What Lasts Forever
Rev. Mike Woods
February 3, 2013
4th Sunday of Epiphany
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
It’s a sign of the times we live in that one of the big news stories from the past week was a story that initially wasn’t picked up by any of the traditional news outlets – not CNN, not FoxNews, not any of the network news organizations, although it eventually found its way there. Still, as of yet, I haven’t seen it in the Columbus Dispatch. It’s a story that was first reported, where most stories are initially reported today, through informal channels of the internet – social media websites like facebook or Twitter, and blog posts like The Drudge Report or the Huffington Post. And although some of you may have already heard about the story, I relate it to you this morning with a little bit of hesitation … because it doesn’t reflect well on my profession – the vocation of pastor … and it reminds all of us that we pastors are human, too. We make mistakes … we’re not perfect. We can be a little sanctimonious at times and even a bit of a cheapskate.
For those of you who haven’t heard the tale – it goes something like this: Last Sunday evening, following worship at a church somewhere in St. Louis, a large group of church members, along with their pastor, visited a restaurant, as they usually did following evening worship. Since their party was a large one, an automatic gratuity was added to the individual bills, as is the custom in most restaurants. All of the church members paid their bills including the tip, with the exception of one member – their pastor, who marked through the amount of the tip on her receipt and left in its place a big zero and a rather snarky comment: “I give God 10% why do you get 18(?)”
If any of you have ever tried to make a living by waiting tables, you know tips are what you live by. The Federal minimum wage for wait staff is only $2.13 per hour, and the last time that minimum wage was raised, Ronald Regan was president.
Well, the next thing that happened was a picture of the receipt, along with the pastor’s comment, was posted on the internet. The story went viral! Everybody and everybody’s brother had to comment on it! And the comments that were posted online weren’t very kind in their judgment of the pastor. And although indentifying information was left out of the photo, somebody eventually figured out who this person was … and the pastor was publicly embarrassed … and the church she worked for was publicly embarrassed.
Now, to her credit, the pastor (whose name I’m purposefully leaving out because it’s not my point to embarrass her or her church any further) has since admitted she made a mistake … she had a lapse in judgment and brought shame on her calling and her congregation. But, then she made an even further mistake, after she was publicly exposed, by calling up the restaurant and demanding that everyone who worked there be fired – not just the employee who posted the picture of the receipt online, but everybody! The manager, the other wait staff who were serving other tables and had no contact with the pastor’s party, the bartenders, the bus boys, the cooks, the custodian.
Like I said, the incident reminds us that, in spite of our unique calling to ordered ministry – to fulfill special functions within the church – we pastors are human, too. Sometimes, we insist too often on having our own way … sometimes we can be a little too arrogant and rude … and we don’t practice mutual forbearance, as we should. All the things Paul says love is (patient, kind) we are not; and all the things Paul says love is not (envious, boastful, irritable) we all to often are.
When we meditate on the qualities of love Paul describes in his letter, I think we see an ideal … we see the Divine Image in which we were created … we see the human race as God intended us to be … as God wants for us and calls us to be. It is a description of the greatest gift God has given to the human race. But it is a gift we often shun because we wrongly believe it’s something that weakens us or is not in our own best interests.
A few weeks ago, I told you about Eben Alexander, the neurosurgeon who had a near death experience that changed his life. The most important and wonderful thing he learned from that experience, he said, was not the glimpse of heaven he was afforded or any of the miraculous things he saw – it was the knowledge that he was deeply loved … that love was the most powerful force in the universe, and nothing, no matter how dark or evil or hateful, would ever overcome it. Whenever the universe comes to an end and the last star dies out and nothing remains, love will still be there.
Paul gives us a beautiful description of love – one that is poetic, we read it often at weddings. But it’s a description that ought to challenge us more that it ought to soothe us – because everything it says love is we often are not, and everything it says love is not, we all to often are.
So when I read the second text from the Gospel of Luke – the story of Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth and how the crowd probably wanted for him to perform a miracle and Jesus doesn’t do so – I’m not too quick to be too critical of the people there. Now – they come across as arrogant … rude … they insist on having their own way. Jesus has come to teach them about love … he wants to expand their ability to show love to each other and to gentiles, against whom the Jewish people felt a lot of prejudice. And the Nazarenes want to throw him off a cliff for it.
They’re a lot like us: they want to keep Jesus in this little box … they want him to be their Jesus … their hometown boy who’s been off to the big city of Capernaum and done wondrous things there and made quite a name for himself. We do the same in the church with “our Jesus” … our Jesus who came and died for us and not for people we don’t like … people we don’t think deserve his grace (as if grace were something that could be deserved). In her book, Traveling Mercies, the writer Anne Lamont quotes a friend of hers as saying, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
When we insist that God has the same opinion about things as we do, but we never open ourselves to the light of scripture to learn otherwise, we bow down to the false idol of “our Jesus.” When we insist that being made in the “image of God” means that God looks like me, we raise our angry voices along with those of the crowd in Nazareth as they rush Jesus to the edge of the cliff.
One of the first profound theological moments I witnessed as a young child occurred while watching an episode of the old television series All in the Family. Archie Bunker and George Jefferson were arguing about what God looked like. Archie claimed that God was white and George claimed that God was Black. But neither one of them could see the image of God in each other.
We in the church often insist on our own way, and we are not open to the “better way” that Paul talks about – God’s way, the way of love.
Jesus came two thousand years ago and shared with us a very simple message – that love is the answer to every problem that human society faces. And like the crowd in Nazareth, we want to argue with him about it … we want to say that the world’s problems are just too complex for so simple an answer … all this stuff about love and peace and hope and faith is beautiful and wonderful in theory, but it’s not very practical. We want to chase Jesus to the edge of the cliff for even suggesting such a thing.
Jesus doesn’t let us get too comfortable with our fears and prejudices and our over-inflated sense of self-importance. He’s always nudging us to go in a direction we don’t always want to go – God’s way, the way of love. And we’re afraid to go with him because we’re afraid the crowd might want to throw us over the edge, too.
It may seem like too simple an answer, but in truth walking the way of love is the most complicated and treacherous journey we can ever undertake. If it were truly simple, we would choose it far more often than we do. Instead, we choose the easier self satisfying way of taking revenge, of taking advantage of others so we can get ahead, of watching out for our own self interests. Jesus offers us another way that will liberate us, will be the answer to every problem we have ever faced, but will also be the hardest thing we have ever done. And that is to walk the path of love.
Paul tells us that love never ends … along with faith and hope, it will continue to exist long after the Earth we live on has disappeared. How it will outlast the evil that so defines the human condition – evil seems so much stronger, so much more powerful – I can’t tell you. I don’t know the answer to that, and neither does Paul. But he does tell us we will eventually come to understand those things one day: “For now we see as 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.”
Friends, it’s hard for us to understand how we can never go wrong choosing the path of love. It’s not always the easiest path – it’s usually the hardest … it’s never without a lot of heartache and emotional trauma … and it’s not always the most immediately rewarding path, either. It’s the path of the cross … it leads to Calvary … the path our Savior walked two thousand years ago to bring us Salvation … and the road we find ourselves on as a result of that Salvation.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.