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Without Love, Your Influence is Zero (e + w + f + g) x l = i

A sermon preached the third Sunday in Epiphany (February 3, 2013)
The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector
The Falls Church Episcopal
Falls Church, Virginia

Listening to the reading from 1st Corinthians 13, you may have wondered, for a second, if you’d stumbled into a wedding service this morning: We often hear this passage read at weddings, and for good reason: it has a lot to say about love.

But in context of 1 Corinthians, and at root, it’s not so much about love as it is about the influence we have.   

A little context: The city of Corinth was, at that time, one of, if not THE largest towns in Greece.
            It was a very important seaport, a garrison town
            it lay at a Strategic road-juncture
                        it was the Capital of the roman province
                                                it was filled with a cosmopolitan crowd

So “Corinth” back then was a kind of symbol…
imagine taking the power struggles of Washington D.C.,
the opulence of Hollywood,
and the wealth of Manhattan, 
and combining them in one city…and you’ve got an idea of Corinth.

So here’s this faith community Paul had founded, and cared deeply about, but that had gone astray.

There is no conflict within your family or the church,
…no controversy within this community or country
…there’s nothing that happens today in Hollywood, or New York or Los Vegas or Washington DC that was not happening then, amongst the Corinthians. 

Like many churches, then and now, they’d abandoned their principles and were actually doing more harm than good.

Now fortunately, no churches are like this anymore, but apparently the church in Corinth was suffering from things like people comparing themselves to one another, arrogance, litigious-ness, complacency, a lack of morals, pride, and a self-centered, “what’s in for me?” lifestyle…

So Paul writes to these people, and much of the letter is a wake-up call.

He wrote this letter to bring them back into line. To straighten them out.

Now remembering, again, the context, there is nothing sentimental about the kind of love Paul is going to speak of. The love of which Paul speaks is “active, tough, resilient, and long-suffering.”

(Which helps us make sense of the scene in today’s gospel, where he hear about Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue and turning an adoring congregation into a murderous mob…he does it by reminding them of the nature of God…they thought, like many religious people think, that they had a monopoly on God’s favor…and in telling them that God sent drought relief not to them but outsiders and God cured not the lepers in their midst but a leper outside of them, Jesus was reminding them that God colors outside the lines they had drawn…that God was bigger than they thought or wanted God to be…and they became furious.)

Jesus spoke, and Paul wrote this letter not just to make a point, but to make a difference: in order to change people’s behavior – in other words, to influence them.
So Paul in the first 12 chapters doesn’t mince words.

But then he says this, in the famous thirteenth chapter:

You know, if I say all these things in the most convincing way possible --“If I speak with the tongue of angels” -- if I am the most eloquent person in the world,

but have no love,

“I am a noisy gong, or a clanging symbol” –

We might say I’m the same sound as fingernails going down a blackboard…awful sounding…

In other words, if I am the most eloquent person in the world, make the best arguments ever, but don’t do that with love, I have zero influence. Worse, Paul says! I’m a turn off, an annoying noise.

He says, “if I have all prophetic powers, and understand all wisdom and knowledge” –

we would say, if I have the wisdom of Solomon and the intellect of Einstein,
but do not have not love, I am nothing.

He goes on to say, “if I have all faith, so to remove mountains” –
 “if I give away everything I possess to the poor,”
if I suffer for my faith even to the point of martyrdom,
(we might say, if I have all the faith of Mother Theresa,)
but do not do it with love, I gain nothing.

Now it’s a strange thing to do in a sermon, but I want you to picture an algebraic equation:

(e + w + f + g) x l = i

Add up the sum total of four things:
Eloquence plus wisdom plus faith plus generosity…

And multiply that times love,

and that equals your influence.

That's what Paul is saying: take all your eloquence, all your intellect, all your religious faith, all your acts of generosity, and add it all up, and multiply that by the amount of love you have – there’s your influence.

If the multiplier of “love” is zero, the result is zero.

We spend so much time and thought on the things inside the parentheses, but it doesn’t make any difference how well we speak, smart we are, how correct or incorrect our faith is, how much good we do…if we don’t speak, think, and act with love: none of it makes a positive difference.  

And the good news is, if the multiplier of love is a large…the things inside the parentheses – our eloquence, intellect, faith, and generosity, don’t really have to be all that large, because if the multiplier of love is large, our influence will be large.  

You want to influence your children, your colleagues?—do we want, as a faith community, to influence the larger community and society?

Then where in this equation does it make the most amount of sense to be spending our energy?

That's right: on the multipier. 

And so Paul describes in detail what this love is like: 

This love of which Paul speaks is slow to lose patience.

It looks for ways of being constructive.

It does not try to impress. Does not gloat.

This love is not irritable, or touchy.

It does not keep score.

This love “knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope;” -- it can outlast everything….it lasts forever. [from Eugene Peterson’s The Message]

Love lasts forever: As the pastor Lewis Galloway says, “Every spiritual gift will end…all monuments human beings will crumble away, every human life will come to an end. … There’s a beautiful irony in the fact that the one thing that will last forever is the love that is given away.” 

Okay,so at this point in sermons I like to picture someone sitting about halfway in the congregation holding up a sign that says “okay, but HOW?” How do we love like that?

In answering that, I have bad news and good news.

The bad news is for most of us, we can’t; it’s not humanly possible.

There are some people who seem to be able to love naturally like this. But for most of us – for me anyway -- we can't; it's just not humanly possible.

The good news is WE can’t; it’s not HUMANLY possible.

But God can; it is divinely possible.

The good news is, this kind of love doesn't come from "in here," but rather comes from “out there,” or “up there,” -- it comes from the wellspring of love, the God of love.

And so here are three ways I would answer the “how?” question:

One, it’s important to spend time in prayer – a minimum of fifteen to twenty minutes a day in prayer marinating ourselves in God’s love. Not just glazing ourselves (that’ll rub off in the first five minutes of traffic), but marinating ourselves in God’s love, to receive love until we are overflowing with it (because it’s difficult if not impossible to give away what you don’t have). 

But two, also pausing for 10 seconds throughout the day to say “thank you God” “wow God,” and “help me God” – recognizing the times God has helped us throughout the day and giving God credit; appreciating the good things in life as gifts from God; and asking for help from God from our heart: “God, I’m about to go into a difficult conversation, I sure could use some help here…help me love like you love, help me see this person the way you see them…”

And three, in addition, it’s important to consciously become disciples, or apprentices, of Jesus. To unlearn complacency, comparison and self-centerdness and learn love. Loving the way Jesus loved is in fact learn-able; we can be trained in it. Adult Forum classes, Bible study classes, conciosly deciding we are going to apprentice ourselves to Jesus...

…so that our eloquence, and wisdom, and faith, and generosity are multiplied many times over by our love…

…and our influence in this world is tremendous.



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