I Corinthians 13.1–13
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
If you don’t know anything else that Paul of Tarsus wrote, you likely know this passage from First Corinthians, probably because you’ve heard it at a wedding. And it is a good starting place to understand Paul, who often gets a bum rap in progressive churches. And this passage is also a great way to understand love.
Even though Valentine’s Day is less than two weeks away, I am not going to talk about eros and erotic love this morning…I’m going to talk about agape or self-giving love, which is the variety of love that Paul writes about in this letter.
I remember a conversation with a Swedish friend many years ago in which he sang the praises of English. My friend Tore pointed to the huge vocabulary of our language, which is relatively larger than Swedish, thanks in large part to Celtic Britain being invaded by Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, Vikings, and Normans, all of whom brought new words to the language we speak today. Yet we have a pretty limited vocabulary of love, at least compared to the Greeks. Yes, we have attraction, affection, and fondness, but they all sound kind of a vague and pasty compared to the eros, philia, and agape of Greek. And for us, love also is shaded by the canopy of the Romantic era, which leaves it soft, squishy, and pale. That isn’t agape. Agape is about going deeper.
Agape is the kind of love needed if you are in Amsterdam in 1943 and you are hiding Jewish children in your attic. Agape is the kind of love needed if you are a part of Christian Peacemaker Teams, putting yourself in harm’s way in a war zone. Agape is the kind of love you need when you are called upon to risk and sacrifice something in order to stand up for your faith. Agape is self-giving love in action; it is risky, it is costly, and it is not for the faint of heart. When John’s gospel quotes Jesus as saying that “no one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” [John 15.13], he’s talking about agape…costly, self-sacrificial love.
You and I are seldom called on to really step up and act from a sense of self-giving love for our faith, and we’re unlikely to be imprisoned for it…but that is still a reality for some Christians, like Pastor Jin Mingri, whose church in Beijing was bulldozed by the government, which then sent him a $179,000 demolition bill. In an interview with the Guardian, Jin said, “Of course we’re scared, we’re in China, but we have Jesus.” [The Guardian, 28 Sept. 2018, “We Were Scared, but We Have Jesus: China and its War on Christianity."
At last week’s congregational meeting, we were able to meet openly, elect a slate of folks who agreed to serve on boards and council, pass a budget, and there was no intrusion from the state. We don’t talk very much about “loving Jesus” at Plymouth; and even if we don’t use that phrase, our love of God drives us to do amazing things together, going deeper in our faith, getting out of our comfort zones, making offerings that are costly to us, and living out our faith boldly. People like Bob and Nancy Sturtevant, who established a kindergarten in Ethiopia and just returned from there last week…and you’ll see them giving their time as well as moderator, deacon, sound guy, Interfaith Council rep., and more. That’s what self-sacrificial love looks like.
Glennon Doyle, a UCC member, whose #1 NY Times bestseller is called, Love Warrior, says this: “Life is hard because love is hard, and it’s not because you’re doing everything wrong. Often life is hardest when you are doing everything right.” [From Glennon Doyle’s talk on Work of the People.]
Earlier in First Corinthians, Paul writes, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” [I Cor. 8.1] How do you see that at work in your home or workplace or here at Plymouth? Offering our service, our time, our wealth, our compassion, ourselves to God and one another is an act of self-giving love.
Paul writes of all kinds of wonderful spiritual gifts -– speaking in tongues, prophetic witness, knowledge, faith, hope, giving away everything. And he says that if you have those gifts and graces but you don’t have love, then you are left empty.
Agape, as Paul describes it, is not always easy to put into practice…maybe it is also a variation on what we know as “tough love,” when we have to do uncomfortable things because we see a person bent on self-destruction. Families who do interventions with a member with a substance abuse problem know what agape love looks like. Tough love doesn’t tolerate denial; it “rejoices in the truth.” Maybe agape in this sense blends love and courage.
It takes a lot of love to tell someone things they would rather not hear. My own family did that with my mom to help her acknowledge her alcoholism. It is seldom easy to “speak the truth in love” [Eph. 4] when you have something hard to say…but it can be loving.
So, here is a small dose of truth telling that I hope you will hear in the spirit of agape: I think that we as a congregation have become complacent. We’re a little bit “fat and happy,” and there is nothing recently that seems to drive a sense of urgency. When you walk into Plymouth, you see a comfortable, well-maintained building, and so perhaps you assume that “it’s all good,” that there is no financial need here…that people seem generally happy and affluent. That’s because we have some people who tithe and give sacrificially of their time and money. But this involved segment is pulling more than their weight, and it’s not sustainable. if you missed the Congregational Meeting last Sunday and didn’t read the 2019 budget or annual report…you missed the urgency. Twice last week, I told members of the congregation and staff, “Sorry, we can’t do that, because of budget cuts.”
To those of you who give generously of both your time and your money, thank you! And to those of you have time and wealth to give, please consider this an encouragement, and invitation to step up with a sense of self-giving love.
