Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Rules of Engagement

RCL Epiphany 4C
31 January 2010

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

About ten years ago Bishop Michael asked me to join a small group of people whom he had asked to prepare a rite for the blessing of same-sex couples. The previous year the diocesan Liturgical Commission had prepared a rite based on the marriage rite of The Book of Alternative Services that our legal assessors had vetoed as being too similar to marriage. Given that the marriage of same-sex couples was not and is not permitted in the Anglican Church of Canada, any blessing rite needed to be sufficiently different from the marriage rite so as to make clear that the blessing was not a marriage.

We met frequently over the course of the year. My job was to serve as the editor, pulling together the various ideas and texts the members were bringing forward into a cohesive liturgical structure. All in all, it was a satisfying project in which I am proud to have participated. But I have a confession to make. There is one aspect of the rite that I wish I could remove: the inclusion of 1 Corinthians 13 among the recommended readings from the Scriptures. Let me explain.

When Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, he was writing to a community that was deeply disordered. Victor Paul Furnish, who has written about the church in Corinth, tells us that it was a community in which

• rival groups were jockeying for control;
• there was indifference to flagrant immorality;
• there was a disregard for those who were not fully enlightened about appropriate Christian conduct;
• the disadvantaged members of the community were marginalized and
• Paul’s apostolic authority was questioned (The HarperCollins Study Bible, 2139-2140).

Some of the members of the community believed that they possessed special religious knowledge denied to others, while others thought that their spiritual gifts demonstrated their superiority to the other members of the community (The HarperCollins Study Bible, 2140). This was not a group of happy campers.

Earlier in this letter Paul criticizes the Corinthians for their failure to demonstrate a commitment to build one another up, a quality that Paul frequently holds up as one of the most important characteristics of a Christian community. He points out to them that their practice of celebrating the Lord’s Supper in the midst of what we might call a parish potluck supper shows how they have failed to understand the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth. The rich will not share their food and drink with the poor so that some leave the meal hungry. “If you cannot see Christ’s body in your brothers and sisters,” Paul says, “then you cannot possibly participate in Christ’s body broken in the bread and poured out in the cup. You eat and drink to your own condemnation.”

Whenever I go to a wedding or a blessing, I go in the hope that the couple will not have chosen 1 Corinthians 13 as one of the readings. Paul’s beautiful and familiar text was never intended to become the stuff of Hallmark cards and romanticism. 1 Corinthians 13, when understood in its context, contains what the military calls ‘the rules of engagement’, the guidelines for handling oneself in difficult and potentially deadly situations. It is not a warm and cuddly text; it is a hard-headed proclamation of what it means to be a Christian and how one is to conduct oneself in the rough and tumble of community life. If we were to follow Paul’s exhortation vigorously, we would discover just how tough it is.

When 1 Corinthians 13 is read at a wedding or a blessing, I gaze around at the congregation. I see small smiles that we generally have when we are looking at children doing something cute or when someone is doing something romantic. There is a certain sweetness, a kind of comfortable nostalgia, that comes over us. This tidal wave of warm feelings overwhelms us and we forget just how hard it is to love when the bills cannot be paid, when the children are sick and when we are wondering whether we should have ever considered marriage at all. We bask in the warm light of the love radiating from the couple and forget that love is a choice that we are asked to make every single moment of every single day and that there are moments, perhaps even hours, days and weeks that pass when choosing to love exceeds our capabilities.

By all means let us read 1 Corinthians 13 frequently and deeply. Let us be clear that this is a clarion call to make the most radical choice a human being can make: the choice to love and, in loving, grow in faith and hope. For Paul love is the choice to build up every human being so that they might become who they truly are, the beloved of God, made in God’s image and called to God’s likeness. To love as Paul calls us to love may mean making costly sacrifices. It may mean speaking the truth, as painful as that truth may be, rather than dodging the truth with some carefully chosen words. To love as Paul calls us to love may mean taking risks and embarking on journeys for which we have only partial maps.

This is the kind of love that Jesus showed to the people in his home town when he proclaimed to them the words of the prophet Isaiah that we heard last week. This is the kind of love that Jesus showed to the people in his home town even as they sought to throw him down a cliff as we heard in today’s gospel reading. This is the kind of love that I hope married couples, whether gay or straight, are prepared to give to one another. This is the kind of love that I hope empowers those who enjoy power and privilege when they consider how they might build up the powerless and disadvantaged. This is the kind of love that I hope guides our discussions in today’s annual parish vestry.

May it be so today and to the ages of ages. Amen.