Sometimes a theme in the lectionary readings is obvious
and sometimes we have to go digging.
Sometimes I don’t care.
But today it hit me that the committee behind the curtain
must have been trying to corral
that monster of a middle reading from Paul
by wedging it tightly between two prophets
so it doesn’t escape and become a free-floating radical
like it does in wedding ceremonies.
Jeremiah and Jesus wear prophet pretty well:
that annoying voice of critique
that is sometimes belligerent
and never quite as soft as we want it to be,
especially when delivering news or perspectives
that rips our self-interest
and sets our teeth on edge like biting tin foil.
But Jeremiah is lyrical and Jesus entertaining
so we cut them some slack and listen anyway.
But normally Paul is all-annoying without the charm.
Yet in today’s famous ode to love
he is as squeezable as the Charmin.
So let’s squeeze a little.
Here is a riddle.
How is the French Romantic ideal of love,
now the pervasive definition in Western Civilization
of that altered state of adoration and affection –
how is it like a French fry?
Both delight our senses
and both are empty calories with little substance.
Please don’t get me wrong,
I have nothing against romance,
and Episcopal clergy do not take a vow of celibacy!
But romance and emotion
are not what Paul had in mind
when he wrote to the Corinthians about love.
Even though these words from Paul
are included in a great majority of church weddings
and spoken in the midst of those exquisite events,
they have nothing to do with romance or even emotion.
The reason Paul’s words on love from Corinthians
are in so many weddings
is that we require biblical readings at church weddings
even though the bible has almost nothing to say
With very few exceptions,
the Bible is silent about romance
and what we have come to imagine is love.
as in hot romantic and erotic emotions
which consume the first stages of a new intimacy,
does not occupy the interests of the ancients
who tried to capture what they considered
the essential spiritual wisdom of the ages.
In the ancient world,
at least among the ancients who were conservators
of our spiritual wisdom,
love is a verb.
Love is a verb,
a powerful spiritual force
that is invisible to the naked eye
but embodied and revealed
in sinewy and muscular actions
to move peoples and nations.
So let us disabuse ourselves
of French Romanticism
and its modern incarnation in popular culture
as we hear Paul’s poetic bouquet on love.
The filter through which we need to hear Paul’s words
is the pain and anguish of a bitterly divided congregation.
The Corinthians to whom he wrote
composed a community
festering with anger and resentment
and gnashing with hostile politics.
So actually, for Paul to speak about love
to people that were anything but loving to one another
was gutsy and prophetic.
Without getting into particulars,
the fledgling Corinthian community
who were followers of a dead Messiah,
had descended into self-righteous conflicts
over issues of right and wrong,
truths and beliefs,
God and Jesus.
Paul, as he was want to do,
took it upon himself to set the record straight
and tell them what was what.
We can debate the merits and demerits
of Paul’s proclivity
to tell people what to do and what to think,
but that is the context of these rather tough words
about something that today
we imagine is a soft target.
Paul is trying to pry-open
the people and cliques of the Corinthian community
so that they can see beyond their own self-interests
and imagine far beyond
their own competing loyalties.
Now I am not a very informed reader of Paul;
I harbor ill will toward him
and toward the organs of orthodoxy
and use him
to beat down Christians who think and believe
differently from imperial Christianity.
So I am generally not a trustworthy commentator
when it comes to Paul’s letters,
but I want to notice one thing
about Paul’s deeply perceptive words on love.
For Paul, as for Jeremiah and Jesus, love is a verb.
Love is concrete not conceptual.
Love is action not the usual pie-in-the-sky
religious cotton candy
that we so easily dismiss
in our dog-eat-dog economic worldview.
This prophetic view of love
is earth-wind-and-fire wisdom
as concrete and as practical
as a thatched roof or an asphalt road.
Allow me to walk us through
the behavioral dimensions of love
as Paul describes it
to a bitterly divided congregation,
and listen for how it applies to us
in a struggling denomination,
and an angry Anglican Communion,
and a warring nation,
and a riotous world.
Love is patient, according to Paul.
Specifically, love is strategic and takes the long view.
When our actions are powered by love
we are able to defer the need for short term gain
and dull the drive for immediate gratification
and hold out for better decisions
because we are in it for the long haul.
Love is patient because it is tenacious
and holds onto the people and commitments
with which it has pledge fidelity
even when relationship with those people
have blistered or fractured.
The patience of love bridges alienation in the moment
and finds its way to the other side
if at all possible and good.
Love is kind,
is what Paul adds to patience.
The version of kind that love is
will not always feel soft and quiet.
In fact, the kindness of love
is willing to tell the truth to those in denial
even to the point of offending them
when they are fiercely protecting their self-centeredness
and refusing to have their denial challenged.
When our action is powered by love
we understand that kindness is not measured
by niceness, but rather,
kindness is rendered through service
even when that service must be delivered
Love is generous,
another attribute of love as a verb according to Paul.
The counterpoint to generosity is envy
and in the presence of true generosity
Generosity frames the world
with the assumption of abundance rather than scarcity –
which means it is subversive to capitalism by the way.
Generosity bravely and wisely proceeds
in the knowledge that there is enough
and so it is grounded in solving
the problems of distribution.
Scarcity proceeds on the basis of fear
that there is not enough,
so the task is to take what you can get
and amass the resources with which to take more.
Love is confident but not boastful, is what Paul thinks.
Act by act, small and gritty,
love builds a firmness and constancy
within those doing the actions.
They build upon themselves, incrementally,
and surround the one doing the loving
with a peace that passes all understanding.
When held within that kind of peace
we know that we are never as great as others proclaim
nor as bad as they may blame;
and either way, we are loved.
