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A sermon preached by the Rev. John H. Nichols to the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, on October 14, 2007

The "Love Passage"

When couples come to me to plan a wedding they frequently request what they call, “That love passage.” Some are not sure if it’s from the Bible. Some believe it was probably Shakespeare. Others remember it’s in the Bible but they aren’t sure which testament it’s in or who said it. But they do remember these words, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.” This haunting passage from 1 Corinthians 13 has been called Paul’s hymn to love.

We read it often at weddings. But, every time I read it, I am aware there are some verses that are very hard to understand now. For instance, the writer affirms, “even if I give up my body to be burned but have not love, it would gain me nothing.” This passage has a meaning, but time has made the meaning unclear to modern ears.

And the standards set by phrases like, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs,” are raising the bar pretty high for most of us. Much of the time, we are not that good. Whenever a couple requests this passage for their service I find myself wondering if they know what they are doing.

So, I’ve used this passage with caution over the years until recently when my friend and colleague, Marjorie Rebmann of Montpelier, Vermont, helped me to see things differently. What I want to do next is to share her story with you. Actually I doubt if you will ever hear this “love passage” again without remembering her story and my conclusion to it.

Marjorie got a new program for her computer. Through this program she could speak into a microphone, which was mounted on a headset and her words appeared on the computer screen. There was no typing involved, just dictating. The program was called “Dragon Naturally Speaking.” Now, Maggie believed that Dragon would allow her to dictate sermons, memorial services and weddings into the computer so that she could cut in half the amount of time it ordinarily took her to type everything down using a keyboard.

The night she installed it, she learned that in order for the computer to get to know her voice she would have to read to it for half an hour. She chose to read from a book titled, Dave Barry in Cyberspace, thinking that Dragon would enjoy hearing more about its own world.

I now tell the story in her words. “Dragon has some Buddhist leanings. To start it you only have to say “Wake up!” To stop it, you have to say, “Go to sleep!” To erase a word, you have to say “Scratch that.” So I sat for an hour (talking into) a headset characteristically slurring my words .. saying “Scratch that,” going back, saying the same words over again and periodically pouring another cup of tea.

“When that was over the program asked me to further refine its recognition of my voice by reading some passages of my (own) work with words which I normally use. They were fairly easy words…like peace and freedom, soul and spirit, justice and mercy, compassion and forgiveness, committee meeting and potluck, grace and faith and, of course, Canvass Sunday.

“Dragon inhaled my voice and memorized my speech pattern. I was ready to roll about nine thirty, so I decided to write a wedding, which was scheduled for the coming weekend. The bride and groom had requested 1 Corinthians 13. Gingerly, I whispered into the headset, “Wake up.” (Nothing happened.) Waking sleepy dragons is the stuff of fairy tales and myth. I had to say it much louder. “Wake Up!” (then I read..)

“’If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but do not have love I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol,’ I said. But apparently Dragon had not quite registered my speech pattern. On the screen before me slowly appeared the words, “If I speak in the gongs of mortal sand angel’s butts do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a gang symbol.

“’And if I have’ I said, ‘Prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and knowledge, and if I have faith so as to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.’ Dragon wrote ‘miseries’ for ‘mysteries’ and ‘legend’ for ‘knowledge and’. But I pressed on. Around ten-o-clock the phone rang as I was working and I hollered for someone to get it. I was interrupted again by someone in the house asking where something was. I continued with a couple more interruptions and no little frustration at the words that were appearing on the screen.

“I decided to read it all over since I had fixed the thing about ‘mortal sand and angels butts.’ I read from the screen. ‘Love is patient. Will someone get that damned phone? Love is kind. Why should I know where your new CD is? Who was your servant last year? Love is not envious, boastful or ‘arrogate crude.’ Not only were the words scrambled but I had forgotten to put Dragon to sleep whenever I spoke to anyone in the house. Every word I said was being recorded.

“Dragon went on crooning about love. ‘It does not insist on its own way..” Play that CD a little lower please. I gotta get this wedding done. ‘It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in mongering (meaning wrongdoing) but rejoices in the truce.’

“That’s how a computer chip reminded me about religious living. A tiny opalescent crystal grown in a lab somewhere preached a whole sermon to me in my own words. I’ve always deeply appreciated the language of 1 Corinthians 13, a brief notebook on how to recognize love and how to practice it. Entwined in its classic lines now were the every day practical words of frustration. Reading the passage over was somehow hilariously .. moving..

“Corinthians is not a collection of pixels on a plastic page but one of the sanctuaries of the soul to which we retreat when we want to be assured of how to live best in the world. Only we can give the words their value, and only we can live them into meaning.”

Now I resume my own voice. In the arcane world of Christian theology scholars used to teach that 1 Corinthians 13 was really a description of God’s selfless love of Christ and through Christ for us. Or, it has been said that the passage really encourages us all to try and achieve a kind of whole hearted, unselfish love of all humanity – a love which seems wholly beyond the reach of those of us who still can become irritated and even full blown furious at people we usually love.

