I have never been much of a poetry aficionado. Every once in a while, however, a poem captures my interest, and one of those rare poems is by the poet ee cummings. I don’t know what there is about the poem, but I really like it. I like it enough that I carry a copy of it in my Bible. The poem is titled I Carry Your Heart With Me, and here it is (please note that the capitalization and spacing is according to the way it was originally published by cummings) –
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
There is something about that line i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart) that I find very moving. I guess it’s the way it touches on love, and who doesn’t like the idea of love, right? Love is so powerful and so overwhelming that we struggle to find language to express that love, and that is why poetry and music are such powerful tools when it comes to speaking about love, because normal language will not suffice. We need language that is poetic and metaphorical, and that is the kind of language that allows us to take normal, every day phrases and imbue them with much deeper meaning.
This morning we begin a new series of messages based on I Corinthians 13, which we often refer to as the love chapter. I Corinthians 13 is one of the most beloved passages in all of Scripture, and it is easy to see why. Written in beautiful, soaring, poetic, metaphorical language, those words of Paul call us to the highest of ideals – love. The words are so beautiful that they have become embedded in our larger culture, to the point that even people who have never picked up a Bible know about this passage and can even quote bits and pieces of it.
I’m not sure how long I am going to go with this series; it will probably take four to six weeks to work through it, but we’ll take whatever amount of time is necessary. This morning we will take the first few verses as we talk about Making Love Visible. We will also use different translations each week, as different translations help us to gain insights we might not otherwise find. This week I will read from the New International Translation. Next week I will use the King James Version. Follow along with me as I read those immortal words of I Corinthians 13:1-13 –
1 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part,
10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.
11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.
12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
I have to admit that there is some irony in my preaching about love this morning. As I was driving to church today my mind, for some reason, went back some years to thinking about a very difficult, painful time, a time made difficult and painful because of a person who very consciously had decided to make my life difficult, and by the time I got to church I was not in a loving mood. Perhaps that is all the more reason why I needed to present this message this morning. All of us struggle with love, certainly with the call to love others whether or not they love us in return.
There’s a couple of points I want to make about love this morning in relation to the topic of Making Love Visible, the first of which is –
- Love is the pre-eminent value for those who follow Jesus, and as such, it must be seen.
Wow, that seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? Not exactly a profound statement you’re making there, Dave, you might be thinking.
Love is the pre-eminent value for those who follow Jesus, and if any other value rises above love, things are out of whack, pure and simple. Some people want to make right belief the primary value, and while beliefs are important, the reality is that you can believe all the right things and still treat people horribly. We can line up perfectly in terms of theology, checking every line of every creed ever written, but be a really big jerk. We can write textbooks on belief and theology without ever expressing love to anyone.
It is always a good thing to tell people that we love them, but is that enough? No. It’s nice to say it, but words can never amount to the full expression of love, so while love is the pre-eminent value it is also important to note that it is a verb, not a noun. Love is a word of action. And it is such a word of action that Christian love does not place limits on love, even when it comes to our enemies. Too often, there are limits that one bumps into when talking about love. There might be a limit according to what the person looks like, or what they believe or don’t believe in terms of faith or politics, or something else about the person. There are all manner of objections people can find that can create a line across which they will not cross when it comes to love. I understand this can be true within the Christian faith, but here’s an important qualification when that happens – when there is a limit placed – it is not in keeping with the example and the teaching of Jesus. It’s just not.
Paul says that love is not only the ultimate value, he says it is a value that must be seen. Paul uses some really picturesque language in the first few verses to make this point. In verse one he says if I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. Now with all due respect to my friends and family members who are drummers, a clanging cymbal is not the most pleasant of sounds, is it? Don’t believe me? Listen as I strike a cymbal on the drum set here in our sanctuary. That’s not exactly a lovely sound, is it? To paraphrase Paul, if your love for people is not visible then the words you are uttering are about as pleasant as that crashing cymbal. Should I strike it again to emphasize the point?
Can love be love if it is not made visible? I think, on a technical basis, it might be possible to say, yes, but on a practical level I think it’s accurate to say that if love is not made visible then, no, it’s not really love. At least it’s not a love that is of any value. So I’m going to paraphrase Paul a bit here, and paraphrase those first few verses that Paul was saying to the church at Corinth in this way – Hey church – actions speak louder than words! Stop talking and start doing! If it isn’t seen, it isn’t real!
- Love is very, very difficult.
What I find really fascinating about this passage is that, while it is so beloved, it is also among the toughest and most difficult of all Scripture passages. Reading verses 4 – 7, which list some of the characteristics of love, we receive a blunt reminder of how tough it is to truly follow the ideal of love, especially when it adds in the word always – love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. I can say that I sometimes protect, sometimes trust, sometimes, hope, or sometimes persevere, but I can’t say that I always do.
