Love is a way of life.
It should be how we make our way in the world. And truth be told, we should be preaching love EVERY Sunday. I think at our best, those who are fortunate enough to fill Unitarian Universalist pulpits each week, are preaching love every Sunday. But sometimes we need to be woken up, given a spiritual wedgie, and reminded to actually talk about love, not just talk around it.
Love is vital to who we are as Unitarian Universalists. Many of our congregations use an affirmation each week that begins “Love is the doctrine of this church.” Easily half our readings and hymns contain the word love. More contain “compassion,” which seems to be the preferred word these days. But I like the word “love.” It’s both simple and complex; it’s particular and all encompassing.
And it’s no wonder – love is central to all the world’s religions.
In Hinduism, love, along with charity and self-control, is one of the three central virtues. In Judaism, love emerges in many forms, most strikingly in the image of God as a loving, steadfast father. So too in Islam, where the first prayer of the morning is to God the Compassionate, the Merciful. In Buddhism, the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is at the heart of their practice. We see writings on love and compassion in the transcendentalist and humanist texts as well. Love is everywhere – in our practices, prayers, and in our sacred texts.
In fact, one of the most famous passages in sacred texts is about love is found in the New Testament: I Corinthians 13.
We hear this passage all too often, most often at weddings. It’s beautiful, especially in the poetic King James version. Yet, as CS Lewis says, it has become so commonplace that it has lost its potency.
But while it can be used for romance, the writer’s original purpose was quite different. I think it has something to say to us today; after all, for all our talk about love, love is NOT easy. It takes work, because it is something we do with one another. This passage in 1 Corinthians is all about sharing the love.
Now it’s interesting that this is perhaps the most famous passage in the New Testament, and it doesn’t mention God or Jesus. This tells me it’s about how we are with one another, how we act in the world. So whether you are humanist, pagan, theist, Christian, atheist, Buddhist, or somewhere in between, let us today reclaim this passage for our own and hear what it has to say to us.
This passage is a digression of sorts; Paul, a First Century Roman Jew turned Christian, ministered to the churches he founded across what is now Greece and the Middle East through letters, some of which are collected in the New Testament. In this first letter, or epistle, to the Corinthians, Paul is addressing a number of issues that are coming up in the church, including some divisive arguments over immorality, marriage, and the resurrection. But in answering the church’s questions, the issue of spiritual gifts comes up. It seems that some in Corinth were making a show of their ability to prophesy or speak in tongues, and that was causing a major rift. Paul addresses them this way:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
For the Corinthians, and indeed most of the early Christians, the spiritual gifts were signs that God was working in their lives, and they understood them to be ways to manifest God’s kingdom on earth. These gifts are not unlike our own – where they embraced prophesy, healing, and speaking in tongues, we embrace prophetic witness, reason, and generosity.
Now these gifts themselves are fine – in fact, just as Paul preached on them to his flock, we preach on our gifts. They are important ways in which we move through our days, putting our faith into action. Some of us are great at hospitality, others at caring for one another, others still at speaking with a prophetic voice, or using intellect to understand the world. But the problem in Corinth – and the danger among us – is when the gifts become a sign, a shibboleth if you will, that divides the believers from the non-believers, the good UUs from the bad. The gifts are not the thing. They are useful to encourage and develop, but they are NOT the thing.
The thing… and the reason for Paul’s diversion … is love. Without love, Paul says, “I gain nothing”… and frankly, neither does anyone else. Love is what allows our gifts to function.
And what a thing it is. In the middle of this passage, Paul outlines love’s characteristics as a reminder of what is loving and not loving behavior:
Love is patient. Love is kind.
Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
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 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Paul may not be able to tell us exactly what love is, but he sure knows it when he sees it.
How many times have we gotten irritated when our justice endeavors run into road blocks? Maybe the volunteers don’t show up. Maybe we don’t get the donations we expected. Maybe the people we’re helping don’t’ appreciate it. There’s a sign that we may not be acting out of love.
How many times have we limited ourselves? Expected the worst, so we didn’t go the full distance? There’s a sign that we may not be acting out of love.
How many times have we been so angry at the injustice in the world that we’ve become paralyzed? There’s a sign we may not be acting out of love.
How many times have we been so proud of our own actions that we look down upon those who don’t – or can’t – do as much justice work? There’s a sign we may not be acting out of love.
How many times have we simply gotten burned out? There’s a sign we may not be acting out of love.
I told you it’s not easy.
But love is permanent. It is eternal – and as the song says, there is more love somewhere. Paul emphasizes this point in the next three verses:
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when that which is perfect comes, the parts will come to an end.
We could rewrite that for our own time:
Love never ends. But as for our prophetic witness, it will come to an end; as for speaking truth to power, that will cease; as for intellect, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we reason only in part, but when justice and inclusion is complete, the parts will come to an end.
He then continues with two somewhat puzzling thoughts … first is this:
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I thought as a child, I reasoned as a child, but when I became an adult I put away childish things.
My first thought always is “really? I can’t be a kid anymore?” But I think what Paul is pointing to here for us is that we really do need to put aside the petulant, smug, judgmental, and boastful side of promoting our gifts. We don’t want to be that way… and most of the time I don’t think we are… but it’s a danger, and one we should remember. When we act as adults, we put love first.
The second puzzlement comes in the next verse:
For now we see in a glass darkly, 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.
Puzzling, isn’t it? When we remember that glass in the first century wasn’t clear – they hadn’t quite perfected that yet – so seeing through a glass darkly is likely about seeing something obscured by grainy, opaque glass. In other words, we can’t see everything, or know everything. Our knowledge is NOT the be-all, end-all. Because, remember, if I have not love, I am nothing at all.
Put it another way: we can’t know every effect of everything we do. We can only act in love, with our best and highest intentions. Maybe you don’t know the effect a film series will have on a person’s attitude toward other races. But if you show it as an act of love, that is enough. The love is what counts. You cared to show that film.
And when you show love? People know you in ways you can’t anticipate. They see your generous heart, your kind spirit. They see your passion and compassion, your earnestness and forthrightness.
Paul concludes this diversion on love in this way:
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three. And the greatest of these is love.
No matter what else is going on, it’s all about love. Love is where we begin – whether it is with each other, with the Divine (however we define it), with our families, our communities, or our world. Without love, anything we do is half a loaf. It’s ineffective. It’s uninspiring. It can cause bitterness.
I think about how large corporations are forced to pay for things like cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico after an oil spill… when philanthropists give large amounts of money just for the tax breaks – and those acts always feel empty to me. Yes, the money is important to solve the issues, but if they walked through the world in love, they maybe wouldn’t have caused the problems in the first place. What if we shared love from the start – not just when things get bad, but pre-emptively? Maybe that’s what Paul is getting at…and what all of our songs and activities and organizations for social justice are about too… starting from a place of love so that the world is better nurtured from the start.
UU Theologian Rebecca Parker implores us to “Choose to bless the world.” She writes,
“The choice to bless the world can take you into solitude to search for the sources of power and grace; native wisdom, healing and liberation.
“More, the choice will draw you into community, the endeavor shared, the heritage passed on, the companionship of struggle, the importance of keeping faith, the life of ritual and praise, the comfort of human friendship, the company of earth, its chorus of life welcoming you. None of us alone can save the world.
“Together—that is another possibility, waiting.”
Together, we must share love, because it IS the greatest gift of all. Ultimately, it is all we have. It burns in us – it is our pilot light, which we can keep low and hidden under a bushel… or we can turn up so it is a beacon bright and clear – a beacon stoked by hope and faith. Everything else may fade away… but first and always, share the love.