By Sarah Jacoby Murphy
Sarah earned a B.A. from Houghton University and M.Div from Duke Divinity School. She has spent most of her career working in the nonprofit sector and has a particular interest in the areas of immigration and the environment.
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 13; Matthew 25:31-40
It is good to be back with all of you! This is my third time preaching here, and each time I visit I am struck by the warmth and hospitality of your congregation. My wife used to work over at Alfred State, and Union University always had a great reputation in the community, so it’s a pleasure to visit you when I get the chance.
This year finds me in a bit of a different space than previous years. My father passed away unexpectedly this spring. So I’ve been thinking a lot about his life, and about my own life, and about death. I don’t normally like to preach on things that feel so personal to me, but I’ve been reminded lately of the prophet Jonah. Jonah is, of course, famous for being swallowed by a fish, and because of this, Jonah is historically depicted as speaking out of the mouth of the fish that swallowed him—the idea being that whatever he says is emerging in some way from that experience. And this idea resonates with me, that that there are times in our lives when we are speaking out the mouth of something that has swallowed us. Something that can be both tragic and salvific at the same time.
So today and next week, I’m going to be preaching from the mouth of the fish, so to speak. Speaking out of both grief and hope.
Will you pray with me?
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts, be pleasing to you, O God. Our Rock, and our Redeemer. For you are the one who redeems our words and our thoughts.
Our sermon today is On Knowing in Part, and the Things That Remain. Earlier we heard the reading from 1 Corinthians 13, that famous passage on love. These words are often read at weddings: “love is patient, love is kind, etc…” but this passage isn’t about romantic love at all—it’s actually about us, you and I, and our tendency to prioritize the wrong things in our relationships with one another.
This section begins by naming a list of spiritual things that are meaningless without love. It says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I am just a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith, so to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all of my possessions, and if I hand over my body to be burned, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” To be clear, it’s not that these things are bad. Everything on this list may be worth pursuing, but they are incomplete on their own. A person’s intense spirituality, their moral conviction and teaching, their faith, even their sacrifice is incomplete without love.
It’s actually a pretty incredible thing, to say that something like faith or orthodoxy could be meaningless without love. But that is what this passage says: these things are good things, but they are partial things, they are incomplete things—they will come to an end.
But Love, we are told, never ends. The passage goes on: “As for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.”
We know only in part. We know only in part. I’ve been drawn to that line these past few months. Because there have been times in my life when I knew something. I knew it here (mind) and I knew it here (heart). I was convicted of a spiritual truth or passionate about the importance of a belief or a behavior. But five years later or ten years later, my knowledge expanded or shifted. I changed my mind, or realized that I overestimated the importance of something. And I’m not saying that we can’t know anything, but our knowledge is partial, and our experiences are partial. We know only in part. And we prophesy only in part. And it’s humbling to hear that. We are trying to live our lives and to understand God with partial knowledge.
As I’ve been thinking about my father, something that I’ve been reflecting on is that my father and I didn’t always agree. We didn’t agree about some pretty important things. I was certain about some things that he was certain I was wrong about. And vice versa. And we lived our lives differently based on what we knew differently. But we know only in part. Our knowledge is incomplete. And so we cannot make knowledge or spiritual experiences the most important thing in our lives and relationships, because these things are going to come to an end. But love will never end. Love is complete, both in this world and the next. Love is the same thing today that it will be tomorrow, and it continues when all other things have passed away.
And this is why Love is a more excellent way for us to pursue and practice, and why it sits at the center of the Christian life: because Love is a thing that remains.
We know only in part. But one thing that we fully know is that love is worth our whole life’s effort to pursue.
But how do we pursue love while only having partial knowledge? Jesus tells a story in Matthew 25 that is an illuminating example of this idea.
This story is about the end of the world. And in it, everyone is separated into two groups: the righteous and the unrighteous. And after the groups are separated, the Lord says to those at his right hand, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me in, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
And in the story, those righteous people are confused. And they say, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food or thirsty and we gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and we welcomed you or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
And the Lord will reply: “Just as you did it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”
It’s like he’s saying, “you didn’t know that it was me that you were feeding. You didn’t know that it was me who you welcomed in. But you were less concerned about what you knew, and more concerned about love.”
“You knew only in part…you knew only a piece of what was happening. But you did the same thing to my brother that you would have done to me. Because you were less invested in what you understood, and more invested in love.”
And in that story, the reason that the unrighteous are unrighteous, is because they lived according to what they thought they knew, and they acted according to who they thought was in front of them. They let their knowledge dictate love, instead of letting love dictate their knowledge. And this was their mistake–because even if you understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if you have faith enough to move mountains, without love, you have nothing.
At my father’s memorial service, we asked visitors to write down memories of my dad for us to collect in a little book. And after the service, when we got back to the house, I started to read through what people had written. And I came across one from a man named Adam, and it said: “I didn’t know Dave very well, but he visited me when I was sick and he prayed with me. I have never forgotten that.” And when I read that, all that I could think about were the words of Jesus in Matthew 25: “When I was sick, you took care of me.” Someone else talked about how my parents welcomed them to their house when they were new to the area, and how their hospitality meant so much to them during that time. And I thought, “When I was hungry, you fed me; when I was a stranger, you invited me in.” Another friend of mine spoke about how my father visited him when he was in jail, and all that I could think was, “When I was in prison, you visited me.”
My father only knew in part. He lived his life with partial knowledge. But now he knows in full. And he knows now, much better than I do, that love is a thing that remains.
Because when we act in love, we are doing an eternal act—something that cannot fail and will not end. And even though everything around us is going to perish and pass away—things that we strongly believe, ideals that we stake our lives on, experiences that shape who we are—our love is going to remain.
I will end with the words from 1 Corinthians 13:
“Now we see dimly, as in an aged mirror—then we will see face to face. Now we know only in part, but then we will know in full. And three things remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these, is love.”