Sunday’s sermon: When the Perfect Comes

when the perfect comes

Text used – 1 Corinthians 13:1-13



  • [READ SONNET 43 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning]

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

  • Ahhhh … love. How much ink, throughout the centuries, has been spilled trying to capture and describe and do justice to love? How many poems? How many songs? How many plays? How many artists have tried to capture the illusiveness of love in paint … in sketch … in sculpture … in any and every artistic medium humankind has ever used? And yet, have you ever encountered something – any type of artform – that truly made you say with absolutely certainty, “Yes. That’s it. That captures everything I’ve ever known and felt and believed and hoped about love in its entirety. That says it all. That’s perfect”? No? Hmmmm.
    • Love = elusive topic throughout the centuries
    • Love = difficult topic → lots of challenges and complexities and gossamer hopes and broken dreams wrapped up in all our experiences of love
    • Just the different words that we use for love – in English and in all the different languages spoken in the world today – reveal just how complicated and varying and yet positively and inescapably central the act of loving and being loved is to the human experience.
      • Fascinating article (World Economic Forum) – “The world’s languages contain 14 different kinds of love, research has found”[1] → types of love span everything from romantic love to familial love, from love you have for a place to that first inkling of love when you meet someone new (“love at first sight,” if you will), from love of self to love of other to love of the divine → Clearly, we humans were created to love – to seek love, to give love, to receive love in many wide and varied forms. Created to love … and yet, after centuries – after millennia! – we’re still working on getting it right. On getting it perfect.
  • And into that fabulous and frenetic fray, we add today’s Scripture reading – The Love Passage, right? The passage you’ve probably heard at more weddings than you can count – Paul’s description of love.
    • Picture it being read at a wedding in your mind right now (maybe even remember it being read at your own wedding)
      • Couple standing across from one another
      • Maybe holding hands
      • Maybe gazing lovingly into one another’s eyes
      • Maybe sharing a sweet, intimate smile
      • Maybe stealing a glance at loved ones in attendance, taking a moment to appreciate all the people who’ve come to show the couple their own love that day
      • It’s a moment dripping with affection and adoration and possibility. And we have to admit that Paul has some pretty good advice for anyone entering into a loving relationship, right? – text: Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth.[2] → I would say this advice is about as good as it gets, no matter what phase in the relationship you’re in or what kind of relationship you’re thinking about.
        • Good advice for romantic couples
        • Good advice for parents and children
        • Good advice for friends
        • Good advice for coworkers
        • Good advice for neighbors
  • BUT … I want us to take a step back from this dewy-eyed, romantic vision of love for a moment so we can dig into the realer, deeper meaning in Paul’s words this morning. → Paul’s understanding of love in this passage is much less sweet and sentimental and much more radical and revolutionary
    • First: context
      • Talked last week about the Christian community in Corinth to which Paul is writing
        • Community of extremes: very rich and very poor, higher-ups in society as well as lower classes, Jews and Gentiles, people from various cultures, citizens of the Roman empire (high prestige) and non-citizens alike
        • Because of those extremes → community that swiftly became divided – fractured into lots of smaller groups/factions within the church
        • So it’s into this tension and unease and in-fighting that Paul is speaking these words about how to love.
          • Important point: Gr. for “love” throughout this passage = agape → selfless, altruistic, lift-up-the-other, your-good-above-my-good kind of love
      • So Paul is imploring the people of Corinth to overcome whatever silly, insignificant boundaries have been put up between themselves and love each other. Paul is enveloping this bickering, divided community in his words and saying, “Whatever you’re doing – no matter what it is – doesn’t count for anything if honest love, selfless love is not a part of it. So get over it. Get along. And love one another.”
        • Hearkens back to Jesus’ directive in Mt’s gospel to love your enemies: You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you.[3]
      • Lead to other important contextual element: Corinth was, indeed, a Roman city – a proud and dutiful part of the Roman empire → And being part of the Roman empire came with the expectation that you would put your loyalty – your community love – first and foremost in Rome. There should be nothing else. No other allegiance. No other devotion. And yet here’s Paul advocating for love to be the driving force – not loyalty, not duty, not nationalism or patriotism, certainly not allegiance to the Roman empire! – but a self-giving, barrier-shattering, other-recognizing kind of love. A Christ-like kind of love. Not a love for Rome, but a love for God and one another as fellow children of God. Devotion to Rome wasn’t even on Paul’s radar.
        • Makes this a radical idea
        • Makes this a revolutionary idea
        • Makes this a dangerous idea → going against the edicts and dominance of Rome never really worked out for anybody
  • Phrase that really caught my eye when I was reading this Scripture → really seems to drive home Paul’s view of love as radical, boundary-crossing, and all-in (probably my new favorite phrase in the whole Bible) – text: When the perfect comes, what is partial will be brought to an end.[4]When the perfect comes.
    • Phrase appears after Paul has been expounding on the plethora of things that love does and how central love is and how steadfast and lasting love is – text: Love never fails. As for prophecies, they will be brought to an end. As for tongues, they will stop. As for knowledge, it will be brought to an end. We know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, what is partial will be brought to an end. [5] → When the perfect comes.
      • Gr. “perfect” = fabulous word – rich with meaning: brought to completion, fully developed/achieved, full grown, without shortcomings, having purpose, whole → This all-encompassing, all-surpassing, all-fulfilling kind of love is coming. A whole love. A complete love. A perfect love. A truly perfect love. And it’s not coming with the next changing of the Roman centurion guard. It’s not coming with the next visit Paul makes to Corinth. It’s not even coming in the reconciliation and relationship-building that Paul desires for the Corinthian church. This kind of whole and purposeful love can only come from one source: from God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
        • This is the kind of love that God has for us
        • This is the kind of love that Jesus embodied for us – the kind of love that ate with sinners and outcasts, went to the cross, shattered death, and left that finite tomb empty and irrelevant
        • This is the kind of love that the Holy Spirit kindles within us
        • A love that never fails
        • A love that remains
        • A love that eclipses even those pillars of the Church: faith and hope – text: Now faith, hope, and love remain – these three things – and the greatest of these is love.[6]
    • Radical nature of this love is that it’s already a part of the fabric of our being as children of God and yet it is coming still → When the perfect comes. When that love comes – that perfect, all-encompassing, whole love – we will know love like we have never known it before … like we’ve never even dreamed of it
      • Radical because no matter how hard we try, we know that “perfect” is not the way we love one another
      • Radical because knowing that that kind of love exists begs the question of us: What can I do to live into this love until the perfect comes?
    • Just like the Corinthian church, we sometimes need a bit of a wake-up call – a reminder to practice love for one another even (and especially) in the hard times. Love that is kind and hopeful, patient and trustworthy, humble and forgiving. And in the face of all that we are dealing with right now, couldn’t we use a little bit more of that? Couldn’t we use more love? Amen.

