January 31, 2010
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
“Love Through A Foggy Mirror”
Rev. Allen V. Harris
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I would like to begin with a quote from the 20th century writer,
intellectual, and activist James Baldwin:
“Love does not begin and end the way we think it does. Love is a
battle, love is a war; love is a growing up. No one in the world – in
the entire world – knows better or, odd as this may sound, loves more
than the American Negro. This is because he has had to watch you, outwit
you, deal with you, and bear you, and sometimes even bleed and die with
you, ever since we got here… since both of us, black and white, got here
– and this is the wedding. Whether I like it or not, or whether you like
it or not, we are bound together forever. We are part of each other.
What is happening to every Negro in this country at any time is also
happening to you.” (1)
I begin on this note because James Baldwin, in his inimitable way, both
confirms our common use of the scripture text for today and yet also
knocks us completely off our common assumptions about the meaning of
this text. He affirms that 1 Corinthians 13 is a wedding text, but he
then looks at it from a larger, more penetrating viewpoint as the
marriage between great and cumbersome and often quarrelling partners,
those of us who are white and those of us who are black.
Now the point of my sermon today will be less about the dynamics between
the races, as it will be the necessity of seeing this scripture as
something more than either a simplistic charge to a freshly minted
couple on their festive wedding day or a benediction for one who is
dying to a better place on a distant shore. Rather, I maintain that the
famous “love chapter” was meant to be a rough hewn timber meant to build
our lives as a community in the here and now, meaning, the life of
Franklin Circle Christian Church in 2010 and the lives of each and every
one of us alongside those travelers on our journey, especially the ones
who are difficult, cranky, inflexible, and mystified by the rest of us.
Let me remind ourselves again of how 1 Corinthians 13 is typically used.
[Here the FCCC Youth Group acted out the two
The first scene is of a beautifully decorated sanctuary. Family members
from near and far have gathered for this joyful occasion, many having
only met the other party at the rehearsal and dinner the night before. A
blushing and excited couple stand up front next to their cadre of best
friends and closest family members. The clergyperson, or a friend or
family member who couldn’t be fit into the wedding party, stands up and
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or
arrogant or rude… These three, but the greatest of these is love.”
The gathered congregation coos and “ah’s” and the deep meaning of the
words pass right over them and are imprinted on a digital video camera
for future reference for the couple and the couple alone.
The second scene is also at the front of a sanctuary, or perhaps a
nicely apportioned by poorly lit room at a local funeral home. Family
members have also gathered from near and far, only this time it is a
occasion for sadness, not joy. Flowers surround a casket or urn, and
pictures of the deceased are arranged on a posterboard illustrating
better times gone by. Following the video memorial, the pastor or a more
composed family member stands and offers the words:
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.
Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been
fully known… these three, and the greatest of these is love.
Those gathered nod their heads in sublime agreement, putting these
powerful words from the Apostle Paul into the ground or columbarium with
their dearly departed, assuming their intent will be known to them only
on the other side of the grave.
That has been my experience at least. 1 Corinthians 13, as exquisite and
compelling as its phrases are, is relegated to the two times we are
least able or willing to hear them as being relevant and applicable to
ourselves. We either send 1 Corinthians 13 off in the “Just Married” car
with a couple who can barely remember their own names much less what was
just said in the sanctuary, or we bury them with our dearly departed,
who, quite frankly, have no use for the text any more.
Today, let’s reclaim “the love chapter” for ourselves, on an average day
in the midst of our lives and use them to make ourselves, our
communities, and our lives better.
The first thing to do, as any good Bible study student would tell you,
is to look at what comes before the passage at hand, and what follows
Well, what proceeds this famous text is what we explored last week in
this very moment. It is the discussion of the Body of Christ as a body –
working together as a community in such a way as to not only recognize
the need we have, one for another, but in such a way as to honor those
who are seen as weaker and less respectable. Paul goes into great
detail, clearly trying to emphasize his point, that, “If one member
suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all
rejoice together with it.” He ends what we know as chapter 12 (there
were no chapter designations in the original Greek, you know!) with the
admonition and promise: “But strive for the greater gifts. And I will
show you a still more excellent way.” followed immediately by, “If I
speak in the tongues of mortals and of angesl, but do not have love…”
To pull out 1 Corinthians 13 from its context is to do a grave
disservice to Paul’s theology and the Word of God as it was meant for us
and our communities. No one grasped this better than the esteemed elder
churchman and former General Minister and President of the Christian
Church (Disciples of Christ), the Rev. C. William Nichols. In looking at
this scripture passage, he reflects,
Read 1 Corinthians 13
It is an indisputable fact of nature that often something beautiful
emerges from circumstances that are ugly and painful, like the labor
pains that produce a radiant new life.
