THE EXCELLENT WAY, 8: LOVE IS NOT BOASTFUL
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
October 8, 2016; Non-lectionary sermon
Jeremiah 9:12-16, 23-24; 2 Corinthians 10:12-18

“Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
2 Corinthians 10:17

Something preachers like me often do — especially if we preach most every Sunday — is to follow some external pattern for choosing our sermon topics. Often, as most of you know, I use the Revised Common Lectionary: a list of recommended passages for each Sunday. Sometimes, though — as I’m doing right now — I preach a sermon series.

The advantage of following such an external guide — rather than simply asking myself, “What am I going to preach about this week?” — is that it keeps me from returning, again and again, to my favorite topics. That would be fun for me, but probably not so much for you.

The series we’re now in, “The Excellent Way,” is all about love: and the guide we’re following is that wonderful chapter 13 of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. I don’t know how it’s been for you (if you’ve been here for a lot of the messages), but for me the act of carving this chapter up into small, bite-sized pieces has really forced me to go deep.

Today’s topic, “Love Is Not Boastful,” has led me to a subject I don’t think I’ve ever addressed before in a sermon: boasting. The more I’ve wrestled with that scripture text this past week, the more I’ve come to realize that this is, spiritually speaking, a very important topic. The tendency to boast often indicates that something’s seriously out of balance in a person’s spiritual life.

*****

Boasting is a subject Paul addresses very often in his letters. The particular Greek word for boasting that appears 1 Corinthians 13:4 is a rare word that occurs only here, and nowhere else in the New Testament, but elsewhere he uses other words for boasting — synonyms — well over 30 times. Sometimes he speaks against boasting — warning against those who boast too much. Other times he uses the word more positively: describing himself as boasting in Christ, or the cross, or the members of his churches, or even his own weaknesses.

So, what is it with Paul and boasting? Why is this such a hot topic for him?

The reason, we think, has to do with the society he lived in.

The Greco-Roman culture of the Roman Empire was what sociologists refer to as an “honor/shame society.” There were rigid social classes: with slaves at the bottom of the pyramid and Imperial officials at the top. Unlike the ancient dynastic empires, though — like Babylonia or Egypt, with their fixed social classes — in the Roman world, social classes were somewhat fluid. If you were born into a particular social class you were likely to remain there, but there were ways you could better yourself. Slaves could be freed, either by the good will of their masters or by buying their own freedom. Foot soldiers could catch the eye of their officers and advance up the military ranks. Parents could better their own social standing by arranging a favorable marriage for their children. Members of the upper classes sometimes adopted promising young men, treating them as members of their own families — and once the adoption was completed, they were considered members of that noble family, no questions asked.

By the same token, if you made certain mistakes in life — if you squandered your family’s wealth or got caught up in some kind of scandal — you could lose your social status. You could be busted down a few ranks. If you fell clear to the bottom, you became a slave. That was the “shame” side of the honor/shame society.

There was a sort of lubricating oil that kept that complex social machine humming along. That lubricating oil was boasting.

The way to climb the social ladder was through self-promotion. You learned to tout your own achievements. You practiced the fine art of name-dropping. You were always looking for ways to get yourself invited to somebody else’s banquet — and when you got there, you were obsessed with your place on the seating chart. You flattered those of higher rank than yourself and treated those below you with contempt.

Into this world of incessant social striving comes the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus taught “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” It’s no wonder Paul has so much to say on the subject of boasting!

*****

The thing I’m wondering, though, is whether our society is all that different.

There used to be a time when humility was a virtue more highly prized than it is today. Here’s a story that illustrates what I mean. It’s an episode from the life of one of our modern presidents: Harry Truman.

Truman was a U.S. Senator, but he didn’t become a household name in America until FDR made him his running mate. Not long after, President Roosevelt died. Harry Truman moved into the Oval Office.

On Election Day, 1948, President Truman returned to Independence, Missouri, to cast his vote in his hometown. He was the President, after all, so a team of newspaper reporters was assigned to tail him everywhere he went.

As it so happened, the reporters were in a separate plane that landed at the Kansas City Airport just behind Air Force One. By the time they’d disembarked, they learned the President was already on the road.

The reporters were in a panic. They just had to catch up! They convinced some police officers to give them an escort. They set off down the highway, with the police sirens scattering traffic out of the way.

When the reporters reached the Truman home, they found he wasn’t there. The mystery was solved a few moments later, when the President’s car pulled up outside.

“What happened to you, Mr. President?” asked one of the reporters.
“Oh,” said Truman, “we were stopped by a police car and had to pull over. Seems there were some very important people going through town.”

It’s a great story, but you really can’t imagine it happening today, can you? There’s so much boasting going on in the higher reaches of politics, so much scrambling for media attention. And what’s true at the top filters down to the likes of us, I’m afraid.

You don’t have to stand in front of a TV camera and tell the world how great you are. All you need do is buy a home in the best neighborhood you can afford, drive a car that’s as big and new as you can manage, and post pictures on Facebook or Instagram of that plate of food the waiter just put down in front of you — the one with the multicolored sauces dribbled all over it like a Jackson Pollock painting. There are all sorts of ways to boast. Only a few of them require the use of words.

*****

Paul says “love is not boastful,” but there are varieties of love that depend on boasting. The English language, as you probably know, has just one word for love, but in Greek there are at least three. The love of which Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 13 is the highest, most noble form of love. The Greek word that describes it is agape. There’s another word for love: philia, which means the love of friend for friend. Then there’s the word eros, root of our English word erotic. It’s sensual, physical attraction.

