How Sweet the Sound: All Loves Excelling

This sermon was preached at First Congregational Church of Battle Creek on September 4th, 2022. The text is 1st Corinthians 13. Click here to listen along: sermons are meant to be heard!

I speak in the name of the Crucified and Risen One. Amen.

The passage that Roger just read for us is a piece of scripture that many of us are first introduced to at weddings, where we sometimes hear it sheepishly read by a groomsman who has not set foot in a church since his great aunt Clarice’s funeral when he was in middle school and has never taken a public speaking class. 

Sweating behind the pulpit, his bow tie feeling tighter and tighter as he fidgets with his cummerbund (for this is also the first time in his life he has ever worn a tuxedo), our hapless reader stands before the audience. He clears his throat, takes the folded up piece of paper from inside his jacket pocket, unfolds it and begins to speak, nervously, haltingly: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels…” The gathered crowd listens along politely; hearing aids are adjusted, someone coughs in the back, the pastor is idly mouthing along with the words because she has heard this passage so many times she can’t help it. 

The words spin around in the air like a perfume, and everyone smells something different in them. For some these words sound sentimental and nostalgic, a tribute to the power of the newlyweds’ romantic love for one another to see them through all obstacles. For some they sound like the worst kind of pious claptrap, the kind of thing they put on chintzy mass-produced wall signs and sell at Hobby Lobby. And for no small part of the audience, the words fall on stopped ears: they’re just counting down the seconds until the ceremony is over and the party starts.

Without too much consternation, the groomsman finishes his reading, wipes his brow, adjusts his trousers before getting out from behind the pulpit, and resumes his place next to the groom. Done. Now he just has to stand there for photos, and then it’ll be time to party. Maybe he’ll get the number of that one bridesmaid, who knows? He has no idea what has just happened. Our friend has no idea that he has been duped into reading one of the greatest passages of mystical poetry a human mind has ever produced. 

Suffice to say, Roger did a much better job reading this than I have ever heard this passage read at a wedding. Roger, did you know what you were getting yourself into?

But back to the story: our groomsman has no idea that he has read the words that have led countless spiritual seekers into an encounter with a love so supreme and all-consuming, so nuclear in its heat and power, so tender and radiant and transformative that the only metaphor that works to even begin to describe what that love is and does within us is the metaphor of romantic love, with all its heat, intensity, drama, and delight. Father forgive him, he knows not what he is reading. 

But the fault is not his; he was probably assigned this task without being asked whether he would like to offer a reading or not. (I know how weddings work.) But he did it anyway. Even though he knows he’s not a good public speaker. Even though he has always felt weird about religion after his uncle got kicked out of their family’s church a decade back when he moved in to share a life with the man he loved. Even though he knows the statistics for marriages lasting and knows that it’s basically a coin flip as to whether his friend and his beloved will remain so even five years down the line. Even though he has no idea whether there’s even a God out there listening to us, to say nothing of loving us.

All of these things are true. And he does it anyway. Why? 

In the final accounting, he does it because of the only thing in the world that is able to make a person jettison all reason, all rationality, all pretense: he does it for love. 

The bond that the groom and his friend have built through their life of working and playing and hoping and weeping alongside one another is love, pure and simple, love taking shape as friendship. His friend the groom is celebrating the promise of a new life with a beloved, full of hope, full of possibility. And because of the bond of love that unites the groom and his friend, that joy flows from one heart seamlessly into another: the groom’s joy is his joy. 

So when the couple asked him (or volunteered him) to read this passage, he said “yes,” knowing full well that he could make a fool of himself and end up as the illustration in the pastor’s sermon the following Sunday. This is one meaning of my favorite snippet of the passage that our friend read without knowing what he was getting himself into: when Paul says, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” 

Endures all things, indeed.

But what is Paul actually getting at with this passage? What is the hidden treasure that longs to be known lying buried within these words, so trite, so familiar, these words which so many of us have never heard as the treasure it is because of the context in which we’ve heard it? I will spare you the extensive biblical studies lecture, and simply say this: the Christians in the city of Corinth were arguing with one another about who was greater, who was holier, who was more mature, who was a better Kuh-risht-chun. There is nothing new under the sun, after all.

And indeed, they were doing great things: speaking in tongues, uttering prophecies, performing miracles; they were showing up for worship and offering their time and treasure to serve others; they were organizing for direct action to combat food insecurity in underserved neighborhoods; they were offering their homes and buildings and businesses to meet the needs of the community; they were meeting and marching and voting and consulting and striving and struggling and doing all the work that people of conscience and faith must be doing. 

But their efforts kept getting mangled and tangled as the crosswinds of competing priorities—desire for security, esteem, control, belonging, all the usual suspects—spun up into a raging whirlwind of power moves, politics, and pedantry that divided their hearts and ruptured the community, making it utterly impossible to embody God’s love for their neighbor without strings attached. 

