October 22, 2023

The Greatest of These, VII: Steadiness

Passage: Matthew 24:42–47


This fall we’re preaching a sermon series called The Greatest of These about Paul’s beautiful description of love in 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. Love bares all things, believes all things, hopes all things. Love never ends.

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

“Love is patient,” says St. Paul. “Love is kind,” says St. Paul. “Love is never envious or arrogant or boastful or rude,” says St. Paul. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,” says St. Paul. One of the facets of that dashing, dazzling diamond is Love’s Steadiness. Or Love’s Resilience.

I’ve told you before that I keep a running list of Underrated Films of Vast but Invisible Cultural Significance.  Love, Actually, for example. Moonrise Kingdom. Joe Versus the Volcano. Galaxy Quest. Do you remember Galaxy Quest from 1999, with Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, and Alan Rickman?

You can probably tell from the title that Galaxy Quest is a spoof of Star Trek. Do you remember the tagline in Galaxy Quest? “Never give up, never surrender.” Every character in the film repeats it multiple times. “Never give up, never surrender.”

Galaxy Quest is just paraphrasing St. Paul. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” “Never give up, never surrender.”

I wonder what Al-Anon or Nar-Anon would say to St. Paul. “Love bears ALL Things?”  Really, Paul? ALL Things? Sounds like a recipe for co-dependence. If your husband gets three DUI’s or loses his job because of Jack Daniels, are you supposed to put up with that? Sounds like the definition of enabling.

Still, you see what St. Paul means, right? It’s in our wedding vows: “in prosperity and in need, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, to honor and to cherish you, as long as we both shall live.”

Sometimes I tell my brides and grooms that “Love is not an emotion; it’s a policy.” You see what I mean, right? Emotions come and go, flash and fade, ebb and flow. Emotions are not reliable. But a policy is forever. A policy is an incorruptible promise. A policy is an infrangible covenant.

The kind of Love Paul is talking about is not the kind of Love the rom-coms are about. Not even Love, Actually. The kind of Love Paul’s talking about is not what the classic troubadours are singing about: Elvis, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Whitney Houston, Beyoncé. “I’m in love, I’m all shook up.”

There’s nothing wrong with love as an emotion. It is a sine qua non of human existence. It is the fire that sets our hearts ablaze, the water that slakes our thirst, the air that fills our lungs. It keeps us alive. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just not enough.

Love is not an emotion; it is a policy. State Farm doesn’t cancel your policy if you drive your car through the garage door. Can you tell I have some personal experience with this?  State Farm doesn’t abandon you; they stick with you, because it’s a policy; it’s a promise.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. This is true in our love for the world as well as in our personal relationships. A while back George Packer wrote an article about the war in Ukraine for The Atlantic. He interviewed a woman named Olesya Vynnyk, whose love for her country is so torrid it makes her fierce.

Olesya is a doctor in Lviv, Ukraine. She is 32 years old. Mr. Packer brings her a suitcase full of tourniquets, and when he opens the suitcase, Dr. Vynnyk inhales the factory fragrance of the nylon, and she says, “Ah, I can already smell the American tourniquets.”

The Russian way of war is a towering malice. The Russian strategy is not just to leave towns uninhabitable; it is to cower the populace into panic and passivity. That’s why they bomb nursery schools and maternity wards and ship Ukrainian children to Moscow. The Russian way of war comes straight from hell; it is demonic.

None of this intimidates Dr. Vynnyk. She is relentlessly optimistic. Mr. Packer asks her, “Aren’t you tired? Aren’t you angry?” She responds, “I am tired. I am angry. I have lost so many of my friends. Sometimes it feels like too much. But we will cry after we win the war.”[1] Yes? Win first, then weep. We will cry after we win the war.

What’s happening in Gaza and Israel just now drives me to the brink of hopelessness. My spirit is crushed and my heart riven. Jesus’ very birthplace is in the West Bank, pinned behind a forbidding wall. Some of us have been there. But we never give up, we never surrender. We persist in our dream of Two-State Solution.

We believe in our country even if its leadership is divided, dreadful, disputatious, and dysfunctional. We keep faith in the universe even when it looks like a dumpster fire. We love God even when God seems far away. It’s like that anthem the choir sings, “I believe in the sun even when it is not shining. I believe in God even when God is silent.”[2]  Those words were originally scrawled on a cellar wall at a concentration camp in Cologne.

Ten years after she received a cancer diagnosis, Lauren Doyle Owens wrote a thank-you note to her husband. Or maybe it was a love letter. Probably both.

You only thought about me, and what I needed. You slept beside me every night in the hospital room, and then in the morning you went home to walk the dog, and then you went to work all day, and after work, you went home again for the dog, and then you went to Whole Foods so I wouldn’t have to eat hospital food, and then you came back to the hospital to sleep with me again. Day after Day. 

 You never said, “SHE has cancer,” or “LAUREN has cancer.” You always said, “WE have cancer.” We did this together.

 Long after Lauren’s cancer was cured, she and her husband were hiking in Japan, and they got lost, and they had to walk four hours longer than they should have. They were both carrying heavy backpacks. It got dark when they were still hours from their car. And Lauren just disintegrated. She says her hips and knees and shoulders were in excruciating pain. She sobbed and said, “Just leave me here and send somebody to help.”

Instead, her husband took his backpack off his back and shifted it around to his chest, and put Lauren’s backpack where his had been. And he put his arm around her shoulder. Lauren pointed her flashlight at the ground so they could watch where they stepped, and he pointed his flashlight ahead so they knew which way to go. And they made it home.

Lauren says,

You, my dear. There is something deep and solid and lasting inside of you. And I wish I had known, long ago, when I was searching for my bedrock, that all I had to do was reach out my hand.[3]

 I love the image: two backpacks, two flashlights, stumbling home together, arm in arm, no matter what life throws your way. There is something deep and solid and lasting inside of you. It’s Love’s Steadiness. Three things abide, says St. Paul. Three things remain.  Three things stay. Three things last. No matter what. Three things abide—faith, and hope, and love—and the greatest of these…

*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]George Packer, “On Democracy’s Front Lines,” The Atlantic, September 6, 2022.

[2]Mark Miller wrote the anthem “I Believe.”

[3]Lauren Doyle Owens, “Nobody Tells You How Long a Marriage Is,” The New York Times, April 20, 2018.