Sunday, May 07, 2000

A New Way

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Music Appreciation Sunday

Text: I Corinthians 13

A Musical Passage

Embedded within our Scripture Lesson this morning there lies great and saving word of truth, a little phrase that may just heal us.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians includes a hymn at the 13th chapter. Like our music in every worship service, this hymn within the whole letter lifts out to the praise of God the very heart of our faith. 1 Corinthians 13 is the music of the church, a hymn to ending love. This poem faces out onto Another Reality.

I doubt that there is a more familiar passage within the Pauline letters than this one. There are familiar sentences, but no single sustained statement, like this one, which enjoys such popular recognition. Yet for humans and texts alike, familiarity can become a mixed blessing, for we easily take for granted those closest and dearest to us. So familiarity, summer Saturday by summer Saturday wedding, may impede our approach and may muffle our ears.

Today we may attend only to one phrase. "Love seeketh not her own" as the 1611 ad English translation has it. You heard today a readier, more modern interpretation, one that has some spring and pepper in it: "Love does not insist on its own way." Does not insist on its own way (to be clear).

Love does not insist. Love is not insistent. Love replaces the one way, our usual way, with a New Way. Love is not natural, but extra natural, a new creation.

What a remarkable claim!

The way of love is not insistent. Persistent, perhaps. Resistant, rest assured. Consistent, confessedly. Desistent, doggedly. But not insistent. Love does not insist on its own way, but offers us a New Way.

From Insistence to Persistence

The preacher may well fear that the capacity, nationwide, to hear or overhear the Gospel as taught, is slipping away. What makes us our best selves is participation in an addressable community, one that reveres and honors and trusts and longs for a word fitly spoken. It is the sermon that keeps us human. But love does not insist on a hearing, and may well in every age have to settle for some sort of metaphorical borrowed upper room, some metaphorical donkey, some not so metaphorical cross. One may persist in careful preparation, and one may resist the temptation to appease a one dimensional age, and one may desist from doubting the ongoing power of the word, and one may consistently attend to the right handling of the word of truth. Yet love does not insist.

A church denomination, now gathered in representative conference some 50 miles west of Kent State, with millions of dissonant voices looking for the right key and the right score in which to find harmony, may well fear that the moment of energy and creative compromise eludes us, that the current majority (conservative) and the emerging majority (liberal) will need to lie down together, will need to sit together at the table of brotherhood. One may persist in educating all about the nature of human sexuality. One may resist the urge to exclude what is different, what is foreign, what is new. One may desist from hackneyed caricature and passe myth. We know much more about homosexuality today than we did 30 years ago. And one may consistently tell the heart’s truth over the real relational bridges built before "the war". We can listen especially to our personal and our pastoral experience. Yet love does not insist. One thus avoids, for example, becoming a My Lai Methodist, willing to burn down the village in order to save it.

Likewise, parents, when their children have reached a certain age, may well fear that the forces of hurt in society could claim a part of their own flesh, in lust or greed or both. One can persist in artful dialogue. One may resist arrangements that harm. One may desist from supporting unhealthy living. And one may consistently pray for reconciliation and safety. Yet one, in love, after a certain age, one no longer insists.

Love does not insist on its own way.

I elect this as the single most often read and least often heard phrase of the summer, every summer.

Spouses, when your partners are heading into a new and uncertain stage, you rightly fear the unknown outcomes of another work or another house or another job or another life. One persists in the presentation of truth, as one feels and sees it. One resists, always, any neglect or abuse or use, by one human of another. God is in the world to make and keep human life human. One desists from codependency. And one may consistently sponsor advertisements for life as you know your spouse should prudently be living it. Yet love does not insist.

Almighty God selects human weakness, illness, poverty, error, all the tragedy of human living as God’s entrance into the world. Love does not insist on immediate perfection, on a godlike shape, a godlike runway, a godlike gangplank, a godlike reception for entry. No, a few shepherds with ears to hear will do, along with a Persian king or three who still have dreams, and peasant girl Maria, poor and ignorant and utterly human. And a dozen peccable disciples, covered with Palestinian dirt, and a trial by fire and an undeserved cross and visible failure. Love does not wait for a perfect world to get started, but takes on this one. Love is different from you and me. Love takes the low road of human weakness, illness and error.

And Love meets us today, already and here, not insistent, but persistent. Love does not insist, but Love can persist. Love is raised at Easter, and love outlasts death. Because love does not insist, love is utterly free to persist. Now is the resurrection season of persistent love that bears, believes, hopes and endures.

Let us then, being Christians, learn and practice the habits of love. Let us not insist, but let us persist.

