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The Challenge of Being Called to Love

Sunday, February 3, 2019.  Rev. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings:  Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

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SERMON TEXT

Our New Testament reading this morning from 1 Corinthians 13 is one that you may well have heard before, even if this is your first time in a worship service, because it is commonly read at weddings as a high poetic description of the gift and the beauty of love. But what we can readily observe is that 1 Corinthians 13 is situated in a letter, not to a couple getting married, but to a congregation undergoing a significant amount of conflict, so that Paul is guiding the Corinthian congregation to approach their passage through their fighting and their arguing with each other in a posture of love. 1 Corinthian 13 continues to speak powerfully to the realities of marriage, but the real power of the text emerges when we realize that it concerns the life of an entire community.

I would want to make the argument that the very heart of the church’s identity is that the church is a “community of love.” One of our sibling congregations in this presbytery, Burke Presbyterian, has church t-shirts with a congregational slogan that reads, “Receive love, give love, repeat.” Love is at the heart of the church’s identity because love is at the heart of God’s identity. Whatever God does, and whatever the church does, must be done in love.

Now upon hearing this, some will roll their eyes and say that this is way too sappy and sentimental and fuzzy. They want the church to have a tougher, more muscular identity, something clearer and more goal-oriented than to be a ‘community of love.’  I hear that, but I think part of the problem may stem from some confusion about what we mean by ‘love.’  After all, the English word “love” has to carry a lot of water for a lot of different things.  The word ‘love’ gets used in everything from “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son,” to “I love my family and friends” all the way to “I love tacos.”  Now there are good reasons to really love tacos, but do we really intend that to carry the same meaning as God’s love for the world?

In 1960 C.S. Lewis wrote a very helpful book entitled, The Four Loves, in which he distinguishes between four different kinds of love, represented by four different Greek words.[1]  There is the love of affection, the love of friendship, the love of romance, and the love of God.

Following Lewis, I want to think through four different expressions of love, each of which is challenging in its own way. You may well be able to come up with your own four, but as I have reflected on my own life, and my own bumbling attempts to practice love, these are four that stand out for me. 1 Corinthians 13 has been a big part of my thinking about love. But I will tell you that Jeremiah 1 has been as well.  By pairing 1 Corinthians 13, which is rather obviously about love, with the call of the prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 1, which is not so obvious, the lectionary forces us to ponder the different ways that love gets expressed.

So here are my four: there is loving service; loving presence; loving confrontation; and loving forgiveness.  I actually believe that all four of these are incredibly demanding, and I take it as a given that the only way we can practice any of them is by the grace of God and with the power of the Holy Spirit.  As I line these out, I invite you to sense where in your own life God may be calling you to embody these.

Loving service is when we notice what someone needs, and then use our time, our energy, our resources to help them get that. The psychiatrist Scott Peck defined love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”[2] To extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.  When we give our attention to what someone needs – whether it be a material need like food or housing or medical care, or a more spiritual/emotional need like encouragement, guidance, inspiration – and then we extend ourselves to offer that, that is love in action.  It is an active thing. Many of the church’s ministries are expressions of the active love of service.

But we know that there are going to be times when there is nothing that we can do for someone.  When someone has undergone a tragedy or suffered some great loss, some people become very anxious because they want to do something, they want to say something, and there are no words, and there is nothing that will undo the loss. This is when we are pushed beyond loving service to loving presence.  When someone has suffered a great loss, it may well be that the only gift that we have to offer, and it can be a great gift, is the gift of our presence.  Not looking to fix anything, not looking to make anything better, just being there and being present, and bearing witness to the sorrow and the loss. This is a profound expression of love that “bears all things.”

The third expression of love is loving confrontation.  Jeremiah 1 has helped me to see this aspect.  When God calls Jeremiah, when God touches his mouth and authorizes him to speak, God appoints him “over nations and kingdoms, to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”  Six verbs: pluck up, pull down, destroy, overthrow, build, plant.  Four of them are verbs of negativity.  Jeremiah is authorized by God to bring a word of confrontation to the powers that be in the world. Now we don’t always think of confrontation as an expression of love. But if it is the case that the cornerstone of God’s identity is love, and if that same God is the one authorizing Jeremiah to speak words of confrontation, then those words must be an expression of God’s love.

In our broken world of hostility and violence, there are going to be times when love must necessarily come as a word of confrontation.  As we are celebrating Black History Month in our society where racism continues to exercise its demonic grip on us, seen again this past week in photos from Governor Northam’s page in a medical school yearbook, there are things that we must confront.  We must confront racism when we encounter it in our political leaders, and we must confront it when we discover it in our own hearts and souls.  As we sort through the many difficult issues that face us as a society – from our disagreements over abortion to our disagreements over environmental regulations to our disagreements over taxation rates – there’s a lot we don’t exactly see eye to eye on – love requires us to contribute our best thinking, to speak the truth that we have been given, and to confront the things that we believe must be challenged.  But it must be a loving confrontation; it must be done with a comprehensive love for every person that we confront.

Which brings us to the fourth aspect of love, which may be the most demanding of all, the love of forgiveness.  It is quite simply the case that reality is not concerned about conforming to our wishes or expectations. Life does not always work out the way we want. Other people have their own ideas of how things should go. We hurt each other, and we mess things up, sometimes in spectacular ways. Love knows all this, and love forgives all of it. “Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Goodness gracious, being called to love is a challenge. It would be so much easier if we were just called to be right, or called to win, or called to fight for our particular party or side.  But friends, Jesus has called us to love.  Loving service, loving presence, loving confrontation, loving forgiveness.  And that is the most difficult thing, and the most beautiful path. To the God of love, be all praise, honor, and glory, now and forever.  Amen.

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017).

[2] Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978) 81-83.