1 Corinthians 13:1-13 is one of those oft quoted, widely beloved but I suspect underestimated pieces of wisdom. It makes us feel very connected in, as though there is meaning to human love (and yes, there certainly is) so we trot it out at every wedding and quite a lot of funerals too. It says something so powerful and true about the human experience and the source and nature of the divine that is in us. And it says something so powerful and true that perhaps after it moves us to tears it is easy also to then let it rest, our bit of escapist “catharsis” having washed us out. Unfortunately if we cleanse out our dissatisfaction of all that is shallow and hollow in our lives, we also cleanse out our drive to be better than.
The reading is certainly a warning to blog writers like me who try to be clever with God’s word. What am I really doing week to week? I hope I am motivated by love, love of God, Love of scripture, love of my vocation and love of people who may receive my words. But even if I began this task out of love, there is no place for complacency and excessive comfort when working with that burning coal, the Word of God. The first reading reminds us that a vocation to speak is real, there is no getting out of it because I am “only a boy” or not even because I am “only a girl” (please only click the link if you want to cry tears of angry frustration) in the patriarchal church. I may be the lowest of the low in terms of the church, but in terms of God I am as trusted a messenger as any. And that is true for anyone.
But the words that God puts into my mouth, those words are not concerned with aesthetic beauty; to simply be as eloquent and stirring as the speech of an angel. It is not just about the unsilencing and it is not enough to open the mouth and preach.
There needs to be behind every preaching, a life grounded in love and a soul rooted in love. This love needs to be manifest in how a life is lived, in how choices are made, not only big choices but the smallest moment to moment choice to speak, to act, to be present. Love, the beautiful ideal we can all swoon at the thought of but when I think about real nitty-gritty love in each boring decision of my life, I have recently become aware that in fact I am a complete beginner. So many things other than love motivate me from moment to moment. I wonder how often those preached to could actually hold up a much greater model of love and much more real and keen examples of how to live in love than the preacher who rises above ordinary things to speak with the tongues of mortals and angels, but runs the risk of becoming too far above to know love.
I have certainly known some love in my life. Love is dirty nappies and pleading for an extension for overdue school-fees (and doing it again). Love is scratching together money for Christmas presents for my children and at their bidding for “Jesus” (ie charities) as well. Love is returning to people you know will accept you, building bridges with people who don’t understand you, tending people who are vulnerable, challenging people who are full of the toxins of wrongly used power and holding your arms open to welcome back someone who failed to accept your love at a time when you had wished they would. Love is holding back criticism, believing in the impossible, giving with a generosity bordering on foolishness. But for a better way of putting it turn back and read the original words.
In the reading words are used like “patient… kind” these are the same words I teach to my preschoolers, and yet they are words I also need to constantly find meaning for in my own life’s choices. They are words to practice and grow into not know once and then feel gooey over. Love is not boastful or arrogant or rude. Maybe love understands that other people have needs and strengths and weaknesses and a complicated dance-path through life and does not try to control others. Can a controlling, blaming, excluding church preach such love to us? If not then it must be us, “only a girl”, “only a single-mother”, “only a lesbian”, “only a loser”, “only an aging and still confused wanderer” and only whatever any of us are. Whatever our low status and lack of qualifications, God anoints us to preach and somehow we must manage to draw from our experiences of being loved and of loving and preach love to the church.
But of course the church knows us in the casual dismissive way they knew Jesus as “Joseph’s son”. They might know me as the “mad-woman” or as the “underachiever” or as one of “those dratted ever-complaining feminists”. I don’t understand Jesus’ words in this gospel as he seems to be reifying “chosenness” which is an idea I cannot accept. But what I do see, is that when this Jesus person they know, and have tried to form, and have been community for, says things they don’t like and acts in ways they don’t control and tries to preach back or speak back to authority; then they are angered to the point of wanting to kill him and he has to disappear.
It’s validating for those of us who have needed to take a “break” from church at times isn’t it? To think that at times we are so at loggerheads with the church that it is ok to fade away and go onwards alone for a while rather than let our spirit be completely crushed by their anger at who we are.
So there is a lot of challenge in the readings this week, but equally affirmation and encouragement. You, (yes you whoever reads or writes this) have a valid point of view that comes from your unique dance with God. In so far as you let yourself be inspired by and grounded in love (the love as it is described in the reading) you are also called, empowered and anointed to preach your subjective truth as part of the ultimate truth that is love. It doesn’t matter whether your words are eloquent or beautiful because the love you live will shine through, because love is everything. When you are misunderstood and under threat it is valid to disappear. But love is patient; “bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things” so there may also be a season for returning.
Live, work, be, speak all in love and all things out of love. Because faith, hope and love are the things that won’t fail you. “and the greatest of these is love”.