Tuesday, February 5, 2013

For Christ's Sake, Love, Love, Love: Sermon by Bill Fortier

Sermon for February 3, 2012

Bill Fortier

 Jesus: Maybe if we pray this sermon all together, everyone can overlook my terrible credentials when it comes to love. Help these cherished friends to see past my half heart, to hear your music, singing love songs in their beloved ears. Amen.

Because I cant help myself, lets start with some science: In the late nineties, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons conducted their first run of their, now famous, invisible gorilla experiment. These two young scientists wanted to build on the science of attention. By this time, scientists had figured out that our visual attention and visual perception wasn't all that sharp. Our glossy big bubbles keep getting popped by these guys.

So these two young dudes set up an experiment where folks are told to watch a basketball game. A guy in a gorilla costume walks right through the players. Now here's the thing: an astonishing number, half to three quarters of the viewers (!), don't see the gorilla! This experiment has been conducted tons of times now and the scenarios have been changed, again and again, just to make sure it isn't some kind of innate basketball deficiency. The experiment and it's numbers stand. We're Mr and Ms Magoo when it comes to seeing stuff that's right in front of us. We see what we expect and want to see: road hog!

Chapter 13 in Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians is an invisible gorilla right in the middle of the New Testament. It hides in plain sight, mostly in weddings. We just hear the word love, love, love echoing in the
text and doesn't that just fit nicely with the nuptial festivities. The religious dynamite fizzles in the occasion, barely making a squeak. So I'm taking this gorilla out for a walk and some close inspection. Loud and proud.

Let me back up, just to tell you that I think this passage from Paul is a better golden filter for the Bible than all of the passages that tell us that God knows everything and sees everything from all eternity, and that nothing sneaks by God's perfect vision and vision into the future. No invisible gorillas for God and no surprises.

Rock solid certainty and clarity from beginning to end. Luther and Calvin were very worried that they could be wrong and could mis-predict their own eternal futures. They found the religious-oops-factor intolerable and grabbed these passages tighter than a tiger grabs its lunch. God knows all, sees all and governs everyone and everything and the Bible tells them so. Now they could rest and hand the car keys of their nervous hearts to God. These passages gave these giants enormous relief and, unfortunately, scare the Shasta out of most everyone else.

Well, if the game is already decided and the final score is set, what's my team? The angelic, blissful winners or the miserable, sizzling losers? Their golden filter very quickly became the barb-wired-nightmare in the Protestant world right up to today. So I'm saying there's a better filter and this other filter also comes from Paul. I think this one is way better, has way more mileage potential and isn't a cliff hanging horror flick.

You guys also know by now that I think that trying to figure our God's mind is a trap. By the way, what a lousy job to know and see everything. Think of the endless agony of witnessing horror after horror. Calvin and Luther's take on God's preplanning looks like hell to me, hell for God. I can't resist: Calvin and Luther took heaven for themselves and gave an ironic damnation to God, forced to watch endless ripples of pain all the way to the end and then, weee (!), endless pain. Projection overruled! I redirect the witness.

So now I'm going to tell you five things about this amazing ode to love, a religious power house. Here goes.

Number one: Love is the litmus test, the DNA, the finger print of religion. Love is the essential ingredient, the measurement and calibration. Without love, religion is lifeless and empty. Without love, religious is nothing more than a lot of pointless noise and commotion. 

Love is not a slushy, sentimental barroom huddle: "I really love you guys." For Paul love has very specific features. Traits we can observe. This helps us figure out true love and, even more importantly, gives us a model to follow. Paul gives us an etiquette, a code of conduct, a behavior plan to use.

Love is patient. Love anticipates the speed bumps, delays and detours in our relationships. Love plans for repetition, the slow progress, back sliding and does this with poise and composure. Comportment, poise and composure are really important features. Carrying ourselves with dignity is not phony. Dignified behavior is our musical contribution to the symphony of life. Patience is one our musical pieces.

Love is kind. Love looks for the positive traits in people and points them out. Love talks to the positive features. Love aims to ease the strains and burdens, not stack more and more to shoulder. Kindness is the focus on the positive and the helpful. Love is kind.

Love is humble and affirming. We're not called to inflate ourselves or pad our resumes. We're called to right size and down size our sales pitch. We're also called to promote others and to supersize their standing and value. We shrink. They grow.

Love looks at the uneven distribution around us and love honors and congratulates those who have what we don't have. We bring, once again, poise and dignity to the uneven comparisons that mold our lives.
We carefully select kind and big hearted words and we also select a voice tone to match. Have you begun to notice just how difficult this love plan is? I'm in a full sweat. If this were a before and after photo spread, I'd definitely be in the before pic.

Love is not rude. Love respects feelings and respects the ripple effects we have on each other. Love seeks to leave a light footprint and a nice breeze. I don't know about you but I'm at war now with at least three quarters of my personality! I feel a little bit like a hippo in a tutu. This etiquette fits like a noose. Paul's manners are the opposite of sentimentality. Paul's manners are brutal and grueling, demanding intense training. This isn't a syrupy bumper sticker. Maybe we should stop here and send this chapter back to wedding land. Love calls us forward though.

