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1.29.2006

Love that Builds Up or "Last Prophet Standing"

Epiphany 4 – Year B
Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church
Elk Grove Village, Illinois



Today’s readings have inspired a new reality TV show - “Last Prophet Standing!”1 The rules are simple: All prophets must only speak what God commands. All listeners must only obey those prophets who speak what God commands. If a prophet claims to be speaking the word of God, but is, in fact, speaking in the name of another god, that prophet will die. If, on the other hand, the prophet is telling God’s truth, and a listener chooses not to obey, it is the listener who will die. Just to make things interesting for the listeners – it may be challenging to figure out which are the true prophets because the false prophets may not die immediately! Anyone want to be a contestant?

Seriously, what are we to make of this reading about the prophets? There are certainly plenty of people who claim to be speaking in God’s name. So how do we find the truth? I think an answer can be found in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. He writes, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to known something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.” Love that builds up is an important theme for Paul and rightly so for it expresses a central tenet of our faith: God is love. Pope Benedict XVI issued his first encyclical letter earlier this week and it too is on the subject of love. In it, he reminds us that Love is central to what it means to be Christian. It is central to our understanding of our relationship to God AND central to our understanding of our relationship with one another. I believe that Pope Benedict XVI, our brother in faith, is right on this point. He begins by quoting these familiar words from I John: “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” He continues by saying that these words express “the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of humankind and our destiny.” It may turn out that the common phrase “it’s not what you know, but who you know” may, in fact, be right. If we listen to what St Paul is saying to us, it is not just who you know, but how you know who you know. In other words, it is the quality of the knowing that is so important. It is much more than name recognition or name dropping. It is about a kind of knowing that, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “involves a real discovery of the other . . . concern and care for the other.” This quality of knowing is Christian Love – love that builds up.

Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit includes a conversation between the Skin Horse and the Velveteen Rabbit which is, at its core, a conversation about love that builds up. As these two toys are lying on the floor next to one another in the child’s playroom, the Rabbit asks the Skin Horse, “What is REAL? . . . Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?” The Skin Horse responds, “Real isn’t how you are made. . . It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” “’Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit. ‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’” The rabbit then asks how it happens and the Skin Horse carefully explains, “It doesn’t happen all at once. . . You become. It takes a long time . . . . But . . . once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” 2 Love that makes real, love that speaks truth – these are the qualities of love that builds up.

Paul also provides additional insight into love that builds up. Our reading from I Corinthians this morning stopped before we got to Paul’s famous words about love – words that many of you may have heard at a wedding: “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.” This is the nature of a love that builds up. This is the nature of the love that we are called to – “our destiny” as Pope Benedict XVI calls it. This is the love that God has for us and models for us. We recited Psalm 111 this morning:
“He makes his marvelous works to be remembered; the LORD is gracious and full of compassion. He gives food to those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant. He has shown his people the power of his works in giving them the lands of the nations. The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice; all his commandments are sure. They stand fast for ever and ever, because they are done in truth and equity. He sent redemption to his people; he commanded his covenant for ever; holy and awesome is his Name.”
God’s love never ends.

“Love never ends.” Those three words typically end the reading from I Corinthians at weddings; however, Paul’s letter continues with a warning: “Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end . . . 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” (I Cor. 13:4-10).

With this in mind, let’s return to our game show - “Last Prophet Standing” – because I think we will all be better contestants now that we’ve muddled our way through to a more precise understanding of love that builds up. Let’s review the rules: All prophets must only speak what God commands. All listeners must only obey those prophets who speak what God commands. If a prophet claims to be speaking the word of God, but is, in fact, speaking in the name of another god, that prophet will die. If, on the other hand, the prophet is telling God’s truth, and a listener chooses not to obey, it is the listener who will die. How will we find the truth?

True prophets will demonstrate through their words and actions a love of God and an understanding of God’s love for all of humanity. True prophets will demonstrate through their words and actions a love for humanity that is grounded in patience, kindness, humility, mutuality, truth, belief, hope, and endurance. Love builds up . . . and anyone who loves God is known by him. Hallelujah! Let us give thanks to the LORD with all our hearts for the love among us - the love among us that is indeed building up the community of faith here at St. Nicholas!



1As I searched for something "fun and festive" to link to, I discovered this link with its own variation on the TV show "Last Prophet Standing" - proving, yet again, that great minds think alike (or, as I do not know The Rev. Dr. Vaughn, perhaps I should just say, "minds think alike" - sort of loses something in that version).

2Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), pp. 12-14.

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