The Tie that Binds

"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. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing." 
"Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 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. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like 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, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love." ~1 Corinthians 13:1-13

In 1991, when I arrived at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia I believed I was well prepared for the study I was about to begin. I had just completed a degree in History from the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas. I had graduated with departmental honors for my scholastic scholarship.

I had also by this time spent three years serving as pastor of two Methodist Congregations in Northwest Arkansas. In spite of my inexperience these two congregations, with great patience and love, affirmed for me my call to ordained ministry. I was looking forward to moving closer to that goal at Seminary.

I was also blessed with the circumstances of my birth. I am a fourth generation pastor being the son, grandson, and great grandson of preachers. I have aunts and uncles and cousins who have, or are, serving in the international mission field. My childhood was spent attending church every time the doors were open. Each summer I attended Vacation Bible School and spent a week at Church Camp. By the time I reached Candler I had been thoroughly schooled in doctrine, the bible, and church politics.

On top of all of that, my father was both a preacher and a professor of philosophy and religion at Oklahoma Baptist University. Growing up at home my brothers and I got a heavy dose of philosophy, politics and theology every night at the dinner table as we discussed the events of the day, in particular the violent struggle of civil rights movement, the war on poverty, and the war in Vietnam.

So I hope you can understand why, when I showed up for Seminary, I believed I was well prepared for whatever Candler School of Theology had to teach me.

At Candler the first year is made up of basic introductory classes in bible, church history, and a praxis class on practical ministry. The bible and church history were not exactly a breeze, but I held my own. What was new and unexpected was the praxis class. My group was assigned to work as student Chaplains at Grady Hospital in downtown Atlanta. Grady is a big teaching hospital that also serves as the trauma and indigent care hospital for the greater Metro Atlanta area. I was assigned to a step down pediatric ward for babies coming from intensive care.

When I got my assignment I immediately began to think through what I thought my role was to be. As I imagined my day I saw myself providing pastoral care for the parents and staff on the ward who either had children in medical crisis or in the case of the staff helping them come to grips with the stress involved in providing medical care for infants in the grips of a medical crisis.

When I showed up for my first day on the ward I soon realized there were no parents to be found. The babies on this ward were those babies that had been abandoned by their mothers at the hospital door, or found by others in the allies and dumpsters of inner city Atlanta. The babies on this ward were almost exclusively crack babies, many suffering from the HIV virus that had been transmitted to them by their mothers.

So I began to focus on the staff. I began to hang out at the nurses station and in the staff lounge, asking questions, trying to figure out how I could pastor to these heroic people who day after day tried to save these children from the consequences of their births.

Within hours of my first day on the ward, Betty, the head nurse on the ward, approached me with a certain intimidating glare in her eye. I knew that something was terribly wrong. Nurse Betty was an imposing figure both in stature and personality. She would have made a great drill sergeant for the French Foreign Legion. And in the year to come I often wished that she would leave Atlanta to take up what I was sure to be her true calling.

Betty’s only words to me were short and sweet, with no sympathy for the new guy, “Leave my staff alone, she said. Your job here is to provide pastoral care for these babies.”

I was stunned. And, my feelings were hurt. But my pride was too great to let her see that. So I started searching out rooms with babies wondering how in the world I was to provide pastoral care to infants who could not understand a word I had to say. All those years of church School, worship, history classes, philosophical arguments, seemed totally useless when trying to minister to a crack baby. Here I was, a white man, raised in the bible belt of Oklahoma, being asked to minister to African American crack babies from the poverty stricken slums of inner city Atlanta.

As days passed I discovered that I would spend very little time with the infants with a prognosis of survival. I was careful to stay out of the way of the staff working to keep these babies alive, only entering the room when they were away. But, whenever the staff determined that an infant was not going to make it, they would send for me. Once called, I would stay with the infant until he or she died. Meanwhile the staff moved on to those infants that had a chance of survival.

At first I struggled to know what to do. I knew somehow that a discussion about the theology of Barth or Kierkegaard was not going to work. So, I began to sing. I would sing any song I could remember from growing up in the church, including Amazing Grace, Jesus Loves Me, and Blessed Be the Tie that Binds. I soon discovered that these songs were comforting to the babies, not that they understood the words, but I could tell by their behavior that the sound of a singing voice was in some way soothing to them. So I would sing. The words, unintelligible to the infants, turned out to be a gift of grace for me.

