Sunday, October 6, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Hoping in the Unseen"

1 Corinthians 13:1-4

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, it profits me nothing. 4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, it is not puffed up. (CEB)

“Seeking God Anew: Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed,” Week Five

The woman on the waitstaff of a four-star restaurant in New York City—a restaurant where dinner currently costs $300 per person, and that’s before any alcohol—recounted one of the most touching encounters she ever had with a patron in her job, writing:

We remove the chair from position three on table two to make room for the wheelchair.  A short man, who appears to be in his seventies, wheels a woman of similar age as close as he can get her to the table.  He adjusts her legs, props her up a little, and places her napkin so that it rests over her (chest) and lap.  After making her comfortable, he pulls his own chair closer to her, away from the window and the view of the park in the early evening light.  When I approach with menus, I look to him for direction, but she tells me exactly how she wants me to prop the menu so that she can read it.

“Rabbit!” she exclaims when she spots the chef’s tasting menu.  “I love rabbit!”…

She orders her rabbit and he selects from the five-course menu.  They do not order wine, but (the sommelier) remains in my station anyway.  Together we watch as the husband carefully feeds her the entire tasting menu.

“Now that is how you love someone,” (the sommelier) says quietly.

That is how you love someone, indeed.  For, as Paul says, love is patient.  Love is patient even when you have become the 24/7 caretaker of the love of your life.  But love—and life—are about far more than simply being patient.  After all, patience is one of those abstract, unseen things I cannot point to.  I can point to a towel rack and say, “that is a towel rack.”  But when it comes to patience, and to love, the best I can often do is to point to someone practicing it and hope others will as well.  But if enough of us do practice it, then, in the end, it will do.  It will surely do.

This is a new(ish) sermon series revolving around a new book, by a fairly new(ish) pastor, with a very un-new name: Jay Bakker, the son of the (in?)famous televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, first pinged my radar when he came to speak at my seminary’s annual Earl Lectures series in 2010.  I have followed bits and pieces of his work ever since, and after beginning the Revolution church movement in Phoenix, he has gone on to plant Revolution churches in Atlanta and New York City, and he is now planting a church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  In the meanwhile, he has also taken to writing, and his latest book, entitled, “Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed” spoke strongly enough for me make a sermon series!  The chapter I am borrowing from this week is called “Hoping in the Unseen.”  Jay writes in it (in part):

So many in the church are dealing with grief.  It shakes our faith, causing us to doubt, and yet we can’t talk to anyone who responds well to our doubt.  So we put it off or hide it.  As Christians, we fall back on clichés to help ourselves forget our real emotions, or we go to therapists or take time off to deal with things expecting everything to work out in time.

But we need to be there for one another.  We need to allow doubt to be spoken to each other on a regular basis so when we go through tragedy or grief, we aren’t caught unaware or uncomfortable with the mourning process.  We need to give people permission to embrace death, tragedy, the meaninglessness of life.

The grieving person needs grace, and not just the first time, but over and over again.  I’ve heard people say someone is “an emotional train wreck,” or “needy” or “clingy.”  These aren’t words that love uses.  Love doesn’t expect a solution.  Love doesn’t need someone to “get better” to validate their patience and empathy.  Love comes back again and again.

We need to embrace others’ brokenness because before too long, we’ll discover our own.

Now, I’ll be honest—midway through this excerpt, I was thinking that something from Ecclesiastes would be quite appropriate for today—after all, it’s hardly a hop, skip, and a jump away from “the meaninglessness of life” to “vanity, vanity, all is vanity!”  And for a crank like me, Ecclesiastes is a text to treasure, one that demonstrates you can embrace your inner Eeyore while still loving and serving God.

But then the pivot happens, as it so often does with writers who know how to make a point: grieving people don’t need clichés, they need grace.  And that word gets turned, sort of, over the course of what Jay is saying here, from grace into love.  Now, to be sure, there is great overlap between the two, but one really cannot offer.  Grace comes from God, and God alone.

But love?  That we can offer.  And Paul tells us how in one of his most famous passages.

Now, I know all of the baggage and preconceptions that a Bible passage can come with by dint of its own fame and renown: we normally associate this passage with weddings, where some pastor dresses up in a suit that he otherwise rarely ever wears (that’s me) reads this passage to two nervously smiling—but simply glowing—people gazing at each other with Bambi-esque big-eyed expressions of pure, unadulterated love.

I mean, that’s the one thing we all associate with this passage, right?  Love is patient, love is kind…well, someone must be getting married!

There are two things, though, about our preconceptions about this passage, and both of them we can chalk up to this, like all the books of the Bible, being a text in translation.

First, the Greek word Paul uses for “love” is, in fact, caritas, from which we get our English word—you guessed it—“charity.”  So really, Paul isn’t even talking about romantic love here—for one, he would have used the Greek eros (guess which English word we get from it…see, isn’t this fun?), and secondly, Paul is so down on marriage I doubt he would have commended it to anyone.  Heck, six chapters earlier in 1 Corinthians, when addressing married couples specifically, he says that it is preferable for people to remain unattached like he is.  So yeah.

But the second thing about this passage comes from the word “patient.”  Except that too probably isn’t the most accurate English translation of the word.  As the great Disciples preacher Granville Walker pointed out, the Greek Paul is using is a series of verbs, not adjectives, and so rather than saying “Love is patient,” Paul is really saying something along the lines of, “Love practices patience.”  Or, as the KJV and CEB versions both translate it, “Love suffers long.”

(I can already imagine some of you thinking, “See, pastor!  Paul WAS talking about marriage!”)

But no.  Love practices patience.  Love practices patience no matter how much suffering it experiences.  Love suffers long precisely because love is willing to practice patience despite it.

Love is willing to suffer alongside a disabled spouse, to care for them, to treat them reverently.

Love is willing to suffer alongside a fallen friend struggling in the throes of addiction or abuse.

Love is willing to suffer alongside a desperate family member who has nobody else to turn to.

Ultimately, love is willing to suffer, no matter the circumstances, no matter the cost.

Love, then, is the opposite of our favorite clichés—and believe me, Christianity is full of them.  “He’s in a better place.”  “It’s part of God’s plan.”  “God wanted them in heaven.”  Cliches are short, ineffective, and designed to shut down any attempt at a meaningful conversation.  They’re basically Hallmark cards minus the envelope.  They aren’t meant to convey any great meaning or depth of feeling, they’re meant as a token, so that someone knows you are at least nominally still invested in their wellbeing.

But they’re not what patience would do.  They’re not how patience would practice.

Paul—nor Jesus, for that matter—refused to teach in clichés.  He threw himself headlong into his work and his ministry, so emotionally attaching himself to his communities that you can see it so vividly in his letters today: he exhibits such depths of emotion, of joy and happiness and of sadness and disappointment that you would think he were saying those words in their presence, not writing those words from afar or even from prison.

And so Paul, for all of his human faults—and he’ll be the first to admit he has them—is willing to act with patience for the church.  He is willing to suffer long, even if no solution is imminent.

And Jesus, at every turn in His ministry, showed that he willing to—and did—suffer long for us, even when there was—and is—no possible way that we can completely validate ourselves, or the love that is shown to us by Him.  Jesus loves us precisely because through His love, He was willing to show patience.  He was willing to suffer long.  He was willing to hope in the unseen, abstract thing that we cannot always point to, cannot always register with our senses, but that we register with our hearts and our minds and our souls instead...this thing we call love, that it would be enough to save us.  And it is.  It really, truly is.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 6, 2013

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