Sermon Delivered September 23, 2012Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
1 Corinthians 13:1-10;13
Sometimes a rope can be your best friend. This was made clear to me one starry night in Alpharetta, GA. I was house sitting over the Summer for a friend whose family owned a polo farm. In the early morning hours I was awakened by the sound of a large animal on the gravel driveway. Having grown up with livestock, I did what seemed the right thing to do. I went and got a halter and led the horse back into the corral. Suddenly I realized in my stupor that I was barefoot, and one misstep of a large herbivore could have been most unfortunate. At that moment I was glad for a threefold chord.
Other times I have appreciated the value of a good rope have involved rock climbing. The type of climb determines the rope. A static rope will offer more strength and stability, but if it pulls tight with too much force it can snap. A dynamic rope has more give to it, though it cannot bear as much weight.
Today we are celebrating the grace of God made known to us through covenants, and we have been given the metaphor of rope, the definition of love, and the assurance that God abides in us if we abide in God.
All of these are traditional wedding passages, and today is certainly a day to affirm and remember individual covenants. Particularly we are celebrating the love that has helped Mel and Paul Clark to endure the hardships of changing lifestyles and locations, health challenges, and financial hardship. And in a few minutes they will reaffirm the commitments that they have made before.
The wisdom of Ecclesiastes reminds us that going it alone is a rough row to hoe, yet it is not simply an encouragement to find some one to snuggle with on a cold night! All of these passages are a call to community relationships in as much as they are an affirmation of individual covenants. In fact, the mindset of those in ancient Israel was a communal one. Israel was a man and a nation. The actions of individuals were always in the context of their relationships in community.
And so the first and second chords may be a husband and wife, but they can just as easily be a community that gathers to weather the storms together. The third chord is even more ambiguous, but it is not a stretch to say that it is God. Jesus said that “where two or more are gathered in my name, I am with you.” Therefor it is in our common union as partners and as a community of faith that God is present.
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he writes the most eloquent words about love ever written – and they had as much to do with the frustration you experienced this morning over the leaky pipe in front of the sanctuary as they do about the mutual forbearance that marriage requires of a husband and wife.
I think that one of the reasons that marriage is held in honor in Christian faith is because it is a concrete experience (or at least it holds the opportunity for one) of grace, forgiveness, faith, hope, and love -not just romantic love, but real self sacrificing love- love like that which is written about by poets and dreamers, theologians and schemers.
One such author, Hannah More, wrote these words in the early 19th century:
Love never reasons but profusely gives, gives like a thoughtless prodigal its all, and trembles then lest it has done too little. Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast everything. Love still stands when all else has fallen…. The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved, loved for ourselves, or rather loved in spite of ourselves. Love is the root of all virtues. If there is anything better than to be loved , it is loving. If we love one another, God dwells in us. Love is love’s own reward.
If we love one another – God dwells in us. That sounds a lot like marriage to me. That sounds a lot like the church to me. It sounds a lot like John’s gospel – which reminds us that the source of all love is none other than God. The chord that binds all things is none other than God.
That can be a tough pill to swallow for those of us who declare ourselves to be independent, free agents – kind of like a cowboy. Paul and I talked about that the other day. There’s that old song about Mamas, babies, and cowboys, and the warning comes with good reason! But, truth be told, there’s a little cowboy (or girl) in each of us. On the plus side it means that we believe that – ultimately – we are responsible for ourselves. And it means that we are – at least in our hearts – wired to be loyal and true to our commitments. On the downside it means there is a part of us that resists being transformed from self-made into God-designed. There is a part of us that resists the idea that God made us to be more interdependent than independent.
We don’t like to see ourselves as needing anyone or anything, and yet apart from God we can do nothing. Apart from God we are like a horse that Mel was talking about the other day. She told me about cutting horse that Paul was riding that decided it did not want to be ridden. Apparently Paul took it in stride and let him wear himself out – though I imagine he was thankful for the rope and the leather that offered him something to hold onto.
God is like that. God holds onto us while we rebel, and rejoices when we repent. In the same way, God is the rope or the line that we hold when we endure trials. And that line is seen and felt in the form of our relationships. Sometimes it is in the form of friend – regardless of that friend’s faith – for God can use anyone.
The place we know it and see it the best, however, is in our intentional, faith filled relationships. I don’t just mean our faith in one another. I mean our faith in God that allows us to believe in one another. Because – in the end – all of us will, at some point or another, fail one another. There are some relationships I fail routinely. I am certain that I say, “I’m sorry.” to my wife more than anyone.
And that’s a good thing. Because relationships, like ropes, are fragile. Ask any serious climber about the dangers of a dirty climbing rope. A few grains of sand or dirt can become like tiny knives in a weight bearing rope, ripping it apart from the inside.
It doesn’t take much to see that selfishness, pride, envy, and greed can do the same thing in any relationship. And so Paul reminds us why love is the greatest, because love doesn’t simply overlook these things. Love overpowers them. Love that is grounded in God’s perfect love scatters these things like shadows fleeing the sunlight.
In the end what truly matters is not romance for individuals or enthusiasm for communities. The gospel these passages proclaim is about fidelity under the Lordship of Christ. Partnership is about knowing and being known. Community is about bearing burdens and sharing joys in a way that the things that affect you also affect me. Leaky pipes, disability, and every trial we can face have no comparison to loving and being loved. For we are not defined by what happens to us. We are defined by the love that holds us.
We are defined by the love of God made known through Christ Jesus who redeems and transforms us – whether we want it or not – again, and again, and again. It is not a question as to whether or not God does this. It is instead an invitation for each of us to affirm God’s love for us through every relationship and every chance encounter. As a friend once told me, “It’s just that simple, and it’s just that hard.” Amen.