A Sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Pentecost 21, October 28, 2001, dedicated to Dorothy Cromartie on her 90th Birthday and to Deborah Melton Anderson who shares her love with us all through her art and always to the glory of God!

"Love: The Greatest of These"

(III of III in the Stewardship Sermon Series)

I Corinthians 13 and Luke 6:27-38

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Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.

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How do you want to be remembered? What do you want your legacy to be? Do you want to be remembered for doing something good? Or do you want to be remembered for your peevish behaviors, unkind words and unloving acts? Do you want to be remembered for achieving something great for humanity - and by that I mean small or great acts of love and charity - or do you want to be remembered for being a person who was great in judging others, but withheld both love and charity from them? How do you want to be remembered when you are gone? What do you want your legacy to be?

I often wonder about this myself. I especially wonder about it when I am apart from my children and wife, wishing and wanting to find my way home. I wonder about how I love them and how often I have missed or wasted opportunities to show and share my love for them, and how foolish I have been to miss such opportunities when life is so short - in the cosmic and eternal scheme of things.

In the moments before Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania on September 11, one man aboard the plane reached his wife by phone. He said, "Some of the others and I are going to fight back. Please remember me. I love you. I love the children. Take care of them. And remember, I will always love you." With that, the call ended. And soon his life ended as well.

With the words, "Women, keep silence in the church," and with his words judging and condemning homosexuals, the Apostle Paul unleashed peevish and hurtful words upon people in the church. I have no doubt he would be pained to see how these unkind words have been used against women and against gay and lesbian Christians in our times. These reflections are the worst words of a great man. I have no doubt that these obscure references in isolated letters to little churches are far from the truth he would want us to have as his legacy.

On the other hand, I am absolutely sure Paul would be delighted to hear read aloud the words Bonnee spoke today which are true and among his best and brightest from I Corinthians 13. This legacy to love is how I want to remember Paul and that which I wish to reflect upon now.

For Paul, the word Love is "Agape." Agape is not a common term in ancient Greek. The more common term is eros (sexual desire), which is the root word for erotic. Paul chooses to communicate a love that is deeper and more reflective of God's love. In fact, "agape" love is divine love - a love that is given by God for the sake of humanity, risking humanity's rejection and denial. Agape is equivalent to the love given and shared in the sacrifice of Christ for humanity!

For Paul, "Agape" Love always prevails in the face of other things which seem - on the surface to have such importance and prevailing power. The gifts of prophecy (and by this Paul primarily preaching as a prophetic method), intellectual knowledge, passionate faith, even seeming acts of charity, and sacrifice of one's body to burned all add up to nothing without love. In high school, my theatre director used to ask, "What is your motivation?" when critiquing the actions of her students on stage. Paul would say, "If your motivation is not love - then, your preaching is false and empty, your intellectual eminence is intellectual snobbery; your faith is cruel (not kind); your charity for the poor is equivalent to a smug moral lecture or a crushing rebuke; and your sacrifice on behalf of God and others is the product of pride and not devotion.

Love must be at the center of our actions. If love is not at the center of your words and actions, then in the words of the immortal Clarence Jordan in his Cotton Patch Gospels, "All the things you are doing don't add up to a hill of beans!"

Paul names 15 characteristics of Love in verses 4-7 of chapter 13. Are you ready for a 15-point sermon?. . . Well, neither am I! Nevertheless, listen to the nature of love that he lays out for us in this passage. I list these using William Barclay's translation. As you listen to these 15 qualities and characteristics of love, I invite you to imagine yourself inside these definitions:

1. Love is Patient (with people, not just circumstances, according to the Greek); 2. Love is Kind (or in the words of Origen, "Love is sweet to all"); 3. Love Knows No Envy; 4. Love is no braggart (true love is always far more impressed with its own unworthiness than its own merit); 5. Love is not inflated with its own self-importance; 6. Love does not behave gracelessly; 7. Love doesn't insist on its rights (rather it insists on its responsibility to others); 8. Love doesn't fly into a temper (I can only speak for myself on this - but when I become exasperated and lose my temper with others, I lose everything); 9. Love doesn't store up the memory of wrongs it has received (the word for "store up" is an accountant's word meaning to keep a ledger so something is not lost of forgotten - love doesn't keep a ledger of wrongs); 10. Love finds no pleasure in evil-doing (or a better translation is that love finds no pleasure in wrongdoing); 11. Love rejoices in the truth; 12. Love endures anything and all things; 13. Love is completely trusting; 14. Love never ceases to hope; and 15. Love bears everything with triumphal fortitude.

When all is said and done Love doesn't end. Prophecies end. Tongues cease. Knowledge itself comes to an end. Prophecies, tongues, and knowledge are incomplete. But, love is complete and whole. As such, love has no end.