It’s in the practice of eros — and, in particular, the rituals of dating — that boasting can play a major role.

I was listening to a technology podcast this past week that had a story about online dating sites.[1] Now, the last time I was single — more than 35 years ago — nobody had a computer, so (full disclosure) I have no personal experience of eHarmony nor Match.com nor even Christian Mingle. Maybe some of you do, though: which is why this story may be of particular interest.

It’s the story of a thirtysomething man named David Wheeler, who had a run of bad luck with the online dating sites. He tried a few of them out, but the dates were few and far between — and those he did get didn’t work out very well. He quickly learned there was an awful lot of boasting going on, and truth was in short supply. People would write their profiles and post their pictures to make themselves look as good as possible. The bios were carefully crafted tales of health, wealth and happiness. As for the photos, some of them were — shall we say — not the most current likenesses. It was all about getting other people to click on your profile, and after that, sounding good on the telephone: so, boasting was the order of the day.

David was fed up, and so with his college friend Jacob he decided to start his own dating website, a free site that would work differently than the others. It would allow people to be real with each other from the get-go. They called it SettleForLove.com.

Here’s how the site works. Everybody gets their own profile page, but it’s divided in two with a line down the middle. The left side functions like a traditional dating site: post your best picture, along with a bullet list of all the great things you have to offer to a potential mate. On the right side, you post a picture of you that’s unflattering, and you make a list of all the things about yourself you’re not exactly happy with. You also try to describe what you would settle for, when it comes to a partner.

The goal is to be completely honest: to describe both the good and the bad about yourself.

David, by all accounts, is not a bad-looking guy, so his left-hand photo could very well draw a young lady’s interest. On the right-hand side of the page, though, he boldly posted a photo of his bald spot: the part of his physical appearance he was most self-conscious about.

In the summer of 2014, SettleForLove went live. It was not a resounding success right out of the box. David and Jacob and a few of their friends were the only members. Still, they sent out press releases like mad, and tried their best to get the word out.

Then, one day it all turned around. David got a phone call, out of the blue, from a producer at Good Morning America. They wanted to feature the site on the TV show.

After the broadcast, SettleForLove took off like a skyrocket. It went from about 50 clients to thousands, overnight. It seemed like the concept was working. People out there really were tired of the phoniness of online dating. They wanted to engage with one another honestly, on a deeper level.

David was the gatekeeper, so he got to read all the profiles. Many of the listings looked like this:

PROS: “I do not play mind games. I am down to earth. I like baking desserts.”
CONS: “I find it hard to let people in. I have a genetic disorder called Klinefelter’s Syndrome: look it up.”

PROS: “I am intelligent and love challenging myself.”
CONS: “I live with my parents.”

PROS: “Kindhearted, passionate. I rescued a German Shepherd.”
CONS: “Anxiety/PTSD”

Alas, the success of SettleForLove was short-lived. Turned out, tt was harder than David and Jacob thought to change the ways people date. There’s something in human nature, it seems, that leads us to put a lot of stock in boasting.

It ought to come as no surprise. Just look at the animal kingdom. In all those nature documentaries there are those scenes of birds displaying spectacular plumage, baboons doing their mating dance, young male mountain goats locking horns to impress the ladies with their feats of strength. It’s all a display. It’s all superficial. It’s all fake.

A couple months after the Good Morning America spot, the thousands of new members a day dwindled to hundreds. SettleForLove is still up and running, but only a few dozen new members sign up each day.

That may not sound so shabby, but those numbers are a drop in the bucket compared to the big players in the online dating game. Match.com gets something in the neighborhood of 25,000 new members a day.

As for David, he did find himself a girlfriend at last. He met her on one of the big commercial sites, ChristianMingle.com: where he did not post that photo of his bald spot.

*****

When it comes to the form of love known as eros, it’s hard — if not impossible — to dispense with boasting. But Paul’s not talking about eros in 1 Corinthians 13. He’s writing about agape: Christlike, sacrificial love. It’s not a love that puffs itself up, that doggedly markets itself to others. It puts the interests of the other first, ahead of its own. It lives to serve.

Such service to one another — as long as it proceeds from both sides towards the middle — never degenerates into servility. Both partners do settle for love — but not in the sense of settling for each other, of giving up in resignation. They settle not for each other, but with each other: and they do it with the goal of cultivating a deeper love, that grows along with them as they grow older.

The best marriages are characterized by just that sort of love. Within the shelter of covenant commitment, both partners are able to be real with one another, to risk displaying their flaws and shortcomings. Not every day within such a marriage may be entirely happy — the partners are not, after all, Prince Charming and Sleeping Beauty. But that’s all right: because the strength of that relationship derives from its endurance. And its endurance is founded in something deeper still: the love of God for us that we can only fully experience in relationship with Jesus Christ.

In our most deeply loving relationships, there is no need for boasting. Under that canopy of commitment, we know we are loved. We know we are set free.

Praise God for that!

Let us pray:
Speak to us, O God,
not only in our inmost hearts
but also in our loving relationships
that word of unconditional acceptance.
May we not only receive that precious gift for ourselves,
but offer it to those we love.
In the name of Jesus we ask it. Amen.

1. “Flip the Script,” Invisibilia podcast, National Public Radio, July 15, 2016.

Copyright © 2016, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.