Words to Build a Life On:
The Greatest is Love
(The Luke passage shifts the subject speaking from the two people walking to Emmaus [v.19] to Jesus [v.27]. This isn’t immediately obvious on this particular bible website. FYI. One solution is to read the entire Emmaus Passage)
I’ve been thinking this week about words.
We human beings are meaning making creatures
And we do that, largely, with our words.
There was a time, as a child, that I marveled at language.
Now, I don’t want to oversell this.
I didn’t go through a dictionary page by page with a highlighter or anything.
I didn’t have a THESAURUS more beloved than the favorite books of my childhood.
And I spent more time watching Thundercats or Looney Toons
Than I did thinking about any of this
But I remember making lists of words that I found absolutely incredible
That last one I had a friend use once when we were out flipping through CDs
I’m sure he was trying to sound smart.
And he did, in a sort of weird way for a 13 year old.
What he meant was that he was hungry, and he wanted to go get some pizza.
It might have just been easier for him to say that, you know,
Instead of having me wonder which album he was going to “pick”
As he was going about being peckish.
Words are fascinating.
I used to love contemplating words.
I would listen to the speeches made by presidents or leaders
And they would sometimes bring me to tears.
We’d talk in Sunday School about stories from the Bible
And we’d talk about what was said, and what wasn’t said
How things got left out,
Or maybe how the story was told in a different way in a different place.
And I’d try to get a handle on it
And then I’d sit during worship
And there’d be a sermon about it…more words, sometimes way too many words
But it might be a completely new way of thinking about those stories
And I’d leave wondering all over again.
I would gravitate towards music that played creatively with words
“Well darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable
and lightness has a call that’s hard to hear
I wrap my fear around me like a blanket
I sailed my ship of safety ‘til I sank it
I’m crawling on your shores….” So sang Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls
“Did you write the book of love
And do you have faith in God above
If the Bible told you so?
Do you believe in Rock and Roll?
Can music save your mortal soul?
And can you teach me how to dance, real slow?”
That was Don McLean, singing American Pie
This is some of the foundation for making me who I am today
All of these words, signifying ideas and emotions and experience.
We human beings are amazing creatures
People who carry this ability to conjure up words
that structure and shape understanding
that enable us to convey something that’s going on up in our heads
or deep in our hearts to another person standing in front of us
or on paper, a few marks joined together
that someone, somewhere, days or years or centuries later
can look and read and, in some way, come to grasp what it is you meant
more or less.
We were cleaning out our basement the other day
And I came across some old pictures with my mom’s handwriting on them
Indicating the picture was me, at age 4 or something
And I could imagine her taking that picture and a bic pen
And scratching those words down
Maybe not even knowing why, or for whom
But adding some meaning to this picture
Because sometime, somewhere, someone might pick it up
And would want to know something about it.
We build our lives on words.
They are elemental to our living in the world.
We may not always spend time thinking about them
We don’t go back and appreciate them very often.
I think a lot more about the call at first base during Game 6 of the 1985 World Series
Or that first kiss at the roller skating rink
(no kidding, it was at a roller skating rink, its almost cliché)
Or weeping at the funeral of my grandfather…
But each of those experiences is mediated through words.
Jubilation… when Don Denkinger calls Orta safe at first! Safe!
Euphoric… at a first kiss, breaking a bit out of a childhood shell
Adrift… at the death of a patriarch, the first sense of the permanence of loss.
You have your own history, each one of you, the experiences that construct
The vocabularies of your lives.
They are uniquely your own.
Only you have that unique mishmash that gives contour to these words that we share.
But we use the same words, you and I, Jubilation, Euphoric, Adrift… take your pick
So we have to develop some empathy when we deploy them,
a sort of common understanding that we’re going to try to use our words
the same way
the best we can.
We know that while we talk about something, when we put words to them
Those words mean something between us
But we understand them each in our own way.
That’s the beautiful thing about language.
