A member of the congregation who takes a tremendous critical
interest in my sermons called me this week and asked, "What are you going
to say about the fact that Sunday is Valentine's Day and the epistle is
First Corinthians 13?" My natural perversity and contrariness tempt me
to preach only on today's gospel as a way of responding to the question.
But I must admit, grudgingly, that it is a good question. Thanks to
greeting card and perfume salesmen, and bed and breakfast proprietors,
and the natural guiltiness of the male of our species, Valentine's Day
is the day we set aside to exalt romantic love.
One of the clearest signs of the degeneracy of our epoch of history
is that almost all modern translations of the New Testament use "love"
as the translation of the word in today's epistle which the King James
Version renders as "charity." Charity and romantic love are not the same
So that can lead us into some possible confusion concerning the different
kinds of love. The Greek language solved the problem by having two completely
different words which were not at all interchangeable.
Furthering the confusion is the fact that First Corinthians 13 has become
a sort of all-purpose scriptural reading on all sorts of improbable occasions.
I think it must be because people think it sounds so sentimental and non-judgmental--unlike
other, more obviously threatening, Bible passages. There is, for example,
no mention of the dreaded word J-E-S-U-S.
The fact is that First Corinthians 13 is one of the most damning passages
in the entire Bible. It tells us that by his Holy Spirit God makes available
to us the gift of charity. To show charity is to act for the good of another
person no matter what it may cost us. Unlike romantic love--which is in
no way a bad thing in itself--charity is not mainly a matter of feelings;
charity is a matter of will and action. It is about what you actually do.
Charity is the gift which has least to do with my favorite topic--me.
Charity is interested only in the welfare of other people and what I can
do to promote it. To show charity is to act at all times just as Jesus
To paraphrase St. Paul: a person who has charity puts up with everything
and everybody in a kind and generous spirit; he never wants what he doesn't
have already; he doesn't put himself forward or brag; he doesn't keep a
list of slights; he takes no salacious interest in the wrongdoings of others.
If that is the standard by which God measures our behavior, we are all
in big trouble.
Ash Wednesday is upon us and with it the need to consider -how we are
going to discipline ourselves in Lent. The Prayer Book.tells us that Ash
Wednesday and Good Friday are fasts--days on which we are to eat nothing.
It also tells us that the forty days of Lent are days of abstinence--days
on which we should cut back on our normal intake of food and drink. Sundays
are never days of fasting or abstinence, because Sunday is always first
and foremost a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.
Along with the fasting and abstinence disciplines, we should consider
taking something else on--more physical exercise, perhaps, since the body
is the temple of the Holy Ghost; or maybe you need to get serious about
your prayer life and Bible study--you are missing out on so much if you
don't pray every day and read at least something from the Bible every day.
You certainly need to make a thorough examination of your conscience--asking
"What is there in my life that is keeping me from a full commitment to
Christ and the church?" "What can I do to get those distractions out of
the way?" "Whom do I need to forgive and with whom do I need to get myself
reconciled before it is too late?" I am always available to talk with you
about any of these things.
Our Bible study classes on Sundays and Wednesdays continue. Next Saturday
is the Parish Lenten Quiet Day. I will be giving some instruction, but
the main idea is to be quiet for awhile. There is too little opportunity
for silence in the lives most of us have laid out for ourselves. We need
time to shut up, turn off the TV and the radio, park the RV, be quiet,
and let God talk to us. If you say, "I'd love to come, but I have too much
to do," you are only proving my point. Is five hours really too much time
to devote to God?
In the charity epistle, St. Paul puts all spiritual discipline into
perspective. He says that no matter how much we do--run ten miles a day,
avoid red meat, give up smoking, stay away from alcohol, never think once
about the President, and read only religious tracts--no matter how good
any of those disciplines may be in themselves, they are worthless if they
don't make us more charitable.
The ultimate point of spiritual discipline is not Bible information,
or greater self-awareness, or lower cholesterol, or the better opinion
of your children. Good as all of those things are in themselves, the only
worthwhile point of any of them is to help us want to serve other people,
and then actually go ahead and do it.
"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I
thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." Lent gives us the chance to prove it.