Love is not easy, obviously. At least, if it’s the love of which Paul speaks, it is not easy. Paul is speaking of what we call agape love. Agape, as you might know, is one of the four Greek words for love, and agape is the deepest and greatest form of love. Agape love is the love that sees its fullest expression in God, and when we understand that this is the love of which Paul speaks, we instantly understand that it is not an easy love to express. One of the reasons why this love is so difficult is because it asks us to put the interests of someone else ahead of our own. That’s a definition Paul gives to love in Philippians 2:4, where he writes each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. That doesn’t really sound all that appealing, does it? And that’s just one of the reasons why love is tough. Another, certainly, is because agape love is a type of love that asks us to love even our enemies. As Jesus says in the sermon on the mount you have heard that it was said “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? (Matthew 5:43-44, 46).
But for all the difficulty of love, we are still very much drawn to the ideal of love, and not just a partial ideal, but the full blown ideal of love as described here by Paul. We instinctively know that for all the difficulty, for all the seeming impossibility of fully loving others, it is the one true answer for humanity.
- Love stands up for others.
This is really, really important. Romantic love is great. Family love is great. Friendship love is great. But there is a deeper love that is required. Love cannot be all flowers, rainbows, music, puppies, and kittens, because we live in a world that is tough and mean and it is a place where people are hurt and taken advantage of and abused and victimized and simply saying can’t we all get along will not cut it. Love cannot only be reserved for our spouses, our families, and our friends, love must also be given to those who need someone to stand up for them, and we must do this for one reason beyond all others, and that is because it is what Jesus did. Jesus stood up for others. Think about Jesus standing up, for instance, for the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-11 – 1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”). The world was not kind to women in the time of Jesus, and it still isn’t, but Jesus stood up for this woman who was so ill-treated, a woman of whom many people would have said, well she deserves it, that’s what “those kind” of women deserve. Well, thank goodness God doesn’t give us what we deserve. That’s called grace. Grace gives to us God’s love, which is not what we deserve, and yet, so often, we think people ought to get what we think they “deserve,” when in reality what they should get from us is grace, just as God gives to them.
Love does not overlook what should not be overlooked, and what I mean by that is this – love does not turn its head or look away from injustice because Jesus did not. Jesus taught about love, he demonstrated love, he called us to love, he commanded us to love our enemies; and in doing so Jesus never turned a blind eye to injustice and the way in which it victimized people. Jesus never said we should accept injustice as a part of life. He never said we should accept abuses in the name of “getting along.” Jesus was very critical of those who perpetrated injustices upon others. In fact, take a few minutes today or sometime this week and read through Matthew chapter 23. In that chapter, Jesus gives a blistering critique of the religious leaders. He criticized them for the legalistic burdens they place upon people, he said the good they did was mostly for show and not genuine, he called them hypocrites, he said they were full of greed and self-indulgence, he compared them to whitewashed tombs that were full of dead men’s bones, he called them a brood of vipers. I mean it is an absolutely blistering critique (here it is for your convenience – Matthew 23:1-39 – 1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. 5 “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others. 8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. 13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. 14 Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Therefore you will be punished more severely. 15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are. 16 “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ 17 You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18 You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’ 19 You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22 And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it. 23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. 25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. 27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. 29 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30 And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started! 33 “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 34 Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35 And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation. 37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 38 Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”)
It would have been easy for one of those religious leaders to say well now, that’s not very loving Jesus! If you love us, you would be nice to us! Sometimes, however, the most loving act a person can do is to stand up for someone who is being treated unjustly, to champion those who are taken advantage of by those in power, to protest against the wrongs that people are forced to suffer. Jesus was angry about injustice precisely because of love – because he loved those who were victims of injustice and loved those who were abused, and loved those who were oppressed and because he loved them he was angry about what they suffered and he spoke out against it.
I would say, without hesitation, that love is the answer to the ills of the world. After just completing a 4-message series about living in a divided world, I can say that love is the answer to that division. I would also say, however, that there is some irony in the reality that love is not only the answer to our divisions, it is also a cause of division. I know that sounds contradictory, but it is true. It is true because love requires us to do things that can cause division, such as standing up against the injustice and unfairness that so many people must suffer. Jesus said, in Matthew 10:34 do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. What Jesus meant by that, I believe, is that his love compelled him to stand up for others, and when we stand up for others we will upset some people, because some people profit from the unfairness and injustices of the world. When we act in love to stand up for others, we will upset what Paul calls the principalities and powers (Ephesians 6:12 – For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places) of the world, that is, those systems that profit from injustice and the exploitation of others, and when that profit is threatened, they will not respond in a positive way. In fact, they will respond in a very harsh and even violent manner. We must, however, stand up for people, even when we face a harsh response.
How many of you ever wish you could go back in time and change things in your life? I sure do. I don’t understand people who say they would never change anything. Either they have led a really outstanding life or they are very lacking in self-awareness. I would change so much, and at the top of my list would be standing up and speaking up more. There were times, especially when I was younger, when I was far, far too silent. There were too many times when I stood quietly by while others were bullied and mistreated, and I very much regret that now. When I enter eternity, there are some people I want to make a beeline to in order to tell them how sorry I am that I did not stand up for them. When I had the opportunity to make love visible, I failed to do so. I’m not saying I never fail to make love visible in the ways I should, but I try, and I want to continue to try harder, because I don’t want to be a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.