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FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH DR. STUART R. GORDON FEBRUARY 3, 2019 There Is No “I” in Love Psalm 136:1, 23-26; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 Will you marry me? I’d make a good husband, Jenny. You would, Forrest. But you won’t marry me. You don’t want to marry me. Why don’t you love me, Jenny? I’m not a smart man. But I know what love is. Outside of I Corinthians 13, the movie Forrest Gump may be the best sermon on love ever preached. (By the way, I’m sensitive to the dangers of pulpit spoilers, but trust that since the movie is 24 years old, it’s fair game.) Forrest Gump is my favorite character in movie history. He has below-average intelligence and above-average love. He is born with a crooked spine but somehow becomes a football star, a war hero, an Olympic ping-pong medalist, and a wealthy entrepreneur. Forrest is surrounded by people who crave honor and glory, be it on the playing field, the battlefield, or the stage, but he seems completely immune to the lures of the limelight. He seems incapable of arrogance or pride. For Forrest, the most memorable thing about visiting the White House – at least the first time he was invited to the White House – was the free Dr. Peppers. It may be the best sermon on love, outside I Corinthians 13, ever preached. So don’t hesitate to let Forrest be your guide, if you want to know what love is. You may know already that the English word “ego” is borrowed directly from Greek. “Ego” is the Greek word for the first person singular pronoun. “Ego” in Greek means “I.” So, in Greek it’s a neutral word. But in English, its connotations can vary. Sigmund Freud’s English translator made it part of the lexicon of psychoanalysts, but far earlier, as early as 1789, it got used in the sense of pride or conceit. Whenever most of us use the term, we tend to mean it that way, as in, “That guy has an ego the size of a Hummer, and he would do well to close down that division like GM did.” In the church of Corinth, ego had infected a good portion of the congregation, and Paul’s prescription was love. I guess you could say that the members of the church there saw themselves as spiritual All-Americas, spiritual war heroes, spiritual gold medalists, spiritual entrepreneurs. They were, in Paul’s words “puffed up.” They could speak in tongues but sounded like noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. They had prophetic powers that would make millions in Vegas, but amounted to essentially nothing. They had faith to move mountains but too little love to be moved by the needs of little people. They could give away enormous portfolios without the smallest twitch of affection, and to Paul, it was worthless. (Never question Paul’s integrity!) Ego is a great enemy to the church. All the spiritual gifts and accomplishments of any body of believers, when infected by pride, become vain, fruitless, selfish, worthless. And love is the perfect medicine. There is no “I” in love. If I were forced to choose, I would say that I Corinthians 13 is the most memorable chapter Paul wrote. I scan my memory through his letters, and though I can recall portions, I can think of only one other chapter that comes close – Romans 8. “I am sure 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 can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And it occurs to me that both chapters share at least two traits: both are poetry, and both are about love. In other places, Paul doesn’t hesitate to talk about love in prose, and he doesn’t hesitate to simply command us to love. He quotes Jesus: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But Paul at his absolute best, at his most inspired, spoke in ways that don’t tell us what to do; they charm us with their rhythms and woo us with their words. “Love is patient; love is kind; it is not envious or arrogant or boastful or rude.” No wonder that brides want to hear them uttered at their weddings! Just the sound of them creates beauty in the room! They’re so good that people actually wonder if Paul even wrote these words himself or simply quoted them! Maybe they’re so good because they don’t tell us what to do; they make us want to be that! And notice something: notice how many times the word “I” occurs in the first paragraph. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels and have not love, I am nothing. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I boast, but have not love, I gain nothing. And notice how little the word “I” appears in what follows. