I Corinthians 13, I John 4:11-13
Rev. Tom Herbek
February 12, 2017
In the passage that comes before I Corinthians Chapter 13, Paul talks about the age-old quest for power and status, letting the Corinthians know that there are many different gifts and talents that people have, but that all of them are valuable and special. The problem seems to be that, just like many congregations in the early church, power struggles were a part of the church at Corinth.
The acquisition of personal power and the desire to use it for personal gain is a real temptation. In J.K. Rowling’s imaginary world of Harry Potter, the wizards are often tempted to use their magical powers to benefit themselves and put their entire community in danger. As Harry battles the evil Lord Voldemort, he is also tempted by power. But his teacher and mentor, Professor Albus Dumbledore gives Harry some special insight. He tells Harry that “the most magical force of all is love.” He helps Harry to understand that love is the greatest power in the world.
One night when Harry is wandering the castle after lights out, he discovers the magical mirror of Erised. Harry looks into the mirror and sees other people, even though he is alone in the room. He soon realizes that the images in the mirror are the smiling faces of his dead parents, and he feels a deep mixture of joy and sadness. He can barely move away from the mirror, but is forced to move when he is almost discovered.
The next night, Harry takes his friend Ron with him to visit the mirror. When Ron steps up to it, he sees himself wearing the badge of Head Boy of the School, the position that Ron secretly wants to attain one day. He also sees himself holding up the trophy that goes to the winning team of the school’s favorite sport, Quidditch.
On the third night, Harry returns to the mirror by himself, but is surprised on the way there by Dumbledore, who warns Harry about the Mirror of Erised, telling Harry that it is the word desire spelled backwards. When people look into the mirror, Prof. Dumbledore explains, they see the deepest desires of their hearts. Harry’s desire is to know his parents, who died when he was a baby. Ron’s desire is for fame and achievement. Professor Dumbledore says that a truly happy person would look into the mirror and see themself as they are deep down. In order for a person to be happy in life, they would see the essence of who they are and simply desire to live out that essence.
Paul writes that “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face.” Now we are caught up in the pursuit of the desires that cannot fulfill us: security, prestige, achievement, power. Ultimately, what we truly desire will not be found in magic formulas and powers, in special spiritual gifts, in bank accounts, in boardrooms or power positions, in Nobel prizes or Super Bowl rings. In the end, it is love that is the only thing that completely satisfies us, and enables us to see ourselves as we truly are.
And love is the only way that we can see ourselves as God sees us. Anything else is a dim, distorted reflection of who we are — not a true view of who we are.
Once we realize we are loved by God, then we can begin to love and accept ourselves, and we discover, often to our surprise, that we are loved by the people around us as we are.
What we must realize is that love is extraordinarily powerful, both for us as we become more loving and for those who are loved. Love has no bounds in its ability to bring healing and wholeness to our world. Although he is describing romantic love, author Tom Robbins conveys this sense about love in his novel Still Life With Woodpecker: “Love is the ultimate outlaw. It just won’t adhere to any rules. The most any of us can do is to sign on as its accomplice. Instead of vowing to honor and obey, maybe we should swear to aid and abet. My love for you has no strings attached. I love you for free.”
I like his statement that love is “the ultimate outlaw.” It has no bounds. Its power goes beyond anything else we know. In fact, the only way we can become the person we were created to be is when we love and we allow ourselves to be loved. Plato once said that “we are born whole, but we need each other to become complete.” But we don’t believe it, and we try to hide our faults. A French philosopher once described how this happens, and what is the result: “Almost all our faults are more pardonable than the methods we resort to, to hide them” .(La Rochefoucauld). It is similar to what the American Ayn Rand wrote: “You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.”
Most of us work very hard to hide our faults, to avoid reality. It is so very hard for us to believe that someone could love us as we are, whether friend or spouse. And we tend to repeat the patterns of unhealthy relationships over and over, until one day we find out that the unhealthy pattern is not the only option.
In The Endless Practice, Mark Nepo describes how difficult it is to be involved in a loving relationship – yet how important:
Let me tell you a story. Two people meet and fall in love. When the aura settles into the realness of days, as it always does, one is afraid or not strong enough or not encouraged enough to stay an equal partner. From that moment on, the relationship is out of balance and keeps tipping to one side. Until one partner dominates the other. Or the one withholding who they are, at some crucial point, feels suffocated and pushes the other away to save themselves. If balance is restored, the relationship grows. If not, the two, no matter how much in love, will probably separate, way inside, whether they remain living together or not.
For those who leave the relationship, some never try again. Others, if blessed, find another possibility of love. And there, a deeper struggle begins. For inevitably, the same patterns will show themselves. It’s a psychic law that keeps presenting us with the same initiations until we master them. So, scarily and blessedly, we get the chance to do the same things differently.
Now, this time around, one of the partners will be challenged not to repeat their role and not to reactively assume the opposite role. Having been submissive, we need to resist the urge to take over, doing to someone else what was done to us. Likewise, having been domineering, we need to resist the self-inflicted penance to serve equal time as the recipient of our domineering ways.
