Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (3 February 2019)
1 Corinthians 13
JoAnn A. Post
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.
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.
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 the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, 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. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
It started with a little drip in the Volunteer Center ceiling on Tuesday morning. By afternoon it was a steady faucet, and we hop-scotched with buckets and wastebaskets to catch the drops. Wednesday and Thursday were spent with a watchful eye on the dry wall above us, but there was nothing else to do—we couldn’t ask anyone to go up on the roof to investigate in that weather.
On Friday morning, we opened the front door to the melodious sound of rushing water—a pipe had burst in the education wing and we suddenly had our own indoor swimming pool. We were exceedingly grateful for the volunteers who answered my fumbled text messages for wet-vacs. But our safety suddenly depended on strangers who had not slept in three days, the roofers and plumbers who responded to our frantic phone calls with ladders and tools and unbelievable patience.
There was no time for introductions. They worked with little comment, enormous speed, and tremendous skill. By day’s end the roof no longer leaked and the toilets no longer gushed. I don’t know what we would have done without them. But they rushed off to another emergency, leaving us behind, dry and grateful.
As a pastor, I live in a world of ideas and organizations, words and relationships. My fingernails are clean. My desk is buried in papers. I think for a living—who else gets to do that? Of course, I have a few useful skills.
As a homeowner, I wash my own clothes and make my own bed and walk my own dog—hardly hard labor. My life really depends on an army of mostly unseen, unnamed people who maintain my car and deliver my mail and pick up my dry cleaning and clean my house. I could not function without them, though mostly I don’t even know their names.
There is occasional need for the gifts I carry—agility with words and listening ears. But this week we needed far greater gifts—gifts that involve Carhartt coveralls and tool boxes. After all, when your basement gushes like Old Faithful, who would you most like to see at your door? Mr. Rogers or Rosie the Riveter? I thought so.
The Apostle Paul has been trying to get our attention on this front for three weeks now. He wrote to a congregation in ancient Corinth much like ours—highly skilled, highly verbal, highly competitive. They pestered him for praise, asking him to adjudicate their debates about which gifts were more important—speaking in tongues or interpreting tongues, working miracles or the ability to heal, the utterance of wisdom or of knowledge.
Apparently, they had no leaky roofs or bursting pipes, no freezing rain or drifting snow. If they had, the answer to their question would have been clear. The most important gifts, and in no particular order? Plumbing. Snow plowing. Roof repair. But they had the luxury of having to worry about none of those things.
Paul spent all of chapter 12 talking them off the competitive ledge, soothing their easily bruised but clean-under-the-fingernails egos. But today, in chapter 13, he catapults all their self-centered caterwauling off a cliff. Because among all the precious gifts they carried and compared, there was one gift greater than all the rest. And it was not theirs to have.
How many of you had this text read at a family wedding? Most, I would guess. These lovely, lyrical words describe the sort of love we all long for our in our families and friendships. Love that is patient, kind, content. But the love Paul describes is not ours to either have or to hold. Love that is endless, strong, hopeful is beyond our ability, a gift too great for us. A pastor friend prides himself on being something of a troll when, at weddings, he punctures their bucolic nuptial bliss by saying, “This text? This text about love? Nope, not about you!.”
Paul opens his argument by insulting them and the very gifts he had so carefully ranked only verses before. Speaking in tongues? Cacophony. Wisdom and knowledge? In the trash. Generosity? Useless. He punctuated his point by describing their relationships in the most unflattering of terms (something he did wisely in writing rather than in person): they weren’t loving–they were envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, self-righteous, irritable, resentful; they delighted in finding fault.
Wouldn’t you love to be in that relationship? You probably are.
Because, at the end of the day, in our moments of deepest need, all those precious gifts—wisdom, knowledge, miracle-working—were as useless as my clever wit and calm demeanor were on Friday.
The greatest gift? When pipes are bursting all around, the greatest gift is the ability to wield a wrench. When life is crashing all around, the greatest gift is the gift of love. God’s love, not ours.
With no disrespect to any of your weddings, I find this text much more compelling not at the beginning of married life but at the end of our physical life, or the death of a relationship.
If you have ever sat at the bedside of one who was suffering, kept vigil with one whose life was drawing to a close, you know that our words and our wisdom quickly elude us.
The same is true when, in spite of all our best efforts, a relationship we treasure comes to an end. A marriage fails. A parent forsakes. A child disappoints. A friend proves faithless.
What is there to say to the one whom we have loved who will soon be taken from us? Either by death or by defeat?
We cannot make promises. We cannot make it better. We cannot right past wrongs or paint a rosy future. No matter how deeply, passionately, faithfully we love one another, our love is not enough. We cannot not stave off death or hold on to one who does not want to be held. Our love always ends. (And if that sentence feels too final for you, perhaps we could at least entertain the notion that our love has limits?)
Paul writes instead with an unspoken, implied subject of each sentence. Whose love is patient? God’s. Whose love is kind? God’s. Whose love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things? Whose love never ends? There is only one.
The congregation at Corinth clearly had nothing of importance to ponder, or they would not have wasted Paul’s time with their prideful, petty disputes. We live that same way most of the time ourselves. Worrying about things we can’t change, getting angry over things that don’t matter, holding grudges over slights whose particulars we have mostly forgotten.
When the pipes burst, and the roof sags and the house is cold we cry out for the hard-working, never-tiring, always-responsive tradesperson who can stop the leaking, shore up the ceiling, re-light the fire. Those are gifts that belong to only a few but are critical to us all.
And when our hearts are near to bursting, our patience thin and our affection grown cold, we cry out for the hard-working, never-tiring, always-responsive love of God, who will never fail or forsake.
I can temporarily repair a leaky pipe, but when the water rushes I need someone with a greater gift.
In the same way, we can aspire to love one another patiently, kindly, endlessly—but ultimately we have to rely on someone with a greater gift. The greatest gift. The gift of Love which we can do nothing but receive. A gift which God gladly gives.