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious or arrogant or boastful or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Could we be onto something here? Is there a purpose behind this? As Paul is wooing us with words, is he also teaching us the truth? Could it be that when we’re focused on ourselves, when the subject of all our sentences is “I,” that we are a long ways from love? And could it be that we find our way to love by listening to what love is and watching what love does? Take, for instance, that first trait: “Love is patient.” How many times have you thought to yourself, or said to someone else, or heard someone say, “I’m just not a patient person”? And, to be honest, that is the end of the conversation. “No hope for me; I’m doomed for life to be impatient. Well, I may pray for patience, but it never seems to happen.” Or, someone might counsel you, “Maybe God shapes patience in you by giving you chances to bear with other people.” And that probably is true. But my hunch is that Paul’s best sermon on love should be your guide. Love, he says in another place, is fruit of the Spirit. Love is something that God accomplishes in us. Love is something, frankly, that we begin to notice in our lives when we were doing other things. So rather than focusing on ourselves, we let the poem paint for us what love looks like, and we begin to notice when it takes form in our lives. What if we read this every week? What if this poem took its place on the bathroom mirror for a time? How would it shape us and color us? What would we become slowly if we stopped thinking, “I’m not a patient person” and started saying, “Love is patient”? Watching Forrest Gump can’t hurt because it shows so beautifully what love can do, and not just between Forrest and Jenny, but also between Forrest and Lt. Dan. Lt. Dan spends years resentful because in being saved by Forrest, he was cheated of his destiny – to die in honor on the battlefield. So Lt. Dan spends years grieving that loss, and medicating himself, and cursing God and Forrest. Does this affect Forrest’s attitude toward him? No; not one bit. We have no clue how or why it is so, but Forrest repeatedly responds to Lt. Dan’s animosity with innocence and affection. In fact, he is so impervious to the animosity that we ask, “Does a person have to be of low intelligence to love this well?” Well, if Jesus is a reliable guide, one can be loving and intelligent. And with Jesus as our guide, we see that love does something: it redeems. Its patience and kindness bear with others as they fight their demons. It sticks with them through their struggles, and greets them in the morning light. So when Lt. Dan’s time comes, and he goes toe-to-toe with God in the midst of a storm, Forrest is there in the morning, when the storm is past, and Dan has made his peace with God. And he says, “I never thanked you for saving my life.” Love is patient and kind because love has redemption in sight. Love does something, you see, and words inspire us to action. It’s like that play about a man named Cyrano, who loved a woman named Roxane, but couldn’t profess his love for her because he was embarrassed by his very large nose. (I must confess, I can sympathize with ole’ Cyrano!) Cyrano was a poet, so he conspired with another man to woo Roxane, by feeding him poetic lines, which the other man would recite. It worked. Roxane fell for the other man, whose name was Christian. The story couldn’t be complete, though, and the love could not be consummated, as long as Christian was just an actor reciting lines, and Cyrano was too frightened to be himself. He had to become his words. In commenting on Psalm 136, James Mays wrote about God’s steadfast love, “It is the characteristic and activity of reliable helpfulness, God’s attribute that is most often praised and appealed to in the Psalms” (420). That is, when the Psalms talk about God, they most often say, “God is reliably helpful.” God remembers his people when they are down and out; God rescues his people from their foes; God provides food to all flesh. God shows his love in being reliably helpful, worthy of trust, always mindful of us and seeking our good. Imagine if that were not the most frequent description of God. Imagine if the Psalmist talked about God being powerful but not gracious, marvelous but not merciful, holy but not steadfast in love. I have a hunch that if that were the case, the god we worshiped would be an idol, a projection of our own egos. It is our own egos that fight the process of becoming patient with those who try us. It is our own egos that care not to be kind. It is our egos that use other people’s weaknesses as step stools to greater self-esteem. It is our egos that excuse our own irritability and resentment. But when we confess God as reliably helpful, always bearing with us, always believing for us, always hoping for us, always enduring for us, we are shaped more into the image of God. We can become the words that we recite. We can become love. This is why I love Forrest Gump. Even though he accomplished more in one life than his mama could have dreamed, in Forrest’s mind, without love, it would have been nothing. Late in the film, when Jenny has finally embraced Forrest, the two talk about all his adventures. He talks about the silent night in Vietnam, and the place where mountains and sky and lake merged as he ran across the continent. And Jenny says wistfully, “I wish I had been there with you.” And Forrest, so lacking in guile and so complete in love, looks to her and says, “You were.” Unburdened by ego, undeterred by her rejections and retreats, Forrest carried Jenny in his heart always, and she returned to him. This is love. There is no “I” in it, no ego. And if Paul is right, it will last forever. Medals will melt. Applause will fade. Knowledge will be forgotten. But along with faith and hope, love will abide. Reliable helpfulness will abide: showing up; sticking around; holding on. These things will abide.
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