I might encourage you to think about the color blue
And we all will try to do that
But the shade will be a little bit different, in your mind, and in mine
Whether the blue is the deep sapphire blue of the ocean
The radiant blue of your mother’s eyes
The soulful blue
Of the timeless baby-blue 1985 Royals world series winning jersey.
We’re starting a new sermon series today called
Words to Build a Life On.
The words we choose. The way we describe something.
The understanding we glean from them.
Words have the ability to heal, or to harm.
To build up, or to tear down.
The right word, spoken at the right time
Heard in the right way
Can end a conflict
Or can end a relationship.
They can bring us to rage
Or can inspire us to compassion.
There’s a reason why human beings write things down
Spend so much energy thinking about words
Debate and wrestle and study them,
Why we still remember people with names like Shakespeare and Ovid
Rabindranath Tagore and Saint Augustine
Because their words matter to us, as people
The ideas and the experiences they share shape and form us
So that we can better understand today, this day,
And look ahead for what tomorrow will bring.
This is particularly true for those of us who gather around the collection of books
We call Holy Scripture, the way we turn to it over and over again
To help us hear and think and discern the movement of God in our world.
It also is maybe the reason why I cringe so much
When the words of scripture get misused, taken out of context.
Like when a politician recently quoted one of the apostle Paul’s letters
To talk about people protesting
Shameful and inhumane treatment
Of asylum seekers and immigrants on our border.
The letter was the one Paul wrote to Rome
And tells those within earshot that
everyone ought to be subject to governing authorities;
for there is no authority except from God;
and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God
That was cringe-worthy because we know how words work
How some people absorb them uncritically
And therefore won’t ask themselves about the underlying question
About whether God might, in fact, be critical of someone claiming God’s authority
As this politician seemed to do…
It was perplexing, because it missed what Paul said just a few verses later,
In that same section of that letter to Rome
Owe no one anything, except to love one another,
For the one who loves one another has fulfilled the law.
The commandments….are summed up by this word
Love your Neighbor as Yourself.
Love does no wrong to a neighbor;
Therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
So words matter.
They shape our history and our experience.
They influence the world we live in. They can motivate us, inspire us, equip us.
And the wonderful thing about our faith is that we have been given wonderful words
To reflect on.
This sermon series is going to look closely at a few basic ideas simply expressed
Phrases that form the foundation of the Gospel:
the good news of how we can live
Lives of meaning and purpose and joy.
The basic idea of this sermon series is that we human beings
Structure our lives around words and stories that matter to us
That these can shape our lives and help us make choices
And can give us strength to do the things we need to do
To care the way we are called to care
To understand and write and think the way God is forming us to
Through these stories and these words that matter.
But how do we do that?
How do we know what to focus on, how to read them, what to get out of them?
Well, maybe there’s no surprise
That there’s a fancy word for that.
The word is hermeneutics.
That word simply means the “Art of Interpretation.”
It’s the understanding that we have to work to decide what words mean
And how they are being used.
Its not just as easy as reading something and saying
Aha! That Makes Complete Sense.
Now, you’re doing this all the time, already.
You might get an email or a text from a friend
And have to discern whether her note
“I’m on my way over to see you”
conveys that they’re excited to go see the movie you’re planning on…
or that she’s irate that you weren’t there to pick her up from the airport
like you said you’d be.
When we interpret something: context matters.
The words that are chosen.
The history we understand about the person who uses them.
Something about their personality, their proclivities and interests.
Is there an emoji in there? That might help, too.
All of these things go into our interpretation of what we hear or read.
They shape the way we understand the words, so we can apply them properly.
And this is no less essential when we’re reading ancient texts
Words that were thought and carefully considered and written down
Thousands and thousands of years ago
Words that were kept because of their power to describe and convey
The wonders of a living, dynamic, life-giving God
And words that, today, continue to give us hope for living in relationship with God.
Its one of the reasons I love this story about Jesus
captured in the Gospel according to Luke.
We talk about it almost every time we share the sacrament of communion.
It tells the story about two of Jesus’ followers who are leaving town
Just after Jesus died on the cross.
