October 8, 2023

The Greatest of These, V: Courtesy

Passage: I Corinthians 13:5; Titus 3:1–11


This fall we're preaching a sermon series called The Greatest of These about Paul's multi-faceted description of love in 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in the tongues of humans and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And 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. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.

Then I’ve been pairing this multi-faceted description from Paul with another scripture passage which kind of unfolds what he’s trying to talk about, including this passage from the epistle Titus 3

Speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior. Avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.­

In First Corinthians 13, St. Paul wants to show that the common concept of love is not simple and singular, but compound and complex. Love is not a smooth, round pebble, but a multi-faceted diamond where each plane sparkles in the sunlight.

Paul tells us that there are some things love IS, but there are more things Love IS NOT. Love IS patient, says St. Paul. Love IS kind, says St. Paul. Love IS NOT envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.

Paul doesn’t quite say this, but almost: it is impossible to be rude and loving at the same time. Love is courteous, Paul wants to say.

It seems like a smaller, less crucial virtue than the others, doesn’t it? Smaller than patience, smaller than kindness, smaller than equanimity, smaller than humility. Is it really loving to say “Please” and “Thank you,” to empty the dishwasher, take out the trash, make the bed? Is that where we’ve come in the middle of this towering theological masterpiece?

There’s actually more to it than that. The Greek word our English Bibles translate as “rude” is more spacious and sprawling than it appears at first glance. It means “Don’t be unseemly, don’t be indecent, don’t be disgraceful. Don’t embarrass your mother. Don’t act like a frat bro.”

I heard the most wonderful compliment this week. Did you notice that Tim Wakefield died? He finally succumbed to brain cancer at the age of 57.

Tim Wakefield was a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox for 17 seasons, including 2004, when he helped the Red Sox win their first World Championship since 1918, 86 years.

He was universally respected and universally loved. He won the Roberto Clemente Humanitarian Award in 2010, to honor all the services and kindnesses he and his family provided to the communities they lived in.

The reason everybody has long been fascinated by Tim Wakefield is that 90% of his pitches were knuckleballs. A knuckleball has almost no spin and because it has almost no spin, it floats and flutters and dips and rises and turns sideways unexpectedly and spontaneously on its way to the plate, and can be hard to hit, even though Tim Wakefield typically threw his knuckleballs at—get this!—68 mph.

Other Major League pitchers are blistering fastballs at 100 mph, so you wouldn’t think a 68-mph pitch would be that challenging, but Tim Wakefield lived and died with his 68-mph pitch.

Jason Giambi, the slugging first baseman for the A’s and the Yankees and others for 20 seasons, gave him the best compliment I’ve heard in a while. He said, “The only way to hit Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball is to be in a drunken stupor.”

I thought that was really nice. Yankees outfielder Bobby Murcer was almost as good. “Hitting Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball,” he said, “was like trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks.[1]

So St. Paul wants to say, “Don’t act like a frat brother. Don’t be in a drunken stupor unless you’re trying to hit Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball.”

I’ve told you before that I met my wife when we were toddlers in the church nursery. Her father was my dentist, and her house was on my paper route.  It’s not a meet-cute story like you find in rom-coms, but it can work out.

In fact I’m kind of proud to say that I passed this courtship style on to my children. Both my children married the kid next door, literally. They both married Greenwich High School classmates.

My daughter married Christian, whose backyard was adjacent to mine. He cut through my driveway every single day for six years to get to the Old Greenwich School.

Taylor and Christian hung out every day from kindergarten through high school, and then they went to separate colleges and disappeared from each other’s lives.

Seven years ago, Taylor was living back in Greenwich where she grew up, and I went there to do a funeral or a wedding or something, and I visited my daughter.

My friend had four tickets to the Mets game at Citifield, and he invited me. “You come with me and bring two friends.”  I said, “Taylor, come with us. You can bring a friend.”

Imagine my surprise when she brought Christian. I didn’t know they were a thing. I hadn’t thought about this kid since he was 17 years old.

And my friend is driving us to Citifield for the Mets game, and I’m in the car getting reacquainted with Christian, and I’m peppering him with questions—my kids call me The Grand Inquisitor—I’m peppering him with questions, and every answer is “Yes, Sir,” “No, Sir.”

He was the most polite and solicitous guy I’d run into for a long time. I’m wondering if he’s putting on a nice show for his girlfriend’s father, but no, it wasn’t a show. That’s who he is.

And so I ask him “Christian, are you in the Marines?” And he says “No, sir.” I said “Christian, are you an Eagle Scout?”  And he said “Yes, sir.” It works.

To this day, he is the first one to jump up and clear the table after dinner, he is the first one to do the dishes, he is the first one to fetch a book from the third floor, he is the first one to run an errand. If you tell Christian to jump, he will ask “How high?” on the way up. If Jesus ever met Christian, Jesus would say, “Behold an Israelite in whom there is no guile.”

It’s just the smallest thing, common courtesy, but it matters. It’s respect, it’s honor, it’s regard. Common courtesy is one of the shiny facets of love. In fact common courtesy is a sine qua non of a loving person.

And here’s the thing: you know when we are most likely to forget our manners? It’s when we’re with the people we love the most. It’s with our family. Because we can. We know they love us. They won’t leave us. And sometimes we forget.

When I was serving my church in Grand Rapids, my friend Neil Plantinga was the Dean of the Chapel at Calvin College, my alma mater in Grand Rapids. He’s really a thoughtful and helpful practical theologian.

Neil says “Half of Miss Manners belongs in a sermon. And here’s why: actions lead to practices, and practices lead to habits, and habits lead to character, and character leads to destiny.”[2]  Yes?

So Neil talks about the little things, the little rude things, like “Pre-Purchase Product Abandonment” in the grocery store. That’s when you put an item in your cart and when you get to the checkout lane, you decide you don’t want it, so you leave it on the magazine rack.

Or you could talk about “Post-Purchase Cart Abandonment,” when you don’t return your shopping cart to the corral but leave it in the parking lot to ding up somebody else’s car.

And so it’s the little things: “Please;” “Thank you;” “Yes, Sir;” “No, Sir;” being kind to the server at Great Coast Commons; tipping huge.

Because when we practice these tiny daily habits, we’re rehearsing for the bigger virtues in life, the bigger challenges. We’re rehearsing for the real show and the big stage, life when it’s hard. Actions lead to practices, and practices lead to habits, and habits lead to character, and character leads to destiny.

We’re rehearsing, so that one day our common courtesy morphs into courage, compassion, care, and kindness, because we want to hear Jesus say, at the end, “I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in. Come, Friend, inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you at the foundation of the world.

*You may use these prayers for non-commercial purposes in any medium, provided you include a brief credit line with the author’s name (if applicable) and a link to the original post.

[1]Richard Sandomir, “Tim Wakefield, Pitcher Who Helped Boston Break the Curse, Dies at 57,” The New York Times, October 1, 2023; Michael S. Rosenwald, “Tim Wakefield, Knuckleballer Who Made His Pitches Dance, Dies at 57,” The Washington Post, October 2, 2023; Ben McGrath, “Project Knuckleball,” The New Yorker, May 10, 2004.

[2]Cornelius Plantinga, “No Need to Earn Your Keep: The Gift and Challenge of Hospitality,” a lecture for the January Series at Calvin College, January 8, 1997.