THE EXCELLENT WAY, 18: LOVE ENDURES

Carl Wilton

Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church

May 14, 2017; Non-lectionary sermon

Ruth 1:6-18; Galatians 6:1-10

“Love…endures all things.”

1 Corinthians 13:7

 

Well, it’s been a long time since we’ve spoken about 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s “hymn to love.” I set the sermon series aside just before Lent, and now we’re coming back to it at last.

Besides, it’s Mother’s Day, and isn’t that a great day to talk about love?

We left off with verse 7, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” We spoke about bearing, believing and hoping, which means we come down, today, to enduring. “Love…endures all things.”

Now on Mother’s Day, when we talk about love, “endurance” is not likely the first word that comes to mind. We commonly thing of motherly love as kindly, nurturing, supporting, encouraging, protecting. But enduring? Not so much.

And yet: enduring is a word that fits this day. Sometimes, a mother’s love is light and joyful, celebratory and free. But there are also times when her love must be tough and strong. There are times when the most accurate description of a mother’s love is to say that it endures.

*****

Our Old Testament lesson this morning is a story of enduring love. It’s got a mother in it — Naomi is her name. And it’s got a daughter-in-law, by the name of Ruth.

The story’s from the Hebrew scriptures, but it doesn’t start out in the land of Israel. It starts out in the neighboring country of Moab.

Naomi is an immigrant. She left her native Israel to marry a Moabite man. There she had two sons, who grew up to marry wives of their own.

Then, catastrophe happens. First, Naomi’s husband dies, then each of her two sons.That leaves three unattached women: Naomi and her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah.

According to the social rules of that society, a woman who was widowed typically went back to her own family of origin. Maybe her father is still living and will take care of her. If not him, then maybe a brother or uncle.

But Naomi has no such family in the land of Moab. She’s an Israelite. The only place for her, in her widowhood, is among her kinfolk in a far country — people she hasn’t seen for many years.

And so this little group, this family of three women, is to be broken up. Naomi is absolutely sure this is the right thing to do. It’s the only thing to do, according to the laws of her society.

“Go back each of you to your mother’s house,” says Naomi, in a famous speech.  “May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.”

But the bonds between these two young widows and their mother-in-law are intense. The duahgters-in-law refuse to go. But Naomi will have none of it: “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?”

It’s a brutal, practical reality they face. In those ancient Middle Eastern cultures — whether Moab or Israel — women have no rights of their own. They must shelter under a man’s roof. Each of them must go their separate ways: back to their families of origin, where there are men who are obliged to take them in.

Reluctantly, then, Orpah says her farewells. But Ruth continues to cling to Naomi.

It’s at this place in the story that Ruth makes her most famous speech, one that’s come down to us as a model of constancy and devotion:

“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”

This speech of Ruth’s is possibly the earliest example anywhere of feminist literature. It’s an utterly radical statement, a declaration of independence. By the standards of her own time, Ruth’s desire to stay with her mother-in-law is completely unheard-of. The daughterly love she feels for Naomi is so strong, she’s willing to cast off the traditions of her society. Ruth sacrifices her own economic security — her own future — to go back with Naomi to Israel.

There, on foreign soil, Ruth will be the outsider. Apart from Naomi, Ruth will have no one to support her, no one to rely on. Will this young widow find a husband of her own someday, someone to provide financial security? Highly uncertain. She’s now penniless. She has no dowry, no bride-price to offer. Ruth will depend on Naomi, who truly does love her: but she has no security to offer. Both women will be utterly dependent on the kindness of strangers.

Well, if you read the rest of the story of Ruth, you’ll find that everything does turn out all right in the end. Naomi finds a home under the roof of a distant cousin. That cousin, an older man named Boaz, falls in love with Ruth and marries her. Together, they have a son, who will one day have a grandson by the name of David. Yes, that David, the one who becomes King. And of course you know that Jesus’ father, Joseph, is a direct descendant of David.

So, that means this risky decision Ruth makes to leave everything behind and follow her mother-in-law — out of nothing but love — provides a home one day for the Messiah, savior of the world.

*****

In 1 Corinthians 13, the Greek word underneath this concept of endurance is hupomone. Sometimes it’s translated “patience” or “steadfastness.” Endurance is a better choice here, though — because patience sounds just a little too passive.

A person who’s merely patient can be simply sitting, waiting for a problem to resolve itself. Not so for someone who’s enduring. No, such a person is actively working and struggling to go straight through a dark and difficult passage and come out the other side.

This very verb “to endure” occurs elsewhere in the New Testament. In 2 Corinthians 6:4-5, Paul declares: “as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.”

In 2 Thessalonians 1:4, Paul says proudly: “Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.”

Afflictions, calamities, beatings, imprisonments — such are the things a church under persecution goes through. Endurance is the antidote to these struggles. It’s the survival strategy. When Paul writes, here in 1 Corinthians 13:7, that “Love…endures all things,” he’s not talking about minor hardships and discomforts. He’s not talking about a pebble in the shoe. No, he’s talking full-blown crisis: and he’s also saying that, in the face of such crisis, love has the power to endure and even grow stronger.

