Three years ago, Leroy and I spent a three month sabbatical traveling and exploring regions associated with the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Our transition from the Middle East to Europe was a short boat ride from the coast of Turkey to the Greek islands. We selected four islands in the Aegean Sea and spent a few days on each. The first was Samos, an island I had never heard of before the trip. It is unique among the Greek islands because it is covered with forests instead of bare rock and it boast some impressive mountains. The ferry ride from Kusadasi to Samos was short as we left the impressive ruins of the biblical town of Ephesus and escaped to our island paradise. We stayed in a picture-perfect harbor village and enjoyed cheese and bread and wine from our hotel balcony as we watched the colorful fishing boats bobbing up and down in the bay. On two afternoons we drove our little rental car through the hills to a shaded beach where we enjoyed the breeze and gazed at the azure blue and very cold water of the Aegean.
On Wednesday of this week, twenty-six Syrian refugees drowned off of that beach. Ten were children. Like Leroy and me, they were traveling from the Middle East to Europe. Unlike us, they were not on vacation, and they were entirely at the mercy of the sea and the limitations of a boat crowed to more than double its capacity. I watched a young Syrian father on TV, sitting on a rock wall and sobbing for the lives of his lost children.
Another person who traveled that route by boat was the Apostle Paul. On his second missionary journey, he sailed from the city of Corinth to Ephesus, passing by Samos on the sea in which he was shipwrecked multiple times. It was to the church in Corinth that he wrote the words of today’s Epistle reading that we know as the “love chapter”: First Corinthians 13. He wrote about childhood in the part of the chapter that is not as often recited as the first eight verses, saying “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish ways. When I read those words again this week, I thought about the ten children on that boat. And the seventeen children on a similar boat in the same sea one week earlier and five more yesterday who will never become adults. And the millions more whose parents are seeking a life of safety and promise for their children.
The Gospel reading takes us to Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. He is an adult, but his old neighbors still see him as a child. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they ask. They can’t believe that someone they remember running around and playing games with their own kids could be worth listening to when he spoke in the synagogue. So they kicked him out of town and actually tried to throw him off a cliff. The story ends with Jesus exerting a mysterious power over them as he walks through the crowd of attackers and leaves them behind. He realized he would never be anything other than a child in their minds, and as such his message would never be heard.
Yesterday, a workshop was held here with the title: “Roots of Injustice, Seeds of Change.” It was an interactive learning experience that told the story of Native Americans and the impact of European settlers who believe they had a divine right to take land and to subdue and kill those they found in their way. It’s a story we know well, or at least parts of it. It’s a legacy that continues to traumatize those whose ancestors were uprooted or put to death. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Native American children were removed from their families and taught by Christian missionaries in boarding schools. They were given new names to symbolize the idea that they were being civilized and Christianized. Many were sent far from their own reservation, and all were taught to assimilate into the ways of European-American culture. The effects were devastating. Whole generations since have been unaware of their history and culture. The script for yesterday’s program, prepared by the Boulder Quaker Meeting, stated that “thousands of Native children in these schools suffered from disease, hunger, and overcrowding, and from emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Many died. For example, of the 73 Shoshone and Arapahoe students who were sent to boarding schools between 1881 and 1894, only 26 survived." The majority did not survive to adulthood.
The Apostle Paul wrote in Corinthians about the movement from childhood to adulthood. From the time when words and actions and reasoning processes are those of a child, to the point of maturity when childish ways are put aside. Many children never make that transition. Sometimes because forces far beyond their control result in a shortened life. Sometimes because adults think they know what is best for them and do irreparable harm.
Paul urges his readers to grow up. It’s been said that you’re only young once, but that you can be immature forever(!) I guess growing up isn’t really compulsory, but what is it that hopefully changes about our perspective when we become adults? In other words, what are the characteristics of maturity?
