The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (Year C)

“The Greatest of These is Love”

A sermon by parishioner Peter Ulisse

Love is patient.  Love is kind.  It is not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude.  Love does not insist on its own way and is not irritable or resentful.  It doesn’t rejoice in wrongdoing, but in the truth.  Love will even outlast all knowledge and prophecies.  It bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

What wonderful words.  In two thousand years to this day, I don’t think there has ever been a better description of love than in Corinthians 13.  Love exists deep in our souls, in our relationships with others, and in our joyous celebrations whether they be weddings, births, or anniversaries.  I myself remember one such celebration as Sheila and I were married in this church in 2006 by Reverend Judy amid throngs of family and friends filling the pews and even a two-year-old grandchild wandering all over, eventually preferring the choir loft.  After the wedding we all excitedly walked four houses down on Madison Avenue to our home where we had a backyard outdoor reception in beautiful 65 degree May weather.  It was easy to feel love for all on such a day and I’m sure you’ve all had similar type memories for, as the songs say, “love makes the world go round” and even “takes us up where we belong.”

But as we look out in today’s world we might begin to wonder if love is still present.  As we watch the evening news, read the newspaper, or connect with social media, we seem to be seeing the exact opposite.  Road Rage.  Racism. Domestic Abuse.  School Shootings- horrible events which are hard to fathom- made worse by a terrible virus which seemed to be ebbing away only to return with a vengeance causing even more anxiety, depression, and PTSD.  Even our relationship with others seems strained as people are tempted not to trust anyone who doesn’t look like them, act like them, or believe what they do.  People hoard paper goods, home covid tests, and even food. Where is the kindness, the patience, the love? Can it be that Paul’s beautiful words are suddenly no longer viable?  Where is God in all this?

Whew, these are tough questions.  And I don’t pretend to have any definitive answers myself- I’m just a part of this as you are.  But even as we face these big issues and continue to work for social justice and our own healing, I am rather confident of one thing:  love is not dead.  No matter how bad things look, it will never ultimately succumb to fear as surely as light always destroys darkness.  Just look at our own Prayers for the People in the weekly bulletins honoring those on the front lines fighting covid.  The exhausted nurse who has just been told she has to work a double shift… according to Corinthians, “Love bears all things.”  The teacher in the classroom anxious about his or her students’ learning…”Love hopes all things.”  Or the EMT’s on the job every day…”Love does not end.”

And we also see love blooming in people we know or see every day.  The young man buying food for elderly neighbors who find it difficult to get out…”Love is kind.”   The busy mother working from home taking the time to read a story to her child…”Love is patient.”   The person who stands in one spot every day putting  fruit, meat, and vegetables into your grocery bags… “Love is not boastful.”  And even in our own small church where we worship together, attend meditation and prayer groups, quilt, sing, make donations and deliveries of food and warm coats to people who have so little, and a vestry which allows us to do all these wonderful things while still paying the bills-  love is not arrogant or boastful, but patient, kind, rejoices in the truth, and bears all things.

So, yes, while keeping the words of Corinthians 13 in mind, we can see those true and beautiful words are still alive 2000 years later even though they may not  correspond to the current world’s definition of love.  Love is not a romance novel, a sitcom, or even a nice feeling.  As Paul says, “when I was a child I spoke like a child, thought like a child, reasoned as a child; when I became an adult I put an end to childish ways.”  Love is not a transitory emotion but that nurse, the bag packer, the mother reading to her child- it is something more mature, something which goes to the very center of who we are and how we act in the world.  Even though we are not “face to face” and “see in a mirror dimly” as Paul goes on to say, what we experience is something which always was, is now, and ever will be- the very reason we say God is love.  He has been with us as we have suffered enormous pain and loss in two World Wars, a Great Depression, many plagues and injustices, and is still with us as we continue this loving each day…”love never ends.”

So, what I’d like you to do this week is to venture out on sort of a “love hunt.”  No, not one which takes you out of the state or even from where you live and work, but right where you are now, this very second.  Stop.  Look.  Listen.  No matter how occupied you are during any given day, give yourself a few moments and become more aware of your surroundings- what do you see?  In your families, work, neighbors, strangers, even in the mass media. Is it truly only fear, hate, and bitterness that you experience? Only the envious, selfish, and rude?  Or has love been there all along, not really lost but only waiting for you to see and feel its continued presence.  Although we now aren’t able to see “face to face,” maybe that mirror reflects more than we think regarding kindness, patience, hope, and endurance.  I can recite one example in my experience just this past week- the perseverance and consideration for others my son showed as he faced yet another surgery and the thoughts and prayers coming from family, friends,  and so many members of this community.  Maybe love thy neighbor as thyself is still one of the two great commandments put forth by a loving, eternally compassionate God who is always with us, even in times of darkness and loss, to assist us every step of the way.  And as we’re engaging in our love quest, we might want to remember the closing lines of Corinthians 13:  “Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”