Sermon: Love Demands

January 30, 2022

1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

by Eric Anderson

It wasn’t really an experiment. Not intentionally, anyway. It was just that a pair of ‘amakihi nested in a high branch of an ohi’a tree within easy view of another pair of ‘amakihi whose nest was high on the neighboring ohi’a tree. That didn’t make it an experiment. It was the different ways the parents cared for… Well. That’s the story, isn’t it?

You could see the difference almost immediately. Both of the females, the mothers-to-be, got busy with construction. One of them, however, was a little slapdash about it. Bits of grass and twigs and leaves would work themselves out and go drifting down to the forest floor. The more careful ‘amakihi watched this, but couldn’t think of anything to say about it. The careless nest looked… precarious.

It held up, though, through the two weeks the females sat with their eggs. The more careless one left her eggs alone longer than the other, who would basically leave the eggs just to find food and stretch her stiffening wings a little. The day they hatched, all on the same day, the two mothers cleaned and soothed the newly emerged hatchlings. But that was when the real differences began.

The first mother, the one with the carefully built nest, rarely sang to her hatchlings. When they clamored for food, she and the father made sure they were fed. At night in the cold, she covered them with her wings. But she rarely said anything. She certainly didn’t say, “I love you.”

In contrast, the second mother, the one with the rickety nest, told her hatchlings how important they were to her all the time. “I love you,” she said, but she was often distracted when the chicks got hungry. The father would fly in with food and they’d chatter for some time before realizing that the hatchlings hadn’t been fed. Although she shared the nest with them at night, she wasn’t careful to see that everyone was under her wings. It wasn’t unusual that one of the chicks would wake shivering in the night because her warmth had slipped away.

After another couple of weeks, it was time to learn to fly. Now the mother with the careful nest had a lot to say about wing positioning, where to hold the feet, leaning into the breeze, and so on. The other mother trilled her excitement about her chicks first flight, but she had remarkably little practical advice to give. The chicks of the first mother had their struggles, but the chicks of the second mother had much more difficulty with take-offs and landings and, well, everything in between. They started to learn more when they began paying attention to the instructions their neighbor was giving.

What was the result of this ‘amakihi parenting experiment? Well, it must be said that there were four more ‘amakihi in the world. Two of them, however, were better fed, better groomed, and better fliers than the other two. Two of them would build better nests than the other two.

I must also say that all four wondered just a little bit about their mother’s love. Two of them wondered that their mother never said, “I love you.” The other two wondered because although she said it often, she didn’t seem to know how to show it.

The problem with preaching about First Corinthians 13, this famous song (one theory is that it was sung as a hymn)… The problem with preaching about this famous song about the nature of Christian love is that it doesn’t need much elaboration, does it? What more is there to say? I might as well say “Amen” and move on to the prayer.

I’d be happy to do that if the world looked like we were living out the love of which Paul spoke. But we’re not, are we? We are not living up to what love demands.

Matt Skinner writes at Working Preacher, “For me, one of the hardest lessons of the pandemic to stomach has been the clear and recurring realization that there’s so little love in American society. The selfishness. The lack of regard for people at risk. The callous policies. The contempt people show for their community. Clearly we need to learn how to do Christian ministry in a landscape in which a lot of people simply don’t give a damn if their neighbors live or die. In a world in which multitudes actually don’t long for a deeper sense of community. In a context in which love is a sign of weakness at best and an opportunity for exploiting a sucker at worst.“

If it’s any comfort, Dr. Skinner – and I don’t see why it would be – Americans did not invent callousness. The ability of the wealthy to tolerate poverty is pretty well universal. Ask any tenant farmer of medieval Japan or Renaissance Europe or ancient China or classical Greece or Rome. Ask the invading armies of history, or rather ask the victims of the Mongols, the Aztecs, the Christian Crusaders. Ask those who died of pandemics like cholera and typhus and smallpox while others watched their populations whither. Ask the powerful fictional characters of Boccaccio’s Decameron, who sealed themselves away and told stories while their unfortunate neighbors died of the bubonic plague. So yes. We didn’t invent callousness.

