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Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany (Year C) – February 3, 2019
It was on a frigid night in late-February of 2019 when the fire ignited that would almost entirely burn Reveille United Methodist Church in Richmond, Virginia to the ground. The enormous fire started in the heating system and quickly spread through all three worship spaces and the education wing. By the time the first responders arrived, the building was engulfed in what would later be described as the largest church fire in Richmond’s history, perhaps one of the most significant fires in the area since the city burned near the end of the Civil War.
The fire was so profound and burned at such a high temperature that news crews were forced to stand on the opposite side of Cary Street, which was closed for a mile in both directions. Fire Companies were called from Richmond, Henrico, Chesterfield, and Hanover. Yet by the light of day, it was evident just how devastating the fire had been, and just how little there was left. The sanctuary windows, including the stained glass nativity window, were all gone, blown out when the roof collapsed.
The organ pipes were twisted, melted in the intense heat, the bellows filled with soot. In a desperate attempt to stop the fire from spreading to Malvern Manor next door, the fire companies had to pull their engines through the historic boxwoods so that they could set up their defenses in the Reveille Garden. The water dripping from the ceiling of the chapel was already beginning to freeze into icicles as a morning breeze blew through what was once the the tall windows that filled the worship space with natural light.
For most of its history, Reveille United Methodist Church had been breathtakingly beautiful. Yet now it stood in ruins, a husk of its former self surrounded by early morning frost and a mile of yellow police tape, the elegant signature brickwork in a pattern of Flemish bond covered in scorch marks and soot. They would call it a miracle that somehow no one was killed or injured.
What if it actually happened? What if, in a single night, everything around us disappeared, and we had nothing left but each other? What would we do? What would carry us through? Could our small groups and Sunday School classes take place, if not here, in their normal locations? Could we still worship if we were relegated to a high school, as we were almost sixty years ago when we worshipped at Thomas Jefferson High School as all of this was being built? Would we still care for one another in our sickness? Would we still minister to the grieving? Would we live out our baptismal promises to our children? Would we still visit our shut-ins?Would we still care for our community as we do now?
I believe that we would. I believe that we would, not from sheer determination or a mere act of collective will. I believe that we would because by God’s grace we possess that which sets Reveille and all Christian communities apart from the world around us, something that we would not have were God not with us, something we could not live on our own, something that defines us, how we think, and what we do, something Paul writes about in this morning’s text from 1 Corinthians 13.
Last Sunday, our guest preacher, the Rev. Dr. Gennifer Brooks reminded us of the situation Paul was addressing in his Corinthian epistles. The church in Corinth was suffering from tremendous divisions over the differing spiritual gifts that members of the church possessed and how the church’s understanding of these gifts was creating an unhealthy hierarchy within the congregation. Therefore, in the previous chapter, chapter twelve, Paul gives his discourse on the church as the body of Christ, where all of the different gifts, and thus, all of the different parts of the “body” work together as a cohesive whole, with Christ (and not one of us) as the head of the body.
And yet, at the end of his elegant discourse on unity amidst diversity in this young congregation so beset with infighting where it felt like so much was falling apart, he concludes chapter twelve by promising to show them that which is still “a more excellent way” before giving us today’s reading, which is his beautiful and nearly universally-known reflection upon love.
Reading this pean to love seems to make so much sense at weddings where it is so often used, as Paul describes love that is greater than even faith and hope, a love that never ends. If a couple chooses this text, I always find myself telling them a bit about the context of it. I tell this couple who each sit alongside the one to whom they feel uniquely closer than they have ever felt to another person how Paul was not writing this chapter to people who necessarily loved one another or were even managing to get along, and how Paul was certainly not writing this to be used in wedding services. Paul was not describing love as a feeling or desire, but as a way of living that should characterize the life of Christian disciples, that should be the church’s witness to the world.
In this morning’s text, Paul describes love as Jesus does, as something given and received, devoted and desired, commanded and chosen. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is not describing eros, or erotic love but agape, or God’s love. After devoting chapters of this epistle to unity within the church in Corinth, he explains to them in these beautiful thirteen verses that all of the gifts, and all of the powers, and even if they can somehow manage to be united to one another without love, all of it is “nothing,” Paul says, unless they have love for one another. Paul writes that these spiritual gifts over which they are so divided are all, at best, temporal, and all will someday pass away, and the only thing that will ultimately endure, the only thing that will outlive us is our love. Love is the finest legacy that we can leave, because love is the only thing that will last forever, that will endure even the very worst things. It is for this reason that Jesus says in John’s gospel that it is by our love for one another that the world will know we are his disciples.
At the end of this month, the General Conference, the only body who speaks for the United Methodist denomination, will hold an unprecedented called special session, one that breaks their normal quadrennial cycle of meeting every four years. The purpose of this meeting will be to make decisions around marriage and ordination of LGBTQ persons in the United Methodist Church. You can learn more about this at Reveille’s website, including in the digital edition of our newsletter “The Window.”