Maggie then brings the passage right down to the plain where all of us struggle with the guilt we feel when those we deeply care for also have the capacity to frustrate and irritate us royally. Despite lofty interpretations of scholars down through the centuries, I am now convinced that this question of sustaining normal human love through the ordinary push and pull of daily life was precisely the dilemma that Paul had in mind when he wrote this thirteenth chapter of his letter to his congregation in Corinth.

To make matters complicated the people in Corinth were not, actually, a great congregation. We interim ministers would have called that congregation “A Minister Killer.” This is because every member of the congregation thought he or she should have been THE minister.

Those who thought they could preach thought they could probably preach up a storm better than anyone else in the congregation. Others thought they could teach better or plan better or lead better or they thought they were wiser or more humble or more charismatic or more favored by God. They were so constantly in each other’s faces that they were all “elbows and knees”, pushing and shoving each other out of the way. Arrogance and pride ruled the day in Corinth.

How will Paul address this? First he speaks to those who fancy themselves preachers and he tells them that no matter how much they may think they are God’s gift to oratory, if they do not love or respect the people who listen to them they are like a “sounding gong or a clanging symbol.”

He tells those who think they are the world’s greatest executives and planners that if they have no love or respect for those for whom they plan their work is worthless. He tells the fundamentalists in the group that while their unquestioning faith is laudatory in its way, if they have no real caring for others, their faith won’t do anyone any real good. Finally he says to those who boast of their humility that even though they may make the ultimate expression of their humility by throwing their bodies on the fire to honor some great cause – it will be a worthless gesture without love.

Paul then goes on to describe love both in terms of what it is and what it is not. The “is not” part is what sounds extremely demanding to us, but it is important to remember to whom Paul was writing. When Paul tells us what love is not – envious, arrogant, rude, selfish, irritable, self righteous – he is specifically reminding the people of Corinth that they have been all those things and more – and they know it.

But for the rest of us – when we read this – we know we have felt traces of those negative qualities in our own relationships with those we love. Who here can really say they have never been envious or arrogant or rude or selfish or irritable with someone they have loved? No one can say that.

But, Paul is not talking about fleeting moments of enviousness or arrogance or rudeness or anger, which most of us do experience even in our closest relationships. Paul is talking about what characterizes our relationships with people usually. Do we really hope for their success as equally as we hope for our own, or would we sort of prefer that they fail – at least a little – so that we can look better in comparison to that failure. Do we really regard other people with as much reverence and wonder as we do ourselves? Can we extend the same compassion to others that we hope to receive for ourselves?

Love means truly wishing the best for other people. It means hoping they can grow to be stronger than their pain. It means we are willing to stand by other people and to give them as much strength and encouragement as we can while they wrestle with their own angels and their own demons. Love means that while we have our moments of anger, frustration and impatience we will try to overcome them most of the time.. Love means we will have to tolerate occasionally getting hurt as this is the price we pay for being close to others. But we do not have to tolerate being abused.

Love does not mean that we become completely credulous. When you are raising children you realize that while you might wish to believe everything they tell you in order to demonstrate your trust in their honesty there are times when it is wiser to check things out also. The Greek words which were translated, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things” can also be translated into these words, “There is nothing love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope and its endurance.”

Our deepest convictions and our passing reactions live side by side – often uncomfortably, as Marjorie Rebmann’s computer taught her and reminded us. We care very deeply for the people we love, and yet whatever is on the surface of our thoughts and reactions at any given time may not reflect our deepest commitments. If there is love between individuals then we have to hope that Paul is right, and that our caring for one another is stronger than the ways in which we sometimes fail to express it.

In a more recent translation of that famous “Love passage” this phrase stands out, “Love can stand any kind of treatment; love’s first instinct is to believe in people; love never regards anyone or anything as hopeless; nothing can happen that can break love’s spirit.”

Sometimes we love people when it is difficult to like them. “Love never regards anyone or anything as hopeless,” but it is pretty hard to like people who are behaving in an arrogant, selfish or angry way. Love means that we do not treat bad behavior as if it were acceptable. We do not ignore what we feel needs to be changed. That’s called giving up, and “Love never regards anyone or anything as hopeless.” We may not like some people in our lives but it is a far more serious thing to give up on them.

And what is the effect of all this love, if indeed it exists. How does it rate against having the power to charm audiences or win elections or lead armies or write brilliantly or invent and market a best selling product or rising to the top echelons of command in any organization. All things, Paul tells us, will pass away.

For most of us, our greatest achievements will be like puzzling reflections in a mirror when we try at the end of our lives to understand what has been most important. What have we most valued? What do we most want to be remembered for? What will our friends say about us at our memorial services, and what will our children remember years after we have left them? I can tell you the answer to that. They will probably forget the honors we earned and the positions we held, but they will remember the many ways, subtle and direct, in which we loved them.

He concludes this passage, “In a word, there are three things that last forever: faith, hope and love; but the greatest of them is love.” May they remember that we believed in them and that we let them know it. That’s what love means.

In many Unitarian Universalist congregations the people stand each week and repeat an affirmation that begins “Love is the doctrine of this church.” Whatever else that means, may it remind us to believe in each other, to seek out the best in each other and never lose faith in the value of what we do together. That is my hope for every interim time.