This sort of persevering love has an effect on the person who practices it. Endurance changes us. It’s like that old saying, “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

In Romans 5: 3-4, Paul declares:  “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

You and I discover hope in this life by hanging in there, by steadfastly enduring. Lots of people use the word “hope” in just the opposite way. “I can undertake that cancer treatment; I can see these marital difficulties through; I can keep looking for a new job if only I can find hope.” So many people seem to think that hope is the prerequisite for endurance.

But it’s not! That’s the opposite what Paul’s saying here in Romans 5. Suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope. You start with the enduring before you even have the hope. It’s one of those examples of acting yourself into a new way of thinking.

Love doesn’t throw in the towel. (Paul doesn’t say that in 1 Corinthians 13, but he could have.) Nor does love sit by in passive patience, hoping things will get better on their own.  No, when faced with insurmountable difficulties, love rolls up its sleeves. It gets to work. It does what has to be done.

Some of you know all about this. Some of you have had to be a caregiver for someone you love. You’ve had to drive your loved one to doctor’s appointments. You’ve had to become an expert on your partner’s or child’s or parent’s medical condition. You may have had to learn how to do some medical things that only nurses and healthcare aides typically do.

Now, if before that problem presented itself, someone had asked you, “Could you do a thing like that — could you learn how to change a dressing, or administer medication, or help your loved one use the bathroom?” What would you have said? My guess is — unless you’re already a trained nurse — you would have said, “I don’t think so, that’s not for me.”

But then you find yourself in that actual situation, faced with that very challenge. Because of love, you don’t even ask yourself if you can do it. You just start doing it. And before you know it, you realize you can do it after all. You want to do it — because that’s what love requires. Love endures all things.

*****

I want to take just a moment now and say something that needs to be said, about this phrase, “Love endures all things”: because it can be misused.  Be careful how you use that word “all” — because there are some situations love is not meant to endure.

What I’m talking about is abuse. Sometimes, in intimate relationships, a spouse or other family member seeks to dominate the other through violence or emotional abuse. There are some people who live in fear each day, because their marriage or parent-child relationship or even friendship has become a private hell of emotional or physical abuse.

Oftentimes, in those unhealthy relationships, love — or at least a stunted form of love — is used as a tool of domination. “If you walk out that door,” says the abuser to the abused, “it means you don’t love me. I love you, honey, and I promise I won’t do it again.”

But the abuse doesn’t stop. It just keeps happening. Each time, the “You don’t love me” argument is hauled out and used as a leash, pulling the abused person back into harm’s way.

The Bible says, “Love endures all things,” but that doesn’t include abuse. If the person you love is threatening to harm you, physically or emotionally, and this pattern continues over time, you need to get out — at least for the short term. You need to get to a place of safety. Abusive relationships can sometimes be healed — with a lot of professional help and through hard work on the part of both partners — but they are never healed through one partner stoically enduring the abuse. Love can endure even abusive relationships, but the particular form that endurance takes is standing up for yourself, enforcing protective boundaries, demanding basic respect from the other person and getting professional help.

Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” If loving another person means no longer loving yourself, in the sense that you’re putting yourself at risk, then something’s very out of balance and you probably need someone else’s help to make things right again.

*****

But apart from that specialized circumstance, love does tend to hang in there and endure hard times. It’s one of the most beautiful things about it.

I read about a Methodist pastor from Texas by the name of Jim Moore, who wrote a book with a great title: “You Can Grow Bitter or You Can Grow Better.” He got the idea for the title from a young woman who came to him for help in a time of great personal distress.

She had tears in her eyes as she sat across from him. Jim noticed her knuckles were white as she twisted a handkerchief into knots. This young wife had just received word that her twenty-six-year-old husband had been killed in a farming accident. She was alone now, with three pre-school children. One moment he’d said farewell to her at the breakfast table. The next moment, he was gone.

“I don’t know how I’m going to be able to get along without him,” she confessed, through her tears. Then she made the statement her pastor could never forget. “But I do know one thing. I can either get bitter or I can get better.”

She knew she had to do this for the sake of her children. For what sort of life would those kids have, growing up under the care of a woman consumed by bitterness?

It’s the very same issue Naomi faces in our story. When she and Ruth arrive in her hometown of Bethlehem at last, the people are astonished to see her after all these years. “Is this Naomi?” they ask.

“Do not call me Naomi,” says she. “Call me Mara, for the Lord has dealt bitterly with me.” (“Mara,” in the Hebrew language, means bitter.)

Naomi does feel bitter — of course she does! — but she learns in time not to allow her grief to dominate her. She too decided: “I can either get bitter or I can get better.”

That young mother’s attitude is a living example of the biblical teaching that love endures all things. She could never have imagined, on her wedding day, that love, for her, would mean enduring widowhood at a young age. Neither did she know exactly how, at the time of her husband’s fatal accident, she was ever going to endure the grief. But she did know she had to figure out a way to do it. Because that’s what love requires.

*****

We can endure all things, my friends, if we resolve to follow Jesus. If, as our next hymn teaches, we’re ever to “walk as a child of the light,” we need to let him lead the way.

Let’s sing that hymn now, number 377. It may be new to you, but the melody is simple and beautiful. “In him there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike…. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.”

 

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