“Time to Grow Up”
by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
January 31, 2016
I Corinthians 13
Remember when you were 11 years old and your big brother, big sister, cousin, or schoolmate was pretty intimidating? You needed some verbal ammunition, so, when insulted, you said something like: I know you are, but what am I? Or maybe you were the older sibling or cousin (or whatever) and you said something more complicated, like: I’m rubber and you’re glue and whatever you say bounces of me and sticks to you! Or maybe you relied on an old standard, like, Whoever smelt it, dealt it, which was my staple.
In any case, at some point in life, we all come to realize that words matter. They really do. They matter in negative ways and they matter in positive ways as well.
I cannot tell you, in the course of my ministry, how many men and women have told me that they wish that their fathers had said, I love you to them, even if they knew that their fathers loved them. They wanted to hear it. Words matter.
One of my closest friends recently told me the same thing. What was wrong with him?, he asked me, rhetorically. Why couldn’t he just say it? What was wrong with him?
And it’s true, isn’t it? Many of our fathers and grandfathers were raised differently and had a hard time saying those words. Hopefully, they found ways to show their love for us ways that made it obvious that they did love us.
What is it, anyway? Here’s Neil Young’s take:
Love is a rose, but you better not pick it.
It only grows when it’s on the vine.
Hand full of thorns and you know you’ve missed it
You lose your love when you say the word mine…
I don’t’ know if Neil knows the Bible very well, but I suspect he does.
As he sings, You lose your love when you say the word, mine.
You know what I mean. And you know the question I’m working up to. Is love a selfish thing? A needy thing? Or a generous thing? Or an out of our control thing? Or is it something else?
OK, maybe all of the above.
When do we think about love the most? Probably at the beginning of an exciting and serious relationship… when we meet someone special… which may just mean beautiful or handsome or cute at first, but hopefully means something more as time goes on.
I realize that fewer and fewer couples are deciding to get married these days, but many still are – both straight and gay and perhaps something else, which I think is great because I think commitment is a really good thing.
I’ve known a lot of unmarried couples, by the way, who’ve had wonderful relationships.
But if they do decide to get married… and if they do decide to ask me to perform their wedding, it is part of my role to ask, Why? Why do you want to get married in a church? Why do you want to be married by a minister?
Some people get married at the beach or at their parents’ house or in museums or at City Hall. Please know that I’m not judging them. Some of the most spiritually deep and beautiful and enjoyable weddings I’ve attended — or performed — have been in those locations. But, if it’s here or if it’s me, it’s good for me (and for them) to know why.
And the answer is sometimes very clear. Because we are both people of faith and it is the only place we can imagine being married or You are our pastor and you are the only person we can imagine performing the ceremony. Music to my ears.
Or, sometimes I hear, Well… We want to get married in the church because… my mother would die if we didn’t.
Still an acceptable answer!
I looked at my files. Out of the 171 weddings that I’ve performed as an ordained minister, 168 of the couples have chosen 1st Corinthians 13 as one of their readings. Exactly 3 have decided not to include it.
Even though some of my colleagues say things like, I can’t believe I have to read it again! Again! I don’t feel that way. I just don’t.
Maybe if I were an Elvis impersonator doing weddings in Vegas every day, I would feel that way. But I am not an Elvis impersonator. And I do not feel that way. I love 1st Corinthians 13. And even though it’s a great reading for a wedding, it’s because of you that I love this chapter, because I love the church and all the possibilities that come along with being in spiritual community.
Whenever I preach at weddings that have included this reading, I am sure to remind the gathered family and friends that Paul wrote this letter to a church, not to a couple about to be married. While the ideas in this particular chapter can be translated into language about marriage, it’s really about going deeper in our understanding of what it means to love our neighbor and becoming more mature in our understanding of what love means to begin with.
Paul starts out by emphasizing the primacy of love amongst other important gifts, like communication and faith and sacrifice. He tells us that love is patient and kind. Then he does a curious thing. He tells us what love isn’t.
And I think I know why.
Corinth was kind of a rough town. My guess is that he’d been getting reports from Corinth and that the folks are not treating each other very well. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, Paul tells us. 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 seems that the good people of Corinth have been behaving badly.
It would be very hard to worship in the same pew as someone who was being rude to you. It would be impossible to serve on a committee with someone who insisted on his or her own way all the time. It would be spiritually detrimental to the whole group if someone in Bible study was irritable every week.
But love, Paul says, is different. The loving person not only avoids these behaviors, he or she is mature enough to endure them in others with understanding and patience, as hard as that can be sometimes.
And when we recognize that we, ourselves, are not being as loving as we can, we can turn in faith to Christ, the one who taught us how to love, for a nudge and for guidance and for transformation. Because, as Paul says, love hopes and love believes.
The last section of the chapter is usually skipped at weddings because it’s not very romantic, but I think it’s really important. Here is our nudge from Paul:
For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
In other words, being a mature and loving person, in community, requires that we be honest with ourselves about the limitations of our understanding. To be the kind of church Christ calls us to be means recognizing that we need God and we need each other.
Maybe being a church is, in the end, kind of like being married. The dynamics can be complicated. There are a lot of moving parts. You have to show up to make it work. Sometimes, the shine wears off. There are times when it feels strained or even broken, times when the days and weeks feel too routine.
But if we have love, real love, not just a feeling but a commitment to cherishing one another and living well with one another, we’ve got something very beautiful and very hopeful.
And now, faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.