1 Corinthians 13 New International Version (NIV)
13 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
I read an article the other day about how to end racism. I didn’t expect much from the article because I don’t have much hope for ending racism. Racism is the greatest evil in the world and it would take an awfully big miracle to erase it from our hearts and minds.
That is where racism begins, reigns, and rules: in our hearts. The evil seed is planted when we are very young, too young to be aware of it, and it grows deep tap roots and refuses to be pulled out. It is nourished by platitudes and naïveté, separation and ignorance. Platitudes like “Jesus loves the little children, red and yellow, black and white.” Naiveté: “I’m not prejudiced.” Separation. “You live in your neighborhood and I’ll live in my neighborhood.” Ignorance: “What do those people want anyway?”
I read the article, without expectation, but still with a little hope.
Racism, on the surface, really doesn’t affect me too much. I don’t have to be afraid to walk down the street with the hood up on my sweatshirt. My friend Nathan does; he’s not as afraid as his mother, my friend, Libby is. She warns him to not wear a black quarantine mask when he goes running; she tells him to put on a more colorful one. And he can’t run with his hood up on his sweatshirt. Do my friends live in a bad neighborhood? Heck, no! They live in a very nice community, nice houses, nice neighbors, good schools, the American Dream. But the worm of racism crawls through every neighborhood. You never know when you will be seen as something instead of someone.
Racism, on the surface, really doesn’t affect me too much. I didn’t have to shop in a clothing store where I was constantly watched as I shopped because of the color of my skin. I didn’t have to teach my kids to be afraid of the police. I didn’t have to be shamed by grocery store cashiers who didn’t want to wait on me. My kids didn’t grow up knowing that all the choices they were given were bad choices. My “grandson,” Larry, is always suspect when he walks into a store or restaurant because his skin is black. He doesn’t know many neighbors who have well paying jobs. He knows plenty of people who are in jail, in prison, including his own parents. They made choices, and none of the choices given them offered much as far as always being safe. Jesus says, “You wouldn’t offer your neighbor a snake when he asks for a fish.” What if all your choices were snakes, most of them poisonous?
Racism, on the surface, really doesn’t affect me too much. I never had to look at my babies and wonder who would be the first to call them a name based only on their skin color. I never had to watch my kindergartner get on the bus and wonder if she would be treated as not quite as bright by her teachers. Now, I hold my kids’ foster child in my arms, a tiny, brand new baby, so innocent, so perfect, so lovely, so happy. I hold him in my arms and study his face which is different from the face of his foster mother, my daughter. Yet it is not so different. Bright little eyes, cute nose, a mouth that is learning to smile, a voice that is learning to laugh, a little chin, perfect little ears. And already, I worry, even though I know he won’t live with them forever, I worry about who will see a child of people who have worked the hardest jobs for the lowest wages and who will see the fun, loving person he truly is.
Today’s scripture might not seem to address racism. Let me tell you about the article I mentioned. It is written by a man who has experienced racism for one reason: the color of his skin. Everything else he has experienced is subtly tied to his skin color. That seems like too broad a statement, and I don’t even know this man. I’ve read only one article by him. I know very little about him except that he is a pastor, a Christian. And I know that he has more hope than I do. His name is Kyle Butler. Not Kyle Butler, the Missouri synod preacher. Not Kyle Butler, the Jamaican soccer player. Not Kyle Butler, the fictitious character in the television show, Dexter. Just Kyle Butler, who happens to be friends with other pastors and who serves God and who otherwise lives an ordinary life.
I can say with some authority that most everything he has experienced has some subtle connection to racism, because that is the number one modus operandi in our country. Racism permeates every aspect of our lives, from where our great-great grandparents settled to where we went to school to where we shop to where we work. I’m going to stop there, because if you want to know more, I can recommend books that cover the topic in great detail. I can make that assumption about Kyle Butler, someone I will never meet, but someone who has a better attitude than I do about racism. How ironic.
Kyle Butler says that the one and only solution is love. That’s exactly what Paul was telling those Corinthian church members two thousand years ago. Love. Those fighting, bitter, finger-pointing church members would never resolve their problems with meetings, by-laws, study groups or mediators. Forget that you hear this passage read at weddings all the time; it’s appropriate for husbands and wives, but its application is much broader.
It’s not that our country, in some part, hasn’t tried to eliminate racism. And for awhile it seemed like we were making progress. We passed all kinds of legislation, communities held forums, churches offered discussion groups, televisions showed more and more people who weren’t white and well off, we all told each other that we weren’t prejudiced; in other words, it wasn’t our fault. But then this country elected the very symbol of racism to the highest office in the land: a black man. That was too much. That tipped the kettle and the racism that we, as a country, had been hiding, even as we nurtured it, boiled over and within the span of a couple months, racism became trendy, became popular, was encouraged and flaunted from coast to coast, border to border, cave to skyscraper. The emperor’s clothes were pulled out of the closet and worn proudly by those whose worst fears had come to fruition.
