Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Good morning. This has been a challenging week for me. On Tuesday night I learned that one of my childhood friends committed suicide. His name was Burr Harper and I can’t even remember when I met him. It might have been first grade, it might have been second. I wouldn’t say we were close, but I don’t remember not knowing him. He was a nice kid and he was well liked. He came from a working-class family, but he lived in an affluent neighborhood, so he got along with the rich kids and the poor kids.
Burr and I graduated from high school in 1989. I think we were both at the same party on the night of our graduation, but it would be another 25 years before I heard from Burr. And then we reconnected through the miracle of Facebook. We exchanged a few messages and he even called me one time. We talked about getting together, but it never happened.
About a year ago, another one of our classmates got married and Burr and I were both invited. We sat at the same table and talked for a bit—he was in touch with a lot of our classmates; I wasn’t. Again, we talked about getting together, but it never actually happened.
Burr called me again back in August or September of last year. He didn’t know that I’d moved to New Jersey, but he wanted to talk about our impending 30th class reunion and see if I was going. I was surprised to hear from him; we weren’t that close. But still, it was nice to hear from him. I never would have guessed that he’d take his own life a few months later. He seemed like a happy guy.
There are an awful lot of people in this world who struggle with clinical depression. Of course, people who are deeply depressed can often put on a happy face for the rest of the world to see. Also, the vast majority of people who suffer from depression do not commit suicide.
I don’t claim to know a lot about suicidal depression. What I know is this: people who contemplate suicide often feel like they’re cut off from meaningful relationships. They live in isolation and an event such as a divorce, a breakup, the loss of a job, or rejection by a parent can be the catalyst for a suicide attempt.
I don’t know what my friend Burr’s spiritual beliefs were. I don’t think he was religious, but I don’t know if he was raised in the church or not. Regardless, I believe that God loves us completely and unconditionally. I believe that God’s love and mercy are bigger than any words we can put around them.
We’re human and we’re fallible, and sometimes we try to figure out the limits of God’s mercy and grace. We try to define grace. We attempt to practice an economy of grace: we create artificial categories like mortal sins—sins that are so great that God can’t or won’t forgive them. I don’t believe that. I reject that notion.
In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul says: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. As I understand it, even our own sins are not enough to separate us from that love. Because we have Jesus; because we have grace. To put it another way: God’s love for me is greater than my power to sin against God. That is the nature of God’s love.
This is the kind of love that Paul describes in this morning’s reading from First Corinthians. For most of us, this is a really familiar passage. How many of you have heard this read at a wedding? It’s really popular and lots of couples choose this passage because it talks about love, but honestly, it’s not the best use of this text.
There are three different verbs in biblical Greek that are translated as “love.” One of them is ero, which is romantic love, more or less. This is the “I love you” that you would say to your spouse or significant other. The next Greek word for love is phileo, which is the love between siblings. This is the “I love you” that you might say to your brother or sister—if you have siblings. As an only child, I’m probably not going to use phileo. This is also the root word for Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. You can laugh at that if you want; I’m just telling you that the name comes from the Greek.
The third, and perhaps most important kind of love is agapao. As your pastor, this is the “I love you” that I say to each and every one of you. This is the kind of love that Paul speaks of in our lesson today. This is the way that God loves us; it is God’s unbounded, unconditional love for humanity.
In Christian community, this is what we call agape love. According to Martin Luther King, Jr., agape love “is an entirely ‘neighbor-regarding concern for others,’ which discovers the neighbor in every man it meets,” what’s more, agape love “begins by loving others for their sakes.” The logic for this is pretty simple: God created each and every one of us in love; we are all God’s beloved children. That means we have to see the image of God in everyone and love everyone, because God loves them, too.
While the logic is simple, living into this call is not. Some people are difficult to love. It’s tough to practice love for people who are physically or emotionally distant. It’s tough to practice love for people who don’t want to accept our love. And it’s easy to write off those people who refuse the help we offer, or who don’t offer sufficient thanks when we do something nice or helpful.
In our families and in our churches, we hold grudges. Sometimes we get upset over a perceived slight or we blow a minor conflict out of proportion. More often, we have conflict over important things; we fight over budgets and expenditures, Session votes and personnel decisions. Conflict is normal and it reflects honest differences of opinion. But all too often, we fail to resolve the conflict. We hold on to the anger and hurt. After the conflict is over, we might offer polite civility, but we rarely work toward true reconciliation.
