A Call to Love
Speaker: The Rev. Carol Flett
Tags: halt, love, st. paul. corinthians
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ, today’s scripture lessons are a challenge, as they should be, to us all, especially St. Paul’s admonitions in his First Letter to the Corinthians. There is an unwritten rule for preachers, “If the preacher is uncomfortable with a verse or lesson appointed for the day, that’s the one she should preach on.” Unfortunately, these lessons brought back unpleasant memories of my childhood, when I experienced a lot of quarreling and anger at home. And so I chose to reflect on St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.
Paul arrived in Corinth in 50 AD and spent a year organizing several house-assemblies, then he traveled to Ephesus. His first letter to the churches in Corinth was written in response to reports he had received about problems facing these new congregations: arguments over communion, food sacrificed to idols, and who was baptized by whom, resulted in factions within the community. So Paul wrote to them, “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?” (1 Corinthians 3:3) It was as if they hadn’t fully grasped how differently Christians should behave toward one another. Their faith was immature.
When I was growing up, my parents argued about everything, including infidelity and unemployment. They spoke or shouted harsh words at each other, which I later realized was the result of their excessive use of alcohol. Even my sister and I learned to argue and quarrel about everything. As a child, I did not have a name for this behavior, but I knew my family was not like families on TV - Leave it to Beaver or My Three Sons, where everyone was pleasant and happy. Those families were funny, but they didn’t seem real to me. Most children who grow up in the kind of household I was raised in, think that they are partly responsible for their parents’ anger and quarreling. So you learn to be very good and stay out of the way when the fighting starts. I loved both of my parents, and so I tried not to take sides, or to align myself with one parent or the other, which was often very hard to do. I knew that they loved me, but I was confused by their behavior toward one another. I was happier at school, where I was praised for my good grades and participation in sports and activities. But just when I had found a nice set of friends at school or church, we would suddenly move to another state, and I would start all over again making friends in a new school. Later, when I applied to colleges, there wasn’t enough room on my college applications to list all the schools I had attended, because before I attended college, my family had moved nine times to four different states as my father found a series of new jobs. I later learned that this pattern of moving about was called “hope for a geographic cure”.
What saved me was the church, specifically Episcopal Churches, that my mother, sister and I attended wherever we lived. The Episcopal Church was like a living vine that connected me each time to a caring community, with the same Prayer Book and Hymnal. Wherever we lived, I knew the prayers and the hymns of the church. And the same message of God’s love and forgiveness was lived out in each community. My mother always made new friends and got us involved in church activities - church fairs, special events and projects. But we never attended Sunday School because my mother thought that Sunday School lessons were silly. I later realized that she just didn’t want to sit alone in church. So my sister and I sat with my mother and listened to sermons instead of going to Sunday School. It was the teaching of the priests and the caring relationships within these various church communities that showed me that God loves us and forgives us of our sins and mistakes. I also saw members of the church community forgive each another when they quarreled or were offended by another member of the church community. These were important lessons for me as a child and especially as a teenager.
Years later, in 1993, just after my mother died, I visited my father in their home, a home that held many unpleasant memories for me. My father was sober then, because his own terminal illness had caused him to stop drinking. I can remember that visit so clearly. One afternoon, in order to ease the discomfort of our being together, we sat in front of the television and watched the Phil Donohue Show - some of you may remember this show. The Phil Donohue Show was the longest running talk show in TV history. It featured guests on current issues of the times. On that day, the guest was a family therapist talking about the importance of good parenting. As I watched the show, I wondered, “how awkward is this going to be?” We sat together in silence watching the show. During a commercial, my father turned to me and said, “I wasn’t a very good father, was I?” Then he said, quite emotionally, “I am so sorry.….My mother never told me that she loved me and I didn’t know how to say it to you.” I turned to him and said, “It’s OK, Dad. You did the best you could. But I always knew that you loved me.” There was an awesome feeling of love, forgiveness and reconciliation between us. And this was the last time that I spent any time alone with my father before he died a few months later.
I tell you this long personal story because Jesus taught his disciples, “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, (and I add: or your husband or wife, your parents, or your children) you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister (or anyone you love) has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” - Matthew 5:22-24
St. Paul in his first Letter to the Corinthians was also giving instructions on Christian conduct versus our natural human inclinations. “And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ…. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?” It is our human inclination to feel anger, and to want to say hurtful or belligerent remarks to someone who has hurt us. But as Christians, our behavior should be Christ-like, helping us to remember that Jesus was patient, kind, compassionate and forgiving. He found creative ways to teach and communicate God’s love to his friends, and his enemies.