"Love does not behave in a violent, headstrong, or precipitate manner" (Wesley). So we can and should curb our emotions, curb our tongues, curb our sudden impulses, to see if they develop persistence or whether they shout with insistence.

"Love does not fritter away its time on honor, profit, ease or gain" (Luther). Love looks hard at the need of the other, and anticipates the need of the other.

"Love is a bridle for putting a check on disputes" (Calvin). The tongues of angels alone are a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal. It is love, alone, at the last, that calls forth our music and praise. And without it, there is no music, literal or figurative, that is worthy of us. Love, persistent, all loves excelling.

Down the River

Above the din of worldly insistence, in the name of love, let us overhear again the power of divine persistence.

Pharaoh insisted that all the male children of the Israelites be cast into the Nile. Who controls birth controls the future. ‘Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live’. One of the daughters of Levi gave birth to a handsome boy and hid him for three months, persistent. Then she placed her son in a little basket, and hid him among the reeds of the river. ‘Yes, I will put him in the Nile, as you insist, but I will do so with ingenious, creative faith that persists’. And down came Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. A boy afloat on the water, through a mother’s persistence, is saved. His name, Moses- the one drawn out. Persistence.

America has done much to hobble and muzzle her sons, throwing them deep into various swirling currents of raging water. America is the land where Tom Sawyer became Eddie Haskel, a nation of closet bowlers. Yet think of the central parable of our culture, another ride on a raft down a great river. Free in the American heartland, Huckleberry Finn mounts his raft. He floats away, south and away. Naivete rafting through conquest, alongside his darker soulmate Jim, alive and free for adventure in the womb of the continent. By the skin of their teeth, Huck and Jim prevail, persistent along the Mississippi. Persistence.

This is why the story of Elian Gonzalez digs so deeply into our minds and hearts. He too was rafting toward freedom, set loose by a loving mother, adrift with her last breath and prayer and a bottle of fresh water, fished out of the briny ocean by the few fisherman left in Florida. Somehow, persistent, the child survived and the mother’s love prevailed, her dying persistence, we can all agree, in stark contrast to the acrimonious legal insistence of various parties in the ongoing drama. Persistence, to the end.

The end comes too quickly, for what is real and good. We grew up outside in the little lanes of our village, especially when the weather swung around warm, as it does in just a few days in the Northeast. The iron matriarchy of Hamilton decreed that the day’s own trouble ended, come evening, when the streetlights came on. You may have been in an extra inning game, with the bases loaded and full count. Too bad, the street lights came on. You may have marched hundreds of little Asian yellow and German blue and American green soldiers all the way into a sandlot battle of the bulge, with just a thrust left for victory. Too bad, the street lights are on, the battle is over. That town even had a soda fountain, so that in later years, when bat and ball gave way to other interests, there was a place to watch the opposite gender becoming the opposite gender and to be lost in wonder, love and praise. You may have just squeezed in next to someone, when, the word passed, the street lights are on. Too bad. You lose. Cursed street lights.

Spring brings departures. People say goodbye in the springtime. At funerals. In office departures. In moves. At weddings. At graduations. In itinerant appointments. In memorials. In confirmation. There is a great deal of ending in the spring, for such a season of growth. It is a time of farewell, of streetlights closing the day. Through such trials, love persists.

One spring afternoon, I was invited at age 11 to a back step conversation. The contralto persistent voice of the backstep is not poorer or richer than a baritone public voice, but it is other. In this voice, there was that day an unusual uncertainty. There was a wandering, a certain wandering around Robin Hood’s barn. I was frankly lost and bored, until new vocabulary reared its ugly head. There were new nouns sprinkling the afternoon: bishop, appointment, annual, new town, calling. There were verbs descending too: change, move, itinerate. Now I listened more closely, because I could feel an ending, a godawful frightening ending, a departure at hand. I had to listen carefully too because I couldn’t see, you know how in an emotional conversation sometimes a watery film comes down over your eyes and nose and you can’t see well. So I listened, at the end, to a persistent loving contralto voice, not better or worse than the pulpit baritone, but somehow, that day, much more powerful.

We are going to move. It will be hard. But you will be fine. You will see. You will make new friends. You will have new chances. You will grow up like you never could here. Trust me. It will be all right. And I will be right there with you. We all will be together. And you can come back and visit. It is all going to work out just right.

So, a first glimpse of spiritual journey or itineracy, synonyms in faith. So a first glimpse of the deepest of truths, of faith’s free, costly, and risky exodus from established positions. This is the hallmark of the Christian faith, maybe particularly we could add the Protestant variety, an acceptance of exodus from established positions. Persistence.

Love, real and good, eschews insistence and practices persistence.

Can we become a persistent people?