“Knowing and Being Known” / 1 Corinthians 13 / 3 February 2019
“Love is…patient. Love is…kind. Believes…all things, bears…all things. Hopes all things?” Wait, what? Who’s getting married? Who gets married on a Sunday morning? And if this is a wedding, why aren’t there more…people? It’s nice to have this beautiful chapter all to ourselves on a regular old Sunday morning, where we can reflect on it in a way that most brides would never allow us to do on their special day. This is surely the second most beloved chapter in all the Bible, just after the Twenty-third Psalm. Even if you’re new to church, these words surely sound familiar because I Corinthians 13 shows up at nearly every church wedding any of us has ever attended. A preacher could pull a year’s worth of sermons from this short chapter, a mere thirteen verses. But alas, a lovely thing can lose its luster with overuse. The words we dwell on today are these: “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” All our knowledge is incomplete. All our scientific knowledge trails off into unknowing. Our understanding of distant galaxies is limited, as is our understanding of the human brain. Each of us carries in our faces, and in our forms, and in our DNA the history of ancestors we know nothing of, people who made us who we are, but we do not know their stories. Yes, we see only in a mirror, dimly. But then! Then we will know fully, even as we have been fully known. We all long to know things more fully. And though we fear it, we also long to be fully known. Oh, in this great mist of unknowing, in this white-out snowstorm of human misunderstandings, in this foggy world of uncertainty, we can know love.
You probably know that a Hollywood film crew was here at our church in early December to film one episode of a new web series. It’s a show about the difficulties that face gay kids in America. I’m not sure how they got the name of our church, or how they heard that we’d be friendly to their cause. But it warmed my heart to know that, as far away as California, we are known as a church that welcomes the marginalized. I told them that if Session approved their request to film here, I would have one condition for them: That they let me advise them on matters of religion, because Hollywood always gets it wrong. They agreed. After some phone conversations with the producers of the show, I realized that it was a relatively small production, though both producers had worked on a popular TV series called “The Bachelor.” The main purpose of the filming was to call attention to the plight of a certain segment of society. Instead of making money off the gig, actors and backstage crews were volunteering their time to it.
Which is how I came to make my acting debut! They filmed numerous scenes here at the church—one in the flowery pink ladies’ room downstairs; one in the lounge, where Session meets; one in the narthex; and one here in the sanctuary. They needed a middle-aged man to play the pastor, and so they asked me. They gave me some harmless lines to memorize, but they allowed me to choose what I would say from the pulpit. And so, of course, I read spoke those wonderful words from the Book of First John: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God. And everyone who loves is born of God, and knows God, for God is love.” That is the holy heart of all that we do here at church. But that’s not the point I’m getting to. The point is that I always thought actors had an easy job. I always thought actors were the most overpaid, underworked people on the planet. I always thought actors were a little ridiculous, since make-believe was their trade. But no! It’s exhausting to pretend! It’s draining to act like something you’re not. It’s tiresome even to act like something you are.
They filmed every tiny segment at least eight times. Those of you who came and served as extras in the congregation know that each little scene had to be shot from half a dozen angles. They had to mess with the lighting, the timing, the amateur actors getting their lines wrong or coming across as…wooden. We had to say the same lines over and over, with everybody watching. I felt completely at ease when speaking from the pulpit, but I was oddly intimidated to speak memorized lines in the narthex. Pretending is hard. It drains our strength and makes us wonder how people are perceiving us. Playing a part burdens us with the question of whether we’re convincing anyone. Actors have a tough job! I was exhausted by the end of the day. But acting is something we all do at times. We all put on faces; we all play parts…when we’re scared of being fully known.
