Tough Love

Tough Love | New Hope Presbyterian Church | Castle Rock, CO

 

This is a transcript from the May 10, 2020 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.

 

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.

 

Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious, or boastful, or arrogant, or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will come to an end. As for tongues, they will cease. As for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part, but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.

 

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I fought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now, we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part, then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. Now faith, hope, and love abide these three, and the greatest of these is love.

 

[music]

 

Pastor Russ: When was the last time you heard that passage? When was the last time you heard 1 Corinthians 13 read? My guess is that like most of us it was at a wedding. It was one of those joyous celebrations. It was in a glorious situation, maybe a sanctuary. Maybe it was out in nature. Some setting that was beautiful, and there was this radiant bride, and there was this handsome groom. It's amazing what a tuxedo will do sometimes, isn't it?

 

There was a congregation that was joyous and smiling, and then someone like me got up and read 1 Corinthians 13, and everybody smiles more and says, "Wasn't that beautiful?" It is. It may also be missing the point. I've been thinking about 1 Corinthians 13 a lot these days. I've been thinking about it in terms of the days that we live in, not a wedding but in the real-life of 2020. In the middle of a pandemic, and wondering what does this chapter, what does these urgings and exhortations about love have to do with life, real-life as we're living it now?

 

As we're leaving quarantine or nervously coming out of it, what does this have to do with and what does it have to say about being in a space that's been shared way longer than it was meant to be shared, or standing in way too many lines for way too long? What does this ode-to-love have to do with anything of the irritability that builds in us? We're not sure whether we're more irritable because we have to wear a mask that covers us and is uncomfortable or because the people around us aren't wearing masks.

 

What does it have to say to the people and to all of us who find yourself short of temper and who are more defensive than we want to be, and our anxieties are higher than we want, and we are more tired and nervous and tense? We find ourselves more unkind than we've ever thought we could be. More unhelpful than we'd like to imagine. We're nowhere near as sparkly and as wonderful as we'd like to think of ourselves. I'm asking for a friend. You may have a friend who has some of the same questions, or maybe you have a friend who should be asking these questions.

 

In either case, I want to take a fresh look at 1 Corinthians 13. I want to take a look at it through the eyes of where we live now. I'm calling this a fresh look at an old favorite in a new season. Because it is in this season when you look at 1 Corinthians as a whole chapter, and all you have to do is begin to look at it. Just through the pages, a brief overview, and you'll begin to realize that the setting for 1 Corinthians 13 is less of a wedding and more of crisis marriage counseling.

 

It is given to a community that is at each other's throats. There is great division. There is great resentment. There is great suspicion of one another. There, people are putting on airs. They're spiritualizing everything and getting away with all kinds of things. There's this sense of, "We're right and they're wrong." Underneath that, there's this common thread of, what's wrong with these people? Paul's answer is very, very telling.

 

Because rather than telling them what's wrong with these people, rather than trying to sort out who's right and who's wrong and all of these, he comes to this, finally, his argument in 1 Corinthians 13 and says, "Look, I know you're tearing yourself apart. Let me tell you what the answer is. It's love. It's love. It's love or the lack of it or it's the immaturity of it. That's what's at the root of all this." Then he begins his lovely passage about love. It starts with something that's very soaring at the top and very soaring at the bottom, and in the middle, it is uncomfortably relevant.

 

He seems to be acknowledging that truth, that when we think of love, there's a part of love that we think about where it's easy. I had a math teacher one time. Whenever he wanted to chide us about not being able to get a problem, he would say, "Look, this is simple. This is as easy as tripping over a chair in the dark. You could do with your eyes closed." I don't know about math, but there's a lot of love that's done with our eyes closed.

 

There's a lot of stumbling into love, isn't there? We just bump into it and then we are washed in it. It's part of what gets us into a wedding in the first place. Then there's another kind of love. That's eyes wide open kind of love. It's a tough love. It's the love that takes a lot of work, and it's the love that Paul is talking about in the middle of 1 Corinthians 13. Amidst all the soaring language. Then he gets just very specific. He says, "Look, quit being rude. Quit being selfish and resentful. Quit thinking of yourself all the time. Hang in there."

 

I had a youth group one time that I asked, "How would you paraphrase this for today?" One young person just simply says, "Quit being a jerk. [chuckles] Quit being a jerk." Somebody else said, "Yes. I think he's basically saying, get over yourself. Start thinking about other people." I think Paul would agree. I think that's what's at the core of this nitty-gritty of, you want to be able to get on as the body of Christ, then take care of the details.

 

2,000 years after Paul wrote what he wrote, Erich Fromm in this wonderful book called The Art of Loving says much the same thing. He starts off by saying, "Listen, there's no enterprise known to humanity that is entered into more often with higher hopes and yet fails so regularly and so disastrously as love." He goes on to explain why. He says, "Love isn't something natural. It requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism." Man, there's nothing tougher than overcoming our own narcissism. Get over yourself. "It isn't a feeling," he concludes, "It's a practice."

 

The Greek word for tough love that we would use is agape, and it's anything but easy love. It is the hard love. It's the love that endures far longer than you'd ever want to have to endure. It's the kind of love that hopes even when you want to despair. It's the kind of love that holds things together when you just want to let go. It's a tough love and it is at the heart of everything. It is that kind of love which doesn't allow love or life to be hijacked by the ideal.

 

It's the ideal that is the enemy of the real. It's the ideal that becomes the thing that sabotages the real. It has to do with love. If you want to destroy love, then bring to any relationship what you think it should be. If you want to destroy a community, bring to it and impose upon it your ideals of what it should be, and in no time, we'll all look like the church in Corinth of the first century. The same is true for family. If you want to put a family on edge, bring to it all these shoulds of what a family should be. Don't pay attention to what it is.

