We can easily interpret love as a warm-fuzzy feeling appearing in a greeting card. Selfless “Agape” love is anything but weak. Rev. John Weems lifts up modern examples of such strong love, and consider our call to take action.
1 Corinthians 13: 1-8
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.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
In the dark ages before we could order every product through the Internet, my mom made me the happiest 14-year-old in Idaho by taking the long trip to Boise to buy one of the greatest gifts I ever received—a pair of Air Jordan basketball shoes. More than sneakers, this gift helped me feel a sense of connection to Michael Jordan, my idol, who could soar 15 feet from the free throw line and dunk. (Never mind that I could barely dunk with the assistance of a trampoline, I needed the shoes) His legend grew as he won championships and played through adversity including one game against the Utah Jazz in 1997 while suffering through food poisoning and still scoring 38 points for the win. In addition to his shoes, his face was everywhere endorsing Hanes underwear, Gatorade, Wheaties and many more.
As omnipresent as Jordan was, I didn’t notice his silence regarding world events. From Magic Johnson’s announcement that he was HIV-positive, to the aftermath and uprising in Los Angeles after the officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted of assault charges, Jordan did not take public stands. Some have defended Jordan, saying that by so carefully protecting his brand and becoming a billionaire and the only African-American majority owner of an NBA team, he has created unparalleled opportunity. His staff with the Charlotte Hornets and Nike’s Brand Jordan are arguably the most diverse in all of sport. Fellow basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar does not give Jordan a pass: “He took commerce over conscience,” he told NPR’s All Things Considered in 2015.
Though Jordan had made donations through the years, including $1 million to the families of 9/11 victims, he did not take public stands until last year when he issued a statement that “We need to find solutions that ensure people of color receive fair and equal treatment AND that police officers – who put their lives on the line every day to protect us all – are respected and supported.” Jordan also made a $1 million donation to both the NAACP and the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s newly established Institute for Community-Police Relations.
While few have the platform and courage to follow Mohammed Ali, Jordan’s decades of cautious silence makes some of the more recent stands by athletes noteworthy. I know that we have a range of opinion in this church of San Francisco 49ers’ Quarterback Colin Kaepernick and many other athletes kneeling during the National Anthem or New England Patriots’ players saying they will not visit the White House. For those not alive during the 1980s, you should know that even Larry Bird said “no thanks” to the White House visit when the Boston Celtics won in 1984, adding that, “If the president wants to see me, he knows where to find me.”
Defending NBA league most valuable player Stephen Curry is not known for being especially political. Curry is the face of the Under Armour shoe and apparel company and estimated to be worth $14 billion to the company’s value. In addition to his salary, he has an equity stake and incentive to do all he can do boost the stock price. Curry made headlines last week when Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank called President Trump “a real asset to the country” and a reporter asked Curry to comment. He said something unexpected for the fresh-faced, “nice” guy: “I agree with that description,” Curry responded, “if you remove the ‘et’ from asset.” Though he has not announced plans to sever ties with Under Armour at this time, he added, “If I can say the leadership is not in line with my core values, then there is no amount of money, there is no platform I wouldn’t jump off if it wasn’t in line with who I am,” Curry said. “So that’s a decision I will make every single day when I wake up.”
As we continue in our “Love Is/Love Is Not,” sermon series, why are we talking about commerce versus conscience? Isn’t love just about being generally kind to one another?
For those who are new here, we have been exploring the deep meaning of love that transcends warm-fuzzy or romantic feelings. When the First Corinthians passage says “Love never ends” or “Love never fails,” it is not referring primarily to interpersonal relationships.
The English word for love does not come close to capturing the essence of agape the Greek used in First Corinthians. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. explained that, “Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action…” This selfless agape love is that best exemplified by Jesus who sacrificed everything for others.
We struggle to live into it. Surrounded by messages and reminders to fend for ourselves, how do we proceed?
This struggle between commerce and conscience is not new. In our Scripture lesson today, the Apostle Paul is writing to the church he founded at Corinth, located outside of Athens. As he came to Corinth approximately 50 years after the resurrection of Jesus, Paul encountered a city that is comparable in many ways to San Francisco. It was ideally located with ports for commerce, was filled with people trying to make it big, and was known for entertainment options other than going to church or temple. People were seeking status at all costs.
