Sunday, January 21st's fabulous message “Held Together By Love” by Rev. Toni Carmer.
Held Together By Love
1 Corinthians 13
First United Methodist Church, January 21, 2017
Pastor Toni Carmer
I love music.
I'm not a musician, I don't play any musical instruments, though as a teenager I was pretty competent with a kazoo. I have a very average voice, but I love singing close to the choir and along with folks who know how to sing. And I love listening to music. All kinds of music.
I enjoy classical music, and especially enjoy hearing the flute, violins, cello and harp. Scott and I sat in a honky-tonk in New Orleans a few years ago and listened to jazz and blues—oh, my, it was good. The great hymns of the faith stir me to the soul, especially when accompanied by a pipe organ. I love praise music, classic-rock, and every now and then I enjoy something that my children play for me (though it's not as restful as prefer). When I feel a sufficient amount of abandon, at least in my own home, with only my husband as witness, I might even try to dance a step or two along with it.
But my basic go-to, the kind of music that the pre-sets on my radio are set to, and the ones that I connect to on Pandora radio, is country. That's my relaxation. I do wish there were less references to drinking—there's too much of that—but some of the lines over the years are just unbeatable: "I've got tears in my ears from lying on my bed, crying my eyes out over you." How can that not help but bring a smile to your face, even on the most stressful of days, and a sigh of satisfaction that all is right with the world?
If you're not a country music fan, it's important to know that the main theme of the music almost always focuses on love. Lovin' a man or lovin' a woman (sometimes that's momma); lovin' a child or lovin' a pet [usually an old dog or a horse], lovin' an 18 wheeler or a pick-up truck. But it's often about the loss of love, reflecting the lack of permanence in relationships, and how that person is dealing with that loss in their life. Two of my personal favorite classics, "that woman that I had wrapped around my finger just came unwound," and "let's fall to pieces together," pretty much give you a flavor—although it's a bit indirect—of what love, and the loss of love is all about.
Well, Paul describes love in a little different way for us in this text from 1st Corinthians, though he goes about it kind of indirectly, as well. As he writes to the people of Corinth, we know that he's really worried about them. They're not getting along well at all. They're divided, they're fighting among themselves, they're treating some folks as being more valuable than others, mostly because they're not all worshiping the same way. They're valuing certain individuals—certain gifts—that some people have over the gifts of others. We talked about that a bit last week—in Chapter 12 of Paul's letter, he tells the Corinthians that they're all essential members of the Body of Christ, no matter what their individual gifts are. He writes that each person is a necessary and unique part of the body. That all of them together can do a whole lot more than any one of them can do alone. He even tells them that some of the more subtle, less obvious gifts, may perhaps be more valuable than those that are "right out there" and obviously present for all to see and hear.
As he continues his letter, the section that we've read today, the one that's often identified as the "Love Chapter," Paul says that no matter how good one is, no matter what great things one might say or do, those things don't make a bit of difference to anyone if they're not done in love. Those things are worth nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. That which binds the people together—that which makes those individual differences come together in a way that makes use of ALL gifts—that far-out performs any ONE gift—that which makes it work—is plain and simple: it's love.
So what's love? Paul focuses on what it isn't, though words like patient and kind and enduring comes to mind, too. This chapter is commonly read and expanded upon at weddings, which can be pretty intimidating to a lot of us, because most of us are at some [wish no one was around to witness it] moment at least a little irritable and even rude at times. Though I'm sure very few of us would ever insist on our own way. Love is one of those things that is difficult to define. It's one of those "I know it when I see it," and "I know it when I feel it" kinds of experiences.
The problem, I'm afraid, is that too many of us have been "looking for love in all the wrong places." Love is more than a feeling. It's more than words. Someone can tell you they love you, and then turn around and do some pretty unloving things to you. We know love in its action. We know love in the way it's given—without condition—without the desire or the need to receive something in return—without regard to our individual shortcomings or failures.
It can be hard to love sometimes.
It's not so commonly found as we might hope.
I know a lot of silly and worthless things get sent around on Facebook, but I saw something awhile back that I thought was really sweet. Since Valentine's Day isn't so far away, it seems pretty appropriate.
A group of 4-8 year olds were asked the question: "What does love mean?" Here are some of their answers:
"When my grandmother got arthritis she couldn't bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis, too. That's love."
"When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You know that your name is safe in their mouth."
"Love is when you go out to eat and give somebody most of your French fries without making them give you any of theirs."
"Love is what makes you smile when you're tired."
"Love is when my mommy makes coffee for my daddy and she takes a sip before giving it to him, to make sure it tastes okay."
"Love is what's in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen."
"Love is when you tell a guy you like his shirt, then he wears it everyday."
"Love is when your puppy licks your face even after you left him alone all day."
"When you love somebody, your eyelashes go up and down and little stars come out of you."
Love is a whole lot bigger than the words that we have to define it, but you know it when you see it; you know it when you experience it.
