That reading from 1st Corinthians: In Paul’s talk about spiritual gifts – when he turns to love, Paul says “I will show you a more excellent way.” That catches my attention. Excellence – seems to fit Palo Alto and the Silicon Valley. What could rival the iPhone, in how it works, or even how it feels in the hand? What Universities are as excellent as Stanford? Heck, what public schools are better than ours? Boy Scouts: around here it’s not about just burning hot dogs over campfires with your buds – there’s a definite goal: to be able to put “Eagle Scout” on your college applications.
But Paul says: “I will show you a more excellent way.” What does church have to do with excellence? Both your pastors grapple with this in sermons from time to time. On some level, we go with the flow: we work to achieve the finest liturgies, preaching, music, social action, education – with the best people. To be a bit silly – if we really want to attract young families to church, we could find a way to convince them that regular attendance at worship has been shown to improve grades.
But really, this is about God’s grace, when you get F’s. Grace not for the best people, but for the sinners. Church should be a place where you can fail, not measure up, and be loved all the same. So then, what about excellence? How do we do grace well? What if we tried to do everything deliberately bad, to stay humble? Or, just not that good? Somewhere I read about a Danish philosopher – who says we’re happiest when we learn to accept life as it is, not as we want it to be. So he proposed that his University catchphrase be something like: “Come join us. We’re a truly mediocre University.” I don’t think it caught on.
Paul does encourage excellence. But he also challenges our priorities. As I understand it, classical Greeks like Plato and Aristotle might do the same. The concept of excellence was originally about reaching your potential. It was tied to virtues like justice and temperance. So if you’re “at the top” because you’re really good at making money in unfair ways, and spending it lavishly on yourself, it may that you’re not so excellent. You’re performing poorly in what matters most: being human.
Actually, Paul doesn’t use that classical Greek word for “excellent” here. He uses a word that means “abundant – vast – excessive.” Paul says: “strive for the greater gifts, and I will show you a way that’s overflowing with amazing-ness.” I don’t think he’s saying, “master the art of love.” We’re aware that with certain people, it’s really hard to be loving. I think Paul’s saying, “don’t be the master. Be a beginner. Just jump in. The water’s deep. Vast. Excessive. It’s like how we might dive into an excellent novel – say, Don Quixote. We won’t absorb all it has to offer. It’s challenging. But that means, there’s plenty of space to swim around, re-read, think, feel, explore and grow.
It’s not like Paul is giving us a list: “you should work on being more patient, more kind, less irritable,” and so on. He’s saying, “Love itself is already patient – and kind – and not irritable.” So dive in. Surrender to Love, to her, the Holy Spirit. As Paul calls it elsewhere: “The Spirit of Love that has been poured into our hearts.” Paul’s more excellent way is about receiving a gift – a spiritual gift. It’s not a skill we can achieve. It’s a gift God achieves in us. I think of how an important relationship is not all about toil, working to resolve problems. It’s also – sometimes – about learning to accept problems and love each other all the same.
Love isn’t our achievement, it’s God’s gift. But Paul says “strive for it.” Make it a priority in all you do. What does he mean by that? What’s this whole love thing all about? Love is the essential gift. Paul brings up other gifts that seemed important – and he says, “if you don’t have love, none of that matters.” Your tongues, your spiritual sounds – are no more than crashing cymbals. Your brilliant theology, your powerful convictions – without love – you come up empty.
But what about your sacrificial generosity? Some say, “true love isn’t just about how you feel about someone. It’s about, what are you willing to do for them? Are you willing to make sacrifices for the sake of your faith, or for other people?” Paul says, “you can give away all your possessions and your very life – and do it without love. And you gain nothing.”
Love is about gain. It’s forward looking. It’s reason for hope. I take that to be at the hear of what Paul’s saying here. Love never ends. Love isn’t just a pleasant way to spend the time while we wait for the destruction of the earth. We read the news, we expect disaster. We want our kids to excel – in part – because we’re anxious about their future. But Paul’s saying, “God’s final future is a world of love.” Right now, we don’t really see it. Right now, it’s like we’re going by what we see reflected in mirrors. It’s like we’re children who aren’t able to see what adults see. That’s a fun line. In my grumpy moods, I like to say: “you kids think it’s all fun and games; you don’t know how tough this world really is.” Paul’s saying, “you kids think the world is just a tough place – you don’t see how wonderful Gods’ love is.” Love is all about hope. “Love is patient. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
A few more words about what this love is like and what it’s not like. I’ve been thinking about how you could almost replace the word “love” with “levity” or “laughter,” and what Paul says makes sense. With laughter, we can bear all things. With levity, we’re not irritable – everything feels lighter. Love rejoices in the truth. Good comedy finds joy in the truth. “That’s the way it is for you? Me too – I’m glad to hear I’m not alone.” A good comedy ends with love – with a wedding – like the Bible and the book of revelation, where Heaven is united with Earth, God comes to dwell with humanity. Or like the recent movie, Crazy Rich Asians – another comedy that ends with a wedding. Of course, you know that in the middle of a comedy, there’s going to be frustration and pain. But get a feel for where the story is going; you can laugh your way through it.
One of my hardest jobs ever was my first year out of college, when I worked at a shelter for street people. We had to confront drug dealers and awful mental illness. But my memory of the experience, is how much we laughed. One day Jack, a schizophrenic man who looked like a scrawny transvestite Richard Pryor, stood yelling out, over and over, “Bentley! Bentley! Bentley!” Later on the staff figured out, he wanted me to unlock a storage close: he was trying to remember and pronounce my name.
At times, you didn’t want laugh. But overall, it seemed you me that you’d need a lightness and hopefulness to stay with those folks and make it through. It’s an excellence that’s worth striving for.
For Paul, love is like levity. But I also wanted to say what this kind of love isn’t like. That it’s not like what we see going on in our divisive national politics. Love is kind. It’s not arrogant, boastful or rude. And how’s this, in light of the government shutdown: love doesn’t insist on its own way. Hmm … Love doesn’t keep score of wrongs inflicted – it doesn’t rejoice at the wrongdoings or failures of others.
How do we religious folk respond to all this? A times, we take sides. But at times there may be reason to stand against the whole mess, experienced in another way.
Well, we’re one small church. But the polarization isn’t just happening in Washington D.C. I think most of us have walked into uncomfortable rooms, where there are people who disagree. We wonder how we can get out and avoid conflict. It’s not always easy. But Love is a lot bigger than me. It’s vast. Amazing. I’m not always great at it. Kate and I are probably like every parent who comes here: we like it when our kids do well in school and that sort of thing, but it’s especially exciting when we see how patient and caring and kind our kids can be. And politics show us, that this kind of love will be important.
For church. Well, but isn’t the first priority of church, great worship? As it happens, that’s what Paul is talking about here. He’s saying, “in worship – we need love. We need to learn to encourage each person to share their gift.” God, teach us this love. Amen.