A Sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark.
February 3, 2013
Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
My Uncle Arlen Stone, when he wasn’t leading the singing at his Baptist church or playing guitar in a country band on the local radio station, was a carpenter. Over the period of a few years he built a couple of additions to our old house, and didn’t seem to mind when I came along and bothered him… which, as I recall, I did on a fairly regular basis. But he was solicitous of me. In fact, he would find an extra hammer and a piece of wood with a couple of nails, give them to me and let me go at it.
I thought of Uncle Arlen years later when Janet and I built our house in the Perry Hall area of Baltimore. The contractor was a deacon in our church, and his carpenter was named Ralph. Ralph was as quiet as my Uncle Arlen. I suppose that perhaps there’s a certain amount of solitude that comes with the craft of carpentry, and it yields itself naturally to one who isn’t very verbal.
Ralph, who really knew his business, was a very kind and thoughtful man, and I noted with a great deal of nostalgia that he did with our son Timothy what my Uncle Arlen had done for me years before. He too would give Tim a hammer, a piece of wood and couple of nails and tell him to go at it.
I developed a few skills along the way, and have done some carpentry work myself, but would hardly consider myself a craftsman. I do know this, however: all carpenters use what is called a plumb line. It is a simple instrument that determines a straight line and helps the carpenter insure that walls and such are square and true. All construction must begin with everything square or there will be problems to deal with along the way. The plumb line is an essential tool of any carpenter.
The prophet Ezekiel talks about a plumb line. He has a vision of the rebuilding of the temple in Israel, the one that was destroyed when the people were taken into exile by the Babylonians. In his vision, he is met by a man who has a measuring rod and a plumb line in his hand. Meticulously, he measures out all the details of the temple so the prophet will have a clear idea in mind of what God wants his holy building to be when the people eventually return to their native land.
The Apostle Paul was not a carpenter; he was a tent maker. But in his letter to the church at Corinth he talks about a plumb line. Oh, he doesn’t use that imagery exactly, but he does talk about love, and leaves no doubt in the thoughts and minds of his friends in Corinth that love is the plumb line for their faith. If they do not have love, nothing else – not even faith and hope – have any real, and certainly any eternal, significance.
If you want to build a structure and do not get it square from the beginning, no amount of expertise is going to help. You have to get started right. Paul tells the people in Corinth that if they do not have love none of the other values of the faith have any real and true meaning or significance. Without love, one’s faith cannot be squared with one’s actions. Without love, one’s hope is futile and misplaced. You have to start with love. It is the plumb line of our faith and life in Christ.
Yet, this is one of those passages of scripture that is often taken out of context. Like Ruth, for example… When Ruth tells her mother-in-law Naomi that she will not leave her, that her people will be her people and that she will take Naomi’s God into her heart as well, it is quite doubtful that she could have possibly imagined her poetic words would ever be used in countless numbers of weddings.
The same is true with the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians. It is the closest thing to poetry that Paul ever provides.
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…
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies…
As for tongues…
As for knowledge, it will come to an end.
When I was a child, I spoke, thought,
I reasoned as a child;
When I became an adult,
I put an end to childish ways.
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…
And then the final line, the most famous of all:
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
and the greatest of these is love.
Do you remember the scene in The Christmas Story when Ralphie is imagining his teacher’s response to his essay of what he wants for Christmas? What does he want for Christmas? An official Red Rider Carbine-Action Two-Hundred Shot Range Model Air Rifle! His teacher, Miss Shields, dances ecstatically around the classroom – this is Ralphie’s imagination, remember – and writes on the blackboard, “A+ A+ A+!” That’s the way we feel when we hear these poetic words of Paul… A+ A+ A+! But in reality, his message is received by the folks in Corinth more like the C+ that Ralphie’s teacher gives him, along with the notation on his essay, “You’ll shoot your eye out!”
When you hear, either the words from Ruth or this portion of Paul’s letters, what comes to mind? Richard Hays tells us what comes to his mind: “… flowers and kisses and frilly wedding dresses.”1 Or Lewis Galloway, perhaps a bit more cynically: “…white dresses, rented tuxedos, bouquets, unity candles, and all the other practices and paraphernalia that the culture uses to prop up its romanticized notions about marriage.”2
But Paul wasn’t preparing a wedding homily. Instead, he was writing for one purpose only, to get under the skin of the people in the church who were doing anything but loving one another. These words were meant to inspire, to be sure. But they were also written to agitate and aggravate, to make the people think about what they were doing and how they were doing it, and then to make a change in their course direction.
If you were present last week, you may recall that we talked about Jesus’ visit to his hometown. He has begun his public ministry, and together with his disciples has come over from Capernaum to Nazareth. On the Sabbath, he attends synagogue worship and is asked to read scripture. He chooses the Book of Isaiah where the prophet talks about that day when good news will come to the poor and release will be given to the captives. He prophesies of the blind receiving their sight and the oppressed being set free. Jesus reads all this and then tells the people of his hometown that he is the One who has come to fulfill the prophet’s vision. As you may recall, it did not go well. In fact, before it was all over, they tried to kill Jesus, his words were so inflammatory to them.
