THE EXCELLENT WAY, 21: FAITH, HOPE AND LOVE FOR FATHER’S DAY
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
June 15, 2017, Non-Lectionary Sermon
Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
1 Corinthians 13:13

Nearly a year ago — August 14th — I began a sermon series based on this passage I’ve just read for you: 1 Corinthians chapter 13. We began with the verse that precedes it, the last verse of chapter 12: “But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.”

We took some time off for Advent and Lent, and some special days in between. Now, we come at last to the final verse, that sums up what this excellent way is all about: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

The Greek word for “abide” is meno. The theological dictionaries give it meanings such as these: “to stay in a place,” “to hold out,” “to stand fast,” “to remain,” “to endure.” A thing that abides is something you know will still be there, when all else has fallen.

You don’t have to live very long in this world before you start realizing there are plenty of things that don’t abide. Change is a constant in our lives. There are things that rise up and are part of our lives for a time, that we think will always be there, then something changes and they drop out of existence.

This past week a cousin of mine got in touch with me and asked if I’d like to have something that once belonged to my mother. She offered to mail it to me. It arrived last week.

I’ve got it here. It’s my mother’s World War 2 food ration book. She was a teenager at the time. Here on the cover it says, “Shirley Woodruff MacKenzie, and the family’s address in Interlaken, near Asbury Park. Inside are little tear-off coupons that resemble stamps. During the war rationing then in effect, you — or someone else from your family — had to take this book down to the grocery store if you wanted to buy food. Each person in the family had a ration book. Combine the coupons from everyone, and you’d have enough food to eat. Lose the coupon book, and you were in big trouble. If you wanted to make something special — like a birthday cake — you’d sometimes have to save up your coupons, because certain commodities like butter and sugar were strictly limited.

Ration books like these were a big part of people’s lives for a few years. In the early 1940s, people lived by their ration books. But then, the war ended. Rationing was over. All those skills you’d perfected, for making the most out of your food coupons, were of little value.

Ration books were something that didn’t abide.

Just yesterday I was helping Frank and Sue Perkowski carry a stack of hymnals across the street for our Saturday service. We got to talking about how that sensation of a stack of books under the arm reminded us about carrying our textbooks to school, as kids. I mentioned that I used to have a flat rubber strap — a bookstrap — with hooks on each end. You’d use it to keep your stack of books together.

Frank’s a retired school principal, and he recalled the time when — suddenly — kids at his school no longer needed bookstraps. Suddenly, all the schoolkids had little backpacks to carry their books in. It’s odd that nobody thought of school backpacks earlier, but once they came in, they became as much a part of the school day as reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.

As for bookstraps, they didn’t abide. You’d be hard-pressed to find one anywhere today, except in an antique shop.

Drop into any gathering of people over a certain age, and the conversation is likely to turn, eventually, to things that aren’t here anymore, that haven’t abided. “Remember when we used to have such-and-such?” It’s a surefire conversation-starter in the retirement communities.

*****

Paul, here, is writing about things that don’t abide. In verse 8 he says: “…as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.”
What he’s talking about is spiritual gifts. Those gifts were a frustrating source of division in that Corinthian church.

Some members had the gift of prophecy: of speaking for God. Others had the gift of tongues: the ability to so open themselves to the Holy Spirit that they went into a kind of trance, speaking a language never before heard on earth. Some others in the community had the gift of interpreting what those speakers were saying: another, companion gift of the Spirit.

Then there were those who had the gift of knowledge. The Greek word for this is gnosis. There was a Greek philosophical and spiritual school called gnosticism, that bled over into earlier Christianity. These gnostics traded in secret knowledge that could be obtained only after long years of apprenticeship to a master teacher.

Well, you can imagine what sort of chaos ensued in the early church, in cities like Corinth. First you had Judaism, overlaid by Greek philosophy and mystery religions. Then you had a confusing, ever-shifting array of Christian spiritual gifts: speaking in tongues, secret knowledge and all the rest. Nobody was really in charge: except for Paul, who was away most of the time.