[1] Tim Lomas. “The world’s languages contain 14 different kinds of love, research has found” from World Economic Forum website: Posted Feb. 14, 2018, accessed May 16, 2020.

[2] 1 Cor 13:4-7.

[3] Mt 5:43-44.

[4] 1 Cor 13:10.

[5] 1 Cor 13:8-10.

[6] 1 Cor 13:13.

Sunday’s sermon: Pieces of the Puzzle

Where Oliver Fits

Text used – 1 Corinthians 1:10-18



  • So we have this book that we love to read at our house. It’s a fabulous children’s book called Where Oliver Fits by Cale Atkinson.[1] → story about a little puzzle piece named Oliver who’s looking for his perfect place
    • Oliver has big dreams → can’t wait to be part of the bigger picture: “something exciting, something wild, something out of this world!”
    • But poor little Oliver is having trouble finding his fit.
      • Tries a bunch of different places → gets turned away every time (and turned away pretty harshly and roughly!) → Different groups of puzzle pieces who have already found their fit together waste no time telling Oliver all the ways he doesn’t fit: “Too much blue! Not enough red! … Too round! Not enough square! … Too tall. Too short. Too pointy. Too bulky. Not right. All wrong!”
      • Finally, Oliver gets fed up! → in an attempt to find his fit sooner rather than later, Oliver tries to change himself
        • Change his shape
        • Change his color
        • Eventually alters himself so much that he’s completely hidden behind everything → Not a bit of the real Oliver is visible. He changes everything about himself to fit into a space that looks nothing like his real self. But in this altered state, he fits … sort of.
      • Over time, Oliver realizes this fit he’s forced himself into isn’t right either → It isn’t as perfect as Oliver hoped it would be because even as he himself finally fits into a space (a space … not necessarily his space), he watches all the other pieces around him continue to turn away other pieces that are just trying to fit in, jeering and ridiculing them just like they teased Oliver himself.
    • And y’all, the church in Corinth – the congregation that Paul sent this letter to – was in a pretty similar situation. Paul wrote to Corinth because the church was splintering apart, putting up walls and setting troublesome and arbitrary distinctions between one subgroup in the congregation and another.
      • Finger pointing
      • Labeling
      • Nitpicking
      • Excluding
    • So Paul sent this letter, trying to bring unity … trying to bring togetherness into a fragmented church … trying to lift up the church as a whole and remind them, not of the things that separate them, but the ultimate thing that brings them together: their faith in God through Jesus Christ.
  • Now, before we dive into our Scripture reading itself, let’s talk about Corinth as a city.
    • Large city not too far from Athens
    • Diverse city
      • Lots of commerce
      • Lots of cultures
      • Lots of religions
      • Lots of artists
    • City of extremes
      • A few exceptionally rich citizens and lots of poor citizens
      • Transitory city → lots of people who were doing everything they could to climb the socioeconomic ladder → Corinth was a middle rung on that ladder
      • Ancient historians: known as “Sin City” of the ancient world
    • Corinthian church sort of reflected this city personality – see that in Paul’s words in our text this morning: Now I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups. … Chloe’s people gave me some information about you, that you’re fighting with each other.[2] → Leave it to Paul to not beat around the bush. He sees a problem within the Corinthian church, and he calls it out. Plain and simple. “You’re fighting with each other.” Bam.
      • Goes on to detail some of the ways that they’re putting barriers up between one another → namely who they were baptized by/who they “belong to”
        • Even gets a little bit of a dig in – text: Thank God I didn’t baptize any of you, except Crispus and Gaius, so that nobody can say that you were baptized in my name![3]
        • Just like those groups of puzzle pieces in the story à all about enforcing the parameters of whatever little clique they’ve created … all about deciding who’s “good enough” and who’s not
  • And if we’re honest with ourselves, the church today is not really all the different from that ancient Corinthian church, is it?