Well, it’s a good thing Paul wrote these words to the Corinthians in a letter, because the chances are pretty good that his sentiments were not received so gladly either. You hear these words repeated at a wedding, and you go, “Ah. That’s so nice. A+ A+ A+!” When the folk in the church at Corinth heard them, however, their teeth were set on edge and the level of their anger rose to record highs. It’s a good thing Paul wasn’t there or they might have tried to do the same thing to him that the folk in Nazareth attempted with Jesus.
But he knew that what the people in Corinth were trying to do was build a church without a plumb line. They thought that speaking in tongues was the answer, that this was a sign of superior spiritual abilities and knowledge. The problem was that some of them had the gift and others didn’t. So, those who did lorded it over those who didn’t. Feelings were hurt, lines were drawn (and not very straight ones at that), and fellowship was damaged. Paul is telling them that if lines are going to be drawn, they have to be plumbed and they have to be lines of love.
Others thought of themselves as really, really good with prophesying. They considered themselves able to look into the depths of mysteries with a level of knowledge that others didn’t possess. They were met with resentment, naturally, and were considered arrogant by those who were offended by what they said and did.
There was a group that gave away all their possessions. That’s fine, of itself, if you want to do that sort of thing. But then they boasted of their great generosity, and you can only imagine how some in the church, especially those who were not in a position to do something like that, felt about it.
The Corinthian church was short on patience and kindness and long on envy and arrogance, even rudeness. Many of its people insisted that things be done their way, while others grew irritable and resentful. Since this portion of Paul’s letter is used so often in weddings, John Claypool decided to use that context in describing what the Corinthian church was doing. He said “…they had pulled asunder what God had joined together.”3 The Corinthian church was a mess, all because they had not taken the time and effort to square up the walls of their church. They had not used the plumb line of love.
We are not the Corinthian church… thank goodness. I haven’t talked to anybody in a long time, and certainly not around here, who has the desire to talk in tongues. If you are of the theological bent that you believe Jesus is coming soon and you have the date and time nailed down, well, you haven’t shared your thoughts with me. And while this can be a very generous church in many ways, I don’t hear any boasting about it; unless it’s on the part of the staff who try, on a regular basis, to thank you for your thoughtfulness and generosity. And I have never, ever heard or seen anyone tout a superior spiritual knowledge or understanding at the expense of someone else’s feelings. In fact, I have found, for the most part, that you are patient and kind, and filled with a great and deep hope for the future of this congregation.
But sometimes we come to church without bringing with us the proper tools, and if we are to face the challenges of the future – and by that I mean the near future – we need to have the right instruments with which to do it. For those of us who are twentieth-century Christians (yes I said twentieth), we need to realize that the church, this church, faces unprecedented challenges, and using old tools won’t get the job done.
I have my grandfather’s old planer. It is a simple instrument that uses a blade to shape and form a piece of wood to one’s liking. My grandfather was a farmer, not a carpenter, but he lived in the hinterlands of north Mississippi where folk had to learn how to do a variety of things in order to just get by. So, as I understand it, he was a pretty fair hand with his carpentry tools. I guess the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Now, my son Timothy has taken up woodworking, and is amassing quite a workshop of highfalutin’ and powerful tools that can do some amazing things, tools that require much less time than it would have taken my grandfather. The end result might be the same, but the way to get there is not.
We have to look at our ministry in new and different ways, and it may require that we consider doing it in ways that we’ve not thought of before. But there will always be one constant. If we do not measure everything we do – everything – with the plumb line of love, nothing else will square.
How do we do that? Well, my late friend John Claypool offers another suggestion. “The terms agape love and Jesus of Nazareth are actually interchangeable,” he says, “which means we are not left with some vague ideal but a concrete example of what constitutes authenticity in Christianity.” He says that we “can substitute the name Jesus for the word love in this passage and nothing is altered. Listen: ‘Jesus was patient and kind. Jesus was not jealous or boastful. Jesus was not arrogant or rude. Jesus did not insist on His own way. Jesus was not irritable. Jesus did not rejoice at wrong but rejoiced at the right. Jesus bore all things, believed all things, hoped all things, endured all things. Jesus never gave up.’”4
There’s your plumb line, folks, the only consideration you need when it comes time for you to square up what is right and true. Now, let’s go build something straight and true, and let’s do it with the Carpenter at our side.
Lord, be with us as we work together in love. Be our Guide and our Plumb Line as we work together in building your church, Amen.
1Richard Hays, Interpretation: First Corinthians (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), p. 231.
2F. Lewis Galloway, Feasting on the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 302.
3John Claypool, “Authentic Christianity,” November 13 1977.