The letters to the Corinthians that have come down to us today are his attempt to intervene in the conflict, to establish some order amidst the chaos. This “love chapter” — concluding with this final verse — is the heart of it: “Faith, hope and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.”

Those other spiritual gifts, Paul’s saying, do not abide. They come and go. They have some value — but not ultimate value.

To this day, in any Christian community — be it church, or household, or marriage — the way to guarantee failure is by neglecting these big three spiritual gifts. Focus all your attention on anything of lesser value, the things that do not abide, and that community is headed for trouble.

*****

I’d like to look, today, at each of these three gifts in turn — and, because it’s Father’s Day, to do so from the unique vantage point of fathers.

First is the gift of faith. Anyone who’s been a father can likely remember the day his child — or each of his children — came into his life. Maybe it was in a hospital delivery room — or, if it was back in the old days, when he was called in from the waiting room. There, in the bassinet, or maybe cradled in his wife’s arms, was a little red-faced, squinty-eyed bundle of humanity, wrapped in a tiny blanket. Or maybe it happened through adoption — but either way, that little face was a source of endless wonder. A new life, a new person — not a person he chose, the way you choose a friend — but one who came to him as a wondrous gift.

As the months and years go by, the father’s faith in his child grows, even as the child grows. With each new challenge his son or daughter faces — learning to walk, or ride the school bus, or kick a soccer ball, or go out on that first date — the father has faith that his child will be able to do it. And if the child has special needs, and has to work harder than other children, that faith is all the fiercer.

What I’m talking about here is ordinary faith, that need not be especially spiritual. It’s faith in another person, and good fathers do that exceptionally well. But if you take that faith and yoke it with a robust faith in God, it’s a sort of force multiplier. Parenting is hard — one of the hardest jobs on earth, if truth be told — but it’s so much easier if you ground the natural faith you have in your children with your faith in God.

There’s an unfortunate tendency, in many families today, to feminize faith — and by this I mean no disrespect to the feminists. What I’m talking about is the tendency, on the part of some men, to make Christian education a woman’s responsibility. As in, “You take the kids to church, honey, I’ll find something else to do on Sundays.” Numerous research studies have been done on kids who persist in their church involvement through confirmation and beyond, who continue to be active in church life into adulthood. A very important factor, of course, is the active involvement of the mother in modeling worship attendance, but far and away the most powerful influence is the involvement of the second parent, the father (if there is a father on the scene, of course). A mother sitting in church with her children, week after week, is a beautiful thing to behold. But if there are two parents and both are sitting here together, their son or daughter has a far greater likelihood of claiming their own faith in Jesus Christ, and sticking with it into adulthood.

So — faith abides.

*****

Now, let’s look at fatherhood and hope: that second big-three gift of the spirit.

Just as with faith, there’s a secular kind of hope that applies to fatherhood in general. As children grow and mature, a father’s hope grows along with them. You can see it in all sorts of places, but one of the most likely — in a great many families — is that parenting activity reserved especially for fathers: team sports.

Organized athletics are way bigger today than they used to be — and getting bigger all the time. We’ve all heard of soccer moms who provide the transportation, but in a great many families it’s the dads who really throw themselves, heart and soul, into coaching and encouraging their sons or daughters on the athletic field.

I have a theory about sports, and the passion they call forth from parents — especially fathers. These games are a symbolic expression of hope, the natural hope parents have that their children will grow up to be competent adults. Only a tiny fraction of kids in Little League will ever play professional ball, and only one Pop Warner kid in thousands will win a football scholarship. But that’s not the point. Athletics — baseball, football, soccer, gymnastics, even dance — build kids’ confidence and help them grow into adults who know and trust their own innate abilities. They teach teamwork and responsibility: these are all very good things. The father standing on the bench and shouting encouragement to his son or daughter is giving voice to the hopes he has for that child, throughout life.

