Tuesday, June 6, 2017

6-5-17 "The GIFT of Love" from the "Summer of Love" series

Play video of song, "San Francisco (Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)”

   That song  was the theme song, if there was a singular theme, of what became known as “The Summer of Love” in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in 1967. When we think of the the 1960s in general, and when we think of the turbulence of that decade it’s often 1968 that comes to mind, not 1967. 1968 saw the assassinations 
of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. 
It witnessed, as played out on national TV, a Democratic National Convention in Chicago that turned into hand-to-hand combat between anti-war and anti-Lyndon Johnson protestors and the Chicago Police Department. 
But before all of that chaos, prior to all of that violence, there was 1967.

   I don’t know about you, but in 1967 I was only 7 years old. My father had died the year before, in 1966. 
My brother was in the army but had not yet shipped off for the first of his three tours in Vietnam, where the presence of American troops had increased to over 475,000 in that small southeast Asian nation, while back home the peace rallies were multiplying as the number of protesters against the war increased as well. 

In 1967 the boxer, Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, was stripped of his boxing world championship title for refusing to be inducted into the U.S. Army. In the middle east, Israel also went to war with Syria, Egypt, and Jordan in what would become known as the Six Day War, through which, when it was over, Israel controlled and occupied a lot more territory that it did before the war. 
In England, a new type of fashion model emerged and became a sensation, by the name of Twiggy, and mini skirts continued to get shorter and even more popular for a time. 
   Also in 1967, discotheques and singles bars appeared across cities around the world. The movie industry moved with the times and produced movies that would appeal to a younger audience including "The Graduate,” “Bonnie and Clyde" and "Cool Hand Luke.”  TV shows of that year included "The Fugitive" and "The Monkees" and color television sets became popular as the price came down and more programs were made in color. 

And in the music world, the Beatles continued to reign supreme with the release of their “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album. 
And this year was also what became known as “The Summer of Love,” when young people in droves got friendly and smoked pot and grooved to the music of The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and The Byrds.

   But in San Francisco, something new was happening. 
A utopian community of sorts was growing in Haight-Ashbury, where the first “free store” in the community was established - completely frustrating would-be shoplifters. A free medical clinic was also created that, 
50 years later, still serves the people of that community. Food was donated by grocers and farmers alike to provide free meals for the thousands of free spirits who came to the Bay area, and free and reduced cost housing was provided for those who needed it. 
There were also different kinds of music and musicians coming to the fore as what was to become known as 
the Hippie movement was taking shape. 
Experimentation with marijuana and the newly discovered psychedelic drug, LSD, was taking place as more young people took psychologist Timothy Leary’s advice to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” 
Over the summer of 1967, it is estimated that some 75-100,000 young people converged on San Francisco, in part to find out just what all the buzz was about, in part to become what was fast becoming a counter cultural movement against the government and big corporations who profited from war, and also to attend the inaugural Monterey Pop Festival, where heretofore unknown musicians such as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and others would hypnotize an audience estimated to be 90,000 people.

   At about the same time, further down the coast in Hollywood of all places, another movement was developing as a countercultural movement against traditional institutions who were aligning themselves 
with the war machine, called the Jesus Movement. Pushing back against institutionalized religion and their support of what President Eisenhower had called the “military-industrial complex,” the original followers of the Jesus movement, while also claiming to “counter” the  countercultural movement taking place in San Francisco with the hippies of the day, actually emulated them as much as anything. 
The earliest followers of the Jesus movement gravitated toward communal living and the sharing of food and clothing, like their hippie counterparts up the coast. 
And it was the Jesus Movement that introduced guitars and drums into the music of their worship. And while neither the Hippie Movement nor the Jesus Movement had staying power on their own terms, we can see some of their combined influence in the portrayals of Jesus in two very different films that came out just a few years later: Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar.

   This utopian vision of living together freely, sharing all things, and loving one another was not original to the 1960s though. Acts 2 records this same idealized type of living having taken place in the first century, albeit without the “free love” aspect that 1967 San Francisco brought us. 
Acts 2:42-47 tells us
The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

    In fact, the community Luke describes in Acts might have been among the last of these types of communities, because as we read in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, many communities were struggling to get along. Paul’s letter, written at least 2 decades before Luke wrote Acts, describes a community in chaos and conflict. As described earlier in the letter and in other places, there were various gifts of the Spirit that were present in the community; the gifts of speaking in tongues and of interpreting tongues, the gift of prophecy, the gifts of healing, of teaching, of knowledge - as the song goes, “many gifts, one spirit.” But there were other spirits running amok in this community, the spirit of jealousy, the spirit of rivalry, the spirit of rancor and discord. 
Why so much conflict? Because some thought that their particular spiritual gift made them what we might call a “special snowflake.” 
That is, they thought their gift more important, more special, more Godly, that those of others so they thought they should have more power, more influence, more prestige, more whatever. So it is to address this situation that Paul writes.