I distinctly remember one day in particular when a nurse came to get me to sit with a dying baby boy. He did not have enough strength left to move his head, but his eyes would follow me as I rocked back and forth singing to him. Whether out of instinct or the urgings of the Spirit I suddenly reached out and put my finger in the palm of his hand. This infant boy did what all babies do; he closed his hand around my finger. I continued to sing, but I quit rocking as the baby and I locked our eyes upon one another. I could sense the easing of anxiety. I believed then and believe to this day there was a deep spiritual connection that in that brief time bridged the huge chasm that separated us by health, by age, by language, by race. This little child on that day was my neighbor and I was his and we loved one another. Then he died.

There are plenty of theological and psychological arguments that could explain what took place that day. But these arguments are secondary to the act of love that took place between myself and that baby who has no name but child of God. No words were said that were understood, that was not the language we used. No great arguments of theology or law were discussed. We spoke the language of love. I do not speak of romantic love, but the same love that we share with Christ in his ministry, his torture, his death, and his resurrection. Did I die with that baby to be resurrected in the love of Christ? In faith I believe this to be true. I believe we both shared in the death of Jesus and in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, through the manifestation of Christ’s love, experienced in the extended hand of Christian fellowship.

Ultimately, what I wish to give witness to is that through the act of loving one another, two extraordinarily different human beings experienced a deep spiritual connection. Through love we became one in Christ. Love was the tie that bound us together that day and it is love that binds us together for eternity. I believe the love we shared that day is exemplary of the promise that Paul writes of in 1 Corinthians.

Ah, the “Wedding Text.” How many of us gathered here today have preached or heard this text in the context of a wedding. Many people know this passage by heart and find it as familiar and as comfortable as a favorite pair of old shoes. The irony of course, is that this text has little to do with the love that is associated with marriage. The more accurate understanding of this chapter is in the context of Paul’s attempt to communicate to the church in Corinth the meaning, the purpose, and the necessity of love within the Christian community. Specifically, that unity and difference can be acknowledged, respected, and celebrated only when love is at the center of what we do, and who we are as a Christian community.

Against all popular opinion, this is not a passage about romantic love, but about a radical communal love that enables individuals to imagine life in a community where unity and difference co-exist.

This is good news for those of us struggling to be faithful to the gospel of the risen Christ as members of the United Church of Christ, a church that is, and continues to be, a church of diversity and inclusivity. We are a uniting church that seeks to be united in common purpose, serving the universal call to discipleship. At the same time we are a church that celebrates our differences, our diversity, the spiritual gifts that each member, each congregation, brings to the common call to service. Paul’s urging to the church in Corinth to pursue love is a help to our congregations to envision a kind of love that can have such extraordinary power as to create, sustain, and build Christian unity in the midst of our differences and diversity.

But these claims about love are not communal mandates, new commandments, but rather a promise that comes from the very beginning of time itself--a promise from God. The love that Paul asks the Corinthians to strive for is the kind of love that Jesus pursues and proclaims as the acting out of God’s love for the world. Our pursuit of love is not only for the sake of our Christian communities, but also for the purpose of God’s mission in the world.

In this season of Epiphany, our pursuit of love can bring the light of Christ to those in darkness—to the poor, to the captive, to the blind, to the oppressed, and yes to infant crack babies in the catacombs of our hospitals, and the alleys of our cities. As a community of Christ, as the United Church of Christ, we are called to bring this good news to a world fragmented and polarized. To a world that reduces meaning to sound bites and diatribes that divide and separate us from one another, a world where public discourse is reduced to loud noise, where civility is drowned out by the sound of noisy gongs and clanging cymbals of partisan talk shows masquerading as news. To this world we are called to be a sign of God’s uniting love where we can coexist in our differences united in the love of God and the love for one another.

When we are truly a community in Christ, a community that knows its unity and celebrates its diversity, a community that knows the reality of division, and yet has in view the cross that binds us together, we will be able to join Jesus and walk along with him in his ministry to those who so desperately need to hear and know his love for them, including us.

Love is the tie that binds us together. Love is a promise that unites us and nurtures us as the uniting and United Church of Christ. Love is the language of our friend and savior Christ Jesus.

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Let us pursue love!

Amen.