There I was after the picture-perfect wedding ceremony with the bride and groom. Everything had been just so. Colorful flowers and bows cascaded from each pew. Bridesmaids wore designer dresses. The bride got to the front of the church before the train on her dress had cleared the back door! The little ring bearer and flower girl were too cute and frighteningly well-behaved. And now the photographer was going to make sure we recorded the consummate occasion for all of posterity. Everyone posed just so and smiled just right. Finally, the photographer called me over and said, “Pastor, now we are going to go to the pulpit and take a picture of the bride and groom’s hand entwined on the luv chapter. He pronounced it just that way. The luv chapter. Like the luv boat.
I said, “Excuse me?” He said, “Oh, the luv chapter. 1st Corinthians, chapter 13. Well, that was interesting because 1st Corinthians 13 had not even been read at the wedding. But the assumption was that 1st Corinthians 13 is read at ALL weddings. And, admittedly, it is at most. Most couples choose it because they love each other very much and this chapter in our Bible talks about love. “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful …etc.” It is a beautiful passage.
But therein lies the problem. It becomes just another thing of beauty – an adornment like the flowers or dresses, instead a thing of great meaning. And the meaning it does contain has often been misunderstood as romantic in nature. WE have taken these words out of their original context which is St. Paul’s discussion of the gifts of the spirit – and we have come to see them only in the context of weddings or man/woman romance. As one pastor has said, “St. Paul’s grand explication of love has, for many, all the profundity of a Barry Manilow song.”
Oh, we went over to the pulpit, and I stood stoically with the bride and groom while they had their picture taken with their hands clasped together on the luv chapter.
If we’re going to understand the importance of the great Chapter 13 in the Book of Corinthians we must understand Chapter 12. Chapter 12 tells us that the Holy Spirit has given different people different gifts. Some have the gift of wisdom. Others, knowledge. Others, healing. Others, leadership. Etc. Chapter 12 goes to great lengths to tell us that different people have different gifts. Chapter 12, though, tells us that there is one gift God has given to everybody. And that gift is love. God loves us. But, more importantly, God has given each and every one of us the ability to love others.
Everyone has the spiritual gift of love. And they have it in two ways. First of all, everyone IS loved. Everyone is loved by God. Despite who they are or what they have done or what they haven’t done, they are loved. By God. But secondly – and this is the one which is difficult to understand – everyone has been given the ability TO love. You can’t use the excuse that, “Oh, I wasn’t in the room when God was passing out that spiritual gift.” Everyone has the ability to love. Even in difficult situations and even with difficult people.
It reminds me of the quote I heard one time: “I sure would enjoy church a lot more if it weren’t for all these people in it!” I imagine that’s true a bit for all of us. If we could just come up here to the altar and commune with God. And – maybe – commune with the saints who have gone before us. (Sometimes it is easier to live with the memories of the deceased than it is people who are still with us.) In reality, we find ourselves communing with people who don’t think like us, don’t have the same theology we do, don’t have the same piety we do, don’t have the same politics we do.
Not only are there people around us to are not like us, but there are people who DO not like us. For whatever reason. They do not like us. What 1st Corinthians 13 tells us is that we can love these people. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.”
It works that way outside church, too. If you think the person in front of you on the toll road is a jerk, the person behind you may think YOU are a jerk. 1st Corinthians 13 tells us that we have the ability to love each of these people as well. “Love does not insist on its own way,” it ways. “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 is a gift we have been given and we have the power to employ it if and when we decide to. If and when we decide to. You see, love is a decision we make. And it is not something we feel, but something we do. Love is an action.
Sometimes, when we talk about loving God we fall into thinking of it the same way young men and young women come to the altar loving one another. There are feelings of tenderness. Fondness. Adoration, maybe. Passion? Probably. All of these are emotions of the heart. But, in marriage, long after the picture of the hands clasped on the “luv chapter” have been put in the album and stored in the attic, the couple soon finds out that emotions have changed. Actually living with someone is difficult. Putting up with other people’s shortcomings can be a strain. And so, over a period of years, couples make a decision which goes beyond caring about the other person, but goes to caring for the other person. Caring for – as in doing for. Giving aid and assistance and support.
So it is with loving God. Over a lifetime things may happen which cause you to wonder if you really love God – as in feeling tenderness, fondness, adoration, passion. Maybe someone you love has become sick. Maybe you have become sick. Maybe someone you love has dies. And you become angry with God. And you ask yourself, “How can I love God if I am angry with God? How can I get the adoration and passion back in my heart?
It isn’t going to work for you to wait around for reverence and devotion to suddenly settle in your heart. Rather, it works by deciding to love God – no, not the abstract divine spirit out there half way between heaven and our own imagination. Rather, love God by feeding hungry people, getting cold people into warming shelters, embracing neighbors who live on the other side of arbitrary borders, building bridges instead of walls. Love God in the local – by embracing this congregation’s mission to serve. Love God by taking your Christian vision of peace, love, and multicultural diversity into the voting booth with you. Love God by doing love.
How many times have you heard me say that we don’t so much think our way into doing as doing our way into thinking. It works that way with love, too. We don’t act because we love. We love because we act. It works that way with our neighbor. It works that way with God.
1st Corinthians 13 will still be read at most weddings. It is a given. But once – just once – at a wedding … I would like to hear Matthew 25 read: ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and took care of you.’ And Jesus answered them, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Yeah! That’s it! The next time a photographer wants a picture of the bride and groom with their hands folded lovingly on the “luv chapter”, I will turn the Bible open to Matthew 25. Let’s see if he notices.