Title: Dirty Pockets, Lint Balls, and Love
Text: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Date: February 7, 2010
Author: Meghan Florian
I work part time as a Wedding Assistant at Duke Chapel, so most Saturday afternoons find me alternately scurrying around the chapel in uncomfortable shoes, or sitting in the back pew and listening to as many as three sermons on 1 Corinthians 13 in one day, depending on the number of weddings on a given weekend. When I first started my job at the chapel I didn’t think too much of it; on the surface, it seems like a reasonable choice for a wedding. A beautiful meditation on love: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Some of you might even have chosen to have it read at your own weddings. Honestly though, eight months and roughly fifty weddings down the line, the only thing that makes me cringe more than a wedding sermon on 1 Corinthians 13 is a wedding sermon on Proverbs 31 or Ephesians 5.
The sermons generally go something like this:
We’re here to celebrate John and Susie’s love for each other. This is the biggest day of your lives, John and Susie. God has blessed you with love. But just in case you haven’t figured it out yet, love is really hard work. We’re not kidding about that whole “for better or for worse” bit. So good luck…er, I mean, amen.
Every week I hear sermons emphasizing that love is hard work, and it puzzles me. Not because I think that’s untrue – on the contrary, it’s very true. Love is not easy; it doesn’t take many attempts at loving someone to realize that. Still, the main points of most of these sermons – namely, that it’s all about these two people’s love for each other, and that love is really hard work – seem to miss a lot of what is going on in this chapter. These ornate Duke Chapel weddings emphasize the couple’s “big day,” but Paul’s words are addressed to an entire community – a community, as we have learned in recent weeks, with some serious issues. The fussy clothes and fancy flowers at these weddings are pretty far removed from Paul’s critique of the church at Corinth, yet somehow this chapter has been co-opted into the multimillion dollar wedding industry as the passage of choice for “your perfect day.”
The problem is, the audience of the passage is far from perfect.
Working at the chapel, alongside the Wedding Director, I am often the last one to see the bride before she walks down the isle, and the last one to see the groom before he makes his entrance, because I am responsible for cuing him to process out at the right time – one of many perfectly choreographed moments in the ceremony. In those final minutes, I’ve seen a lot of different emotions displayed on the faces of complete strangers – excitement, fear, joy, fatigue. Groomsmen make jokes about this being the guy’s “last chance to run.” The mother and father of the bride tear up, and carefully hug their daughter around the layers of silk and lace, as if she were a china doll that might break. One of those most memorable to me was a bride in an especially puffy and ladylike dress who I was actually afraid was going to pass out, right there in the narthex of Duke Chapel while the opening notes of Pachabel’s Canon in D filled the sanctuary.
Amidst all of the careful crafting of this event, I’m allowed in on a moment of truth – the bride is exhausted, maybe even terrified. After months of preparation and thousands of dollars, the “big moment” has arrived – everything is supposed to look perfect. Bridesmaids are holding up the bride’s veil, fanning her sweaty brow, touching up her lipstick, reassuring her of her beauty. She has been carefully kept from the view of the groom, so that his first sight of her will be picture perfect, everything he has imagined. The photographer, too, is poised and ready, and if something does happen to look a bit off she will be sure to touch it up later on. The memories of this day will be preserved, perfectly.
In verse 12, Paul says that “now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.” A Duke Chapel wedding attempts to project a perfect picture, a mirror image of what appears in the pages of bridal magazines. The towering gothic architecture, the stained glass windows, the triumphant organ music, the long, flowing, white train on the bride’s dress. This is the perfect day. The perfect venue. The perfect couple.
Perfect, perfect, perfect.
You might recall a question sometimes asked during weddings, “If anyone knows a reason why these two people should not be joined together, speak now or forever hold your peace.” I seldom hear this question asked anymore. The implication seems to be, if something imperfect is buried beneath the surface, we’d really rather you didn’t dig it up. We prefer the facade of perfection to the complexities of reality.
Love, however, does exactly the opposite. One of my favorite poets, Susanna Childress, speaks of being loved, “with all [her] dirty pockets turned inside out.” I think this is a helpful image. I think that Paul has turned the Corinthian’s dirty pockets inside out, calling attention to their misguided understanding of gifts, reprimanding them for leaving love out of the picture. In verses 1-3 he draws attention to specific spiritual gifts, the ones folks might be most likely to be puffed up about – tongues and prophecy. Without love, he says, speaking in tongues and prophesying are nothing. They’re useless, a nuisance even. Better to be silent, to say nothing, than to create all that needless racket.
This is precisely where love comes in – patient, kind, rejoicing in the truth – not in a facade of perfection. Love turns the dirty pockets inside out, sorts through the lints balls, spare change, crumpled receipts – and somehow still rejoices in the truth of the person found there. Without love, even our gifts – the things that look good on the surface – are nothing. But with love, everything changes.
“Love” that relies on a false exterior will fade away when the object of love tires of keeping up the act of perfection – it doesn’t abide like the love Paul is talking about. But love that sees clearly – face to face – imperfections and all – already knows the dirty secrets, and loves you not only “in spite” of them but because of them. It doesn’t get scared off when the cracks inevitably start to show.
In second half of the passage Paul talks about a present reality that will come to an end, and points to future fulfillment: while tongues and prophecy will cease, love never ends, we are told. Love abides. Love speaks to the “now” – NOW faith, hope, and love abide – but it also looks forward, towards a time when we will be “a spotless mirror of the working of God” (Wisdom 7.25-26), when we will know fully, even as we have been fully known. Through loving, and being loved, we become better, or more full, versions of ourselves – we start to see others more clearly, ourselves more clearly, and God more clearly.
There is an intense vulnerability to seeing one another face to face, to sharing our lives. Being “fully known” can be a little frightening, and while our knowledge, now, is limited, it might be disconcerting to think that God’s knowledge of us is not. There is a reason that we burry certain things deep down in the bottom of our pockets. In many ways though, isn’t this what we try to live into together, as we share our lives? To know one another, and so to love one another as God loves us?
Paul goes on in chapter 14 to tell the Corinthians to “Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts.” Though he comes down hard on their focus on spiritual gifts in chapter 13 as a source of division, he is walking a thin line. The concern is with whether these gifts are practiced lovingly, shared for the upbuilding of the whole community rather then merely the individuals who do the speaking. These gifts that become such a consuming focus are temporary, partial – and perhaps part of what needs to be said is that you, your love, your gifts, alone, are not going to fulfill anything in the end. But a word of truth, spoken in love, endures.
Thinking about the wedding image again, the moment that a bride walks down that long isle might feel as if it is the fulfillment of love, but it isn’t. The love of two people for one another might be real, might be part of the process of sanctification, but it’s not the whole picture. It’s incomplete. Their love is part of a larger community, and Paul is calling for prophecy which edifies that entire community, for words that we can make sense of together. It’s not enough simply to know one another; that knowledge must be accompanied by speech – right speech, speech that actively builds the community.
Words that are not childish, words that tell the truths of who we are, and who we hope to become together, words that unite rather than divide.
Words of encouragement. Words of consolation. Words that reveal and teach.
Even seemingly simple words like, “I’m sorry,” and “You are forgiven.”
Words like, “How can I help?” and “How are you really doing?”
Words like, “I am here for you,” and “I will pray for you.”
Words that can be said by even – or especially – the weakest among us.