Blessed Are Those Who Hunger And Thirst For What Is Right

Annual Meeting
I Corinthians 13
Rev. Dr. Robert T. Carlson, Jr.
February 3, 2019

Davidson College is a small liberal arts college located outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. If you are a basketball fan, you will recognize the name. Davidson went to the Final Four in 2008, led by a small point guard named Steph Curry, who is now one of the most famous professional basketball players in the land.

Basketball fans will know the name of Davidson College, but surprisingly, only a few died-in-the-wool Presbyterians will recognize that Davidson is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, USA. This is one of our colleges. Like most Presbyterian schools, Davidson has about 1800 students. They don’t spend millions of dollars on athletics, on scholarships or coach’s contracts. Bob McKillop has been the basketball coach since 1989. Last year, they had a good basketball season, but the most remarkable thing that Coach McKillop did in 2018 was not reported on ESPN. Last summer, he took his team, support staff and students to Auschwitz.

Here is why Coach Davidson believed this pilgrimage was important, and it has nothing to do with basketball. Last summer, Coach McKillop told the Washington Post:

“The volatility of the world today requires a response informed by a respect for human dignity and an understanding of what happens to us without it…. I want our young people to be able to step back into a moment when evil triumphed and respect for our common humanity had vanished…. I want them to be able to live out what they learn on this trip. Our world needs leaders who aim to serve others, guided by our best human instincts and by creative, disciplined minds. The world will need mature adults who are defenders of human dignity. That is why we are going to Auschwitz.”

It is the sort of sentiment which Jesus blessed in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for what is right, for they shall be filled.”

At Auschwitz, these students were met by an 84-year-old survivor, Eva Mozes Kor. She came to Auschwitz when she was 6, along with her twin sister and her parents. The day she arrived was the last time she ever saw her parents. She and her twin sister were some of the twins that were the subjects of experiments by the infamous doctor, Joseph Mengele.

Though the Davidson students were drowsy from jet lag, the first night in Auschwitz, they listened to Eva Kor with rapt attention as she told her story of survival and forgiveness. The effect was predictably devastating to these young people.  As we move farther from the events of the Holocaust, and first-person accounts of the horrors that took place become more scarce, studies have shown that it is becoming increasingly difficult to engage younger generations. A study financed by the New York Times last year showed that the majority of millennials do not possess a basic knowledge of the Holocaust. But for the young people from Davidson College, it was a life-changing event.

Gradually, over the two days of their visit, these young people built themselves back up as individuals, as teammates, as friends, as members of the human race. They witnessed the worst human beings are capable of, and they determined that they wanted to be counted among the best that makes us human. These young men and women wept. They wrote poetry. They journaled their experience. In short, these young people engaged in a level of introspection that they have never experienced before. At the end of their time, these young basketball players and their coaches recreated Eva’s walk to liberation as she left Auschwitz at war’s end. They walked hand in hand—Eva Mozes Kor in the middle of the pack—and they shouted, “I am free… I am free….” As one of the Davidson professors put it, “You don’t go to a place like Auschwitz and expect to be filled with hope, but this trip gave me hope.”

When we reflect upon the course of our lives, we often realize that it was a surprising experience—something unplanned or unexpected—that has made all the difference for us. For me, it was being invited for lunch by the minister at my home church whom I barely knew. I was 23 years old, working, living on my own, but no idea where I was really going.  By the time I went back to work that day, I had an appointment with the Admissions Department at Princeton Seminary, the last place I expected to be going. It was a lunch date that changed my life forever.

For Paul, who was known as Saul, it was an ordinary business trip to Damascus. One moment, he is riding his horse with warrants to arrest Christians in that Syrian city; two days later, he is being led, blind, into a small gathering of the early church and confessing that he has seen and heard the risen Lord. We get knocked down, then we get up again, but getting up, we are seldom the same exact person we were before we got knocked down.

It is hard to understand how Saul—the man who was breathing threats and murder against all Christians—the one who willing held the cloaks of others so that they could get more force as they threw stones at the Christian, Stephen—hard to understand how this is the same man who wrote the ode to love that was this morning’s Scripture.

We often hear this text in the context of a wedding. In that setting, it may sound as though love is some special dispensation—some perfect, abiding state of harmony for the lucky few. Some especially blessed people may live up the standards of love as set by Paul, while the rest of us will struggle to find our place in any community. We hear this poem as a warning: If we don’t get this right, we will not have friends or lovers or spouses or children or a God. But what Paul is actually saying is that love is already present. It is a force—a power and principality—that draws our hearts and minds back to love itself.

