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02.03.13 The Greatest of These, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Linda Madden Guest Preacher

by on February 4, 2013


  •    Remember that love is essential, practical and permanent.
  •    Think about what I am to learn from the love of a child.
  •    Practice the greatness of love by working for the good of others.

Great!  I’ll see you then!

Great!  And what else is gonna go wrong today?

Great God Almighty! Look at that sunset over the Peak!

Grating on my nerves…will you leave me alone?

Great Sand Dunes National Park

That grate in the sidewalk scares me.

Great Lakes, Great Gatsby, Great Depression

Great is Thy Faithfulness

The greatest of these…is love.

Please join your heart to mine as I pray.

Spirit Holy, gift of God, send your wisdom into this place and let us hear familiar holy words with new ears, see your intentions with new eyes, feel the great big awesome gentle power of your message to us with new hearts, this day.  Amen.

Blessings.  Nancy Guthrie, in her daily devotional Hope, teaches that the Hebrew word for blessed is “ashr”, which means “to find the right path.”  Ever since I learned that, I have found that I joy in saying “blessings” to people, for if we are surrounded by many confusing ways, and we find the right way to go, to gain some perspective about what is meaningful, then we are happy, aren’t we.  I hope I am on the right path this morning…the one with Jesus’ footsteps in the sand ahead.

I’m not sure I know why I’m up here…you are the saints, I’m a bit of an interloper. Yet, your Session and your pastor have trusted in me for the Christian education of your precious children.  And my contract stipulated that I would preach one or two times a year.  So here we go.

The greatest of these…

The commentaries I read all cautioned the preacher against becoming ethereal and heady about this (perhaps) over-quoted chapter of Corinthians.  We all remember hearing this scripture when people we love and who love each other are wed, so we wax nostalgic.  Taken out of context, as it IS so routinely, this bunch of words is, on one hand, simply an impossible list, and on another, something to long for with all our hearts.  But there is, in fact, a concrete reality, a reason for its placement right where it is.

In recent weeks we have considered previous verses from this letter Paul wrote to the dysfunctional church at Corinth and we know that Paul was trying to teach practical lessons about the Christian life.  We know that Paul, indeed, loved the Corinthian Christians and was invested in their monumental struggle to follow the Way established by the Son of God.  But these people were, well, people, human beings, imperfect; just like me.  And I suspect some of them were teachers like me, some were doctors, some were politicians, and some were romantics; so Paul had to reach them all!  So, among other things, he reviewed the Eucharist, discussed spiritual gifts and the parts of the body of Christ before arriving at “love,” and will continue afterwards to illumine the special gift of prophecy (so mentored by our dear Jeremiah) and instruct about orderly worship.  But here in the middle of all that, Paul takes a time-out from the tough love, to remind us that love is, in fact, another word for God, Father, Yahweh, Jesus.  A “strong case can be made” for seeing this chapter as intrinsic to the discussion of the hard-core, practical instructions of previous and following chapters.

In the 3 distinct sections of first Corinthians 13, we see that love is



and permanent.

Verses 1 – 3 show essential love by pointing out that works are useless without love “only a clanging cymbal”; verses 4 – 7 show practical love as God’s unlimited expression of self “rejoices in the truth”;  verses 8 – 12 show permanent love “love never fails.”

Love is essential, practical, and permanent.

The greatest of these…

We use the word “great” in so many disparate contexts.  It’s kind of like herding cats to put a leash on the meaning of the word.  What did the Bible translators mean, where does this meaning of greatest come from?  In the King James’ version of the Bible the classical Greek word agape is translated “charity” and sometimes we hear it thus read.  But usually these days we hear or read “But the greatest of these is LOVE.”  And we hear of three gifts, which, in fact abide not in a sense of jockeying for superiority, but more in a loving union.

Faith is towards God, hope is in behalf of our selves and charity is love to God creating in us love towards our neighbor.  Ah, ha!  So, here in this text, greatest is not an idea of opposition, but more a sense of relationship of what “abidith” in harmony, that faith and hope are essential to love. Intertwined, tied up so closely that the ball of yarn can never be untangled, nor would we want to.

How does “love” hit the ground running?  How does love’s rubber hit the road?

For me, it plays out partly in singing; as you may have noticed, usually I attend worship dressed in a flowing white robe, like 20 or more of you.  Singing is praying twice and I am passionate about singing!

But for me, professionally, it takes the form of Christian education.  It looks like Sunday school, VBS, Christmas pageants, and children’s worship, and toeing the line with Jeremiah for children’s message in big church.  I am even more passionate about how much Jesus loves the little children than I am about singing.

Jesus loves the little children.  [Sing]  Jesus loves the little children…oh, you remember…join me: Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the word!

I like the insight that comes up in the The Message Bible translation: “But for right now, until that completeness [when we will see as clearly as God sees us], we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: trust steadily in God (faith), hope unswervingly, love extravagantly.”