They’re getting out of there, on their way to a town called Emmaeus.
And they’re chatting with each other and a stranger—Jesus, we’re told
But to them a stranger—comes up and walks with them
And joins their conversation.
Haven’t you heard about Jesus? We thought he was a prophet
Mighty in deed and in word before God and the people…
and he died. He was crucified…they shared with Jesus the unknown entourage.
They talked about the ancient stories of their faith
Stories from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament
From the prophets and from the Torah
That had given them hope that Jesus was going to bring a new Kingdom
A new way of life. But he was now dead.
And they walk for a while, and they talk for a while.
Then Jesus offers for them a different way to understand all of what they were saying.
Jesus interpreted to them all the things about himself in all the scriptures.
Luke tells us.
Jesus shared with them hermeneutics.
A way of taking context and experience and history
And looking at words in a different light,
so that a deeper, fuller, more accurate meaning comes from them.
And to seal this, they invite him to dinner
And he breaks bread, saying the words that they remembered him saying
Up in the upper room
And they knew…. They knew….
Their hearts burn within them, as the risen Jesus meets them there
And they see, maybe for the first time, what God is up to
There, in the breaking of the bread…
Maybe the most important phrase for us to remember
When we think about interpretation, about hermeneutics
Is about the Rule of Love.
That’s what Saint Augustine, way back when, called it,
When he was talking about all these things
About how to read Scripture and hear from it
The message of God speaking to us.
Augustine of Hippo, who lived in the fourth century,
Recognized that the texts we use to talk about God
He wouldn’t understand how some people, today
Could claim to somehow “just open the bible and find its plain meaning.”
I once saw this idea on a bumper sticker:
God Said It. I Believe it. That Settles It.
There’s no such thing.
We have to work at it. Study it. Pray about it. Talk with others about it.
Consider it in light of the other things we know about God that are going on.
And the best way, Augustine said, to do that
Is to remember that God is Love, and that any reading of scripture
Has to somehow be grounded in the fact that God is Love.
“[W]hoever… thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures,
or any part of them,
but puts such an interpretation on them
that does not tend to build up [the] twofold love of God and our neighbor,
does not yet understand them as he ought.”
(Christian Doctrine, 1.26.40)
The Rule of Love.
He got this, of course, from this reading from First Corinthians.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love
I am a noisy gong
A clanging cymbal.
If I have all prophetic powers
If I understand all mysteries, all knowledge
If I have all faith, so that I can remove mountains
But do not have love…I am nothing.
This is a famous passage of scripture.
We hear it often at weddings.
Preachers often stress that it is beautiful there
Even if it wasn’t meant for weddings.
Paul is reminding us that we have to understand all of our gifts
Through a particular lens: the idea of loving God, and loving neighbor.
All of the things we do. Everything we are good at.
They are meant to be useful: to love God and to love neighbor.
You can preach eloquently
You can dance elegantly
You can sing extemporaneously
You can bake extravagantly
You can pray endlessly
You can believe effortlessly
You can hope eternally
But love: love unites all of these gifts into the way of God.
And now: faith, hope, and love abide. These three.
And the greatest of these is love.
The greatest of these is love.
Those are words to build a life on.
Because when we use love to be the lens through which
We read our scripture
Or spend time with our family
Or write our emails
Or work on our assignments
Or digest the news
Or consider how we are going to vote
Or make decisions about how we are going to live…
When we lift up love: God is there in the middle of it.
The Greatest of These is Love.
Words to Build a Life On.
May these words be a lamp unto our feet
A light unto our path.
May we live fully into them
Seeking to make the Rule of Love our own Rule for Living
So that we may see the amazing things God is doing in our world
And take part in them…for God’s sake.
May it be so.
Image Credit: “WoodType Wood Blocks” by Foundry. Used under Creative Commons license, no attribution required. Available at https://pixabay.com/en/woodtype-wood-blocks-wood-type-846088/ (accessed July 1, 2018)