    • Ways we create divisions amongst ourselves
      • Denominationally
      • Progressive vs. fundamental
      • Traditional vs. contemporary
      • Size delineation (I like to call this the “Grouchy Ladybug” delineation because churches either say to themselves or say to other churches, “You’re not big enough!” Not big enough for this program or that … not big enough for this mission or that … not big enough for whatever.)
    • There are a thousand different ways we draw lines and portion out the body of Christ today, aren’t there? But just because “that’s what we do” doesn’t mean that’s what we should do.
      • Scholar gets at the heart of this: It can happen that we become so accustomed to a divided church that we simply accept the situation. We have always known a divided church, and we are not shocked or dismayed because that is the way things are. Paul will not let the Corinthians or us be satisfied with the church in its divided condition. There may be no quick solution to the problem, but there can be no casual acceptance of it.[4]
  • So let’s revisit Oliver and the rest of his story
    • That new space that Oliver had found – you know, the one where he had to change everything about himself to “fit in” – still wasn’t right. → finally comes to the realization that if he can’t be himself, whatever fit he’s found isn’t the right fit for him → sheds his disguise (to the scorn and consternation of the pieces around him) and strikes out on his own again
      • Glad to be himself again BUT also finds himself alone again → returns to his worries that he’ll never find his fit: “How can I be part of something exciting, wild or out of this world if it’s just me?”
    • BUT as he’s wandering alone, Oliver finds a few other pieces who have also been trying their darnedest to fit in – even trying to alter their appearances (just like he did!) to fit into a place, any place. → with those pieces, Oliver finds his perfect fit → “Oliver discovered that you can’t rush or force your fit. All you can do is be yourself! Your fit will find you. And it will feel … PERFECT!”
  • Friends, this is what Paul is getting at here!
    • Promotes togetherness right off the bat: Now I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups. Instead, be restored with the same mind and the same purpose.[5]
      • Very cyclical phrasing in Gr. – “don’t be divided into rival groups” = literally “no schisms/splits” and “be restored” = literally “be mended” → So Paul is both recognizing the tears in the fabric of the Corinthians’ church life and imploring them to stitch up those tears in the name of Christ.
    • Later puts the importance of that reconciliation into theological context – text: Christ didn’t send me to baptize but to preach the good news. And Christ didn’t send me to preach the good news with clever words so that Christ’s cross won’t be emptied of its meaning. The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved.[6] → Paul is reminding the church in Corinth about their “ultimate why” – their purpose for being the Church in the first place. It’s not about them. It’s not about who brought them to the faith. It’s not even about who started the church in which they are now squabbling (Paul himself!). It’s about God and what God did for them through Jesus Christ.
  • It is this message – all of the love and grace and openness and acceptance and wide-armed welcome that Christ rained down from the cross – that makes the church the Church. It’s this message that opens the doors and erases the lines. It’s this message the lets us all gather together to lift up the same prayers and share the same bread and cup and join our voices in praise and thanksgiving. It’s not about keeps us apart. It’s about what unites us: Grace. Unconditional love. Jesus Christ. And a God who was willing to give it all up for us on the cross. That’s why, every time we come to the table for communion, I say what I do: “No matter who you are … no matter where you come from … no matter what you bring with you … you are welcome at this table and in this community.” God has made a place for you – just for you – and that is what matters. And for that, we welcome you and we love you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Cale Atkinson. Where Oliver Fits. (New York, NY: Tundra Books), 2017.