In fact, it was because of callousness that Paul set down these words. As Debie Thomas writes at JourneyWithJesus.net, “Paul isn’t writing to people who cherish and desire each other; he’s writing to people who can’t stand the sight of each other.  Paul is no priest at the top of an aisle, waiting to witness and consecrate young love.  He’s a frustrated and bewildered spiritual leader, calling an errant and self-destructive church to get its act together before it destroys itself.  1st Corinthians 13 isn’t a wedding homily.  It is, in Lutheran priest Nadia Bolz Weber’s words, ‘a smackdown.’”

That was within thirty years of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Two thousand years later, the hymn to love is still “a smackdown.”

Because: this kind of love is hard to do.

Patience? Please don’t test my patience. You’ll find out how far it doesn’t go. Kindness? Mine has limits, for sure. Arrogance? I’ve got plenty of that. Boastful? I have the gall to stand here and tell you what to do week after week. Rudeness. Catch me in an unguarded moment. As a rule, I would love to have my own way. In fact, I’d like to set the rules. To be honest, when I don’t get my own way, I do get irritable and resentful. I have a certain affection for schadenfreude, that pleasure to see someone suffering that I think deserves to suffer. I’d like to believe I rejoice in the truth – but what I really rejoice in is what I think is true.

Do I actually bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things?

No.

But those are love demands. And they’re actions, not adjectives, in Paul’s original Greek. As Melanie A. Howard writes at Working Preacher, “In verses 4-7, Paul offers a rich description of the kind of love that he is discussing. However, what most English translations fail to capture is that all these descriptors are verbs, not the adjectives with which they are often translated. So, these descriptions might be better translated along the lines of, ‘Love waits patiently; love acts kindly’ and so forth. What might seem like a pedantic grammatical point is actually quite important. That is, the love that Paul is describing takes action; it is not a passive feeling toward another.”

That’s why this is hard.

I’ll be honest. I’m not all that interested in the “why’s” of not loving to this standard. For one thing, some of them come down to, “I don’t want to.” What can I say about that except, “Jesus wants you to”? Some of them come down to, “I don’t know how,” and there’s some fairness to that. I mean, love does good for the other person, and you may not know what’s really good for the other person, but there’s a pretty clear solution to that, and it’s, “Ask.”

There is one, though, that comes up over and over again, and I have to address it, and it’s this one: “Pastor, to love this way just isn’t practical. It can’t be done. The world doesn’t work this way. It won’t work this way.”

And that’s true.

As long as you believe it, it’s true. As long as you let that belief set a limit on your imagination, as long as you let that belief set a limit on your actions, as long as you let that belief set a limit on your love, it will be true. But it doesn’t need to be true. Paul showed that you can be imperfect – shall we talk about his bursts of arrogance and rudeness? – you can be imperfect and you can still find your way around to love.

Melissa Bane Sevier writes at her blog, “Above the clouds of conflict and stress, we imagine the beauty, the simplicity, of loving each other despite our conflicts and differences.  So that when our feet hit the dirt again, we have the ideal in mind as we attempt to put love into action. The aerial view. Love on the ground. Maybe someday they’ll actually be the same thing.”

Paul gave these words to the people he was mad at. He’d probably be mad at us, too.

And he’d give us these words. He’d give us this love. He’d give us this challenge. He’d give us love demands.

Don’t believe those things you say about love’s limits. You can love like this. You can – and as you believe that you can, you will.

Amen.

Watch the Recorded Sermon

The video above includes the entire service of January 30, 2022. Clicking “Play” will jump to the beginning of the sermon.

Pastor Eric sincerely hopes that the words above come from love – and that the changes in the words do, too.

The image is a stone carving by Georg Gustavsson at Lillevatten. Photo by Averater – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43067468.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on January 30, 2022

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