Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Nov. 9, 2014
For the last several years in the final weeks of the Christian year, we have turned our attention to stewardship, and what it means for us to give back to the God who has so generously given to us. Stewardship is more than a monetary issue, as important as that aspect is to our continued existence and vitality. Stewardship is really about what we do with what we have after we say we believe. And we have much to share. When we join the church we make some promises about how we will use what we have – more than promises, we make some vows. Right off hand, do you know the difference between a promise and a vow? Both are pledges of assurance that we will or will not do something. But a vow is a promise made not just with another human being but also with God.
In our vows of membership, we promise to support the church with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness. Two years ago, in November 2012, BF – before the fire – we focused on prayer because it is foundational to everything we do.
A year ago in November 2013, AF – after the fire – we focused on presence. We’d had lost our church buildings to a fire – we were in a temporary location three miles away. There was no better time for us to concentrate on our vow of presence than during that limbo time. Presence is always important, we can’t be absent and be the church, but presence is more important than ever perhaps, as we commit ourselves to God, to the church, to one another, and to the world in our journey of faith.
This year we are focusing on the third of our membership vows – the promise to support the church with our gifts. Before we can give, however, we have to recognize and give thanks for how much we have been given. We had that opportunity last Sunday when we remembered and celebrated the gifts we have received from the saints in our lives. We know we are all beholden to someone. None of us is self-made, without the influence of another. We are the people we are today because of someone or several ones who influenced us in a positive way. Joel shared with us about his parents and the loving direction he has received from them throughout his life.
Today we are going to consider love as the motivation for giving. Sharon has shared how love motivates her in her work and she gives her time and talent to school children. Love is the only true reason to give; there may be others that distract us – dreary obligation, peer pressure, the desire for a tax deduction! But it’s love that has the power not only to bless the receiver but also the giver of the gift as Paul explains the thirteenth chapter of first Corinthians.
This passage from first Corinthians is perhaps one of the best known and most loved passages in the Bible. It is a great favorite at weddings, and maybe that’s where you’ve most often heard it. Maybe it was read at your own wedding. But interestingly, Paul wasn’t writing to a young couple just starting married life together. He was writing to a congregation he’d founded in Corinth, writing in response to their request that he intervene and help them with the fighting and bickering that was tearing them apart. They were a very unloving group of people, divided into factions, each one thinking itself better than the other.
They were divided over the importance of their various spiritual gifts, with one group maintaining that the gift of speaking in tongues was the most important of the gifts. And there was heated debate over whether or not an interpreter should be provided to translate ecstatic speech so that the rest of the congregation could understand. In the chapter immediately preceding today’s reading, Paul reminds them that spiritual gifts are not meant to separate them into special or privileged groups, but are meant for service to the common good. And if they use their gifts appropriately, they will find themselves to be a part of that mystical, living, dynamic entity that he calls “the body of Christ.” Within the body of Christ it makes no difference whether their gift is flashy and obvious like speaking in tongues, or quiet and subtle, like caring for the sick, or offering hospitality to strangers. It takes all the parts, all together to compose the Body of Christ, and each is an indispensable and unique contributing member of it.
Paul concludes by saying something quite interesting. As they strive for greater gifts, he says, “I will show you a more excellent way.” What could possibly be more excellent than what he has already described – a community of faith intent on sharing their abilities, their gifts, and their graces for the common good – all for one and one for all. What could be better than that?
The more excellent way is to do all of those things with love. Love must be the motivation behind the right use of gifts; love is what makes them important at all. One can speak in everyday language, the tongues of people, or one can speak in ecstatic speech – the tongues of angels – and can be eloquent, able to communicate ideas and possibilities with great effectiveness, but if love is not the motivator of the speech, more often than not, communication is used for personal advantage and can divide and isolate, rather than bring together and unite.We don’t have to look far to see that do we?
Although I may not be happy with the outcome of the midterm elections, I am happy that they are over because of the terrible divisive, biased, half-truths that passed for electioneering in the last several months. What if our elected officials had been able to see their opponents as equally loved children of God, not as bumbling idiots or evil adversaries hell bent on destroying the country. What if their goal was the common good and not simply their own desires to gain power or to be elected?
Paul says we can have all kinds of prophetic powers, and be full of knowledge and information, but without love that knowledge can be used as a tool or a weapon to gain advantage of another. It can destroy rather than promote loving relationships and understandings among us. Paul doesn’t say that the intellect is worthless, we are, after all, to love God with our minds, but without love, it can become cold, calculating, self-serving, and dangerous
He says we can have all faith – but like eloquence and knowledge – faith without love is dangerous. It is what led to the Crusades and the Inquisition. It is what led our forebears to burn people at the stake as witches, or to affirm slavery and to proclaim one race as superior to another. The Westboro Baptist Church calls it faith when they protest at various public events, proclaiming God’s hatred for the LGBTQ, and God’s judgment on the United States. But true faith is meant to draw us closer to God and to one another, and God is love. Only when we act out of love do we reflect God in us. Faith that results in violence towards another person or group of people, or leads to intolerance of diversity, or indifference to the poor, or that supports injustice is counterfeit faith because it lacks love. When his speech or his faith lack love, Paul says, he does not become a better person, but is diminished by it. In fact he says, in that action “I am nothing.”
The same is true of giving. If we give away everything we have, even if we sacrifice our very lives for the cause, but do not do it out of love, we gain nothing. He doesn’t say that the gifts are worthless, or that the gifts are nothing. Gifts can be used for good regardless of their source. All gifts to God and God’s people can bring about good. If you win money in the lottery, don’t be ashamed, don’t hesitate one minute, to tithe to your church! Your ill-gotten gain can be used for good purposes! But here’s the thing – unless a gift is given out of love and the motivation for the giving is to bless another person and not ourselves, then giver loses out and gains nothing from the transaction. There is no blessing for the giver in the gift.
So that should make us stop and think rather closely about our motivation for all of our giving. There are some misguided reasons for giving; I mentioned a few earlier . Guilt, fear, obligation, peer pressure, even the desire for a greater tax deduction! But all of these are rather grim, grudging motives for giving that don’t lead to feeling blessed – harassed maybe, but not blessed! You know in your heart when you give with love – there’s a lightness there, not a heaviness. There’s joy there, not resentment. There’s freedom, not obligation. It makes you feel good! Those of you who serve at Our Daily Bread tomorrow and give your time to that effort will feel good about it when you leave, as though you have been given a gift far greater than the food that you helped to give. That is the blessing that comes to the giver from giving with love.
Or think about how you feel on Christmas morning when you watch your family open the gifts you have lovingly selected for them. When you give a gift to someone, you are really giving a part of yourself in those gifts. The concrete package is a representation of you and your affection. When they see the gift they think of you and when they think of you they think of love. And that is exactly why Paul insists that love must be our primary motivation for giving. Because that’s what God did — love is God’s concrete expression the in gift of Christ. “God so loved the world, that God gave . . .” “[i]Giving is our opportunity to be toward others the way God in Christ has been toward us.”
Love then is more than a feeling, more than a thought; it is action; it is behavior. It changes and blesses the one who gives as much as the one who receives. For me personally, I give to my children and grandchildren because I love them. I give to various charities because I love God’s people and want to have a small part in making life better for someone. I give to this church because I love God and I love you and I love the work that is done in and through our efforts. When we think about it, we all know from our experiences that gifts given out of love bear a double blessing – they bless those who receive and they bless those who give. Thanks be to God for the opportunity to share our love through the gifts we give and to be blessed in the giving. It is the more excellent way. Amen.
[i] Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1987, 631.