That’s why, in the grandstand, emotions run so high sometimes, and — with some parents — even get out of hand. The fathers who shout insults at the umpire — or, worse, at the other players — are holding so tightly to their hopes they’ve lost all perspective. It’s not exactly healthy adult behavior: but it is an illustration of the power of hope.

But, as with faith, this is a purely secular variety of hope. What Paul’s talking about, at the end of 1 Corinthians 13, is hope as a spiritual gift.

Concretely, it’s hope that our sons or daughters will grow up to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, to claim that faith for their own that was offered to them at their baptism for their own.

What if fathers spent as much time and energy teaching their kids to believe in God as they do teaching them to throw a baseball? What if soccer moms became equally well known as Sunday School moms? If that were true, we wouldn’t have any worries whatsoever about whether or not our kids will have faith!

The great tragedy, of course, about kids and team sports is that, as everyone knows, sports do not abide. With very few exceptions, the kids parents cheer on from the sidelines will not be playing those games very far into adulthood. Even those lucky kids who grab the golden ring of a college scholarship, or even contract with a professional sports team, will be done with that sport — completely washed-up — well before they hit middle age.

Hope in Jesus Christ is very different. That hope does abide!

*****

Finally, there’s the greatest of all spiritual gifts, the one this long sermon series has been principally about: the gift of love.

What more can I say about love that I haven’t said already, through this long series of sermons?

I’m not going to try. I’m going to let a friend and colleague of mine speak for me.

David McKirachan was, until he retired last fall, pastor of the Presbyterian Church at Shrewsbury. He was a preacher’s kid, and I knew of his father before I ever met him. At the Pine Street Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania — the church where I did my internship for a whole year, interrupting my seminary training — the reputation of their longtime former pastor, Dr. Charles McKirachan — was legendary. Everyone knew him as “Dr. Mac,” and spoke of him with awe, long after his retirement.

And so, years later, when I read a little mediation David wrote about his father, in the last weeks of his life, it made a big impression on me.

At the age of 89, Dr. Mac had been very ill, in intensive care. He would not live much longer. He was home, briefly, and David took some time off to go stay with his parents and help out. Later, he wrote this recollection:

One afternoon I sat with him in his study, winter sun streaming in across shoulders and brow that were more precious to me than I could count. I reached out a hand and touched him on his arm, needing to connect with him past the fear and loss that had rested on our doorstep and still roamed just out of sight.

He turned to me, put his had on mine, and smiled as slow tears ran down my cheeks. He looked out the window, out beyond the cedar moving there in the chill wind. “I haven’t had many friends in my life.” His statement startled me. I didn’t know where he was going or what he was trying to say….

He patted my hand and looked at me. “Really, I haven’t. I was so busy trying to do all the things that would build the church and do what I thought God wanted me to, I didn’t take the time to make and keep friends.”

I was like a fish out of water, sucking wind trying to come up with something to pastor my own father. “And all the time, here you were.” It hit me like a blow. I stopped trying and sat stunned. “I’ve discovered something lately. I’ve got people here in my own home that I respect and love” — he shook his head and smiled — “and even like. I’ve got friends right here. I’m glad I figured that one out.”

I never doubted that my father loved me. Even when I hated him from the tortured edges of adolescence, I knew he would do anything he could for me. But something changed there in the winter sunshine that day.

He was back in the hospital in about a week. He died just before Christmas. But on that afternoon, he gave me a gift that will never die.

He called me “friend.”

The moral of that story is — for fathers and sons, and anybody else — love abides. And, of those three most significant spiritual gifts — the others being faith and hope — love is by far the greatest.

It is, as the Apostle teaches, “the still more excellent way.”
Let us pray:
We thank you, O God, for the gift of love:
love that blesses, love that inspires, love that fills life with meaning.
But more than that, we thank you for such love
that points us to your son, Jesus Christ:
who gave his life so we may not only receive such love,
but share it.
In his most holy name we pray. Amen.

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