Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Text: 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
Love is patient and kind; it is not jealous or conceited or proud; love is not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable; love does not keep a record of wrongs; love is not happy with evil, but is happy with the truth. Love never gives up; and its faith, hope, and patience never fail.

 Tough Love

A youth pastor told this story.
"There was something wrong. It was written all over his face. He was sitting by himself, deep in thought, not joining in the conversation, ignoring the jokes the group were sharing. Later on, I had a chance to have a quiet talk with him when everyone was busy doing something else. "You look as though your life has been declared a disaster area", I began. But he was in no mood to respond to my flippant remarks. He barely cracked a smile. After a while he told me that he had a car accident over the weekend and the old Holden car he had painstakingly restored was a write off. With a bit of prompting, he told me about how he had stripping down the motor, replaced the upholstery, and gave it a brand new paint job.

I suffered his loss with him quietly for a while. There was nothing that I could say that could take away that deep feeling of loss and grief. The end of a lovingly restored Holden was as bad as it could get, well so I thought. But there was more. "You know, everyone has been asking me about the car, and saying what a terrible thing it is to lose such a beautiful machine,’ he said, "but not one person has asked me how I am".

Someone who cares. That's what we all long for. Someone who loves us just as we are. And it seems there are times in our lives when we are made more aware of our need for the love and the care of others. When facing sickness, a time of trouble, when we are feeling particularly vulnerable we look for love. The trouble is that too often everyone is too busy looking after themselves and promoting their own causes to notice that there are people around them who need their love.

Paul doesn’t beat about the bush when he writes to the Christians at Corinth. He says that, without love, the gift of eloquent speaking and a brilliant use of words is nothing but verbal pollution.
He might be the greatest preacher and speaker but, without love, this is nothing but the sound of a cymbal dropped on the floor during a quiet part of a symphony.
Without love, the most poetic and soothing words are no better than the first horrible blasts on a rented trumpet by a 13 year old who’s only learning trumpet because his mum wants him to.

Strong words. So whatever Paul means by love here, it’s something strong, unsentimental, tough. Jesus talks about this kind of love when he says, "My commandment is this: love one another, just as I love you. The greatest love you can have for your friends is to give your life for them." And that’s exactly the kind of love that Paul is talking about. It’s the strong, focussed, tough, no messing about kind of love that cost Jesus his life. It’s the same strong uncompromising love that reached out to lepers and tax collectors with compassion and kindness regardless of what others thought and quick to stand against those who wanted to condemn or exclude those who were different.

The kind of love that Jesus is commanding here isn’t a nice warm fuzzy feeling.
It isn’t the kind of love that asks first, "Well, what has that person done for me?"
This isn’t a "feel good" kind of love that gives us a ‘buzz’ when we do something good.
The kind of love that Jesus is talking about is a very practical and selfless kind of love.

When Paul talks about love he is talking about rolling up our sleeves and often doing things that go against our human nature so is often hard work.
He is talking about doing good to one another even though that other person is awfully irritating and quite unlikeable.
It might mean forgiving someone and making peace with them even though we feel that we are the ones who have been wronged and that believe it’s the other person who should be making the first moves.
It means going out of our way to give someone help or encouragement even though we don’t know them very well or perhaps don’t think they deserve it.

Let’s read again those familiar verses from 1 Corinthians 13. "Love is patient and kind; it is not jealous or conceited or proud; love is not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable; love does not keep a record of wrongs; love is not happy with evil, but is happy with the truth"

I believe that a distortion has arisen in the church when we talk about love. We emphasise being patient and kind, not being jealous, proud, ill-mannered or selfish and forgiving 70 times 7. These are all excellent words that describe love but there is more.

Paul says, "Love is not happy with evil". And that’s the part that we have often overlooked. We have preferred not to see this as love because it is just so hard and even painful to put into practice. It’s what is called ‘tough love’.