Writing in our own times, American psychiatrist Dr. Gerald Jampolsky, has taken the lessons of love and reflected upon them in his writings for a 21st Century crowd. Having become widely known through his first book, Love is Letting Go of Fear (1979), and later writing in his second book Teach Only Love, Dr. Jampolsky says, "There really is only one lesson to learn. `Teach only Love, for that is what you are.'...This tells us that our essence is love." He goes on to offer 12 principles to Attitudinal Healing. At the close of his book Dr. Jampolsky says many things, all of which reflect his deep sense that we are called to be God's shining light - no matter what we call ourselves - Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, etc. He says of himself (a Christian, by the way):

I find myself doing my best to remember God all the time, in all situations. My trust and faith provide me with joy, with creative energy, and with an inspiration that fills me with bliss and happiness. I now believe that I, like all of us, am on an assignment doing God's work, and I can no longer imagine anything that could be more joyful than this . . . I know that it is not my function to change people, to attempt to change their beliefs, or to get them to accept God . . . I am here to teach only Love . . . It's my personal belief that in the real world of God's Love, there is only love and nothing else. (Jampolsky, Teach Only Love, Beyond Words Publishing, Hillsboro, Or., 2000, p. 185).

So often you and I define the "real world" as cold and harsh and tough. I remember years ago standing in a hallway in a Cleveland parochial school. I was visiting with the Principal - a Roman Catholic nun and the sister of our own Bishop James Griffin. We were talking about how hard life was and how tough it was for the children of her school in inner-city Cleveland. Just then, a kinder gardener came dancing down the hallway. We greeted her and she stopped dancing, looked straight into our eyes and said sadly, "Sister, did I just hear you say, `Life is, is tough?' To which my friend responded, "Yes, dear. I said that to Mr. Ahrens." Then looking at both of us, she said, "Sister, no one ever told me that life was tough before. I always thought life was great." Through the eyes of this young child, it was our reality that was skewed. We were the ones that had lost touch with God's reality of love and delight and joy!

I started this sermon by asking, "How do you want to be remembered? What do you want your legacy to be?" In recent weeks, these questions have taken on new meaning. In polls taken before September 11, people listed what mattered most as "job, careers, and purchasing power." In the aftermath, people have listed "Family, faith and relationships" as having the most importance to them. One side effect of tragedy is that our priorities become much clearer. How often have you heard people say in the face of tremendous loss - "At least I have my health, my family, my faith to pull me through . . . ?"

There is a phrase attributed to Woody Hayes that I have heard many times (Where is Woody when we need him most?), "You cannot pay back. You can only pay forward." Let me tell you how one member of this church (who will remain nameless) took this phrase to heart last year during a conversation with me. Within months of beginning my ministry here, the person asked me, as the Senior Minister of First Church, what did I see as the greatest need. I answered that "I need an associate minister." Last year, this person, anonymously, stepped forward to offer half the first year package - including benefits, etc. - for this important position - $30,000. Seeing the need, and having the financial ability and desire to assist - beyond bricks and mortar - this donor paid forward.

Now, I know that not everyone here is able to do that. More important, the anonymous donor knows this! But, with the means to make difference, the person made the choice to make a difference. How many of us do that?

Next Sunday, Consecration Sunday, we need to look deep within ourselves as individuals and as a church family to find ways to pay forward. We need to express our faith, hope, and love through our stewardship of gifts for God. We have seen the posters, we have read the newsletter articles, we have heard the witnesses of three stewards - Wally Cannon, Alex Weaver, and today Carol Hussey; we have done everything but decide how - through the love of God, we will choose to leave a legacy of Love. In essence, "How will we share the love which we feel with the church which we love?" This week, I found this poem, written by a woman who, on her deathbed, wrote these words about the "donations" she was leaving behind. This is how she chose to be remembered:

This little poem was enclosed, called "A Donor's Poem": Do not call this my "deathbed." Call it my "bed of life," and let my body be taken from it to help others lead fuller lives. Give my sight to a man who has never seen a sunrise, a baby's face, or live in the eyes of a woman. Give my blood to the teenager who has been pulled from the wreckage of his care, so that he might live to see his grandchildren play.... Explore every corner of my brain. Take my cells, if necessary, and let them grow so that someday a speechless boy will shout at the crack of a bat and a deaf girl will hear the sound of rain against her windows.... If you must bury something, let it be my faults, my weaknesses, and all prejudice against my fellowman. Give my soul to God..... If by chance you wish to remember me, do it with a kind deed or word to someone who needs you. If you do all that I have asked, I will live forever."

How will you and I be remembered? I pray it is with a love that never ends! Amen.

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