Beloved, we need to practice love here, first, because this is a place where we acknowledge that God loves each and every one of us. Beloved, we need to practice love here, first, because we’re called to go out there and practice love, too. One look at our broken politics should be enough to remind us all that we have fallen far short of the mark, that we all fail to practice love for the people with whom we disagree.
Of course, as humans, we’re always going to fail to love as well as God loves. But I think it’s helpful to remind ourselves that love isn’t just an abstract state of being; love isn’t something that only happens in our minds. Remember, in the Hebrew language, love is an active verb.
Hebrew is a language of verbs. The verb, to love, implies action on the part of the one who loves. To love God is to act on that love. To love God is to act ethically in service to God and on behalf of God. While the gospels and the epistles were written in Greek, both Jesus and the Apostle Paul would have understood the verb, to love, in this way. To love is to act.
Fortunately, Paul gives us some good, concrete advice for what this looks like. When we act in love, we act with patience; we act with kindness; we endure difficult people, we bear hardships, we act with hope. When we act in love, we set aside our pride and envy, we set aside irritation and resentfulness. Paul reminds us of this because it’s not easy.
I remember this one time, I was in the grocery store. I was tired and the line was long. The woman in front of me had a lot of groceries. She was wearing designer jeans and fancy heels; she carried an expensive purse. After the cashier rang up her purchase, she pulled out an Access card—you know, food stamps. Now I’ve heard people tell different versions of this story before, but I thought people were just repeating an urban myth. Then I saw it for myself. And I was really annoyed. She didn’t deserve food stamps!
Paul says that love “is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude,” nor is love “irritable or resentful.” My response to the woman in the checkout line—even though I kept it to myself—was borne from envy and arrogance, irritability and resent. The truth is, I knew nothing about that woman. I didn’t know if the shoes and the purse were made by a fancy designer or if they were knock-offs. Even if they were real, I didn’t know when she got them. It’s very possible that she’d been married to doctor or a lawyer, and then her husband left her and the kids. Perhaps she depended on food stamps because her ex-husband wasn’t paying child support. I don’t know and I didn’t ask. I simply responded with my own personal disdain for someone I didn’t know. I didn’t practice love.
I want to leave you with a happier story and a thought about how we live into the agape love that Paul writes about in First Corinthians.
One day, a homeless man came into a church for a free meal. He was suffering from colon cancer. As he was walking down the steps, he had an accident—he soiled his pants and the steps. He was embarrassed and ashamed, but one of the volunteers said don’t worry, it’s all right. The volunteer had been to the gym earlier; he had a pair of sweatpants in the car. He took the homeless man to the bathroom to clean up, then he gave the homeless man the sweatpants. Then the volunteer got someone to clean the stairs, while the volunteer took the soiled pants home and washed them.
We often turn away from homeless people. Sometimes they frighten us; sometimes they smell bad. But on that day the volunteer acted with love and mercy. The volunteer acted without pride or resentment. That’s exactly how to live into Christian community with one another and with those around us. We engage with others and we act in love.
The truth is, we rarely know what’s going on in another person’s life. When I was in the grocery store that night, I chose not to engage. I stood in quiet judgment, though I knew nothing about that woman’s circumstances. Yet even when we think we know someone, we rarely know the worst of what’s going on. I had no idea that my friend Burr was suffering.
I’m not blaming myself—I wasn’t close enough, physically or emotionally, to see the signs and engage. But if you are close enough to someone who might be suffering, here are some questions you can ask:
Does it ever get so bad that sometimes you think about suicide?
Sometimes people going through what you’re going through start to think about suicide. Are you thinking about suicide?
You have to have a close relationship to ask someone those types of questions. And even if you are close enough, it’s still really uncomfortable to ask those questions, but that’s another way to practice agape love. May we all strive to engage with more people, build new relationships, mend existing relationships, and always practice love. Thanks be to God. Amen!
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to love one another as God loves us. Remember, too, that we are baptized into the life, the work, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Martin Luther King, Jr. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. Ed. James M. Washington. New York: HarperOne (1986), p. 19.