THE EXCELLENT WAY, 15: LOVE STAYS THE COURSE
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
February 5, 2017; Non-lectionary sermon
Psalm 143:1-8; Galatians 6:2-10

“So let us not grow weary in doing what is right,
for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up.”
Galatians 6:9

In just over a week, it’s going to be Valentine’s Day. I was in the drugstore the other day, and the signs were unmistakable. The seasonal shelves were filled to overflowing with all the little trinkets and goodies people may wish to purchase for that special person.

There were the heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, of course: small, medium, large and diabetic coma. There were giant, solid milk-chocolate hearts. There were packets of punch-out cardboard valentines, for the kids in elementary school to hand around to all their classmates. Of course there were bags of those pasty little candy hearts, with the slogans imprinted on them in red dye #2: “Be Mine,” “My Baby,” “Call Me,” “Text Me” (it is the 21st century, after all!) and the ever-popular “Hot Stuff.” The grab-and-go bouquets of flowers weren’t out just yet, but we know they’re coming soon.

Everybody knows the drill on Valentine’s Day — especially the guys. You don’t show up back home without something in your hand: something fragrant or sweet — or both. You just don’t do it.

That’s how we communicate love in our popular culture: with candy and flowers and lacy pink greeting cards. It’s all good: although these things do suffer a little by comparison with what we read of love in 1 Corinthians 13.

We’ve been spending quite a lot of time, in recent weeks and months, slowly unpacking this great chapter of Holy Writ. We’ve been examining the things Christian love is not: envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, insisting on its own way, irritable, resentful, rejoicing in wrongdoing. Last Sunday we turned the corner at last, speaking no more of things love is not; beginning to examine what love is. The first of these characteristics is that love rejoices in the truth.

Then, continuing our slow-dance through this chapter, we come to verse 7: “[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

We’re way out of candy-hearts territory here, my friends. This love is neither lighthearted nor frivolous. It’s a buckle-down, roll-up-your-sleeves, get-to-work sort of love.

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There are four different verbs in this verse — each of them followed by that objective phrase, “all things.” The original Greek is actually a good bit simpler: “Love bears all, believes all, hopes all, endures all” is what the verse literally says: elegant in its simplicity.

The first and the last characteristics of love on the list are virtually identical. You can think of them as a set of bookends. “Love bears all things” and “Love endures all things” mean virtually the same thing. Paul uses two distinct Greek words here, but the meaning is very similar.

*****

This morning, we’ll look at the first of those phrases: “Love bears all things.” The Greek word, stego, is related to the word for “roof” or “covering.” Now, I’ve heard some Bible commentators make a great deal of that, saying — essentially — when you’re in love, your beloved has got you covered, but I think that’s a little far-fetched. The emphasis is not on the covering, but the supporting. I think the meaning is simple: a roof of a house needs something to bear it up. This is load-bearing love we’re talking about.

If you’ve ever seen one of those fast-motion videos of an Amish barn-raising, you can picture how this works in your mind’s eye. First the carpenters frame out the four walls on the ground with two-by-fours, and when they’re ready, they slowly raise them upright. They set the framed-out walls upon the foundation, join them to each other, and on top of them they lay stout beams, cross-wise. On top of the beams go the gables, and on top of the gables go more two-by-fours, spaced very close together. It’s on top of these, finally, that the sheets of plywood are nailed down, and on top of them some tar-paper, and on top of them, the roof shingles.

That whole roof assembly is perhaps the heaviest parts of the whole structure, but it’s absolutely essential. Where would a building be without its roof? And where would the roof be without its bearing walls? You’d better make sure those walls are stoutly constructed, or disaster will not be far behind!

So, when Paul says, “Love bears all things,” it’s as though he’s saying love is the bearing wall of the relationship. It’s what holds everything up.

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I had the experience of bearing something this past week. Some of you know I went in last Monday for a biopsy of several lymph nodes in my neck, as well as some tiny nodules located in my thyroid bed — the place where my thyroid gland used to be, before it was removed in thyroid-cancer surgery.

I want to be clear, here: we’re not ringing the alarm bells. Thyroid cancer does need to be addressed with medical treatment, but it’s usually a very slow-moving disease. It can often be treated with a watch-and-wait approach.

For me, undergoing the biopsy meant lying on a table, very still, while an interventional radiologist inserted a needle into my neck, several times, to remove tiny tissue samples. This happens while the doctor is looking at an ultrasound screen, using it to aim the needle very precisely. They don’t use anesthetic for this procedure: the needle is tiny. It hurts just a little more than getting a blood sample drawn from your arm, though it lasts a whole lot longer.

I’m well aware that, on the scale of pain, this test is not way up there. But it’s not something anyone would choose to do, out of idle curiosity.

A couple days later, I got a phone call from my doctor, giving me some news I didn’t want to hear. It seems the samples they drew were not the right stuff. When they put the tissue samples on a microscope slide, they couldn’t see what they needed to see. So, I’m going back in tomorrow and repeat the whole procedure.

Those biopsies — both the one I had and the one I’m going to have — are something I have to bear. There’s not a chance I’m not gonna do it, though: and the reason is love. I love myself. The doctor says knowing what’s going on in my lymph nodes is essential to maintaining my health, so tomorrow I’m gonna ride the train into the city and lie down on the examining-table.

It’s fairly easy to do that, when we love ourselves. But here’s the thing: what if you or I were offered the opportunity to do something like that to help someone else? And what if that “someone else” were a perfect stranger? Jesus says “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Now there’s where the rubber meets the road.

It so happens there’s a way to help perfect strangers that’s kind of like that. It’s called bone marrow donations. There’s a National Bone Marrow Registry. It’s easy to get onto the list: you just send in a DNA sample, a swab of saliva from inside your cheek.

But here’s where it gets real: if you’re matched with a patient needing a bone-marrow or stem-cell transplant, you’ve agreed to go in and have a doctor draw a sample of marrow from inside your pelvic bone, using a long needle. It’s mildly painful and a little nerve-wracking — just like my lymph-node biopsy. I know exactly what it’s like, because I’ve had bone-marrow biopsies myself, twice, and it’s similar to what a donor goes through. In the universe of painful medical procedures, it’s a very small planet: an asteroid, even. It’s tolerable — and I’m sure you’d feel great, potentially saving someone’s life — but it’s not something anyone would do casually.

I can’t sign up as a bone-marrow donor myself because, as a cancer survivor, they don’t want my marrow. I asked myself this week, though, would I do it if I could, for a perfect stranger? Would I do it not because I love myself, but because my Lord has called me to love my neighbor? I hope you get a sense, from that example, of what it means to say “Love bears all things.”

Today’s New Testament lesson, from Galatians chapter 6, says this: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” We all have burdens to bear, in life. It simply goes with the territory. Some of us struggle mightily to bear our own burdens, but as Christians we’re called to bear one another’s burdens.

Who does that? Well, we do: if we’re serious about being Christ-followers.If we’re at all serious about that, you and I have taken some time to consider the burden Jesus Christ has already borne for us. That burden is the cross.

Our Lord staggered down that Jerusalem street, long ago, with that heavy wooden beam laid across his shoulders. And when he reached Calvary’s hill at last, they raised that beam to the top of the upright and nailed him to it.

In his agony, what he was bearing was our sin. Not his burden, but ours. And why? Because of love. Because of love for us.

As we gather around this table today, we celebrate the feast of love. The bread we break and the cup we share are our way of remembering: remembering that we are so deeply loved as that.

Copyright © 2017 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.