Even the great Love Chapter of I Corinthians has a context, a backstory. And like all our backstories, knowing it adds to the richness and the depth of things. As you may recall from two weeks ago, the Apostle Paul was writing to a church divided in the ancient Greek port city of Corinth, that mysterious cosmopolitan crossroads of the First Century world. Paul is making a case that all skills and abilities are gifts from the same God, and to be used in the same God’s service: preaching, teaching, managing money, caring for the church building, leading committees…it’s all valuable. But the church members at Corinth value two particular gifts above all else: speaking in tongues and prophesying. When this letter was read aloud in the church at Corinth, it must have sounded like pure rebuke, not poetry and delight. Boastful, arrogant, rude: everything he says love is not, they are. Patient, kind: everything he says love is, they are not. And into this atmosphere of spiritual snobbery, the Apostle declares, “As for prophecies, they will come to an end; and as for tongues, they will cease…and now, faith, hope, and love abide, these three. And the greatest of these is love.” Lo and behold, these two millennia later, prophecies and tongues have indeed ceased. And what abides? Love. We see our own selves, we see our own age through the dark mirror of self-interest and acculturation. We see things today as through a polished bronze plate, which would have been the hazy mirrors they used in ancient times. There’s much we cannot know just yet, but if we live in love, then we know all we need to know for now. The day is coming when we will know fully, even as we have been fully known. Until then, live in love.
The funny TV show “Mrs. Maisel” is about a 1950s housewife who decides to go into standup comedy. A very proper 1950s lady, each night she would lie down in bed beside her husband and wait till he fell asleep. When he did, she would hurry to the bathroom, wash her face, cover it with thick white facial cream and then go back to bed to sleep on her back for the rest of the night. Half an hour before her husband woke up, she would hurry back to the bathroom to wash it all off, and he was none the wiser. How exhausting to go through life posing for the camera, taking off one mask and putting on another, daubing our faces with stage makeup so we’ll be acceptable to life’s onlookers. It steals our humanity and makes us feel sneaky when we spend our limited number of years here below trying to make ourselves to be whatever we think it is that people want us to be: beautiful, smart, tough, cool, young, strong, ambitious, pious, patriotic, fearless. We all want a place where we can let our pretenses fall. It’s so much better to be hated for what we are than loved for what we are not. Our dear desire is to be fully known, just to have someone who sees all that we do and are, and who accepts us all the same. It’s our fond wish to be understood most deeply by another person, to be embraced in all our foibles and failings, to be loved without conditions.
We might wish for it, but it’s scary, too. What if, when you pull off your mask, people don’t like what they see? That’s why we wear masks to begin with. What if your children see you scared? Won’t it shake their faith in you and in all things? What if your wife sees you cry? Won’t she think you’re a weakling and wish she’d married your brother? What if people see you at your most uncertain, your most unappealing, your ugliest, or most needy, or most helpless? The world can never see your most vulnerable, your unvarnished, unpainted, unadorned self. It’s exactly what we want to show them. It’s exactly what we want them to accept. But the thought of allowing anyone to venture that far into our trust…it’s scary.
We may know a handful of people quite well. But we do not know what images they see in the silent moment just before sleep. We do not know the memories they never share, the secret betrayals, the unnamed shames, the thoughts from which they feel the need to protect us. We can learn another person’s mannerisms, and habits, and ways of thinking. We can learn their likes, and dislikes, and the stories they tell about themselves and about the world. But many are the things they will never let us see. No knowledge is complete. We see through a mirror, dimly, as if looking at the faint reflections in a bit of burnished metal. What we see is always imperfect, distorted by the lens through which we see it, always in part. “But then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
A sea captain sails his ship near a remote island where a castaway has been living for years. The captain comes ashore to rescue the castaway, when he notices three huts. “What’s this first hut for?” the captain asks. “That’s my house,” the man replies. “I see. What’s this second hut for?” the captain asks. “That’s my church,” the man answers. “I see. What’s this third hut for?” the curious captain queries. “Oh that,” the man responds, “That’s the church I used to go to.” Partial knowledge keeps us on our toes. Imperfect knowledge keeps us chasing after the truth, searching through the philosophies of our day, the churches, the religious traditions. Incomplete knowledge seems like the bane of humanity’s fallen lot in this world. We don’t know as much as we’d like about God, about the next life, about meaning and purpose in this life. We don’t know all that we wish we knew about the oceans, and the melting polar ice caps, and the inner country of the soul. We see all these things through a mirror, dimly. And it scares us to cross the sea of life with such an uncertain map. But never fear. Knowledge knows limits. Knowledge fails. But there are three things that never fail us: hope, faith, and love.
Love. It’s more than what makes a Subaru a Subaru. Love is a choice. Love is a daily decision that we make in the face of all that we do not know. Each of us comes from mystery and returns into mystery. But the love of God in Christ knows us ever, and holds us fast. And so, since it may be a while before your next wedding, let’s hear it one more time: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Amen.