[2] 1 Cor 1:10a, 11.

[3] 1 Cor 1:14-15.

[4] Harry B. Adams. “Third Sunday After the Epiphany – 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Homiletical Perspecitve” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 280.

[5] 1 Cor 1:10.

[6] 1 Cor 1:17-18.

Sunday’s sermon: United in Every Time and Place

00-Communion Sunday

Text used – 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10



  • Is anyone else getting weary?
    • Getting tired of working or schooling from home
    • Getting tired of the inside of your own house
    • Getting tired of the weightiness that comes with the latest headlines and the latest recommendations and the latest statistics that come out day after day
    • Getting tired of the disconnectedness and the isolation and the uncertainty
    • Yeah, friends. Me, too. The “long haul” nature of this is overwhelming, and I think we’re all really starting to feel it on a soul-deep level.
  • And yet, friends, we get to gather together today for at least a hint of normalcy when we come around this table – the communion table, Christ’s table. Yes, we’re all coming from different places and bringing different elements, but we are still here. We are still speaking the words we have spoken over and over again – words that are ancient and saturated with history and meaning. We are still renewing our souls and our faith and our commitment to God’s work in our world. And we are still together – in relationship, in community, in hope and in love. So today, all, we’re going to celebrate. We’re going to rejoice in our togetherness. We’re going to rejoice in the community that we experience both here and afar. We’re going to rejoice in bread and wine, in crackers and juice, in bagels and tortillas and water and tea and whatever else we bring to this table not because of what we bring but because of who calls us here: Jesus the Christ, our Lord and Savior, risen and sacred and whole.
    • Book of Order (in “Theology of the Lord’s Supper”): When we gather at the Lord’s Supper the Spirit draws us into Christ’s presence and unites with the Church in every time and place. We join with all the faithful in heaven and on earth in offering thanksgiving to the triune God. We reaffirm the promises of our baptism and recommit ourselves to love and serve God, one another, and our neighbors in the world.[1] → We’re going to work our way through this description and our Scripture reading as we celebrate this morning.
  • Before we dive deeper into this description, let’s talk a little bit about our Scripture reading this morning.
    • Thessalonica as a place[2]
      • Still a city you can visit today → located in Greece on the northern tip of the Aegean Sea
      • Large commercial and cultic center within the Roman Empire = lots of people, lots of money changing hands, lots of different religions … all crashing together in one city
      • It was also a city that was staunchly loyal to the Roman Empire which meant that even though Paul visited and established his church sometime between 41-54 C.E., most of the inhabitants probably saw the new Christian’s loyalty to Jesus as weakening the city’s support for Rome. → almost certainly led to suffering and persecution for Christians in Thessalonica at the hands of neighbors, family, friends
    • 1 Thessalonians as Scripture[3]
      • Written by Paul
      • Certainly among the earliest of Paul’s letters (quite possibly the 1st “check-in” letter he wrote to one of his established churches) → probably written around 51 C.E. (just 20 yrs. after Jesus’ death/resurrection)
      • Purpose: after leaving Thessalonica, Paul worried that the congregation’s anxiety and troubles would cause them to default – to abandon faith – so Paul wrote this letter of encouragement
        • Scholar: This letter is one of the most intimate in the [New Testament], full of love, prayer, thanksgiving, and images of the Christian family. Clearly, Paul uses it to renew his relationship with them. Above all, he exhorts them to remain faithful to Christ and to the Christian community under trying circumstances. He encourages the community to continue in love for each other and in faithful labor. [4] → Sound familiar, friends? Is that circumstance ringing any bells? Is it speaking to where you feel we are today? Because it is for me. I think we can be fairly sure that Paul’s words spoke powerfully to those in Thessalonica who received them nearly 2000 years ago … but they also continue speak powerfully to us today, especially with what we are going through as a church … as a nation … as the human family today.
  • Back to Book of Order description – 1st sentence: “When we gather at the Lord’s Supper the Spirit draws us into Christ’s presence and unites with the Church in every time and place.” → That’s what we’ve been working so hard to do since we started worshiping virtually 6 weeks ago. That’s what Paul was trying to do by sending this letter and all his other letters to churches that he had established and then had to leave – unite with them in every time and place. Nurture those relationships. Continue to building that community. Encourage faith near and far.