The context of Paul’s words of love is this: Paul is trying to convince a terribly divided congregation that they are more united than they might think. Paul is the founding pastor of this congregation. But personal scandals and corporate disfunction have reduced the congregation to a state of constant in-fighting. Many are sending Paul letters that must have read like the professions of a tattle-tale. This congregation cannot even manage a simple church potluck. Many bring a dish to pass, but then they refuse to pass the dish and feed only themselves, not the congregation.

Yes, Paul says, they are made up of men and women, slave and free, Greeks and Jews But these many different persons need each other, the way that the eye needs a hand. While each person has gifts and talents, each one is also incomplete. Which is why they must cooperate and work together. Is everyone patient? Far from it. Is each one of you kind and gentle with those who are new to the community? Not in the least. Do you admit that you might not know everything? That, Paul says, is the hardest thing for me to admit, and I know it is difficult for you too. But pay attention now, for I will admit that I have failed in the most of these fundamental things.

The Greek language has more than one word that we translate as love. Storge was the word used when the UPS delivery person brings you a package that you have been waiting to receive. “I love you, UPS.” I storge you. Eros describes sexual desire and being “in love;” philia was the word used for the affection between family and friends. Paul picks up a marginal word in the Greek language and adapts it here to become the centerpiece of the Christian Gospel. Agape is a selfless form of love, the kind of love that people can feel for strangers or even for enemies.  It is impractical and makes no sense, but agape is real. And as Paul insists, it is a gift from God.

In starting to explain agape, Paul is facing the goal of his life and his mission, so he speaks in the first person.  Without this love that comes from God, without true self-sacrifice, all of Paul’s speeches are nothing more than clanging metal, fingernails on a blackboard. My faith, Paul says, is enough to move mountains and perform wonders, but my faith is powerless when it is not based on God’s love. Anyone can make a sacrifice, but if that sacrifice is not motivated by a love that is beyond myself, all I am doing is making a lot of smoke.

Love is something outside of ourselves, more like a someone than a something. In Greek, the words Paul uses to describe love are all verbs, not adjectives. Love is what love does. Love is patient, kind—not boasting—not  arrogant—not rude. This, from the man who was known for his many boasts, his arrogance and for being exceedingly rude.

If we can trust even half of what Luke writes in the Book of Acts, Paul has managed to make enemies up and down the breadth of Asia Minor, which is known as Turkey today. In city after city, Paul is chased out of town. He received so many beatings that his back is scarred and numb from the pain. He was shipwrecked twice. He has managed to start fights with Peter and with James. Silas got so mad at Paul that he threw in the towel and went home halfway through one of their mission trips.

But in this moment of self-revelation, Paul tells the Corinthians—and so he tells us too, ‘You know the right way to feel, so turn those right feelings into acts and perform those acts. You also know what feels wrong; so don’t perform the acts that spring from those feelings. Does this sound impossible? Thankfully, such acts spring from the living God. Suppose that such love reaches out, calls to us, never gives up on us despite our failings. Then, even though human beings fail, love never does.’

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in South African prisons for his opposition to the Apartheid laws governing his homeland. He went on to rise to power as the first democratically elected president of the nation after those apartheid. In his autobiography, Mandela explained that his warders made a great mistake by requiring political prisoners to work together in hard labor. Working side by side, the prisoners were able to communicate with one another, were able to have some sense of accomplishment, were able to form bonds with each other, and sometimes even with their guards. Though they were strangers, some strange power of love developed between them and among them. This bond was so strong that in 1994, Mandela invited two of the men who had been his guards to be present at his inauguration, because he had come to love them more than brothers.

As a congregation, we stand at the start of a new year, full of possibilities for our mission and ministry to expand and grow. We are living in a time and a place that needs people who hunger and thirst for what is right, who desire to practice mercy and peace, and who are willing to be surprised by the power and presence of God’s love. It is not a new calling, but each time we respond to this call, we respond in a way that is unique and fresh. Paul challenges us to walk through this life following the most excellent road. And the name of that road is love—a love that is beyond us, yet with God, it is a love that is within our grasp. “Put love first,” Paul says. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it ‘the impossible possibility.’  I think it is good description of our life together in this church. It is who we are, for one another, and for this world—the impossible possibility. “…for with God, all things are possible.” Amen.