I appreciate the congregation’s understanding that freezing spending on all mission and programming costs and not being able to fully fund cost-of-living increases for staff was not a nefarious deed on the part of the Budget & Finance Committee or the Leadership Council. All of us together are the ones who decide what Plymouth’s annual income will look like, and we decide it by what we pledge. And to all of you who are giving so generously of time, talent, and money…thank you deeply!
An even bigger issue is that we need to live our faith from a place of God’s abundance and infinite love, rather than from scarcity. Richard Rohr writes, “The flow of grace through us is largely blocked when we are living inside a worldview of scarcity, a feeling that there’s just not enough: enough of God, enough of me, enough food, enough mercy to include and forgive all faults.”
We need everyone –- yes, everyone –- at Plymouth to go deeper in their faith with a sense of agape. That might mean helping with Faith Family Hospitality, teaching Sunday school, working at the reception desk, helping at spring clean-up day, and yes, it means stretching yourself when it comes to financial giving. We also need you to follow through on the commitment you make when you join Plymouth to attend worship more frequently…and also to invite your friends who need the gift of Plymouth.
So, why? Why do we need to kick it up a notch? Is it because we don’t want our church to stagnate? Yeah…in part. Is it because there are people out there trudging through life and not finding much meaning in an endless cycle of work and entertainment? Yeah…that’s part of it, too. Is it because somebody in this town has to stand up for LGBTQ rights and sensible gun laws and immigration reform and people who experience homelessness? Yeah…sure. Those are all perfectly good reasons why we need to lean into our common life at Plymouth. But the dominant reason is that God calls us to live out our agape love for one another, for the world around us, and for God.
I wonder if we sometimes forget that that’s why we are here in the first place. In Deuteronomy, the heart of Jewish faith is expressed this way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your might.” Deut. 6.5] And Jesus adds another: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” [Mark 12.31]. That’s agape.
I hope that you hear what I am saying as an expression of my love for God, for Plymouth, and for you. I love you all far too much to remain silent.
Love is both a noun and a verb in our language. My prayer for Plymouth this year is that we go deeper and take action to tie our faith together with a sense of God’s love for us and all those we call neighbors.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Immigrant Rights Sunday: May 6, 2018 (Lectionary)
Will you pray with me? May the humble words of my mouth, the meditations of our collective hearts, and the call to justice we all feel be good and pleasing to you, O God, our freedom-maker and liberator. Amen
Before I really preach this morning on one of the most pressing, alarming, and hurtful subjects of our era, that of Immigrant Rights and Justice, I want to first reflect briefly on the delicate art of being an ally. It takes a lot of intentional work to be in solidarity with a community of the oppressed, from a position of privilege, without speaking over or for that community. The risk is to overshadow those whose voices are already marginalized.
As a parallel to illuminate what I mean by the art of being an “ally,” let me offer an example of a time a place when privilege wasn’t checked.
One day back in seminary, the school I attended decided to have “dialogues” on the issue of LGBTQ rights in the church. Sounds straight forward enough on the surface, right? They brought in panelists from what they termed as “fair and balanced” on both “sides” of the “issue.” [I always love being an issue.] The person they brought in to speak on behalf of the LGBTQ community, however, wasn’t an LGBTQ community member himself, but rather a well-meaning retired United Methodist Bishop who had a strange warming of the heart after his retirement towards his disenfranchised gay church members. He spoke so beautifully from the heart (not to take that away from him) and maybe, I must admit, related better as an advocate to the mostly straight, conservative audience than one of us out people like me might have been able to do; but something did not feel right. You know that feeling that something isn’t right in your gut? It is the feeling you get when someone does not name that they are simply an ally, a co-traveler who, while speaking, doesn’t have the first-person experience of the oppressed community. I never forgot that feeling and promised myself to never do the same to others in oppressed communities. It was a hard lesson on social justice advocacy to always stop and check privilege. He forgot to check his privilege at the door.
So today, I want to start by checking my own privilege. While I am the son of an immigrant from Canada (certainly not a difficult story… although we struggle to find good Maple Syrup in this country), the great-grandson of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe (a distant story), and I married a beautiful man with his own harrowing immigration story to tell from Venezuela, my efforts to speak on this issue, as passionate as I am, are that of ally and solidarity force. Even Gerhard’s story isn’t mind to tell. It is his alone.
I know I am preaching to the choir today, so if you remember nothing else from this sermon remember to be careful as an ally not to silence or overshadow. As the church working on this issue, that is one of the most important reminders we all need as advocates. We are there to support the community, but not to take over the justice movement. The UCC is particularly guilty of this.
The most powerful stories don’t come from us allies (even if we are necessary for the struggle), but from those whose immigration stories are their own. It is only the immigrants themselves who can share the experience the horrors of injustice, the palpable and real impacts of racism and cultural supremacy wrapped in the light veneer of “immigration policy,” and the experiences of indignity, suspicion, fear, micro-aggressions, and overt racism that continue even after citizenship ceremonies are well in the rearview mirror.
Having said that, let me see if by relying on Scripture today, I might do a little more than simply preach to you as a progressive choir.