I've been using a premarital inventory with engaged couples for a number of years now, called "PREPARE/ENRICH." It has about a zillion questions for couples to answer individually, then it's computer analyzed, and we come back together to discuss the couple's similarities and differences in how they answer the questions. Their responses are separated into strength areas and growth areas, and it can be a real eye-opener for individuals to see how their partner answers some of the questions.
I've been surprised over the years to see how many couples believe that their partner is the one and only person in the whole wide world who could ever make them happy. He's her "knight in shining armor." She's that vaguely understood "other half" who will somehow, mysteriously, make his life complete. They often have difficulty admitting that those entry level positions, huge credit card balances, new vehicle payments and student loan repayments in addition to the desire to buy a home in maybe 6 months to a year, will cause some tense moments in their newly established household. Their love will keep them together.
But we know that doesn't always happen.
Relationships don’t always turn out as we would like. Things happen over which we have no control. Most of us do the best we can, though sometimes even good and loving people aren't good and loving with one another. Half of those who are married today won't stay that way and I don't know how those statistics are all put together, but that's a really frightening statistic for all of us. We commit ourselves to one another in different ways, and in different times something happens where that commitment somehow falls short. Love that never ends, too often, does.
We're told in 1st Corinthians that "now we see through a mirror dimly." We know that love is there, somewhere around us, or in us, or in another, but we can't always see it or feel it. Socrates said that our experience of God, our understanding of God's love for us, is something we can only know partially, as it is reflected to us, in the things around us. He gives the example of being in a cave, and standing with our backs to the opening of the cave, and holding a mirror in such a way that we can almost, pretty much see what's outside the cave (at least as it's reflected in the mirror)—but it's not a total picture, a complete experience of what's out there. It's almost second hand; only a reflection of the actual, full experience.
That's the way love is for us. Sometimes it's right there: so real, so intense, that there's no denying its presence. Other times, it's like that elusive butterfly, just out of reach. Sometimes, it's wonderful. Sometimes, it lasts until the end of our time, and can hold us up even through the most difficult experiences of our lives. But sometimes, love and the loss of it—can be in itself the most difficult experience in our life.
Love can be a painful thing.
Perhaps no sentence in the English language contains so many hidden meanings as, "I love you." What that person is really saying may be:
- I love you so long as you stay the way you are now.
- I love you if you love me.
- I love you so long as you do what I want.
- I love you because I'm not sure of who I am without you.
But is that love? Is that what it's all about?
A few years ago, a friend who was separated and preparing to return to her emotionally abusive husband said to me, "Even through all this, I still love him and I know that he loves me." I couldn't understand it, and I couldn't help but ask and still wonder: what does love have to do with the way you've been living? Is it really love or is it something else?
Our Old Testaments speak often of the steadfast love of God. When I think of steadfast, I think of perseverance, constancy, faithfulness. The recognition that love does indeed remain in the bad times as well as the good. It grows with time. It changes, but it endures, as each looks for the best in each other, as each hopes for the best in the other, as each works for the best in the other. Love at first sight? That's not so hard for us to understand. It's love after 35/40/50 or more years that is the miracle.
That kind of love doesn't happen on its own. It takes some weathering of storms. It takes some focused attention. It takes desire. It takes 2 people working together, wanting to make it work. It takes someone offering love and someone receiving it, and those roles are shared back and forth. And it takes even more than that—it takes God.
Ecclesiastes 4:12 says that a three stranded cord isn't easily broken. When I read that, I think of a relationship between two people that includes God as a fundamental part of that relationship, woven together at the very core.
I'm not sure how people make it through life or love on their own. Love is a gift of God; it's not a human achievement. That's why we ask God to bless our marriages and all of our human relationships. Because, first of all, we need God—loving us, forgiving us, judging and correcting us, enabling us to pick up and start over again, giving us the humility to see just how difficult we can be, making it easier for us to love someone else and their faults.
Love is so much more than a romantic feeling…it's a gift: first given by God, that involves mutual commitment, endurance, faithfulness.
That gift involved a certain amount of vulnerability on God's part. There came with it the possibility of rejection and pain, and that became reality when Jesus was nailed on the cross. But even in that act, God didn't take the love away. God didn't make the decision at that point that we were unworthy or incapable of receiving love. Instead, through that event, we came to know even more about God's love for us: we came to know that God loves us even when we are most unlovable…and then God redeems us.
The love we share also involves vulnerability. In loving someone, we open ourselves up to the possibility of rejection. We open ourselves up to pain. And there are indeed, times when we are deeply hurt. But that doesn't mean that we're incapable of love, or that we don't deserve love. God's love can heal us, restore us, and help us to trust and to love again.
Love is here. We sing about it: here, at home, along with the radio. We rejoice in it. We suffer over it. We cry about it. We worry about it. And still, it abides. It's what holds us together. Not always in the way we expect, or from those from whom we might most desire it. At times it may seem invisible to us—the mirror may dim, the image may fade, but that doesn't mean it no longer exists. Love abides. It's ours in Christ.
Thanks be to God.