   Now, 1 Corinthians 13 is most often heard, or misheard, in the context of a wedding and is used to describe the “perfect relationship” within the framework of a marriage. What is often missed, and perhaps actively ignored, is that this text was first written to a community that was having a very difficult time staying together. With that thought in mind, maybe that makes it a perfect text for a wedding! It is in the difficult realities of relationships and communities that the love described by Paul needs to be lived out in costly ways, and because of that dynamic this text holds promise for the gathered people of God this Sunday. But that said, 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 can co-exist. So the task today is to offer a corrective to the common experience of this text, but more importantly, to help us envision a kind of love that can have such extraordinary power so as to create, sustain, and build Christian unity.
   In his commentary on this passage, theologian Brian Peterson writes, The Corinthians were actively pursuing some of the things that Paul mentions in the opening verses of chapter 13 such as speaking in tongues and knowing “mysteries.” There may be nothing wrong with such things in themselves, but if in the process people forget about loving their brothers and sisters, such things end up being worthless. 
Without love, it does not matter what budgets, buildings, or missional strategies we have. Such things do not give the church the shape that God desires. We may pursue various forms of spirituality, or proper doctrine, or activism in the name of justice. However, in our pursuit of these otherwise fine things, we must not forget that the church is called to be a community that practices love.”
   “The church is called to be a community that practices love,” he writes. And what does it look like to practice love. Paul suggests that IF we do all the right things or say all the right things, but we do it without a guiding sense of love, then we’re just more noise in the world. 
All the skills, all the gifts, all the knowledge in the world is empty if we don’t use them, share them, in the power of and pursuit of love. Even, he offers, if I give away everything I have, everything I own, total divestiture, in order primarily to feel good about myself - “look what I’ve done!” - rather than as an act of love - it’s all just meaningless showboating.

   Peterson points out that “love,” as used by Paul in this letter, “is the subject of 16 verbs in a row; it happens in every phrase. That may not come through clearly in English translations, where love is described by some rather static adjectives (“love is patient, love is kind”). Instead, Paul’s claims, [more clearly understood as it’s written in the original Greek,] are that love “shows patience” and “acts with kindness.” Here, love is a busy, active thing that never ceases to work. It is always finding ways to express itself for the good of others. 
The point is not a flowery description of what love “is” in some abstract and theoretical sense, but of what love does, and especially what love does to one’s brother or sister…”
   Love is….this is an action, not an emotion. 
This isn’t about the romanticism of a wedding or some other notion of romantic love - this is about doing something.
   Love is patient…a hard message in a world where instant gratification isn’t fast enough
   Love is kind…a message often lost in an online social networking world where kindness is often the first victim of our “right” to express ourselves or our freedom of speech, regardless of who or how it hurts someone else.
   Love isn’t rude, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t seek its own advantage…all of these speak of ways of being that seem to fly in the face of our modern “me first” society in so many ways.

   Paul writes to a congregation in Corinth that is tearing itself apart over what they believe are the most important gifts of the spirit, who has them, and what that means. It’s a power struggle within the church between those who speak in tongues and believe that’s the most important gift, those who have the gift of prophecy and think that the most important, and so on. 
It’s as though the UMW and the Choir went to war over whose work in the church was the most important. 
And Paul’s word would be that none of it is important at all if it isn’t done in a spirit of love.

   And we see this same idea play out in John’s gospel, written later still than Paul’s letter or Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. Here John quotes Jesus as saying, 
“IF you love me you will keep my commandments.” 
This is a conditional, defining statement by Jesus - it is an identifying mark of those who want to claim to be followers of Jesus. Again, Jesus ties the idea of love to an action - keeping his commandments. Now, you’ll remember last week when we talked about moral legalism in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, that in John, the only commandments Jesus gives to his disciples to follow is “love one another.” So later in John he writes of Jesus saying, “whoever loves me will keep my commandments…” The commandment Jesus gave in John’s gospel was simple - “Love one another as I have loved you.” In the synoptics, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we hear a more expanded version that comes down to “Love God and love neighbor.” 

   Heard then, within our 1967 setting of the “Summer of Love,” The Beatles’ words “All You Need is Love” sounds so simple on the surface, maybe even simplistic or naive. First Jesus and then Paul make clear to us that this “love” thing is not simple or easy at all. To love another requires not a hormonal emotional connection, but a physical, visceral action as sign of love - it requires us to DO something rather than to only FEEL something. 
And it requires us to do something for the other first, putting their needs ahead of our own. Free love in this context, unlike that of the Hippie movement, is not understood as a carnal exchange among strangers, but as the freely given love of God for all God’s children, shared within the community of God. 

   The last element that Paul describes in this litany of love’s activities is that “love never fails.” 
And as Peterson points out, “Paul names 3 things which are of central value to the church: faith, hope, and love… Faith will one day become sight, and hope will end in fulfillment. Love will still remain, however, because God’s love will not fall, fail, or falter. We are drawn into that love of God, and we are remade by that love so that we become lovers.”
   And he continues, “Paul never says that such love feels good, and this is where the typical use of this chapter goes off the rails. Such misunderstanding creates trouble not only for expectations regarding the day-to-day realities of marriage, but also for the realities of the church. Because of our disordered assumptions about what love actually is, we often act as though the mission of the church is to gather like-minded and likable people together. We think that in such a community it will be easy for us to love or, more honestly, to “feel the love.” But true love is not measured by how good it makes us feel. In the context of 1 Corinthians, it would be better to say that the measure of love is its capacity for tension and disagreement without division.”

   This letter, then, rather than a peaceful, poetic ode to the charms of Cupid’s romantic love, is a call to action. 
A call to work for, strive for, yearn for, a love that bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things, is patient, kind and all the rest. This is not a message to be cross-stitched and hung on a wall to be dusted off when company comes, this a message to be taken to the streets, to the alleys, to the parks, to the underpasses, to the homeless shelters, to the food pantries, to the free meals, to the free stores. 
This is a message to be lived out, practiced, demonstrated, failed at and tried  and again. 
This is the gift that is given by the God who gives gifts, the gift of life and the gift of love. 

   One of the little known but enduring things that came from that first Summer of Love 50 years ago was this simple phrase, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”  And love asks of us, what will you do with this day? Will this day be just another day of competing, of debating, of scratching and storing up for yourself, or will this be the day you act out of love for another and feel the love returned? Will this, the first day of the rest of your life, be a day when you bemoan the requirements of love, or will it be the day that you open your heart, your mind, and your life to receive and share the gift of love we are given by God through Jesus Christ? The choice is yours - choose love. Amen.

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