Sermon: “The More Excellent Way” [I Cor. 13] (1/30/2022)

The last couple of weeks, we’ve spent time with the troubled church at Corinth.  Though they “had all things in common” and were trying as hard as they could to create beloved community, they’d lost their way.  Some spiritual gifts–and the people who had those gifts–were valued more than others.  Because community members and their gifts weren’t valued equally, dissensions had arisen.  Divisions had deepened.  The community needed help.

When Paul heard about the troubles at Corinth, he wrote them a pastoral letter, several letters, really.  We might not agree with Paul on everything, this is certain:  Paul had a pastor’s heart.  Believing in the Gospel and in the church’s unique ability to share it, Paul wrote to conflicted churches to help them work through their troubles.  Healthy churches, he knew, were more effective in sharing the good news of God’s love with others.

Because the trouble at Corinth centered around spiritual gifts, that’s what Paul addresses in I Corinthians 12-14.  He begins in chapter 12 by reminding the community that “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”  Then he goes into that extended– somewhat silly–reflection on how the diversity of a body’s parts is what makes the body–aka, the body of Christ–work.  (Sad note:  the Jesus Potato Head in last week’s video was digitally generated.  It is not possible to buy one.  A colleague of mine said she spent, quote, “an inordinate amount of time” trying to do so online.)

Chapter 12 ends with yet another list of spiritual gifts.  Then Paul says:  But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way… Which is, like, um, Paul.  You’ve spent all this time talking about how all spiritual gifts are equal.  What do you mean “strive for the greater gifts?”  And how does striving for the greater gifts lead to a “more excellent way?” 

Here are Paul’s next words.  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.  It seems, then, that the more excellent way to which Paul calls the troubled Corinthian church is the way of love.  The greatest gift in any community is love.  If every member of the community acts with love, gives their gifts in love, and receives the love of the other members, it will dissolve dissensions and heal divisions.  If the community of Jesus’ followers are to share God’s love with others outside the community, that love must begin at home.  When Paul resurems his reflections on spiritual gifts in chapter 14, he begins, Pursue love…

So, at the heart of Christian community is love.  That’s not a new insight, not at all.  Of course, love is at the heart of what it means to be a community of Jesus’ followers.  After all, we call it “beLOVED community.”

But understanding, even believing in beloved community isn’t the same thing as living it, is it?  In his classic work, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The person who’s in love with their vision of community will destroy community.  But the person who loves the people around them will create community everywhere they go.”  The health of our community depends not on what we think about community, though how we think about it is important.  The true health of a community is measured in how its members love each other.

So…how are we doing at loving each other, at acting each other into wellbeing?  How might we–right now, today–“pursue love,” as Paul suggests?

The first thing, of course, is to identify all the ways our community has “pursued love” in the past.  The creation of this congregation in 1914 was an act of love.  It provided a forward-thinking alternative to most of the faith communities in the area at the time.  In the 1950s and 60s, the community extended its love into the wider community by advocating strongly for the work of desegregation.  And, of course, this community continued extending its love into the wider community in its work on behalf of marriage equality in the 2000s.

This community has, from the start, been grounded in love.  And like most communities, there also have been times when the love was not as loud.  In the written history of our church, the first church split happens on p.8…that was about the decision to purchase the property on Merrimon.  There have been other times in the community–some of you will remember them– when divisiveness seemed much more present than love.

Even so, the love was always there.  The love is still here.  Even in the hard times, even when Covid sends us back into isolation, this community has remembered love… Love is what always helps us get back to living joyfully as the body of Christ.  Love is, to quote Paul, the more excellent way.

Last week, I shared the story of this stole, my ordination stole.  Each scrap of material represents a congregant in the church that ordained me.  This stole reminds me of the people in that community and of the love and support they offered.

After worship last week, standing in the narthex, Mary K reminded me that the quilted banner hanging there was created in a similar way.  As I understand it, as a way to celebrate the church’s centennial, congregants were asked to give pieces of material.  Those scraps of material were quilted and crafted into this beautiful banner.  I believe the work was done by Diane Sanders.

When I hear some of you speak about this banner, I hear love.  A lot of love.  I’ve often wished I’d been here for the grand celebration you all had in 2014.  It’s clear that 2014 was a high point for the First Congregational community.  Love abounded!

What about now?  What might a banner we create today look like?  How might we create the space in our community for even more love to abound?  How might our community–today, right now–how might we “pursue love” here at First Congregational United Church of Christ?

These are honest questions …which means I don’t have answers to them.  The only way to answer these questions is to work together to find them.  So, Church, how will we pursue love?

Answering open-ended questions like that requires imagination.  And so, I end today with an invitation to imagine how our community might pursue love.  We’ll do that by meditating on the 2014 banner and hearing again Paul’s reflections on love.

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.

Let us pursue love….the greatest gift.  Let us pursue love…and find the more excellent way.  Let us pursue love…love…love…

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness.  Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2022

About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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