January 30, 2022 “Love Poured Out” by Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd

I Corinthians 13:1-13

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

I was talking to someone last week about the love theme of today’s service and they suggested that I save this for Valentine’s weekend. That made a lot of sense, but the more I thought about it, the more I decided to stay with the theme of love for today. The first reason is that the lectionary gives us the passage of I Corinthians 13 for today. The second is that the love described in this passage has nothing to do with romantic love, even though this is the passage most often chosen for weddings. I Corinthians 13 does not use the Greek word for romantic love. Some of you know what word it does use, but before I get to it, let’s take a brief journey into the Greek world of love.

 

Cultures that are intimately familiar with something often have many words for it. For instance, the Inuit have 50 words for snow, but there are other cultures that have even more words for snow, including the Indigenous Sami in Scandanavia who have 180 words, although it’s the Scots who actually have the most number of words for snow—421 according to one website![1] What is snow to the Inuit, the Sami and even the Scots is love to the Greeks. The Ancient Greeks studied and lived love so intimately that they had at least eight words for love and even more derivatives of these words:

  • Eros means romantic, passionate love. It was the name of a Greek god who launched arrows of love, better known by the Roman, Latin name of Cupido, or, as we say, Cupid. Eros can extend into fertile life and creative awakening, which expands its meaning as loving, passionate energy connected to everything that is alive.
  • Eros often evolves into Pragma for long-term relationships. Pragma is an enduring love focussing on long-term best interests as a couple learns to compromise and cherish one another.
  • Philia means a deep, mutual friendship that does not include physical attraction. The city of Philadelphia in the book of Revelations is named after a combination of two words: philia and adelphos (brother). William Penn chose this name for the city in Pennsylvania because he envisioned a city of religious tolerance where no one would be persecuted.
  • Storge means a familiar love as between parents and children, brother and sister.
  • Mania means obsessive love, such as Beatlemania of fanatic fans. It is linked to manic, as in frenzied enthusiasm
  • Ludus means playful love, including teasing and harmless pranks, reminding me of Gilbert dipping Anne of Green Gables’ pigtail into the ink pot.
  • Philautia means self-love—and in Greek, there are two types of self-love—one is positive with high esteem and self-compassion while the other is negatively linked with narcissism, arrogance and selfishness. The positive type of self-love is fundamental in being able to love others.
  • Lastly, Agape means unconditional love—of the kind that God through Jesus has shown us. It is the deepest kind of love that has no strings attached and is universal in its scope.

 

This takes us to the Greek word for love that is used in I Corinthians 13. You guessed it—it is agape. This first letter of Paul to the Corinthian church is not addressed to a couple but to a community that is deeply conflicted. Paul is challenging them to let go of their philautia or selfish love and set aside personal interest, ability and status to love (agape) unconditionally and equally every person in their community.

 

Agape love is not a feeling but an action. It is persistent—it doesn’t give up. It is also enduring—it remains standing when everything else falls apart. It may not fix everything, but it outlasts everything. One commentator wrote “the one thing that lasts forever is the love that is given away.”[2]  In other words, only when you love unreservedly and undeservedly, giving without expecting anything in return, do you have it forever. This is agape love.

 

Cynthia Bourgeault notes that there is a consistent thread of self-giving love in Jesus’ teachings and actions. As I reflected on this, I realized that there could be yet another Greek word for love: kenosis, which means “to let go” or “to empty oneself”. Jesus gave away his love—and indeed his very life—extravagantly, with abandon. Bourgeault writes, “It was not love stored up but love utterly poured out that opened the gates to the Kingdom of Heaven.”[3]

 

Sufi mystic Jalalludin Rumi writes,

Love is recklessness, not reason.

Reason seeks a profit.

Love comes on strong, consuming herself, unabashed.

 

Having died to self-interest,

She risks everything and asks for nothing.

Love gambles away every gift God bestows.

 

This is kenotic love that is able to give without thought of receiving in turn. It is able to let go, not be hooked, not to cling, not to hoard. It is set free to love with abandon.

