joined two friends in a cab that took us to (the new) Ebenezer Baptist Church, the home church community of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  We arrived a bit early, and had opportunity to wander about a bit, looking at the Peace Garden and reading some touching reflections on peace written by children of various ages from many locales.  We took a very quick look at the museum before getting back to the church.  We arrived at 10:30 or so, for an 11:00 service.  At a quarter to the hour, one of the church leaders introduced three young people seeking baptism, and while the choir sang “Take Me to the Waters,” they were baptized by immersion on confession of faith in a baptismal font located some 20 or 30 feet above the sanctuary proper.  I was hereby reminded that this was not my home, which was the very thing I was hoping for.  The service proper began at 11:00 with a thanksgiving hymn, followed by prayers, the Pastor’s Brief, a stewardship presentation, special music, an offering, etc.  All of this moved the community artfully towards the sermon, which was altogether unlike anything I have heard.

 

The preacher was Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, a celebrated preacher in North America.  His oratory skills were moving, his treatment of the biblical passage insightful, his engagement of justice issues jolting, and his ability to connect the text to the trials and temptations of the folk in the pew profound.  The sermon began with a measured pace and a close reading of a written text.  As the sermon advanced, the pace picked up, the preacher left the written text, and by the end what transpired was as much song as speech as he spoke with ringing and rolling phrases that reached for justice, pressed for peace and sang mercy.  People stood and clapped when a phrase, or an idea, or an admonition hit their hearts.  Certain themes brought the majority of the congregation to their feet, but never all the people.  It was clear to me that standing, and/or clapping was a part of a personal engagement with the sermon rather than a required or expected response.  As the sermon reached its conclusion, folk were invited to come forward to shake the Pastor’s hand in a gesture of welcome for those wishing to join the Ebenezer Community.  It was really a most memorable and transformative event.

 

I am a little reticent to call what I experienced a sermon.  Or, perhaps I should be reticent to call what I hear in most churches I frequent a sermon.  The genre was so utterly other than what I know.  I am aware that, to a degree, the character of my experience was formed by my being outside of my zone of familiarity and comfort.  And so, I am neither romantic nor naive about what I experienced, recognizing that what transpired at Ebenezer is a product of events, and skills, and communal commitments that cannot be replicated in my context.  Nor is it the case that Dr. Warnock’s sermon was “better” than what I normally hear.  In fact, it seemed so utterly different that comparison seems like an evasion of the need to simply take in what occurred.  The experience was one of those which seems so rich as to require a long deep breath, and willingness to sit with it for a bit.  Something happened in that historic community for me, and I suspect it will take a while before I know what it was.  But in the interim, I am grateful for such an unusual experience, as well as the usual experiences which allow this one to stand out so.

More Than a Chuckle

Last Thursday night my lovely wife took me to a comedy festival.  It was a fund raising event in support of The Food Bank, where she works.  I’ve never seen stand-up comics live.  It was a fascinating experience, with three different comics.

 

The first comic was from an ethnic minority, and used that as the launching pad for most of his jokes, which were amusing, but not exactly of the belly-laugh variety for this crowd.  The second comic was a local boy, who has since moved to Toronto, and he used the odd experiences of his new found city as the basis for his yuks, which were funny for those of us who have lived in Toronto, or some similarly large city.  The final comic, who is on the rise in the comedy circuits, came on stage in a suit and tie.  He could have been a salesman, or accountant.  His demeanor was disarming, and his style conversational.  His jokes largely revolved around the phenomenon of home improvement.  He pretty much brought the house down.

 

As I listened, I couldn’t help but compare his spiel to a well delivered sermon.  He came across as the kind of guy you would happily meet in a coffee shop.  He engaged the audience, but always respectfully, as he spelled out the laughable optimism of the do it yourself industry and its clients.  In so doing, he read the crowd as carefully as a detective at a crime scene: laughter came in waves, and the head nods that followed the belly laughs confirmed that people like to hear their story told.  They love to have their experiences named for what they are: silly, human, and everyday in nature.  He met us where we were at, but took us beyond ourselves by linking us to one another.

 

Of course, a stand up comic is not a preacher.  Yet it is one of the few public acts that compares to the strange, but compelling act of preaching.  A poorly delivered sermon is as painful as a stand up comic that falls flat, and a well delivered sermon that sings its subject matter draws you in to the point where time stands still and you feel transported – albeit to different places!

 

This comic was mesmerizing, clearly having a rich repertoire ready at hand, pulling out the right joke at the right time. His timing was exquisite: speeding up and slowing down as appropriate; now and then bowing his head into his hand, shaking off the embarrassment that we all have known, that we all know.  Of course, it wasn’t only his head in his hand.  He had us in his hand as well, and seemingly all of us went home refreshed in the knowledge that our foibles are shared and our condition human, and thus fascinating in its ordinariness.  It was a rich evening, and for some reason so much richer than encountering the same on television.  Laughter may be a medicine, but laughing together seems to be a cure.