1 Corinthians 13 is almost universally quoted at weddings, because it is a magnificent description of love. I never really thought about the connection between that description and the words immediately following about growing up, which seem a bit out of place. But if we change the words a little, substituting “maturity” for “love,” it begins to make sense. We’re used to hearing “Love is patient, love is kind; it does not insist on its own way,” etc. But we could also say that to be emotionally mature is to be patient, to be kind, to not be envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. To not insist on one’s own way. To not be irritable or resentful or to celebrate wrong-doing. Those political leaders who would drive people from their homeland and put families at risk on open seas demonstrate the ultimate arrogance and at the same time celebrate wrong-doing. Those who would insist on their own way by destroying the culture of other people do not demonstrate emotional maturity as much as they show a childish grasp for power. All of it comes from a profound failure to love, as the Apostle might put it.
This past Sunday, a particularly well-known presidential candidate in our own country showed up at a mainline Protestant Church for worship. The pastor, a friend of a friend of mine, was preaching on the same Lectionary text from First Corinthians that we used here last week. She read from the paraphrase by Eugene Peterson called The Message.” When quoting the portion about the parts of the body as a metaphor for the church, she read, “Can you imagine the eye telling the hand, “Get lost?” Or the head telling the foot, “You’re fired!” Ironic, considering who was in the congregation that morning. Anyway, she gave an impassioned sermon in which she stated that “Syrian refugees and Mexican migrants should be welcomed rather than shunned by Americans.” Leaving the church after the service, the candidate said to reporters “perhaps that was aimed at me.” In fact, though, the pastor didn’t know about the visit until one hour before the service. Let me assure you, that is too late to be re-writing your sermon. Encouragement to love our neighbors as valued parts of the human family should never be mistaken for a political jab.
Three times in the past week, I have been with members of our church who are trying to figure out how we can help Syrian refugees beyond giving money as we have done. We’re working on that, but it is a complex matter, especially since none are being resettled anywhere near us. It’s a natural thing to want to help, and we need to find out how to do so. It’s hard to see the answer right now. It reminds me of other words of Paul in this same chapter: “We see through a glass darkly.” We do not always see things clearly. A friend who was Vice President of my seminary and has now been ostracized from the institution for his support of same-sex relationships, wrote this in his blog this week: “There are times when I pray, ‘Lord, I wish you would have made everything crystal clear.’ In such moments, I sense Jesus responding, “One reason I didn't was so I could see how you treat someone who sees things differently than you." It would be so good if every theological and ethical and political question had a clear answer, but that wouldn’t allow us to struggle in necessary ways with ourselves and one another.
Instead of the traditional words, “We see through a glass darkly,” the translation that we most often use here in worship says, “We see in a mirror dimly.” That’s a whole different concept. It’s one thing to look through a murky piece of glass to try see what is on the other side. To see the “other.” It’s another matter to look in a mirror and not be able to see one’s own self clearly. Self-knowledge can elude us even when we are consciously working to become self-aware. Paul implies that that’s normal. It’s just the way we are, and we really need others around us to give timely and gentle feedback to point out the things we can’t see clearly about ourselves. He says that someday we will know fully, just as we are fully known. I like the idea of being fully known by another, and I like the idea of accepting limitations for the time being. Acknowledging to ourselves that we have them guards us from being boastful and arrogant and rude, and everything Paul says is the antithesis of love.
So here are questions to ponder today for yourself: Have I put away childish things? Am I continuing to strive for those qualities that express a mature love? Am I patient and kind? Am I able to relate to others in ways that are not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude? Have I given up insisting on my own way? Do I rejoice in what is good and true rather than the wrongdoing of others? Is my love for this world strong enough to bear, believe, hope, and endure? When I see children who suffer because of the cruelty of others, am I willing to do whatever is within my power to be sure they grow up and have a chance at the life they deserve?
God made us to live in a right relationship with those around us. Being able to do so is a process of growth that results in a better version of ourselves that is shaped by love. That’s why love is the best. “Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.”