And because of the Corinthian community’s failure to hold their post, folks were getting caught in the crossfire, left adrift without connection to community or belonging, getting lost in the crowd, lost in the world, lost to the lies of unworthiness and insignificance upon which so many of the systems of this world run, systems of money and power and law and economy which grind person and planet alike to pulp in their gaping maw, insatiable, ever hungry for more.

Paul himself had once been an instrument of those systems. Paul had benefited from his privilege both as a Pharisee and as a citizen of the Roman Empire. Paul knew that he had security, esteem, control, and belonging as long as he played the role that was prescribed for him. But Paul had cast all of that away for the sake of love after his living encounter with the Love who moves the Sun and other stars. 

That experience of a loving Presence breaking in after hounding him, stealing upon him, waiting for him to turn and notice and be changed by its intimacy and fire has utterly changed him into a lover of God and of God in all of humanity. And that love drives him to let go of his understanding of the world and the game this world’s systems had forced him to play. 

That great Sufi mystic and lover of God, Jalaluddin Rumi, offers these stupendous words that are a close rival to Paul’s own:

“Love is recklessness; not reason.

Reason seeks a profit.

Love comes on strong,

consuming herself, unabashed.

Yet, in the midst of suffering,

Love proceeds like a millstone,

hard surfaced and straightforward.

Having died of self-interest,

she risks everything and asks for nothing.

Love gambles away every gift God bestows.

Without cause God gave us Being;

without cause, give it back again.”

Jalaluddin Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks

Paul, as did Jesus and Rumi and so many of the other great lovers of God that have graced this planet in history, was chosen to make the wager, to place it all on the truth and power of the living presence of Love that suffuses the entire universe and sustains it in being, holding all its splendor and all its agony. He has chosen not to count the cost of this love, and in so doing, has gambled away every gift that God bestowed on him for the sake of his love for that Presence which he knew by the name “Christ.” 

And Paul knew, as all the mystics know, that when the heart has been opened to the reality of this loving Presence, the love that courses through cannot help but catch everything else in its wake, in its fiery heat, transforming everything it touches. As that loving Presence courses through the lover of God, it will lead the soul who has been cracked open to love through unknown places and possibilities, perilous and promising alike, just like the pillar of fire that led the children of Israel in desert night on their march of liberation, on through to the dawn, where in their freedom they were now able to create a new vision of the world, one of justice and equity and release from debt, one where the foreigner was treated as a sibling. 

In that land of promise they were able to imagine a world that knows nothing of the profitability and efficiency of those systems which raised temples and towers on the backs of enslaved people. A world where there is no need to jockey for power or status or security or, even, love itself, a world where there is no need for the contortions we put ourselves through to do good and be good and prove to ourselves that we are actually good people and worthy of love and belonging just as we are. 

But a world like that only works if its denizens are able to get the cornerstone right: love of God, and love of neighbor. Love that flows from deep wellsprings within, from depths that only God can fathom, love that flows out into this world and carries us into action and service and sharing of our gifts without any expectation of return. Love for friend and love for stranger. Love for planet and love for person, love for goat and horse and human alike. Love is the thing that holds it all together.

And so Paul says, we can do all these incredible things, we can have all these gifts, we can do such tremendous work in the world. But without love as the anchor, the rudder, the rising star, that homing beacon shining within our heart that keeps us in alignment with our calling to embody God’s love, all of our efforts will be worthless. We’ll fumble the pass. We’ll cause harm to each other and to ourselves as we get caught in the world’s games of mastery and might. All our preaching and prophecy and speaking-truth-to-power will fall on stopped ears just like Paul’s own words at a June wedding. 

And so Paul beckons to them, chides them, eggs them on to pursue the one force in this world strong enough to get our heads out of our rear ends long enough to see clearly and act precisely, with body and mind and emotions all as one, for bring into being the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible, the kingdom of Heaven, the New Jerusalem, heaven on earth, a just world for all. For that is our calling as people of conscience and faith. Love is the meaning of it all.

If our groomsman had had a little more familiarity with the text, he might have been keen to add the line that Paul offers immediately after this hymn to love. He says, “pursue love, and strive for the spiritual gifts.” Prioritize love. Let that be the prime motivation in all that we do, and let everything else flow from there. And pursue love by practicing it, by turning towards it day by day, moment by moment, by betting our being on the wager that love offers: we call that “devotion.” 

And everyone has somewhere they can practice devotion. All of us have a place where we can say “yes” to love and day by day tap into the living experience of love and make it more and more a part of our entire being. The gate is there, in the love of bride and bridegroom as they gamble on marriage, or of a groomsman for the groom, or of the pastor for the newlyweds, or even Great Aunt Clarice for her family, whom she loved enough to invite into the tenderness and intimacy of her faith journey, or even the love her family had for her, who loved her enough to endure going to church with her every once in a while. Friends, that is the royal road. To say “yes” to love is to say “yes” to God is to say “yes” to our neighbor. 

And in the final accounting, when all is said and done, love is the meaning of it all. Amen.

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