    • Text: Brothers and sisters, you are loved by God, and we know that he has chosen you. We know this because our good news didn’t come to you just in speech but also with power and the Holy Spirit with deep conviction.[5] → Notice, friends, that it isn’t Paul’s spirit … it isn’t Paul’s effort … it isn’t Paul’s faith that is lauded and praised here. It is God’s Spirit … it is God’s effort in love and power … it is God’s faith in choosing the people of Thessalonica. Paul makes it clear from the get-go that it is through the goodness and grace and love of God that Christian community is built and nurtured and sustained.
      • Same Spirit that draws us to the table to celebrate
      • Same Spirit that rejoices when we come back to God again and again
      • Same Spirit that unites us in every time and place, making all spaces where we worship – together or apart – holy spaces
  • 2nd sentence: “We join with all the faithful in heaven and on earth in offering thanksgiving to the triune God.” → WHY we come!
    • Paul praises both the faithfulness and the evangelism of the Thessalonians: You became imitators of us and of the Lord when you accepted the message that came from the Holy Spirit with joy in spite of great suffering. As a result you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The message about the Lord rang out from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia but in every place. The news about your faithfulness to God has spread.[6] → Paul is singing the praises of the Thessalonians church! He is commending them for their faithfulness, giving his own thanks for their continued thanksgiving and praise that they’ve given to God through their worship, through their prayer, through their sharing the gospel message … even in hard times, even in lean times, even in times of suffering and fear. The gospel lived in them, and they joined their voices with all those who had declared the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection – “the message about the Lord rang out from them!”
      • Why we come to worship (even in this strange and compartmentalized way in which we come today)
      • Why we come to the table, bringing all the crazy bits of our days … the crazy bits of our hearts … the crazy bits of our own meals to this Grand Feast → to join with each other and everyone else around the world who is doing this exact thing today, to join in giving our thanks and praise to God – not alone and in isolation – but together
  • 3rd sentence: “We reaffirm the promises of our baptism and recommit ourselves to love and serve God, one another, and our neighbors in the world.”
    • Declared loud and clear at both the beginning and end of today’s reading – text: We always thank God for all of you when we mention you constantly in our prayers. This is because we remember your work that comes from faith, your effort that comes from love, and your perseverance that comes from hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father. … People tell us about what sort of welcome we had from you and how you turned to God from idols. As a result, you are serving the living and true God.[7] → Paul is reaffirming their faith. Paul is praising their love and commitment and work for the Lord. Paul is acknowledging their hospitality and how that welcome – those actions of their hands and hearts – speaks the word of God just as clearly to one another and to their neighbors.
      • That was their call almost 2000 yrs. ago
      • This remains our call today → what we come to do every time we come to this table together
        • Reaffirm our faith
        • Recommit ourselves to God and God’s work in the world
        • Renew our bodies and our spirits for that work
        • Out of messiness … out of suffering … out of weariness … out of pain … out of frustration … out of discouragement … out of fear … out of hopelessness … out of anxiety … WE. COME. Every time. All times. Especially this time. And we don’t come to forget those things or to escape those things or to pretend for 10 minutes that those things don’t exist. We come to redeem those things – to bring them to God to be taken up in the arms of the Savior who carries them a whole lot better than we do, to be saturated in the overwhelming and abundant grace that renews us and makes us whole and frees us to live as people connected and loving once again. We come to this table of love because it was God that love us first and fiercest, and we depart from this table of love ready to share that love with the world. And there are no limits – geographical, virtual, immunological, or otherwise – to that love. Thanks be to God! Amen.


[1] “Theology of the Lord’s Supper” in The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Part II – Book of Order, 2019-2021. (Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly), W-3.0409.

[2] Abraham Smith. ”The First Letter to the Thessalonians – Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 11. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), 673-685.

[3] Love L. Sechrest. “1 Thessalonians – Introduction” in The CEB Study Bible. (Nashville, TN: Common English Bible, 2013), 388-390 NT.

[4] Love, 390 NT.

[5] 1 Thess 1:4-5a.

[6] 1 Thess 1:6-8a.

[7] 1 Thess 1:2-3, 9.