Love doesn't control other people. Love doesn't insist on its own way. It's not my way or the highway. We're not the center of the universe. Love respects our place on the sidelines of other people's lives and love respects other people's trials and errors. One song we don't sing is 'me, me, me, me', at least when we're singing Christian love songs.

Number two: love is a series or system of behaviors. Love is a specific action plan, not an empty bumper sticker. Love is a rigorous repertoire of behaviors which communicates relationships characterized by dignity. Since love is supposed to be a group activity for the church, this is a symphony of dignity, a ringing and emerging chorus.

Just when you thought it was hard enough, Paul kicks it up a couple notch. Bam (apologies to Emiril)! Love is a stance we learn in relationship to the truth: love believes, bears and hopes. Let's remember together the classic Looney Tunes. They never get old. In one of the episodes, the incorrigible scoundrel, Yosemite Sam, is trying swindle Granny. He's a love-con. Good ole Bugs air drops in and, always game to thwart Yosemite, dons his Granny outfit, and proceeds to torture Yosemite, the nasty little scoundrel.

In my favorite scene, Yosemite is standing outside, below Granny's window, begging her to elope. Bugs is dropping one massive object after another, while Sam is getting more and more punch drunk, woozy and wobbly. Safes, the kitchen sink, anvils and a grand piano drop, one after another, into Sam's waiting arms. This gives us a key to understand what Paul means by bearing, believing and hoping.

Paul's not offering a strange ode to gullibility and fairy tales. Paul is proposing a stance to learn and practice on the playing field of life so we can catch truth, heavy truths. We have to open ourselves to believe and bear the truths which drop on us like pianos. The pianos aren't a bad dream. Its the other way around: the illusion was and is our pretty mental brochure for our life. So: not only do we catch the falling anvils, one after another, we stay hopeful. What?

That's right, Paul tells us to bear the burdens, bear the heavy load and to press ahead. Now, just when we start getting woozy and wobbly, like that scoundrel Sam, we're called to catch the anvils and maintain our etiquette. Love is this demanding social art form right in the middle of suffering. Could I have some sentimentality, please? Just a sip? I'm a little wary of extreme cage ballet and I also know it's the real McCoy, this strange, world changing love. I'd like to know, whatever happened to recreational religion?

Number three: love is an artful and strong openness to the truth, the truths that rips right through our pretty itineraries.

Now, just when I'm hoping Paul would let up, because I'm already crying uncle here,  drill instructor Paul adds to the Christian marathon. This is the sword that Jesus brings when we were looking for some R & R. He tells us that we don't know and see very much and we won't as long as we're on this grueling obstacle course. O Great. Our wicked deep thoughts and theological baloney factories are just, shadowy cartoonish pictures, when placed next to love, the real point of following Jesus together. Can I at least keep my books?

I love simple and crystal clear absolutes. I want to wrap myself tightly around them, until of course, I see the absolute truth Paul gives: Love. Love is the absolute truth of religion and everything else is relative to this absolute, this brutal choreography which makes the church and dignified civilization possible. Frankly, sometimes I'd rather sit and just bite my nails, fretting about my preplanned destination, either on the clouds or in the lava. It's easier and I get to sit all enclosed, absorbed in myself. Hey, maybe I'll get some attention too, while I ergonomically snivel.

Number four: Love is an absolute and everything else is relative to love.

Now Paul winds into his crescendo, giving us his three absolutes. Three! First, stick with Jesus and don't let go and you're going to want to, probably a lot, if you follow this exercise plan. Second, press on even though you don't know very much, you don't see land or much light on the horizon. By the way, we're supposed to be the lights. Ouch and groan. And third, learn to love. Love is the highest and the ultimate, absolute truth.

Not my dogma? Not my superior membership, my beloved denominational pedigree? Not my theology? While I definitely want to run back into the arms of Calvin and Luther and give predestination a big squeeze; I miss them and the comfortable misery divine preplanning provides, and, sigh and sigh again, I know that Paul's right: Love is absolute and ultimate. Love is the ultimate absolute truth and worth living and dying for, right alongside of Jesus. That's some company to keep.

Number five: love is the deepest and final truth.

So Paul has given us this staggering five-sided Christian guidance system, a five-stage platinum filter for any and all religion. No wonder we picked predestination instead and hid this chapter away in countless wedding dramas. I have to tell you though, I think Paul is showing us, in his own words, "the better way." This passage alone is filled with a lifetime of effort and we can always do better than our best score. So rounding back to home base guys, I can implore you guys, for Christ's sake, love, love, love.

Jesus, your love course takes everything from us and we so easily fall away. Keep us in school, learning these lessons which, step by step, bring morning to the dark night. Lit by the torch of your love, a love that keeps burning and cannot be extinguished, warm our crispy and charred hearts so we, in turn, can brighten and warm this world, so often dark, dark and sandy; and sandy, so hooked and off balance and, yes, so miserable, Jesus, your love's our only way to find our footing. At your feet we pray. Amen.

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