 

It brings you to today's Mother's Day. I can't think of any day of the year, maybe Christmas being the one outlier that is loaded up with more sentimentality of what should be. It is the date that is for the best of who we are, but it also gets to the worst of who we are. Underneath all of that anxiety is this sense of the sentimentality of motherhood and what it should be, or what who I should be.

 

Families in general, mothers in particular. We loaded up with all these shoulds and we loaded up with what should have been and what could be now. Whether as a child to our parents, parent to our child, there's resentments, there is longings, there is such disappointment. I got thinking about that because in a minute I'm going to show a clip about the history of Mother's Day and maybe you know that already.

 

I think you'll find it interesting that at the core of the problem of our problem with motherhood is rather than focusing on life and love and the nitty-gritty of it, rather than wrestle with that, we've just opted to enshrine it. We've given it all to Hallmark. We said, "Let's make it that kind of a shiny-shimmery day, and we'll just live with the tension of it." Now, some people will see this and think that the option is either you honor the core of Mother's Day, or you buy gifts. If that's the case, then I think it is wrong.

 

I think it's both end. You can do both. You should do both by the way. You should get your mom a gift and you should give her a call. You should also remember that it's more than just the sentiment. In the begining it was not meant to be an enshrinement of motherhood as we thought it should be or should be today, but it was an expression of the heart of mothers. Nitty-gritty, tough as nails, no-nonsense moms who saw the world as it was and wanted to make a difference, and wanted to express that the world needed to be different, and wanted a day to give voice to that.

 

It's 2020, it's Mother's Day. It's in the middle of a pandemic. 1 Corinthians 13 is more than an ode to what love should be. It is a focus on the toughest nails, nitty-gritty, life in the crevices. This is how you do life to make it better. Love is tough. The reason I'm glad that we proceeded this part with a contemplative prayer, an abiding prayer is because I believe there's an inner work that comes with love. If we're going to do the work of tough love, we'd better be paying attention to the inside because love is tough at any time. Let alone in this time that we're in.

 

When it seems that we are flooded with all kinds of buttons being pushed and triggers, the only way we have to get there is through inner work. We really only have two choices. When it comes to learning how to love in this world, we have the first choice, which is to somehow shape and craft our conditions so that they match our capacities. Shape our environment and the people around us, and the things that we watch, and the things that we deal with so that they match and don't exceed our capacities, that we don't get our buttons pushed so often, that we're in control and we've got our environment.

 

We don't have to keep watching the inequities of people in their care, or we could just turn a blind eye to when we see things like a black man running and being shot while jogging, and just the atrocity of that again and again. That's too much. We just don't watch or we won't think about that because that triggers us and it's beyond our capacity. If we do that, then what we have said is that in a season like this, then we're just on pause. We're just on pause because there's too much going on and then when we get back to normal, then we'll get on with life as we want to live it.

 

The other option, of course, because good luck with the first one. The other option, of course, is somehow to enlarge our capacities to match the conditions. To do the inner work so that we begin to look at what triggers us and what buttons are getting pushed in us, and where we're getting in the way of what love wants to do. This is a time not to put love on pause, but to say, "No, now this is where we are. Now, this is where we can thrive." Even in the midst of tension. When we do that, we've got something to offer this world because it comes down to love.

 

We do that when we recognize that we are going to fail. Of course, it's an art. It's a practice and like all art and practice, it's when we fail that the real work can begin. It's when our easy love fails that the tough love, the agape love can begin. Only when the easy love fails can the tough love begin. It's only there where we begin to dig in and find and do the good work. That is aided by the second part, which Lewis Smedes said it that, "Before love obligates us, it enables us." Is that a mouthful from just a few words. Before love obligates us, it enables us. It calls to us. It reminds us who we are. It entices us.

 

More than that, we are reminded that we have been created, and we are sustained, and we have been nurtured by tough love. It's why we are here. We're more than receptacles. We are also the vessels through which love wants to work and to give. To do that requires that inner work. Inner work like we do with Oasis. Inner work like you may do in your own contemplative prayer and your own inner work of your own heart. It's important to do because when you do that, you recognize that what you're doing is much more than just Sunday morning church stuff. This is more than just being churchy.

 

This is much more than being religious. This is about being human. You begin to ask yourself this question, "Where am I getting in the way of what love wants to do? Where do I find myself becoming rude and short and unkind? Where do I find myself or my friend finds himself being a jerk? Where do we need to get out of our own way so that love can do something?" Then what are you going to do about it? What's one thing this week? What's one thing that you, one area, one place that you can begin to do that work?

 

Because it is about being human and as you're thinking about that for yourself, I want to close with one last quote from De Chardin, who reminds us with these words. He says, "Someday, after mastering the wind, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love. Then for the second time in the history of the world, humankind will have discovered fire." For the second time. For the second time in the history of humankind, we will have discovered fire.

 

This week may you do more than just get by. May it be more than just a time on pause until things get back to normal. May this be a week that we do the inner work. May this be the week that we do the kinds of things that we'll begin to see God work in and through us. We begin to hear the call and the invitation to step into something larger than ourselves. May this be a week that we indeed thrive. As we do, may we discover and harness fire.

 

Your friends will thank you, or you will thank your friends, in either case. We go out this way as always. It is the same charge. This week go, go and love. Go love God with everything you've got. Go and love your neighbor as yourself. As you go, may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace and believing, and may you are bound with hope through the power of the Holy Spirit now and forever. Amen.