The Capacity to Love

Paula Northwood February 3, 2019

Scripture 1 Corinthians 13

When a surgeon operated on a little girl, complications started to arise. She lost a lot of blood and was in need of a transfusion. However, she had a rare blood type, which wasn’t available in the hospital. The surgeon asked the girl’s little brother, who had the same blood type, if they could draw blood from him. The surgeon explained that it was incredibly important, a matter of life and death. The young boy, seemingly afraid, sat a couple of moments in silence until he finally agreed. He got up and hugged his parents, telling them goodbye. After the nurse had taken the blood from him, he whispered anxiously if she knew how many minutes he had left to live. He was absolutely convinced that he was going to die so that his sister could live. And he was willing to do so. That’s love.

Our text this morning is often used at weddings. “Now faith, hope and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.” But this New Testament passage is more than just a glowing essay about love. It is more of a road map on how to get around the many obstacles to love, such as impatience, envy, arrogance, rudeness, insisting on one’s own way, irritation, wrongdoing, centering one’s life around knowledge and possessions, and acting like a child instead of like an adult.

This sermon is the third in a series about the Purposes of the Church. In the section about the purposes within the church, the third one reads: To nurture the capacity to love. Love. If you have lived at all, you know love is complicated. Love is not just all warm and fuzzy feelings. Sometimes the actions of love seem counterintuitive. Sometimes love requires sacrifice. Sometimes the most loving action feels like betrayal.

For the early church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul felt the need to write to them about the basics of love. We get the impression that there was a problem in this community. We know from the previous chapter that they were arguing about things like who was the most important and what gifts and skills were the most useful. We might be sympathetic to this nascent group of followers, since there was no guidebook to starting new churches. Paul is trying to help when he writes that, as a church, they should function like a body with different parts, all necessary and useful. He continues, and this is important, that the most excellent way to be together is to love each other. Seems simple enough. He then describes what love is. Paul writes that all the good actions and right behaviors in the world are meaningless if not grounded in love. All the words in the world, poetic and powerful, mean nothing without love. Even if you sacrifice yourself, your time, your money, your life to a cause, it is meaningless without love. What kind of love is this?

You are likely aware that the Ancient Greeks had multiple distinct words for what we try to cover with our single word “love”: these include philia (friendship), eros (passion), storge (familial love), and agape (infinite or divine love).

For Paul, agape love is the Great Love that is larger than you. It is the divine love that paradoxically lives in you and you in it. In Paul’s attempt to try to describe this agape or divine love, he writes the most poetic chapter in all his letters. Paul is not describing human friendship (philia), affection of parents for children (storge), or even passionate desire (eros); he is describing what it is like to live inside of an Infinite Source, the Sacred Divine, where all the boundaries change, feelings are hardly helpful at all, and all the gaps are filled in from the other side.

Any notion of love that we have is totally inadequate. This kind of love is not self-seeking. It keeps no record of wrongs. This kind of love does not come naturally. This kind of love doesn’t “just happen.” This kind of love requires work, the practice of being open to God. It requires self-emptying—not a loss of self, but a letting go of one’s small self, our ego. This kind of love goes beyond our feelings. It is realizing that God is living in us and through us as we plug into the heart of God. This kind of love requires a commitment to do the right thing by putting the other first. This is challenging for Americans, those of us raised to be independent and self-sufficient. Women are socialized to consider the other but, as a society, we are taught that we are number one, especially white people.

This kind of love requires practice. Everyone knows living in a family isn’t easy. We have disagreements, we hurt each other, we have good intentions that go awry, we are asked to share and really listen and make compromises. When we practice being open and listening, sharing and getting along, we are participating in a spiritual practice. If we practice this kind of love, it becomes easier and it becomes our more natural response. This Purpose of the Church to nurture our capacity to love may be our greatest calling. This call to love is about connecting authentically with our source and people who are different; it is about recognizing our mutual humanity. A call to love is to break through our isolated lives, to reach across the chasm that separates people from one another and to use the power that lies within to make a deeper connection.

Our text reads: Love is patient, love is kind. There’s a quote going around the internet that says, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about, so be kind.” I sense people feel compelled to share it because they recognize how easy it is for any of us not to practice agape. They recognize how distracted we can be by our own concerns; how quick we are to judge, ignore, write off; how needlessly defensive we can be; how much mental and emotional distance we can put between ourselves and another human being without even thinking about it. This quote reminds us to not let this happen, to assume everyone we encounter is worthy of our attention, our compassion, our love—just as we are worthy of theirs.

Love demands that we slow down and be present to each other. Love, in this sense is, today, radically counter-cultural. Patience also creates a gateway for love to enter into our most difficult situations—situations where anger and rage, frustration and disappointment, fear and anxiety come quickly to the surface, come pouring out of us before we even have a chance to think. In difficult situations—an argument with a spouse, frustration with a child, a conflict at church, anger at someone else’s driving, tension at work, some kind of injustice—whatever it may be—anger, rage, frustration, disappointment, fear or anxiety may be very understandable, may be justifiable, may even be necessary. But the quickness with which they rise in us often prevents us from bringing love to bear as well.

On my better days, when I feel anger or frustration rising in the heat of a moment, I remind myself simply to breathe, to wait, to not speak, to listen more closely not only to the other, but to what love asks of me in the situation. Patience makes all the difference. Our impatience limits the sound and quality of love’s voice. Yet patience—breathing, pausing, waiting, not speaking, listening—patience creates a gateway for love to rise in us.

I believe love lives at the heart of creation. I trust love. I trust in its power to bring healing, peace, reconciliation and justice. Even though love in all its forms seems so difficult to sustain, even though love can feel like such a naïve answer to the world’s problems, I still trust it. I trust that if we keep trying to let love rise in us, to let love speak through us, to bring love to bear—if we keep trying—we will learn to love more deeply.

Kathleen Norris says, “Even when I find church boring, I try to hold this in mind as a possibility: like all the other fools who have dragged themselves to church on Sunday morning, including the pastor, I am there because I need to be reminded that love can be at the center of things, if only we will keep it there.”

If you are anything like me, you come to church because you need to be reminded of this possibility, that love can be at the center of things, that life is good and that we can orient ourselves toward love, the way a compass needle swings back to north. If you are like me, you need to be reminded that there is love and goodness in us, and in the world. And we nurture that capacity to love by remaining in relationship even when it gets challenging and we disagree and we hurt each other.

When we baptize a child here, we are saying to that child, “Know that you are beloved on this earth.” We want the parent to also know that we are going to provide a space for that child to grow in love. That’s another way we nurture the capacity for love. We gather each Sunday to remember that we are part of a great Love. We are each unique expressions of that love. It is our job to trust that—to know it and feel it deep in our bones and let the knowledge that we are loved inspire us to be conduits of that love.

As a church, we have made a commitment to enter into the social justice struggles of our day with the conviction that, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” But love rarely drives out hate in an instant. Love rarely drives out hate in a day or even a decade. Love drives out hate because it takes the long view, because it persists and endures. Love drives out hate because it keeps coming, keeps trying, keeps organizing, speaking, marching, demonstrating and doing all we can to make things right for everyone. “Love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Activist and politician Andrew Young said of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s: “We came to love the hell out of segregation and inequality.” My friends, we must love the hell out of racial injustice and discrimination in our city and in our church. It will require loving action!

Here is my challenge for you: think of someone in this church whom you have trouble loving and invite them out for coffee or lunch or just for conversation and love them by listening. Let that be your Valentine Day’s resolution. Because if we can’t love each other, it will be difficult to love those outside our walls. Let us nurture our capacity to love by stretching and making it bigger! May it be so. Amen.