can I get a witness?

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The sky is crystal clear this morning after a day of blinding snow yesterday. The ground is covered with the foot and a half of snow that fell in the midst of the storm. It is beautiful. And it is a reminder that I will get good exercise this afternoon when we start digging out our cars and shoveling the rest of the patio.

The picture with this post is from the Town Green. A local artist put a bunch of cut-out penguins on the Green Friday night. They look quite at home in the snow. Once the sky quit falling we had to get out to see them.

One of the consequences of technological advances is we have to come up with new qualifiers. A guitar, for example, didn’t have to be named as acoustic until electric guitars were invented. So it seems our wrestling with technology during the pandemic means that what we used to simply call worship is now “in-person worship” because Zoom has made “virtual worship” a possibility.

Even though we are not gathering in person this morning, I still get to preach. Here’s what I had to say.

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I have known for two weeks that 1 Corinthians 13 would be our text for this morning: the Love Chapter—one of the most familiar passages in the Bible. One of the things I relearned in preparing is that familiar and understood are not necessarily synonyms. We are familiar with this chapter—mostly from wedding ceremonies—but most of what really sticks with us are the lines about love being patient and kind—and in the context of a wedding we think something along the lines of, “How nice for them.” It all feels a part of a lovely moment.

Perhaps we can find some new things here by reminding ourselves of what Paul was talking about right before he wrote these words. As we discussed last week, the church in Corinth was diverse and divided and struggling. They had become competitive with one another. They had become quite judgmental as well, it seems. Paul reminded them they were not a group of individuals but parts of a body—a bundle of relationships—that could not live without one another. Life was not a competition. After trying to communicate what it meant to be together, he says, “I am going to show you a better way,” and then begins talking what it would mean if they chose to love one another.

As we sit on the cusp of February and the aisles in CVS and Walgreens are filled with candy for Valentine’s Day, we do well to keep in mind that the words that make up this chapter are not the stuff of greeting cards. Paul was not talking about romance, or even a love that makes us feels cherished, adored, or safe. The love he describes is love as action, as response, as witness: a love that costs us something. A love that fosters relationships. A love determined to change things.

Listen again, this time from the J. B. Phillips translation:

This love of which I speak is slow to lose patience—it looks for a way of being constructive. It is not possessive: it is neither anxious to impress nor does it cherish inflated ideas of its own importance. Love has good manners and does not pursue selfish advantage. It is not touchy. It does not keep account of evil or gloat over the wickedness of other people. On the contrary, it is glad with all good people when truth prevails. Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything. It is, in fact, the one thing that still stands when all else has fallen.

Everything that Paul mentions is something we have to learn how to do: patience, kindness, humility, staying when things get tough. We have to learn how to love, and we have to keep learning. Love is not one-size-fits-all. How we incarnate love to one another—how we live out our love–changes over time; it looks different in different situations.

Sometimes that’s because circumstances change how we are able to show our love to one another, as it has during the pandemic. Sometimes that’s because people change and grow. However it happens, we have to remember that love is not static; it takes work and practice and commitment. Theologian Elena Vassallo writes,

The love that is patient and kind, not jealous or boastful, arrogant or rude, does not belong to us. It takes constant work. It is like the spiritual discipline that we sit down to every morning or every evening because we know it requires practice. I struggle to sit quietly and pray and do yoga each morning because I know that if I don’t I’m too easily distracted. It is too easy to live my life inattentive to what I hold most important. Paul speaks of love the labor, the exercise, the discipline. It is our calling to pay witness to it regularly, out loud, with intention.

Her use of the word witness reminded me of a scene from the movie Shall We Dance. The story revolves around a man, played by Richard Gere, who starts taking ballroom dancing lessons as a way of trying to help settle a restlessness in his soul. He doesn’t tell his wife, played by Susan Sarandon, who ends up hiring a private investigator to try and figure out what is going on. The investigator is a cynical man. When he meets her to give his report, which did not offer anything other than the dance class, he asks her why people get married. She answers:

Because we need a witness to our lives. There’s are billions of people on the planet. I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything–the good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things . . . All of it. All the time, every day. You’re saying, “Your life will not go unnoticed, because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed, because I will be your witness.”

Paul would say her words apply beyond the scope of marriage. To be the Body of Christ is to choose to care about everything about each: the good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things. To love one another means to say, “Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will witness it.” That is a huge commitment that borders on overwhelming. How can we love everybody? How can we truly witness one another’s lives? How can we care about everything?

We can’t. But we can care about those right in front of us. We learn how to love by starting there.

Remember, Paul was writing to people who had chosen to be a part of the same congregation. When he wrote this letter, he wasn’t trying to write the ultimate definition of love. He had no idea his words would become scripture. He wanted to give those folks a tangible way to think about how to make love real to one another—how to put their love into skin and bones, into action. So, he said, to say you love someone is to be patient and kind and tenacious and persistent and, perhaps, uncomfortable. He wasn’t talking about the scope of love as much as the substance: here is what love is: here’s what you need to learn to offer to one another. Here is how we learn to live together.

One of the people I learned about this week in my sermon preparation is Andrew Elphinstone, who was an English aristocrat and clergy person. He wrote a book about faith and evolution, specifically related to love and suffering.

He said that we have made a mistake in the way we interpret the Genesis account of creation by thinking that Adam and Eve were created as fully formed people who were in a perfect world until the screwed it up and got thrown out. Evolution offers the evolution of human beings has been over a great span of time, most of which was engaged in a long struggle for survival. In evolutionary terms, love is a late addition to the history of human life. But all the hardship set the stage: the pain and discomfort in our lives is part of the raw material that makes love matter.

Let me say that again: our pain and struggle are the raw materials of love.

They are what give us the openings to be patient and kind, to offer help and to ask for it, to keep showing up in both big and little ways. If this congregation, or any congregation, is going to endure—to thrive–it will be because of love lived out in action: love that shows up, love that does what needs to be done, love that listens intently, love that takes care of one another, love that asks for help as well as offering it.

Paul said that what mattered in life boiled down to three things: faith, hope, and love. Even though he ranks them by saying love is the greatest, they are connected. They need each other.

I think faith is best understood as trust rather than belief. To have faith in God is to trust that God is with us. When we trust one another, we put our faith in action. We cannot live together without trust.

Author Margaret Renkl offers a definition of hope that fits here: “Hope allows us to leave what is possible in the hands of others.” Hope is not a micro-manager. Hope understands we can’t control everything. We have to lean on each other, which takes us back to trust.

And leads us to love—our lived-out actions that move us beyond survival and bind us to each other. The commitment to witness one another’s lives and make sure none of us goes unnoticed and then to work together to see who beyond our circle needs to be loved as well.

May we be people who are known by our faith, our hope, and our love. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

2 COMMENTS

  1. I didn’t realize that you and Ginger were ‘church planting’ in Antarctica until I saw the penguins. Warm loving hugs to both of you.

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