Love, if it’s going to be real and healthy, also needs to have this ‘tough love’ component. Tough love is prepared to take a stand when it comes across things that are unhealthy, or wrong or ‘evil’ as St Paul says. There is no looking the other way or giving into allowing the bad in someone’s life to continue.

In case you’re thinking that ‘tough love’ isn’t a valid kind of love, then just think about Jesus. Without a doubt, he was patient and compassionate and his love was unconditional. He served without any thought of a favour in return. But Jesus demonstrated what it means that "Love is not happy with evil".

Take the time he went into the temple in Jerusalem and sees that God's house of prayer has been turned into a money-making venture. He gets a whip and he overturns their tables and drives them out. He was angry but he also acted in love because "Love is not happy with evil." His love wouldn’t allow those people to be robbed of the blessings that meeting God in worship and prayer would bring to them. Love does not let us stand by and watch evil take charge.

Love means taking a stand. That’s the way it was for Jesus. And that’s the way it’s to be with us. And I really want to encourage you to show that kind of love - real love, a balanced love that includes tough love. That’s not saying that patient and kindness are irrelevant but, that sometimes to be kind, love demands that we be tough.

Let’s take an example. There are times when parents need to show ‘tough love’ to their children. Don’t get me wrong. By ‘tough love’ I don’t mean being unreasonable, or mean, or nasty but tough!
It’s saying "no" even though your heart is saying, "It won’t hurt just this once".
It’s setting boundaries because we need to protect them and that also includes enforcing those boundaries with consequences.
It’s not tolerating certain kinds of behaviour because we know that by allowing it we aren’t teaching them what is acceptable and what is unacceptable especially when it comes to relating to family members or friends.
Using ‘tough love’ can be painful for parents but it is part of loving our kids.

Teachers are also called on to exercise tough love. Nine times out of ten patience and kindness are the ways teachers interact with their students but there comes a time when it needs to be made clear that because of love you need to make a stand against the bad things that are happening. There is nothing vindictive, unkind, uncaring about this. In fact, it is because you care about the person involved that tough love is the way you need to deal with this situation. As a parent of a child who has been on the receiving end of tough love you need to realise that there aren’t any hidden agendas here – only love – only a deep desire to help and guide.

Love is not happy with evil.
Parents, love your kids enough to give them the best.
Teachers, love the children in your class. Commit yourselves to showing them real love and that includes ‘tough love’ that sets an example for the future.

It can happen at home, at work, amongst friends, in a club, at the church, that you will ask yourself, "As a Christian, what should I do? Should I just put up with what’s going on? Show patience and endurance?" And this is where love becomes a tough thing. Sometimes we have to say, "Something has to change. There is an attitude, a behaviour, an action that is clearly against what God wants and is harmful to others, so out of love I have to take a stand. It might seem harsh and I will probably feel bad about being so tough but it’s the most loving thing I can do in this situation. Sometimes love is tough!"

Love is hard work. It requires a good dose of wisdom when to apply patience and kindness and when to apply ‘love that is not happy with evil’. And you can bet that we will get it wrong more often than we care to admit. There will be times that we are just too soft and wishy washy, thinking that to show love we need never-ending patience and kindness. There will be other times when our so-called ‘tough love’ is motivated by our need to exercise anger, power and harshness that have nothing to do with love. I know how hard it is to find the best way to express love in any given situation and we will have to readily admit, "Boy, I sure messed that up".

Jesus knows how tough loving can be. In the Garden of Gethsemane he wrestled with this whole question of how to show tough love. So talk to him about it. He’s been there and can give you the wisdom and the courage you need when it comes to showing love in the hardest circumstances, whether it be patience and kindness or the love that is not happy with evil. Talk to others who can encourage you and guide you in practicing love in all of its facets.

We won’t always get it right but Jesus’ love is the kind that always forgives, always supports, and always guides us down paths that sometimes we don’t appreciate. His love always gets it right.

** This sermon was preached at the Installation of the staff of St Paul's Lutheran Primary School but is also relevant to other occasions.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
31st January 2010

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