Living in between the great and the terrible,
in the mud of the ordinary,
feels just fine to those who live and act in love.
Love discovers and rediscovers centeredness,
is another way that Paul describes love.
When we know that we are loved,
because we have become well-practiced
at performing small acts of love
every day and often within each hour,
we come know in our bones that we are also loved;
and we come to trust our own lovability
like a giant sycamore is rooted in the earth.
Dislocating elements of our personality
that routinely throw us off balance,
such as competitiveness and arrogance,
begin to fade
the more frequently we engage in love as a verb.
We no longer get buoyed
when someone else is diminished
or proved lesser,
and we become less interested
in proving or displaying our own amazing talents.
Grounded in repetitive small acts of love
is in fact, grounding.
And groundedness is centering.
Love is gracious, Paul says clearly.
Even though we may still be angry
and the sting of a humiliation throbs in our head
at being wronged or mistreated,
when we are agents of love
in concrete and routine ways,
we discover the ability to be considerate
even to those who have been rude to us.
Love infuses us, as we act upon it,
with the ability to be empathetic
even toward those with whom we are angry –
often, believe it or not, to those we do not like.
When we get clear that love is about
how we act
not how we feel,
then we regain more control over our actions
and graciousness becomes both
possible and more likely.
Love collaborates, Paul claims,
even if he was not a pillar of it himself.
Even when we think we are right,
and even when we think our way is so much better,
acting in love allows us to resist
insisting upon our own way.
When our actions are powered by love
we see the world as filled with endless opportunities
to solve problems together,
instead of living in the fear
that a good outcome will not be achieved
unless we do it ourselves.
Love trusts collaboration
even through the rough patches
that are inevitable
when consensus and cooperation are employed.
Love recognizes there are no heroes,
only people in the right place at the right time
who have been outfitted for the moment
by many others before and around them.
Grounded in that kind of trust
love can risk solidarity
more than it fears failure.
Love is balanced,
at least that is what Paul says.
Even those who act in love fall and fail miserably,
but equilibrium returns
in the aftermath of failure
a little more quickly and a little more easily
when love is understood as an action
rather than centered in an emotion.
The anger, frustration, and agitation we feel
as the result of any struggle,
will not be erased by love.
But when our days are grounded in loving actions,
we find ourselves working harder to stay clear
about the source of our emotions,
and keeping them from bleeding into arenas
other than where they belong.
Anger, for example,
will live within the boundaries
of the arena that engendered it
rather than migrating into a flood of irritability.
Love as a verb
has a way of marking a path
back to balance each time we lose it.
Love nurtures healing,
about this Paul is quite certain.
When we are acting in love
our woundedness actually becomes a source of power
rather than only hurt and pain.
As we engage in acts of love
the tenderness of any wound we may have
becomes more sensitive and exposed.
When people touch one another with their woundedness
amazing, unpredictable things happen – healing for one.
It seems counter-intuitive
since we are so practiced at shielding
and hiding our wounds,
but the more acts of love we do
the more accessible our wounds become
to others and to ourselves,
and the more strange and powerful things happen.
Love taps into a deep well of compassion,
is another one of love’s attributes lauded by Paul.
When we are engaged in
pervasive and persistent acts of love
we look at ourselves in the mirror
and acknowledge our own capacity for evil,
and that chilling knowledge
tinges us with compassion instead of hatred,
even toward the perpetrators of evil.
And finally, in Paul’s lexicon of love,
love rejoices in authenticity.
In a culture that prefers deceit and wishful-thinking
love cannot help but rejoice
when it encounters unvarnished truthfulness.
The joy within us is genuinely tickled by authenticity.
When we are pieced together
by the many and varied acts of love
we do day in and day out,
we discover a thirst for authenticity like never before.
We are instinctively drawn
toward people and places
where we can simply be ourselves,
say what is truly on our heart,
and listen to the open-heartedness of others.
It fills us with joy, Paul says.
Okay, so that is Paul’s description
of what love looks like when it is a verb –
acting through our hands and feet
and infiltrating our hearts and minds.
It is a description not a prescription,
This is not about perfection
as if we can morph into some kind of mythical guru
that is ever and only a lump of loving-kindness.
We don’t get to be that that kind of a person
because that kind of a person does not exist
and never has –
The question for us is not how we can love perfectly
but how we can multiply in our daily life
small acts of love.
We see examples all around us in the world
of loveless spirituality,
so our challenge
is to find ways to inflate our own spirituality
with more and more small acts of love?
But first and foremost,
we need to stop thinking and acting
as if love is a feeling or an emotion.
Instead, to envision love as the muscular ligature
that powers the skeleton of
and core principles –
as a body and mind exerting itself
and specific actions.
So when we talk about the love of God
it is a reference to action,
not how God feels toward us.
When we talk about the love of community
it is a reference to what we do,
how we act,
and the way we live
not about how we feel toward one another.
When we talk about loving our neighbor as ourselves,
it is a reference to what we do
with and for them,
not how we happen to feel about them today.
Love is powerful,
not full of empty calories
So for Paul, and I suspect for Jeremiah and Jesus,
the question is not how we are feeling
but what we are doing;
and not just what we are doing
but how we are doing it.
Just as resentment, anger, and envy
feed upon themselves
and grow and grow
and deepen and deepen
into the marrow of our soul
as they do;
love feeds upon each act of love
to grow and deepen
and seep into our heart and mind
as a pervasive healing presence and power.
Acting as if love is a verb we do
or acting as if love is an emotion we feel,
is not a choice like the one between
kale and French fries;
it is a choice between life and death.