A More Excellent Way

I Corinthians 13-14:1
May 1, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

No matter how biblically illiterate a person might be, they have probably heard these words of Paul’s at some point in their lives, at least they have if they have attended enough weddings.  I Corinthians 13 is the passage of choice both for couples who honestly want to create a faith based ceremony, and also for couples who are including a scripture reading only because Great-Aunt Bertha will have a heart attack if there is no mention of God in the wedding. This passage is a nice compromise for the “spiritual but not religious crowd” because newlyweds hear in Paul’s words only a love sonnet; they read this passage as a description of their own all-encompassing devotion to one another.

Paul, however, would have been very surprised to know that his words would become famous through their use at weddings.  First of all, Paul wasn’t really keen on marriage.  He told his congregations, “Listen, if you can’t keep your hands to yourself then I guess you might as well make it official but those with powers of restraint would be better off remaining uncoupled and concentrating on the work of Christ.”  Paul wasn’t a sentimental sort of guy and I can’t imagine him sitting in a sun drenched meadow composing love sonnets to anyone, let alone the Corinthian church.

Because the main reason that we know that these words were not intended for young lovers was that the church Paul wrote them for was consumed by back-biting, power struggles, insults, and acrimonious debate.  The congregation at Corinth was a notoriously difficult one that required a lot of Paul’s attention, visits by Paul’s co-workers, and numerous letters back and forth as he tried to help the people resolve the conflicts that had arisen in the church.  I Corinthians 13 isn’t a treatise on romantic love; it is a treatise on conflict resolution.  Married couples shouldn’t read these words at their wedding; they should read them when they first argue about who is going to be in charge of the laundry, or when the baby is crying at 2 am and neither one feels like getting up to feed her, or when their teenager shouts, “You’re not the boss of me!” and slams the door in their faces, or when they retire and are bumping into one another all day because they no longer have an office to go to.

I Corinthians 13 isn’t a treatise on romantic love; it is a treatise on conflict resolution.  Listen to the opening paragraph of this chapter and you will hear in Paul’s words a description of what happens when conflicts erupt in our lives.

Do you recognize the noisy gongs and the clanging cymbals:  “If you won’t listen to what I say, I’ll just shout it louder!” we yell, as if the problem with our spouse or our child is not that they disagree with us but that they are deaf.   We pour out long winded lectures on our kids until we are blue in the face; we flog our stubborn spouses with dissertations of unassailable rational arguments.  We speak in the eloquent tongues of higher beings convinced that our words alone will have the power to conquer the field of battle, and the more words the better and the louder we say them the more convincing we will be but instead our words just escalate the fight and widen the gulf between us.

Or we take the other tact, in Paul’s words, giving away all we possess and handing over our bodies so that we can boast about our saintly martyrdom.

“That’s ok,” the martyr says in the face of conflict.  “I’ll take care of it; I’ll bear the burden; I’ll be fine; I just want you to be happy; I just want the fighting to stop; don’t worry about me.”  We appease and we submit, accepting the sins of the other upon ourselves like a crucified saint.  But appeasement is not resolution; the conflict remains to stew in a broth of guilt and resentment, a poor diet for any relationship.

I Corinthians 13 isn’t a treatise on romantic love; it is a treatise on conflict resolution.  Paul says, “There is a more excellent way than this, and its name is love,” and he then describes the character of love and how love’s unique qualities can be used to heal our conflicts.

“Love is patient,” he begins.  Rule number one, Paul says, in any conflict is to take a breath, bite your tongue, quiet your mind, and listen.  If our only goal in a conflict is to win the field of battle, then the one who gets in the quickest, hits the hardest, and draws blood first will be in the strongest position but if our goal is love — if our goal is to resolve the conflict in a way that not only settles the argument but strengthens the relationship between us — then love requires that we truly try to understand the other person’s position.  You can’t listen well if you are yelling; nor can you listen if you stalk out of the room in a silent huff.  Love tells us to take the time we need to calm down before we talk, and to be patient with one another and with the process.

Moreover, Paul says, “Love is patient and kind.  Love is not arrogant or rude.”

Rule number one is to be patient and take a breath.

Rule number two is to attack the problem not the person.