So the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians is unquestionably one of
the most sublime utterances in all holy writ. But this beautiful
celebration of the most magnificent quality of which human beings are
capable was evoked by a bitter quarrel in the church. And this
internecine strife was provoked by a disagreement over what constituted
There were those who had found an exciting and enthusiastic experience
in speaking in tongues. They had observed their pagan neighbors
indulging in this release of their emotions in the ecstatic speech that
said nothing lucid, but felt good to the speaker.
On the other hand, there were those who preferred a more rational
approach to their religious experience. They were embarrassed by the
crudeness of the tongue speakers, but they found great satisfaction in
writing creeds and liturgical materials, and debating the truths upon
which their faith was built.
There were others in the church who found God in the experience of
prayer. It was on their knees that God became real to them, and they
didn't understand how anyone could possibly be Christian without their
Finally, there were members of the church who clucked their tongues over
the raucous tongue speaking, and they couldn't stay awake to study
theology, and their knees hurt when they knelt to pray. But they loved
their Lord, and proved it by rolling up their sleeves and tackling
projects that glorified God and served the needy.
And while Paul does not dismiss any discipline of worship, he does say
to those whose belief that their way of worship was the only legitimate
way, "I will show you a ... more excellent way" (I Corinthians 12:31).
And that more excellent way is love.
I suspect that when we come to the end of our way, we will not count
among our treasures the memory of any enthusiasm in any form of worship,
or any expertise in theology, or any groundbreaking pilgrimages in
prayer, or any monumental contributions of sacrifice or generosity.
Rather, I suspect the treasures we will count as among our greatest
riches will be those we have purchased by the giving of our love.
Rev. Nichols gets it. This “more excellent way” may be useful to a newly
married or freshly covenanted couple, and it hopefully speaks volumes
about a life well-lived, but it was meant to address those of us who
live in community, which is to say: all of us here and now! I find it
especially powerful that Paul, as Rev. Nichols reminds us, was speaking
to a community moving through the trials and tribulations, joys and
possibilities, of changes in worship! “Love is patient; love is kind,”
was meant for Franklin Circle Christian Church as we seek to integrate
new and different forms of worship on our Second Sunday Circle
Celebrations! “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all
things, endures all things” was meant for us white Anglo Caucasian folks
as we hear from our African American, Latino/Latina, and wondrously
varied sisters and brothers about different gifts they bring and
different tempos to which they worship.
Likewise, Rev. Nichols reminds us that seeing through a mirror dimly
can’t be reserved for the afterlife. Yes, I do believe that when I die I
will get the magnificent opportunity to see God face to face, to know
God even as God has known me, to sink into and be consumed by the warm,
all-knowing love with is the very essence of God. But that does not get
me off the hook from trying to love so much that that foggy bathroom
mirror gets wiped cleaned, and I see myself and my neighbor more
clearly, particularly the neighbor who is different from me. I believe 1
Corinthians 13 is a clarion call for us to be patient enough to look
through that dim mirror, that foggy window, until we begin to recognize
our neighbor as our self, and our self as our neighbor. What is love if
it isn’t a tool, a resource, a very way of life that we are called to
use and be in community in the here and now, where it is most needed!
And that is what the very next verse, that is never read as part of
weddings or funerals, says: “Pursue love…” Paul goes on to address the
practical and immediate concerns of the Corinthian church, speaking in
tongues and prophesy in church, but my point is it is an action phrase,
a directive, an exhortation: “Pursue love… now, not later… here, not
somewhere else… Pursue Love!”
And thus we come full circle to James Baldwin’s quote. Whether we are
talking about the intersections of race and class in America or the
movement of contemporary and traditional worship at Franklin Circle
Christian Church, “Whether I like it or not, or whether you like it or
not, we are bound together forever. We are part of each other,” as
So, my dearly beloved… let us respectfully and carefully replace 1
Corinthians 13 back into the context of scripture and the framework of
our daily lives from whence it is so often ceremoniously taken. Let us
then hear the Apostle Paul’s words as they speak to us in our moment,
our affairs, our lives. Then, and really only then, will the “Love
Chapter” be set free to do its wondrous magic in our world. “And now
faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is
(1) African American Wisdom, Ed. by Reginald McKnight (New World
Library, San Rafael, CA, 1994) p. 19, from James Baldwin’s The Price Of
The Ticket, 1985.
(2) C. William Nichols, in Day By Day Through The New Testament: Acts To
Revelation (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002), Day 57.
Other resources consulted for this sermon:
Lectionary Commentary, 1 Corinthians 13:11-12, Shauna St.Clair, The
African American Lectionary, 2009.
Commentary, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Karoline Lewis, Preaching This Week,
Rev. Allen V. Harris
Franklin Circle Christian Church
Copyright 2010 -- The Rev. Allen V. Harris
Franklin Circle Christian Church
(Disciples of Christ)
1688 Fulton Rd., Cleveland, OH 44113-3096