Anyone remember CliffsNotes? They were these little pamphlets that summarized books for those students that… well didn’t want to do all of the reading. Do CliffsNotes still exist? I remember being the student who would get so upset when others would use CliffsNotes instead of reading the whole book. I was sort of the teachers’ pet. So, given my dislike of CliffsNotes, what I am doing to say today might surprise you! Our Scripture except for today is basically Jesus’ CliffsNotes (JesusNotes) to the entire Bible and Christian faith! Yes, today, we just read a CliffsNotes summary of the point of all of this religion business! Let’s hear it again:
“As the Father [The Creator] has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. I do not call you servants[a] any longer, because the servant[b] does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from [the Creator]. “This is my commandment [note the singular rather than plural tense], that you love one another as I have loved you. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
What is the main message here if this is Jesus’ shortcut to Christian faith and living? Yes, love each other already, people, and don’t treat anyone as a servant. Amen?
Now, I am not the only one who has seen this Scripture and seen God’s CliffsNotes in it for the Bible. Love each other already, people, and don’t treat anyone as a servant. A whole movement of Black, LGBT/Queer, and Latinx Liberation theologians have been saying this is the point of it all for decades. The arc of the universe bends towards love, towards freedom/ liberation, and towards justice for the oppressed: the migrant, the immigrant, the poor.
Between all of the complexities and contradictions of the Bible (and there are countless of them), if we really look at the driving force of Scripture—it always comes back to the least of these, the forgotten, the excluded. God has a preference for the poor and the oppressed. This is an undeniable common thread through all of Scripture. Our religion is a religion of and for the oppressed, the migrant, the immigrant, the depressed, and the lonely. Our job is to align and support.
Last Saturday, Professor James H. Cone of Union Seminary in New York City died. He was part of this movement of liberation theologians who see religion and scripture as a vehicle primarily for an arc of liberation, hope for the oppressed, and God’s preferential treatment for the poor and those in most need of love. He was the guiling light in North America for this movement for decades. Dr. Cone will be very missed in the world of ministers and theological thinkers.
I want you to hear some of Cone's words on the matter today on Immigrant Justice Sunday:
“God's reality is not bound by one manifestation of the divine in Jesus but can be found wherever people are being empowered to fight for freedom. Life-giving power for the poor and the oppressed is the primary criterion that we must use to judge the adequacy of our theology, not abstract concepts.”
― James H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power
“And yet the Christian gospel is more than a transcendent reality, more than “going to heaven when I die, to shout salvation as I fly.” It is also an immanent reality—a powerful liberating presence among the poor right now in their midst, “building them up where they are torn down and propping them up on every leaning side.” The gospel is found wherever poor people struggle for justice, fighting for their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
― James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“The scandal is that the gospel means liberation, that this liberation comes to the poor, and that it gives them the strength and the courage to break the conditions of servitude.”
― James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed
That last quote in particular should give us pause today, “The scandal is that the gospel means liberation…and it gives the poor strength to break the conditions of servitude.” I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from [the Creator].
We have all probably heard a lot of talk these past years about the doctrine of America First. It is a statement about our understanding of God and what God promises and to whom. “America First” is a theological/religious statement about how we understand the nature of God’s promises and ourselves. It is a false prosperity theology and a wicked and even evil doctrine of servitude. It does not see or understand the world, and our culturally, artistically, economically, linguistically, musically, and religiously beautiful neighbors/equals in Central and South America, in particular, as friends. It is not a theology of friends but one of servitude. But I have called you friends… I am giving you these commands, so you may love one another.
If in our passage today, the embodiment of God, Emmanuel, God-with-Us can say that we are friends… with the creative energy that sparked existence, that the love of God is for all, that common life shared is the goal (the CliffsNotes of God), then certainly we should do the same with our policies. A public policy of friendship.
With all of our wealth and privilege, the question ought to be: What more can we do to support, ally with, lift-up, check our privilege, inspire, collaborate with our neighbors?
I married a man from Venezuela—a country I have never been to and really cannot visit with him because of the violence, food shortages, and dangers. I know the struggles his family faces there, and I know the feeling of helplessness we have to do anything about it. I also know that they are proud, brilliant, educated, beautiful people with deep faith, family roots, and yet still hope. Even if we don’t see them as friends, they still see us as their neighbor.
I cannot take “America First” rhetoric seriously as a Christian. God says that all of God’s people come first—so what are we waiting for?
Why is friendship so hard? Why is selfishness so easy? Why is scarcity winning over faith? Why aren’t we doing much about it?
We are in deep theological waters, friends. With immigration policy being used as a tool of racism. With the church, most of it in America, rolling over and playing dead, yesterday almost 60,000-90,000 hard working Hondurans and Central Americans lost their protected status for no reason, we have been playing politics with the lives of young dreamers—God has a word for us…and its harsh!
“The gospel is found wherever poor people struggle for justice, fighting for their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” -James Cone
As those called to accompany, not to overtake, may we check our privilege as individual to see if we might reawaken a Gospel of love, of mutuality, of hope, and of selflessness in our time. What an interesting word: Selflessness. This is the only Gospel we have. We can’t choose another one, and it is time to take it (even the CliffsNotes version) seriously.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
Sermon podcasts (no text)