June 26, 2016
Church of Peace, UCC
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Who Brings a Poem to a Church Fight?
Chances are, if you have ever been to a Christian wedding in the United States, you have probably heard this scripture before:
“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. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing…
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” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2, 4-8a).
This is the favorite scripture for weddings, and we can certainly hear why. It is an exquisite reminder of the power of love that holds together the truth we have always known with the truth that doesn’t seem all the way possible. Love does not insist on its own way? Really? That’s the love to learn right there. No wonder this is exactly the right scripture for a wedding.
Of course, that was not its intention. What happened was the apostle Paul was in the middle of a rant against the behavior of the church at Corinth. Now this was a church he had founded a few years earlier, in the mid fifties. It was an urban congregation known for its cultural and economic diversity. Some members were wealthy elites; some were from the working class. Members were from a variety religious backgrounds. With differences in value systems and power dynamics, it didn’t take long for this church to become embroiled in conflict.
The people were fighting about: whether Paul’s authority could be trusted, how to respond to accusations of sexual immorality, whether it’s okay to eat the food offered to idols, what it means to speak in tongues, whether it is acceptable to gather for the Lord’s supper then just eat your own food whenever you want so the people who come late don’t get any food, whether women are required to cover their hair in worship. Take a few minutes sometime and skim through First Corinthians, you’ll see it’s amazing the Church has survived.
In the middle of this letter giving counsel and reprimand, it’s like Paul takes a breath. Maybe he lifts his eyes to the LORD or maybe he looks right into the eyes of the people in his church. But what do you say to the people who are in the middle of a fight? How do you even get them to hear you, to drop the charges for a second so you can talk? See the flash of rage behind their eyes. Then Paul stills the gong, and puts down the clanging cymbal and says, “Let me show you a still more excellent way, something so much more: it’s love, is love, is love, is love, is love.
For the past five weeks, we’ve been exploring the role of marriage in the Bible. Both in the ancient world, and in our contemporary society, the thing about the institution of marriage is that it’s constantly changing. These days you might hear some call for a return to “traditional marriage” and we kind of know what they mean, but the truth is, there is no single model of traditional marriage.
Historically, marriage was an economic arrangement; only recently has it become associated with love. During the lifetime of many people in this room, it has become legal in the U.S. for a black person and white person to get married. During the lifetime of nearly all of us (except Kellyn), it has become legal in the U.S. for gay and lesbian couples to get married.
These days, many couples are navigating marriages that bring together two different religions. There was a time when getting married was commonly a rite of passage reserved for young adults. Now, adults of all ages get married. Now, it is common for couples to live together before getting married, and it is not at all unusual for weddings to include the children of the couple. Marriage keeps changing.
With a few notable exceptions, generally, people do not get married in order to cause a social revolution. People get married because they love their partner and need to go public with this commitment. What this means is that, as an institution, marriage is less a trigger for change and more a reflection of the change that is already underway. Or to borrow an analogy from Rev. King, marriage is not the thermostat causing the change, it’s the thermometer marking the change.
This means debates about marriage are really about something deeper, really about the way our society is changing. Just like the debates about lunch counters, and water fountains, and now bathrooms, are not really about lunch counters, and water fountains, and bathrooms.
Yesterday there was a march on Washington to proclaim that the only valid marriage is between one man and one woman. On the other hand, today is the one year anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality, and who knows what tomorrow will bring. Things are changing and we do not all agree. The controversy about marriage illuminates how we are living in a nation of change and conflict. You know we are living in a church of change and conflict. We always have been; and that’s not even the problem.
If you ask me, the problem comes in the pressure to hurry up and get on the right side, join the right group, and take the right stand. It’s like musical chairs— hurry up and get a seat before the music stops, and I better get the right one because all my friends are watching — and God help me, I don’t want to get yelled at, or laughed at, or embarrassed…
Or maybe it’s like all of these political and social issues are lunch tables in a middle school cafeteria. All anybody wants is to find a seat at the right table. All nobody wants is to be the person walking around with a lunch tray, completely exposed, unsure where to sit.
Can you imagine the vulnerability of the woman walking around in the room, who’s genuinely struggling in her heart with what she believes about gay marriage, or prayer in school, or gun regulations? Can you imagine the quiet courage of the man who says, “Well I have always believed this, but now that I hear your experience, maybe I’ve been wrong…” Make no mistake. These are world-changing words.
These words remind us that we can change our minds. You might change your mind one day; I might change mine; it has happened to me before. It is how Christ is at work in each of us, not finished with us yet. Now it’s been my experience that older people are better at changing than younger people; they have more experience with change and are not so easily threatened. But all of us have the potential to see a little more nuance and become a little more open-minded. All of us harbor the potential to be persuaded by a different point of view; this is how we are human, thank God.
As Paul puts it, “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. For now we see in a mirror dimly, 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” (1 Corinthians 13:11-12).
These days the world does not need another cafeteria where people get sorted into the right tables and expected to stay there. The world needs communities of peacemaking in which people can risk asking brave and tender questions, where people can listen to views that are deeply offensive then keep listening to the question lurking inside the rant.
The world needs communities where people can confess, “Lord I want to believe! Help my unbelief,” where people can grapple with their own conscience and say “I am just not sure about this” then hear the other people say, “That’s okay; we’ll still be here when you decide.”
The world needs communities where our diversity and our potential for change are not liabilities —they’re our best gifts, where conflict does not send us scurrying back to our cliques, but where conflict calls us to one table so that whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. This is being Church of Peace. And the world needs more Church of Peace.
We are the ones. Nobody’s asking us to stay silent or stay home when there’s a massacre in a sanctuary, or a march on Washington, or a parade of rainbows soaring through the sky. Nobody’s asking you to stay neutral. Instead, we can show up to the conflict and not even flinch. We can take a breath and lift our eyes to the LORD then look right into the eyes of the people, into that flash of rage. Because we have not come to join the fighting.
We have come to make our lives into a chorus echoing the promise of God. We’re here because we’ve got the poem that needs to be released onto the floor of the House. It needs to reverberate through the prisons and the nightclubs, through Congress and congregational meetings, through the middle school cafeterias and even through the weddings. See there is still a more excellent way:
Love is patient; love is kind. Love is not envious, or boastful, or arrogant, or rude. Love does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things. Love believes all things, really… Love never ends. Thank God.