This isn’t a very popular position right now in the US.  With all of the angry rhetoric in our political campaigns, we might think that the disappearance of civility is a recent phenomenon but people have always used insults as lethal weapons.  In the seventeenth century, Puritan preacher Richard Baxter wrote a pamphlet describing Quakers as “drunkards, swearers, whoremongers, and sensual wretches.”  The Quaker leader James Naylor responded that, as a Christian, he couldn’t allow such accusations to go undefended, and returned the blows calling Baxter a “Serpent,” a “Liar,”  a “Child of the Devil,” a “Cursed Hypocrite,” and a “Dumb Dog.”  (Uncommon Decency, Richard J. Mouw, p. 52)  The conflict began as a theological argument but quickly devolved into personal attacks, wounds not easily forgotten or forgiven.

When we attack the person instead of the problem, we leave wounds that will last long beyond the conflict.  Your teenager will one day grow up to forgive you for insisting that she be home by midnight, but she will never fully get over the hurt if you add that she’s an irresponsible selfish twit who will never amount to anything.

Love is patient:  take a breath.

Love is not arrogant or rude: attack the problem, never the person.

Love, Paul says, does not insist on its own way.

Storyteller Aaron Shepherd tells a story of three brothers who lived on an island in the Pacific where earthquakes were common.  The island people all lived in caves but the three brothers decide that they want to venture out into the world and build houses.

“The oldest brother,” the story says, “built his house from stone and mortar for stone is as strong as a mountain. The middle brother built his house from wood and pegs [for wood] is as strong as a tree. But the youngest brother built his house from bamboo and cord and his house was as strong as the grass.”

Soon, the story goes, an earthquake shakes the island and the stone house topples, and the wood house is shattered, and only the bamboo house remains.  In a rebuttal to the story of “The Three Little Pigs”, Shepherd concludes his story saying that only the bamboo house could withstand the earthquake because whatever bends cannot break.”  (http://www.aaronshep.com/stories/063.html)

When in a conflict we insist on only one way — our way — the rigidity of our position leaves us with only two outcomes: we either survive intact, winning the argument while the other is broken in their loss, or we are the broken ones while the other wins.  When we believe, however, that there can be alternative solutions which leave everyone satisfied, when we believe that there don’t have to be winners and losers but that there can be winners and winners, when we believe that if we are creative enough and listen to one another’s needs seriously we can find real solutions to the problem, when we think of ourselves as bamboo instead of stone, we can open up new avenues of healing.

Many years ago, Amanda Butts who was at the time a sophomore in college, gave this advice to our graduating high school seniors.

“When your roommate insists on taking the bottom bunk and you have to sleep in the top, adjust.
When you take a course that requires a lot of extra reading, adjust.
When your boyfriend dumps you or your girlfriend breaks up with you, adjust.
When college isn’t quite what you expected it to be, adjust.”

Love is patient:  take a breath.

Love is not arrogant or rude: attack the problem, never the person.

Love does not insist on its own way: adjust.

And love never ends.

The love that Paul calls us to is a love that is grounded not in our frail and fallible human love but in the endless love of God who first loved us.  Every chalice communion we read the words of God’s persistent love: “You formed us in your image, and breathed into us the breath of life.  When we turned away, and our love failed, your love remained steadfast.”

The gospel assures us that God will persist when we have run out of options; that God will continue to work even when we have to admit defeat.

Anytime we talk about conflict resolution, we must also remember and confess that there will be conflicts in which our human love is not transformative enough to bring real healing.  There will be relationships that are so troubled and so abusive that there is no possibility of resolution and such relationships must be sadly ended.  There will be marriages that cannot be saved; there will be workplaces so lethal to the spirit that one must seek new employment; there may even be family relationships so deadly and consuming that some ties have to be broken in order to save others. Paul says that love doesn’t rejoice in wrong-doing but rejoices in the truth, and sometimes the truth is that a relationship has become abusive and beyond human capacity to resolve.

At those times, even as we leave those relationships, those workplaces, those failed friendships, we can take comfort in knowing that God’s love for those people continues, and God’s mercy for them is unfailing.  We may not be able to transform their hearts but we can remain steadfast in our hope that someday they will be healed in the saving love of God.

I Corinthians 13 isn’t a treatise on romantic love; it is a treatise on conflict resolution.  From now on, whenever you hear or read these words, may you hear Paul saying to you:

Love is patient:  take a breath.

Love is not arrogant or rude: attack the problem, never the person.

Love does not insist on its own way: adjust.

Love never ends: even when we have to walk away, we place our trust in God to heal our wounds, comfort our sorrow, and lead us to new places where we will once again grow and flourish and rise to love again.