 

One of my favourite movies is Babette’s Feast. In this movie, Babette was a famous chef in Paris, but during the political riots of 1871, she lost everything—her restaurant, livelihood and even family. She fled for her life to rural Denmark and was taken in by two elderly sisters who were trying to hold together a parish their father had founded. Their members were aging and disillusioned, reduced to petty bickering. Babette tried all sorts of things to lift their spirits, but nothing worked. One day, she received a letter informing her that she had won three million francs in a Paris lottery. She decided to offer a gourmet feast for the Danish peasants. She ordered extravagant ingredients for a seven-course meal paired with appropriate drinks, as well as china dinnerware, silver cutlery, damask table cloths and crystal glassware. When the peasants arrived at the banquet, they were suspicious and nervous. Slowly, they began to relax into gratitude and forgiveness. In the last scene, they stumbled out into the night, singing and dancing around the village fountain. When someone commented to Babette, “Well, I guess you’ll be leaving us soon, now that you’re a rich woman?” she replied, “Rich? I’m not rich. I spent every penny I had on that banquet.”

 

What an extravagant waste of money! But Bourgeault writes, “In her no-holds-barred generosity, Babette offers these broken, dispirited souls a taste of reassurance that their long years of faithfulness have not been in vain. She mirrors to them what God is like, what love is like, what true humanness is like. And she does it precisely by throwing away her entire escape route in a single act of extravagant abundance, extravagant beyond the bounds of earth (and therefore invoking the presence of heaven). That’s the kenotic path.”

 

Bourgeault notes that kenotic, self-emptying love seems to be the signature of Jesus’ life and teaching. It was often expressed in his passion for breaking down the barriers that kept people on the margins, in poverty, alone in shame. Jesus welcomed and loved those least deserving, whether it be those of ill-repute, white-collar extortionists, partyers, or even the faithful. John the Baptist’s disciples were horrified that Jesus banqueted, drank and danced. The Pharisees were horrified because he healed on the Sabbath and kept company with unsavoury characters. Barriers of righteousness and respectability meant nothing to him—he walked right through them and did not worry about being identified with those most maligned in society.

 

To love in this way, Jesus had to let go of what people thought of him. He had to release the fear of recrimination. He had to challenge people’s understanding of what was fair. To pay a worker, who only put in one hour, the same as someone who worked hard the whole day just wasn’t fair. But Jesus never taught fairness. He taught extravagance, where we all receive what we don’t deserve. He taught grace that bundles us all up together, those who work hard and those who don’t, those who plan and save for their future and those who don’t, those who look after their health and their families and those who don’t. After all, none of us is perfect, none of us is without fault, we all stand before God in various states of blame. But God’s extravagant love is poured out on each one of us without end.

 

If we believe this—if we have the courage to take these gospel teachings of Jesus literally—then it will affect every decision and judgement we make, including our judgement of the healthcare system. Yes, it is overwhelmed and understaffed, and cannot attend to every need in a timely way. Yes, it is prioritizing those who are at risk of immanent death and putting others, who are  in tremendous pain, on hold for years. And yes, it treats everyone the same, regardless of personal lifestyles or choices that put them more at risk and stress our hospitals. It is not fair—and I am personally struggling with this—but it is upholding our foundational belief in universal healthcare for everyone that is based not on what we deserve but on a triage of severity (of course, extravagant love would also ask us to pour more resources into the healthcare system so that no one has to wait in pain for years for surgery).

 

When we are angry at the selfishness of people that affects the welfare of others, may God give us the grace to release our judgement. May we ask, instead, how Jesus would extravagantly respond. It has to do with unmerited grace and forgiveness even for the unremorseful and most cruel. Jesus called for justice over and over. But he also called repeatedly for forgiveness, pouring out his love for every single person.

 

When liberators came into the Ravensbruck death camp, where 92,000 women and children died, they found a prayer written on wrapping paper and placed beside the body of a child. It reads,

O Lord, remember not only the men and women

of goodwill, but also those of ill will.

But do not remember all the suffering they inflicted on us;

Remember the fruits we have bought,

thanks to this suffering—

Our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage,

our generosity, the greatness of heart

which has grown out of all this,

And when they come to judgement,

let all the fruits which we have borne

be their forgiveness.

[1] https://www.k-international.com/blog/which-language-has-the-most-words-for-snow/ accessed Jan 25, 2022.

[2] Lewis F. Galloway, “Pastoral Perspective on I Corinthians 13:1-13,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C, Vol 1 ed. by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 306.

[3] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom of Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—a New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Boston: Shambhala, 2008), p. 70.