Last summer, I was at a Virginia Conference gathering for large church lead pastors when we were asked what it will mean for us personally if things do not go the way we desire at the special session of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference at the end of this month. What will we do? Will we stay? Will we leave the church? Will we leave pastoral ministry entirely? What?
I want to tell you what I told them when it was my turn to speak, because what I said was informed largely by how today’s reading intersects my experience as your lead pastor. I told them that I love my people (you) more than I love my position on this issue, that win or lose, Reveille is my family, and that was enough to sustain me, to keep me around. I believe that I am correct that this is what Paul means when on his third missionary journey in A.D. 55, he sat down one day in Ephesus on the shores of the Aegean sea and wrote this morning’s words, words that have become so familiar and that have endured so long. And I believe that the love Paul describes in today’s reading is a love with the power to withstand even the most difficult things.
In these words to his own troubled, bitterly divided church, Paul describes a generous unity, one where it was not mandatory for everyone to think alike or posses the same gifts of the Spirit. In fact, in the chapter just before this morning’s, Paul is not only understanding of diversity, he describes how the body, and thus, the church cannot exist without diversity.
Yet the one place where Paul will not equivocate or compromise is on the ethic of love because it is the only thing that would outlive that Corinthian church. In fact it is the only thing that can. Love, the more excellent way.
When in chapter twelve, Paul said that the church, like the human body, needs diversity; where he says the whole body is not a hand or a foot or an eye or an ear, in chapter thirteen he makes clear that the feet are not permitted to only love other feet or hands other hands, and so forth. In this morning’s text, he tells us that it is our love for one another that will transform us, change the world, and even endure beyond us.
To love as God loves means that we love first with the other in mind. In the third chapter of the gospel of John, we learn that God “so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” God’s love is not about what is in it for God. It just isn’t. As such, our love for others in the church, and our church’s love for our community and world cannot be about what is in it for us. Listen again to how Paul describes love in today’s reading: “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.” Love in Paul’s mind is always others-focused, always seeking to give over receiving, to bless above receiving blessings.
In our current sermon series, we are intentionally asking the question “Why Church?” Does the church matter anymore? Is this way of living and serving in Christian community too rooted in the ancient world to be relevant today? Are we a mere club or just another charity trying to do good in the world?
I believe that the church is still relevant, still a viable, better alternative to what the world has to offer. I believe that although we have been married for two thousand years, we are still the bride of Christ whom, in his words, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against.” I believe the verse in the words of the old hymn are still true, that “From heaven he came and sought her, to be his holy bride; with his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.” I believe that God is not done with the church, and I believe that there are better days ahead for all God’s children inside and outside our walls, and I believe it because I believe that the words of this morning’s text are trustworthy and true that love still has the power to bear all things, believe all things, hope for all things, and endure all things, and I believe that by God’s grace, this love never, ever ends.
It is certainly not easy to refuse to be irritable, but love will make a way. It is certainly not easy to refuse to be resentful, but love will make a way. It is certainly not easy to refuse to insist upon our own way of doing things, but the never failing power of the love of God at work in each of us and in our life together is nothing less than the power of God in us to believe, bear, and hope all things.
As the temptation grows for each of us in the midst of such bitter and divided times to retreat to the dark hallows of our echo chambers, to associate with only those who think like we do, act like we do, believe like we do, vote like we do, and speak like we do, love will clearly expose what we see only dimly, for by the radiant light of love we will see God and one another face-to-face, truly see one another as children of God, as fellow vital parts of the Body of Christ. Love eschews the facile notion that Christian community only consists of of sheep who rarely think for themselves and when we do we all think the same.
No! This is not love as Paul understands it. In his discourse on love, Paul is writing to different-minded Christians in the diverse city of Corinth and telling them that it is never satisfactory for Christians to merely “go along to get along,” to merely tolerate one another’s differing opinions, as though those opinions represent the sum total of who that person is. In fact, I stand before you today and tell you with certainty that tolerance is not a Christian virtue. God does not call you and I to be tolerant, because you and I know that tolerance can simply be nothing more than hatred with a smile on its face.
No. The gospel does not call us to tolerance. The gospel calls us to love which is greater than tolerance, and sisters and brothers, that is the hard part, because God’s love commands each of us to not insist upon our own way, to hang in with one another in the midst of our diversity. God’s love commands us to love people more than our positions, even our closely held positions, for each of us is God’s work in progress. Each of us is growing in God’s grace. Each of us, imperfect yet loved, sinners invited to sup with the Lord at his table this morning.
In these difficult days, it is only love that has the power to overcome the greatest difficulties, including the forces of hatred and division. And yet, that is exactly what God has called us to: not the easy work of love as feeling, but the challenging work of love as action and a way of life. And it is that love that by God’s grace will sustain Christ’s church through all the coming storms of this life, “until in heaven we take our place, until we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.”
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.