“The courage of children and beasts is a function of innocence,” Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard writes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  “When we lose our innocence – when we start feeling the weight of the atmosphere and learn that there’s death in the pot – we take leave of our senses.  Only children keep their eyes open.  The only thing they have got is sense; they have highly developed ‘input systems,’ admitting all data indiscriminately.”

We need to try to make sure at least some of the data they admit is worthy of Jesus’ love.  One year ago, almost exactly, I wrote this vision in my application to become your Children’s Ministry Leader:  Educating a child is a sacred trust.  As a Christian educator, I seek to fan the internal flame of faith that each child holds, to awaken the natural spirituality of the human experience.  I believe faith is about an accumulation of events and understandings that affirm God’s love, grace, mercy, and justice in the person of Jesus Christ.  Teaching involves the effective sharing of beliefs, emotions, and histories that enrich our lives.  A joyful, dynamic and engaging children’s ministry program has the potential to transform children, their families, and, by extension, the entire Faith community into an even more vibrant fellowship of believers.

Iswaria Sunil lives with her mother and father and brother in a hillside community in Chennai, South India.  She is my sponsored child through Compassion, International, since 2007.  My sponsorship allows the staff of Jeevan Jyothi Child Development Center to provide Iswaria with such things as Bible teaching, medical checkups, vocational training, and access to sports and the arts.  For fun Iswaria enjoys playing with her friends (a long list of names she sent me when I asked),  and… singing, which delights me, of course.  Every few months, I receive a letter from Iswaria, and over the years I have grown to love her, this child I’ve never seen or hugged.  Her innocent gratitude and pure love for me, half a world apart, take my breath away.  I have so much to learn from Iswaria about living in the moment, about treasuring and trusting in the goodness of others, about love. [read letter]

Iswaria is faith, hope and love.  With my simple act of support for one of the world’s poor, I am changing her life and giving her the hope of Jesus Christ.  And she is changing my life.  God’s love pouring through Iswaria is essential, practical, and permanent.

In his book Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, poet, philosopher and scholar, John O’Donohoo writes:  “When there is love in your life, you should share it spiritually with those who are pushed to the very edge of life.  There is a lovely idea in the Celtic tradition that if you send out goodness from yourself, or if you share that which is happy or good within you, it will all come back to you multiplied ten thousand times.  In the kingdom of love there is no competition; there is no possessiveness or control.  The more love you give away the more love you will have.   Love is the source, center, and destiny of experience.”

So here’s the thing, I think.  In first Corinthians 13, we’re not actually talking about the bride’s love for the groom, nor the child-parent connection, nor your love for me, nor my love for you – another human, or even you – another Christian.  We are talking about God’s love for the bride through the groom, The Holy Father’s love for the child through the parent or the teacher, Yahweh’s love for me through you, Jesus’ love for you THROUGH me, standing here today, speaking to you in faith, in Faith Presbyterian Church.

Love is essential, practical, and permanent.

Love is God.  God is Love.  How has God happened in your life?  As God shadows you this day, what word of truth in love will you speak?  What new narrative can you create?  How can you hold out hope, instill faith? Twined in the yarn ball of love?   God’s steadfast love, acknowledged, will wind ‘rond  your life, tangle you up.  Maybe it’s illustrated in this story from Sue Monk Kidd,.writer of spiritual memoirs, in Firstlight: The Early Inspirational Writings:

“Being an excessively ignorant gardener, I planted two pines, a magnolia, a spruce and three cedars in my backyard in the middle of winter (I’ll interject, here, that she lives in South Carolina!).  They were tiny, not one over 18 inches.  My gardener friends shook their heads. “You can’t transplant trees now,” they all exclaimed. Not one of them believed the trees would survive.  But I loved those trees and I decided I would do whatever I could to save them, even if it was unconventional.  I’d read about an experiment that reported that talking to plants enhanced their growth.  I know.  It sounds completely foolish.  But this was a scientific experiment.  I began to go outside (when my neighbors weren’t around) and say a few kind words to my trees – that I cared about their growth and believed they would flourish.  While I was out there, I also watered them, pulled up weeds and clipped away surrounding branches that blocked their sunlight.  Two years later, every one of those trees is stalwart and more than shoulder-high.  They reflect the most beautiful truth: Never give up on what you love.  Going against the odds and bestowing care and affirming words on a life that is struggling is the stuff of miracles.  Whether a tree or a human being.”

Love is essential, practical, and permanent.

So in closing I’d like to ask one more question.  Must we put these childish ways aside?  We’re told to put them aside, to mature into God, to grow up into love.  But I think we should never lose the memory of our childish ways when it comes to love.  What are we to learn from the love of a child?  And how shall we love the children?

Jesus is quoted in Matthew 19:14 as saying: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”  He then “placed his hands on them” before going on his way.  He took the time in his o, too short ministry, to be present to the little ones.  I like to think that hugs were shared all around, with smiles and giggling…some gentle tickling?  Maybe the first century equivalent of a high-five?  Maybe they sang a little song like Jesus Loves the Little Children…

Love is essential, practical, and permanent.  It’s the greatest!

And all of God’s people say: Amen!

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