Here is the good news: there is nothing wrong or immoral or unfaithful with the feeling of anger! It is natural and human. The bad news is that most of us have never learned how to express anger constructively. So the way we express anger often takes destructive forms - like malicious criticism, gossip and rumor; belittling someone else or fighting; or misdirecting our anger onto a third person or a group. Remember that Jesus often went off by himself to pray when he was faced with hostility.
There is a very useful tool in Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-Anon, that is useful for everyone. HALT - never make an important decision, call someone, send an email message, write and mail a letter, or speak harshly to anyone when you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. HALT - stop! Listen to yourself, think first and pray for guidance on how to respond before you act. Wait until you have eaten, are rested, or have talked with a good friend before you act or respond. Remember to let your faith in Christ overcome your human inclinations.
Unfortunately, the political campaign of this past year did not provide many good examples of how to communicate with those with whom we might disagree. The candidates didn’t seem to have known about HALT. Political candidates spoke harshly, bluntly, and sometimes about their opponents’ lives, their appearance, their gender, their physical abilities, and their professional history. Name-calling, harsh words, rudeness, exaggeration - all became normative in the political arena.
Like you, I am concerned about what our children and youth heard and learned from this political campaign and post-election news coverage. Our children probably overheard some of this harsh rhetoric on television, or read it on Twitter, or overheard our own conversations about the campaign and the candidates. The past year’s campaign rhetoric gave our society license to speak harshly, rudely and falsely about anyone with whom we disagree or about anyone whose sexual orientation, racial, ethnic or religious background is problematic to them. Anger and quarreling is unrestrained; prejudice and discrimination are unleashed. We can’t let this behavior become normative.
I live in Montgomery County and work closely with the MCPD on a committee. Since the election in November, the MCPD has told me that they has been a huge increase in the number of, what the police call, “bias-incidents”, when no crime has been committed, but hate speech initiated a confrontation. The bias was diverse - based on racial, religious discrimination, sexual orientation or immigrant status. The MCPS did a survey of high school students, and one in five Muslim high school students responded that they had been bullied, harassed or intimidated by other students. Nationally, there has been an increase in hate crimes and in the use of hate symbols, painted or posted in school bathrooms and on lockers, or on faith community buildings, and outdoor signs.
My mother always told me, “Never talk about race, religion or politics with friends or family. It’s not polite, and you might lose or offend a friend.” Good advice perhaps in the 1950’s. But now, we must learn to speak about race, religion, or politics is a more Christ-like manner because people of color want to talk about race; Muslims want to talk about their anxiety and the misunderstandings about Islam; immigrants want to talk about their fears and how to live in America. They want to be heard and understood, and to talk about their lives.
As many of you know, I have been involved in anti-racism and interfaith dialogues for many years, and I am still at it. In that process, when we are talking about issues, I have learned to begin with listening before speaking, to ask genuinely compassionate questions to show the other that I want to understand how or why he or she thinks the way they do about an issue or an event. When our opinions or positions differ, I have learned that there is always a story to be heard - an experience that taught someone to think or feel they way they do.
This is where the Church comes in. The church can provide a counter-narrative to the current cultural rhetoric. The church has an important role to play in teaching respectful dialogue and modeling Christian behavior, in discussions within and beyond the parish. The church is a seminary for adults and a school for children to learn patience, kindness, compassion, and how to practice respectful exchange of ideas, without quarreling and anger. The church is where we learn together, where we pray together and ask for forgiveness, and then come to the altar to share Communion, which is an act of reconciliation with God and each other. Remember, our children and youth are listening to us and watching us, just as I listened and watched the behavior of adults in the churches that I attended as a child. We never really know what a child, teenager, or an adult, in our community is experiencing elsewhere, and what that child, teenager, or adult needs to experience in the church. We don’t know what they have heard, or learned, or experienced that needs explanation, correction or comfort. The church can provide the love and understanding that may be missing for them elsewhere.
St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians begins with admonitions, but he finished with beautiful message about love. He insists that if the community is not primarily grounded in an effort to bring about the best for all those in the community, if they do not aim to reveal the reality of love and understanding among its members, all other efforts will amount to nothing.
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” ….Because, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” 1Corinthians 13:4-13