“SANCTUARY”

The Church Forward: Love

1 Corinthians 13: 1-13

The Reverend Phillip Blackburn

February 12, 2017

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Do you remember playing tag when you were a kid?  I do.  The game we often played was a form of tag wherein once a person was tagged they changed sides and joined the taggers.  This would go on and on until there was only one person left and we played over a pretty big area.  I was, and this might surprise you, faster than most kids so I could usually last quite a while, and I can remember when the numbers of people chasing me reached a certain tipping point.  Everywhere I looked someone was trying to get me, so I would make a beeline for that one spot where I knew I would be safe.  I would head for base which, in our case, was often a tetherball pole.  If I could just get to base, I knew that I could take a rest, catch my breath and escape the stress of pursuit for just a moment.  The only problem is that once I got to base, I was often toast.  My pursuers would surround me and start to count. You couldn’t stay on base forever, you see, so they knew eventually I’d have to expose myself again. I can still remember the looks in their eyes as they surrounded me, waiting to pounce.  But I was safe, as long as I was on base.

Tag, as it turns out, is a great preparation for life in many ways.  All of us look at the world with some fear.  Some of us have lots of fear, others have a little, but regardless we are all afraid of stuff, which is why having a base as we grow older matters so much.  Think about it for a minute, what is your base?  Where is the place or places you can go which make you feel like you can take a rest from the pursuit?  For many of us it is home, of course, but sadly for some of us home is not a base.  It is another place to be afraid. So for some of us being in public is base.  Going to school is base.  Maybe going to a beloved vacation spot is base.  Whatever it is, base is vital to our mental health.  We have to have a sanctuary in this world, a base, a place where we can feel safe.  We can’t be scared all the time.  We have to be able to know we can go to certain places and feel safe.

The Church should be one of those places and for a lot of us it is. I can tell you there are few places in the world where I feel more safe than in church, and I don’t even mean just this church.  You can plop me in almost any traditional sort of church in the world and I feel pretty good.  But even the church can sometimes fail to feel like base.  This problem started early on.  For the people who went to church in Corinth every week, I can imagine that it felt like anything but a base to them.  They were a hot mess.  I have a lot of fondness for the dumpster fire that was the Corinthian church because I see a lot of similarities between it and our American Church.  Corinth was a very diverse place.  Corinth is in modern day Greece and it was situated between the Aegean and Ionian seas, so it was a vibrant trading post between the western and eastern Mediterranean.  In Corinth there were people from all over the world speaking dozens of languages.  There was a huge temple up on the hill which cast a long shadow over the city, and in the midst of all this a church was established by Paul and his followers.

And what a mess that church was.  They hated each other.  By the time Paul wrote 1 Corinthians they had separated themselves into 4 camps.  They had a man who was romantically involved with his stepmother.  They were humiliating the poor at the Eucharist and they were suing each other.  So, yeah, that church was not base.  It was not a sanctuary.  It was the opposite.  Still I have a soft spot for it because I know how hard it is to be a true church.  It is not easy, which is why we need to always remember the Corinthian church.  We need to remember that church should be one of those safe places for which people long in this world.  It should be a place where people know they can take a break from the pursuers in this world.  Where they know they can come, catch their breath, and be loved.

Ah, there is that word.  Love.  Paul knew the Corinthians needed to hear a lot about love.  And so do we.  But before we can hear about it, I need you to do a brain wipe.  Most likely you have heard this passage read at weddings and that’s lovely, but this has absolutely nothing to do with romantic love.  Nothing.  So you need to reprogram your brains a tad to really hear what he is saying.  1 Corinthians 13  has everything to do with the culture of the Church, and not just the Corinthian congregation but all churches.  Church needs to be about love for one another.

And here is what I want us to think about for a minute.  As we think about sanctuaries in our lives, the places where we feel safe, it saddens me that I do not believe we feel safe being honest about our faith in church.  Somehow a culture has developed where the last thing you want to admit in church is that you are having a tough time with your faith, despite the fact that over the course of our lives almost all of us will experience our faith more as peaks and valleys than as a straight line inclining upwards from baptism.  Despite the near universal ebb and flow of faith, we feel as if we must act as though we are super Christians at church; as if our faith is perfect all the time.  It has always saddened me when people think they do not know enough about the Bible to come to Bible Study.  People are afraid that everyone else in Sunday School knows the Bible inside and out, and that they will be exposed.  No one, when invited to Sunday School or Bible study by me, has ever said, “you know, that’s great, I really don’t know much about the Bible and I’d like to learn more.”  No.  When we gather in the church, many of us are afraid we will be found out.  This past week I compared it thus: it would be like if you got violently ill the last place you would ever go would be to the doctor’s office, because then he would know you were sick.  It would make no sense.

But the reason we feel this way, I believe, is because we do not trust that our church or our pastors will love us if we are honest.  We are afraid that the church won’t be a base for us, but will instead be another thing we have to run from.  But here is the great news I have for you today.  This is an easy fix, and Paul has already taught us how.  Love.  Love is the answer.  If the Church is about love first, then everything else, then people can be really honest with each other.  We can say, you know what, my faith is really shaky today, can we include that in the prayer?  Or we can say, you know what, I had an experience I can’t explain, can we talk about it?  Or we can say, I feel so close to God today, can we give thanks for that?  We can say all those things if we know that no matter what we will say, we will be loved.

Paul has a little triad of words near the end of this passage.  Faith.  Hope.  Love.  Faith is a big one.  We need to have faith; to trust God that we live in His world.  Faith is vital, but it is not greater than love.  Instead of worrying so much about whether everyone has perfect faith, why don’t we, you and I, why don’t we be a church which is about love first?  if you think about it, this is very exciting.  We have a real opportunity to help people and make them feel safe.  It’s not every day this opportunity falls out of the sky and into our laps.  Here, at First Presbyterian Church, we don’t have to be perfect.  We don’t have to have perfect faith all the time. We don’t have to look a certain way or vote a certain way or believe a certain way.  No, here we are united by our love for each other, and for everybody that comes inside here.  It’s a special love we can have for each other that we can’t share with everybody else.

Remember this.  Everybody around you feels unsafe regularly.   Sometimes people only feel safe when they are in their homes, and some people can’t even feel safe there.  And people won’t always feel safe here. But we have 100% control over whether people, when they come in here, feel loved.  That choice belongs to us, just as it belonged to the Corinthians; just as God chooses to love us.  So let’s do that.  Let’s covenant that this place will be a base, a sanctuary for anybody who needs it.  That we can’t promise we will always agree, or that we will always get things right, but we can promise this one thing.  We will love one another.  Amen.