In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. “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.” This is a familiar text, dear to the Christian tradition, that we most frequently at weddings. And it certainly has a great deal to say what matters most in marriage. But that is not originally what St. Paul was writing about. In the passage, St. Paul is clearly instructing the church that he mailed the letter to about what it means to be church. The church is not like other groups we may belong to. And what we try to get out of it is something different from other organizations we belong to.
As St. Paul explains, the most important thing, the most basic task, in any church community is getting the love right. “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.” Of course, this is St. Paul sharing the teaching of Jesus with his new Christians. His exhortation to them is to get the love right, that is, to make that the task for every day; it is not ever achieved like some box that just needs checked; love is, instead, a teacher and there are new lessons every day. In Paul’s words, “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.” Love, real love, is mature adult work and the task of a lifetime. He explains, “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.”
A sermon on this text of scripture could take the form of an exhortation to just do it and heap on shame for not doing it all the time implying that we should just try harder to be more consistent. A more fruitful approach, however, is looking for the source of that love and reflecting upon how the experience of church can connect us with it.
What is the source of that love, the kind that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, and never ends? It is Jesus and todays story of Jesus being rejected in his hometown as he begins his ministry is really illuminating about that. When Jesus returns to Nazareth, the people say, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” Who does he think he is? How could he be anybody? It is pretty clear that Jesus did get his infinite capacity to love from those people. Such an experience of rejection may be something you have in common with Jesus. As painful as that must have been for Jesus, he did not direct the pain within as so many feelings of worthlessness not did he direct it outward to protect himself through outrage and rejecting others. No, it became, like everything in his life, a source of compassion for others. It’s an incredibly powerful thing that can be seen in Jesus. It’s the very thing that made it possible to for him to forgive those who crucified him while he still on the cross. It’s a powerful, Christian, thing that can be a power in our own lives.
It’s that power of Jesus that St. Paul seeks to convey to the church at Corinth so that their experience of church can connect them with it. Our day-to-day experience of any church, whether in ancient Corinth or contemporary Massachusetts, however, can seem to be more pedestrian, more ordinary than that. It can seem to be just an endless series of tasks or little jobs, can it not? (For example, even though we are having services remotely this morning, there is a whole group of All Saints’ members volunteering later today to remove the snow and ice from the walkways and parking lot). I believe God made church full of so many little jobs because each one of them is an opportunity to get the love right in our hearts, face to face, day after day. They are each little exercises in love and the daily lessons it has for us. In terms of the Gospel reading, its about finding Jesus in our hometown, which as we see there that is something that can be missed. It’s the face-to-face heart work that is not something you can do on the internet. This is the hidden gift of love not to be overlooked.
At All Saints’, there are many, many conversations about this or that needing to be done. Each one of these jobs though is more than it appears to be. They are not just tasks to be accomplished because they need to be (though they are that). Everyone on of them is an opportunity for love to do something profound. And that is really why we have them. Nearly every time any one of us says ‘yes’ to any one of these roles, the largest legacy of that decision has to do with the people we meet in doing it rather than in what we accomplish.
What I mean is: what Jesus does with most of these tasks is more than we commonly think. The people we know best here we often do because at one time or another we both said ‘yes’ to something, and because of that ‘yes’ we came to know each other, and after that–sometimes for years to come–I may have this idea or that, or I have some need, and together we are able to accomplish something else (that may or may not have anything to do with All Saints’, but may need to be something that needs to happen. That’s where the heroic stuff comes from). Even though we may be worrying about who is going to read this or carry that, I suspect the Holy Spirit cares more about who is going to meet whom and how what that relationship can become. And it is these relationships that over time amount to so much more than this or that task. There is an incredible power to all this, where what we might think is just a Christmas Pageant, does all sorts of other things as it generates a kind of holy social capital that is more enriching and life affirming than we often know.
So if you are asked to do this or that here. Maybe ask, “Who do I get to meet?” Or say, “I’ll do that, but I won’t do it by myself because much of the point of doing it at all is to add good people to your life (and none of ever have too much of that). The relationships are more important than the tasks. As St. Paul says, it comes down to “faith, hope, and love … and the greatest of these is love.”
It is well known, however, that we Christians fall short of our own standard. We even fall short of love in church from time to time. We can get so invested in the success of the task that we lost track of the personal relationships we are doing them for in the first place. That’s not God’s fault. It is ours. But it is important to understand that that falling short is part of the grand design. Because perhaps the most important lesson of love is its capacity to repair, to mend hearts, to heal. Without this adult component, what we call “love” is just infatuation or short-lived passion. Christianity is a religion of redemption and repair. It’s about death and resurrection. It’s not just about being the sort of person who holds the right ideals, it more about when life gets real. It is not a religion of achievements that we possess and boast about from the security of our own righteousness. It’s about forgiveness and love’s ability to repair what we are not able to be when we want to be it for those we want to be it for.
This is why we confess our falling short frequently, our sins (as we will do soon enough in this service). That confession is not really a lamentation of personal failure (as if any of us were ever going to navigate this life error free our first time through). It is not an exaltation of guilt or shame. Our confession is a profession about love’s resiliency and its power of forgiveness and restoration where it “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Or in another language with a long Christian history, its about how human judgments are overcome by divine grace–every time. If in the push and pull of parish life, love is challenged, have faith in its ability to repair and restore relationships that you might think would otherwise be broken in other contexts. They are not broken here where “love never ends.”
To know the power of this love leads to the recognition that our worst is never the central fact of the universe. Love reserves its victories for itself and these are always more than whatever our failings may be. And this is good news indeed! It the good news that the scripture reminds us of today.
The key to All Saints’ continuing to flourish is what it always has been. It’s about leaning into a divine love that can do more than we can ask or imagine, and learning the lessons it has for us together, one day after another, heart to heart, together. Amen.