Of course, not me. Not you. None of us ride around with Confederate flags flying from our pickups. But, who of us has ever pulled down a Confederate flag? What’s wrong with a Confederate flag? What’ the difference between the Stars and Stripes? It’s as simple as love and hate. My greatest fear, as the gatekeeper of DeWitt’s Fourth of July parade, has been someone driving in with a vehicle festooned with Confederate flags. My rule about parade entries is that they have to reflect the holiday. Red, white and blue. Lots of stars and lots of stripes. But no stripes at odd angles. Parallel stripes. Stars grouped in a blue field, not spangled across bars. What would happen if I told someone to find another parade?
What’s the point of even talking about this? We could talk all day about evidence of racism in our community, in our hearts, in our nation. Our talk hardly matters. But it does. Talk leads to thought, to action, to interaction.
Kyle Butler, black man and pastor, says there is one solution. Not legislation. Not law enforcement. Not discussion groups. Not even education.
One solution: love. In Butler’s words:
Love, the starting place. Love, every single human being starting place. Love at our core sees only me and it sees only you. Not as a man, or a woman. Not as a boy or a girl. Not as a color. Not as a lifestyle. Not as a sexuality. Not as a label of any kind. Love is label-less.
When “love” is aggressively attached to labels, it can become very easy to dislike and even hate, the opposite of whatever the label is of that love. It is then no longer love. It becomes wicked and twisted. It believes through this distorted belief, that it must be favored or protected. It must be exulted above all others. It believes it is superior and all others that don’t fit within the category of that label are inferior and are unworthy of decency. (https://www.patheos.com/blogs/keithgiles/2020/05/guest-post-kyle-butler-racism-my-answer-to-it/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Christians+For+a+Better+Christianity&utm_content=43)
Remember “Black lives matter” quickly inspired an anti-label: “Blue lives matter.”
How do we love without labels? Jesus said, Love your neighbor, and when asked to define “neighbor,” he gave the hardest example he could think of: a Samaritan woman. What’s the hardest example you can think of?
Jesus gave us the answer to ending racism. Paul gave us the answer to ending racism. But that answer isn’t realistic, is it? How can I love people who frighten me? How can I love people who threaten me? How can I love people who don’t live their lives the right way? How can I love people who are just plain wrong? How can I love people I don’t even know?
We’ve played this game long enough. No one has really won, and no one ever really will. I know that seems inaccurate. I know racism has benefited some and has done great harm to others. That perception has created a mindset of winners and losers, victors and victims. But in all actuality, it has torn down the very essence of the human spirit, therefore, in some ways, we are all at a loss.
Kyle Butler is not Martin Luther King, Jr. Kyle Butler is not Franklin Graham. Kyle Butler is not a celebrity. But his words are the words of someone we all admire: Jesus. His words are the easy version of Corinthians 13. Love.
Paul, as the traveling preacher, as the missionary, as the founder of multiple congregations, had to deal with personnel problems as often as he had to deal with convincing people that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, the Life. In our text today, he was trying to get Christians who were supposed to love each other to be nice to each other.
Our English translation is the glossy magazine version. The newspaper version, where the ink rubs off on your hands version, might go like this.
Love shows patience, that is, the lover, you, shows patience, acts with patience, makes decisions with patience, not only about your own family, but about the whole world.
Love shows kindness, not only to children and old people, but to people you don’t like, to people who are causing you trouble.
A loving person does not criticize those who get something for nothing or those who manipulate the system. (like my tax accountant)
A loving person does not bad-mouth anyone, any group, any person, any political party (that one is for me personally)
A loving person looks out for the happiness of others, even if they are strangers.
A loving person chooses anger toward injustice rather than anger toward inconvenience.
A loving person does not keep score of good deeds, nor of others’ mistakes.
A loving person does not find satisfaction in someone else’s punishment or bad luck. Remember Luther’s explanation of the 8th Commandment? “We should fear and love God, so that we do not deceitfully believe, betray, backbite, nor slander our neighbor, but apologize for him, speak well of him and put the most charitable construction on all that he does.” Apologize for your neighbor’s idiot actions? Yes.
And by all means, when something good happens to your neighbor, who ALWAYS has good luck, celebrate.
Love is more than a feeling. Love is more than a word. Love is more than a theory. Love is a commandment. Love has no gerrymanderedAnytime boundaries. Love has no physical limits.
Racism is all about limits. Who can, who can’t, who is, who isn’t, who should, who shouldn’t. Anytime you think “those people,” you are drawing a line between yourself and “those people.” Guess which on which side of the line Jesus is standing.
Imagine a world without lines. Imagine a world without fear. “Fear not” appears in the Bible about a zillion times. That’s the world God created. That’s the Kingdom Jesus came to prepare, to establish, for all people.
Don’t tell me you’re not prejudiced. Don’t tell me you’re not racist. Don’t tell me you don’t have anything against anybody. I know you better than that. I know very well how racist I am; I can list my stereotypes in a nice long list. That’s why, when I hold Baby X in my arms, I stare and stare at his sweet little face. My heart breaks for the trust that will some day be broken when he is chastised or denied because of the color of his skin, the shape of his eyes. My own biases, known and unknown, have already defined him in a way that is unfair and unnecessary.
But I will love him as best as I can, thankful that the love he knows in these first weeks of his life will nurture him and help him to grow into the perfect image of God, just as I have been nurtured in that image. The human does not remain perfect, but it does remain a child of God, loved, forgiven, redeemed and restored. Thanks be to God. Amen.