A balanced, heartfelt respect is the house being built, not a rearrangement of the psychic furniture.
The potent and often unwatered seed in all this is a working faith that love will protect us; a faith that says we can be loving and honest, loving and equal, loving and all of who we are. But we’re so trained by our wounds and educated in distrust that we retract who we are in order to protect ourselves from further wounding. Understandable as this is, it’s only by being who we are and letting those we love be who they are that we can break our fear-based patterns. Then, we wake in a sudden clearing where another story begins.
The real work of relationship begins with the rigor of heart by which we stop retreating from life, and the rigor of mind by which we stop giving ourselves away for the sake of belonging. These are not easy tasks.
Dr. Rachel Remen describes a cancer survivor, a patient of hers who had to learn this. Helene was “a truly gorgeous woman who spent hours on her appearance.” Dr. Remen says that no one had seen Helene’s face without makeup since she was a child.
When Helene had been married previously, she had always gotten up thirty minutes before her husband did so she could have her makeup all done and be completely dressed before he woke up. Now, many years later, Helene was engaged to a wonderful man, but she confided to Dr. Remen that there was one problem with him: their romantic life was pleasant, but boring. He even asked her permission before he kissed her.
On October 17, 1989, Helene was trying on dresses and spiked high heels at a San Francisco department store when the earthquake hit. She had to leave her purse and car keys and cell phone and stood outside in the rubble. There was no electricity and no phone service. She began to walk home, many miles away.
It took her almost eight hours to walk home. After a short time her feet began to hurt, so she took off the heels and threw them away. As she walked on, her nylons tore and her feet began to bleed. She passed buildings that had collapsed, stumbled over rubble, waded through streets filled with filthy water from the fire-fighting efforts. Dirty, sweaty, and disheveled, she walked down the Marina to the Golden Gate Bridge and crossed it into the next county. She reached home sometime after midnight and knocked on her own front door. It was opened by her fiancé, who had never before seen her with her hair uncombed.
Without a word, he took her into his arms, kicked the door closed, and covered her dirty, tearstained face with kisses.
Helene is a very intelligent person but she could not understand why she had never met this ardent lover before. When she asked him, he said simply, “I was always afraid of smearing your lipstick.”
She tells me that now when she begins to relapse into her former perfectionism, she remembers the look of love in her fiancé’s eyes when he opened the door. She had been looked at by men all of her life but she had never seen that expression in a man’s eyes before.
At the heart of any real intimacy is a certain vulnerability. It is hard to trust someone with your vulnerability unless you can see in them a matching vulnerability and know that you will not be judged. In some basic way it is our imperfections and even our pain that draws others close to us.
-Kitchen Table Wisdom
It is so hard for us to realize that often our imperfections are what actually attracts people to us, and are a big part of what they love about us. Dr. Remen also describes love as something far stronger than the ironies of the events of our life.
Connection strengthens the life in us. Sometimes the life in us is strengthened by discovering that others need us. Other times we are strengthened by discovering beyond a doubt that our love matters to someone more than we realized possible or that someone loves us just as we are.
Mark Nepo writes that we have the opportunity to help to open the light that is inside the people around us: “We are here to love the light out of each other. It’s not something we can plan or build, only ready ourselves for. This is what relationships that endure can do. When we lend a hand, we open a way for our heart to touch the heart of everything.”
How hard it is for us to realize that those who love us can do so even through the toughest of times. Sometimes we are surprised by their view of the ironies of life. Sometimes love is so deep that it astonishes us. Emily Dickinson once wrote: “That love is all there is, is all we know of love.”
But let us also remember and acknowledge the people we meet for whom this is a very difficult time, because they do not feel loved, and have been isolated from love, and light, and compassion for far too long.
Valentine’s Day is a tough holiday for many people, because it is a day when people are supposed to reach out and love each other. When we don’t feel loved on Valentine’s Day, it makes it a tough day. Everyone should receive at least one Valentine, whether it is in writing or a phone call or a small box of candy hearts with writing on them. Let us think about members of our church family, neighbors, friends, co-workers, fellow students, acquaintances. Is there anyone you know who would really appreciate a Valentine?
Could each of us agree to send one Valentine to someone who won’t expect it, someone who might not get one? We can send an email or just call them up and say, “Just wanted you to know you’re thought about today.” Can we share a little love this Valentine’s Day with someone who would be really surprised and happy to hear from us?
Each of us are called to be conduits of God’s love in our world. It is in the places of compassion and kindness that we meet God. God is love, and we are closest to God when we are loving, when we are fully present in the opportunities to love which surround us. We don’t have to do great things, but the little things that we are doing can be done with great conviction, great wisdom, great beauty, and especially, great love.
So let us be conduits of God’s love in this world. Let us be ready for the presence of God in others and in ourselves. Let us listen to our feelings, the feelings of love that may surprise us in the most unlikely events of our life. And on this Valentine’s Day, let us send written and verbal and action Valentines to someone who won’t expect it. Let us share our energies with those who need love and joy. Let us love one another as God has loved us.
May faith, hope and love abide in us and around us. And may the greatest of these three be love.