They were not following the Great Commandment, to love God with all heart, mind soul and strength and loving neighbor as self. Paul wants to remind them—and us–of the counter-cultural reality of faith.
Living into this agape love is not easy, and I do not speak from some innocent ivory tower of church judgment. Prior to becoming a pastor, I spent several years working in marketing for Arthur Andersen, the audit and consulting firm that enabled Enron to perpetrate one of the worst corporate scandals in history and tried to shred the evidence. I served on the crisis communications team when we were on the cover of the Wall Street Journal for several weeks. Though neither I, nor the majority of Andersen employees worked on the Enron account, I participated in a system and culture that resulted in the loss of more than $63 billion with share prices falling from $90 to .67 per share in less than two months. Sadly, this included crushing losses for retirees with no way to recover funds. Within this system of commerce as I worked on campaigns and proposals to get new business, I never raised my hand to acknowledge the objectivity of an audit could be compromised by selling millions of dollars of other consulting services to the client. If the partners for whom I worked were rainmakers, I would get promoted. That’s how the system worked.
Love rejoices in the truth, but our human eyes can struggle to see it.
In Jesus’ native tongue of Aramaic, the word for the love in First Corinthians is hooba, referring to love in word and action, resulting in harmony with all races and creeds. It’s important that the root of this hooba is related to igniting a fire.
Love in its deepest sense is not a feeling—it is movement and action initiated by God. This type of love tends to disrupt the status quo and lead down very inconvenient paths.
When we struggle to see the truth of love, God has to ignite the transformation.
Sometimes God does that by sending love from unexpected places like a burning bush or a manger.
Other times love’s truth emerges under circumstances that seem hopeless.
A little girl named Araminta, or “Minty,” was one of nine children. Born into slavery in Maryland around 1820, several of her siblings were sold to other owners. She had to start serving in the house when she was five, and was out in the fields by age 12. One day her owner sent her to the store to pick up supplies. While she was there, the shopkeeper noticed another slave who had left the fields without permission. He insisted that Minty help restrain the out-of-line slave. Minty refused. The shopkeeper picked up a two-pound weight from the scale and threw it, striking Minty in the head. She was never the same, enduring seizures and debilitating headaches. Minty also began to fall into trance or dream-like states, in which she believed she encountered God and received guidance.
By 1849, Minty had taken the name of Harriet, after her mother. Though some slaves were free by that time, Harriet Tubman was not and feared she would be sold. One night she took off, following the North Star from Maryland to Philadelphia. Upon entering Pennsylvania, Harriet said, “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
Harriet worked and saved money and could have stayed safe, but love knows that heaven isn’t something to be kept for oneself.
The woman who became known as “Moses” went back to the South as many as 19 times as the most famous conductor of the Underground Railroad. “General Tubman” worked for the Union Army in the Civil War. Harriet never stopped helping, even purchasing a plot of land and establishing The Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged later in her life.
Harriet Tubman was warned; nevertheless, she persisted.
God activated selfless agape love in her that would not fail.
Thinking about this congregation, I believe that God is activating agape within you, within us.
You have free will and can choose not to accept your mission. We can get overwhelmed, scared, and angry, or just tune out. God will still love you and understand. Even in his last times, Jesus begged his followers to stay awake with him. They couldn’t always keep up, but he continued to believe in them.
When he emerged from the tomb to remind them that darkness and even death do not get the last word, he met them in the house in which they had hunkered down in fear.
“Peace be with you,” he said. “As God has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21)
 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “If It’s Time To Speak Up, You Have To Speak Up.” NPR’s All Things Considered, Nov. 1 2015.
 Michael Jordan, “I can no longer stay silent.” Posted on www.theundefeated.com, July 25, 2016.
 Madeline Farber, “Stephen Curry Disagrees with Under Armour CEO’s Stance on President Trump.” Fortune.com, Feb. 9 2017.
 The King Center, Birth of a New Nation; Sermon on Ganhdi; http://www.thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy
 Rocco A. Errico and George M. Lamsa, Aramaic Light On Romans through 2 Corinthians: a Commentary Based On Aramaic, the Language of Jesus, and Ancient Near Eastern Customs (Smyrna, GA: Noohra Foundation, 2004), 200.
 Material from Biography and PBS