July 20, 2014
I Corinthians 13:1-13
The Beatles were pretty close.
When the Beatles sang all you need is love, they weren’t far from the truth. Love is the greatest element we need in our lives, but coming in a close second are faith and hope.
The realists among us would remind us that we also need food, clothing, shelter, and some other things to get us through life – and they would be correct – but today, let us think in terms more lofty and grandiose.
Many of you probably had this week’s Scripture passage read at your wedding, or perhaps it was read at a family funeral. You probably know most of the first and last verses of the chapter by memory, and could fairly accurately guess some of the others.
For all the beauty of the passage, it is also one that is extremely challening.
This morning’s message is one of vision. It is not a vision that provides specific details of what we need to do, but rather a vision of who we are. You have to be something, I believe, before you can do something.
1 If I speak in the tongue of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part,
10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.
11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.
12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Have you ever read anything that is so beautiful and at the same time so challenging?
I believe that one of the reasons why this chapter is so beloved is because it speaks to the hope we all have of living up to the ideals of love. Not that we accomplish such a lofty goal, but we try, and we know we need to try.
At the end Paul writes, in verse 13, And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love. In that verse is a vision, I believe, of three gifts we are given, and these three gifts are the foundation of all we are called to be. These three gifts define who we are as the people of God. These three are the qualities of who we are called to be before we do anything.
Faith has been a great gift in my life. I can’t imagine life without faith. Though we live in an age of growing skepticism, I continue to believe faith is a great gift to the world. It is my hope we can present an image of faith that is far more appealing and far healthier than those narrow and dogmatic versions we see far too often.
When I think about faith, it is not in abstract terms. When I think about faith, I think about the people who helped to plant faith in the heart, mind, and soul. Faith is not merely an abstract concept, but a living reality that is transferred through flesh and blood individuals who have exercised great infuence over our lives.
A 12th century theologian by the name of John of Salisbury wrote we are like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.
My faith, like yours, rests on the shoulders of many people. My faith is not mine alone. I have faith because I was raised in a household of faith. My parents modeled faith to me. Other people modeled faith to me. My faith has been strengthened by people who were, and who are, living demonstrations of faith to me. Some of them are still among us, while others form part of the great cloud of witnesses spoken of in Hebrews 12:1.
It was through my family and others that I learned not only the value of faith but also the importance of being a part of the church. I have served in churches where saints modeled faith to me and taught me what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Many people have invested in my life; many people have had faith in me. I have not arrived at this point in life on my own or by my own doing. And I am grateful I have not come to this point in life on my own, and that I do not continue from this point on my own.
At camp I thought a lot about people like Bob Mack, Joe Bliffin, Karl Marshall, and Gene Carter, individuals who were so important in my faith development. I thought about the saints in my home church who invested so much into my life, such as Mrs. Poland, my junior high Sunday School teacher. We wanted to hurry out the door to get to Wilson’s Grocery to buy some candy between Sunday School and church, but Mrs. Poland stood at the door and took each of us by the hand and told us of how she believed God would use each of our lives.
When I came home from camp and announced that I felt called into ministry my mom told me two things – one, there is never any shame in leaving the ministry. Isn’t that an interesting response? That might tell you something about my home church. My mom had seen it all and knew what I was getting into. Two, I should spend a week with Reverend Norris, our minister at the time, to see what the life of a minister is like. I never did the second, spending a week with Reverend Norris, unfortunately, but I haven’t done the first either. I haven’t quit, although there have been times I have sure thought about quitting. But even when I thought about quitting, even when I really wanted to quit, I couldn’t, and it was because of hope. There has always been hope that continued to pull me along.
Where would we be without hope? If you’re a golfer you understand hope. I am not a very good golfer. Some of you have invited me to play a round of golf, so I've been trying to get my game in decent shape so that I won't embarrass you. Let me say something this morning - I generally don't get a second invitation to play golf, after accepting the first one. Don't feel bad if you don't want to invite me to play again when you see how poorly I play. I did have one great shot though, back in the 1980s. I was playing in Harrodsburg and made my only eagle. It was the 18th hole, a par 5, and my second shot landed about six inches from the cup. I think I took half an hour to line up that put! I was not going to miss it, because I knew it would probably be my only shot at an eagle, and because the restaurant in the clubhouse looked out to the 18th green and I wasn't going to miss an eagle in front of that audience! Although I had a terrible round overall, I had one great shot, so of course, I was convinced I was becoming a good golfer. Now that's hope!
Hope, wrote Emily Dickinson, is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.
What a beautiful way to phrase the reality of hope – it perches in the soul.
It is my prayer that hope is so deeply embedded in your heart and soul that it never stops at all. Never let go of hope.
So much has been written, so much said, about love, that it’s easy to ask what else is there to say? Whatever I can think of to say about love, someone has already said it, and said it better.
My task is not to find something new or earthshaking to say about love, but to remind us of its centrality in our lives. Love is the foundation to everything that we do and everything that we are.
When I lived in another community I used to drive by two houses that were situated side by side along a highway in the countryside. They were the only two houses within sight of each other along that part of the highway. There was something very striking about these two houses – both were surrounded by very tall privacy fences, one slightly higher than the other. Every time I drove by those two houses I wondered what took place between the two families to cause them to erect those fences. Why was the first one erected? And was the one that was slightly higher, as was my guess, the second one erected?
I see those two houses with their high fences as a metaphor of our world. Those fences represent the brokenness and alienation between people. Those fences represent the fractured relationships that litter the landscape of humanity. Those fences are present in real and in spiritual ways in our own community, in our own families, and perhaps our own congregation.
Today, tragically, religion sometimes contributes to the fractiousness of our world. Sometimes religion functions as a wedge between people rather than as a bridge or a bond. Sometimes religion concerns itself more with building fences rather than lowering them.
We are living in a truly transformational time, and we struggle with how to stay relevant and with how to capture people’s time and attention. People no longer look as quickly or look at all to churches for their answers. But the needs of people have not changed, and these three gifts – faith, hope, and love – are still much-needed by humanity. They are the answer.