Jeremiah 1:4-10

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

I remember sitting in worship and hearing this Jeremiah passage as if God spoke it directly to me: “I knew you before formed you in the womb. I appointed you before you were born to be a prophet.” Inside or between those words, I heard a call to ordained ministry. That was a transformative thing to hear. It transformed my past (as I tried to find myself in it), so my hurts and disappointments were no longer just that. Now my past became parts of others’ pain and experience that I could understand. My life changed from being a journey alone to a journey with God. I saw that God was there in my struggles. God’s love surrounded me then, and it flowed out of me now. In a way, my life fell into place. I saw that everything I’d experienced had taught me how to love (because the best way to get someone to love is to love them first).

I interpreted what I heard as a call to ministry (which was a good thing). Maybe I made the connection because ministry is so analogous to Jeremiah’s call. But the more I reflect, the more sure I am that I was wrong. I wasn’t wrong about my call to be a pastor, because that’s been reaffirmed several times. However, I think I was wrong to connect it with this text. I heard something that led me to ordained ministry, but that’s not what I heard. “Ordained ministry” has a lot to do with particular gifts and skills, the details of what God has called forth in my life. Those particular experiences matter – God formed me for this – but what I really heard ran deeper than that.

What I heard that day was much more fundamental than a call to ordination. I go back to that experience, and all I can say I heard is “love my people.” That was frustrating, as I went through the discernment process, that I was never able to put better words on my call than, “love my people.” It happens that I seem to do that particularly well as a clergyperson, but that fact is incidental to the call itself. If I could love people this well as an astronaut, that’s just as well what I should do. Just try telling that to your Committee on Preparation for Ministry! I still feel like I’m “supposed to” feel some deep, abiding call to this work. I do feel called, almost every day, but I’m called to some particular roles set by love.

“Love” doesn’t always feel like enough. Love can’t easily explain the mysteries of the universe or justify our blessings. Love certainly is not enough to make us good at any particular job. It can’t explain my ordination, except that God in love prepares us for particular roles with gifts, training, and love of the work. Your love may not make you a minister, and mine won’t make me a nurse, or an accountant, or a millwright. But love is enough to bless your particular role, to direct your skills and interests to the high purpose of service for others.

When love doesn’t feel like enough – and sometimes it doesn’t – it’s our idea of love that’s too small. We have a tendency to think of love as friendliness or attraction. These can sure open us to love, but Paul talks about a love that is much greater than companionship or romance. Paul, Jesus, and Jeremiah talk about a love that rejoices in the truth, bears with each other, and seeks the best for the other. There’s nothing general about this. Love is to seek the best for the other right there in front of you, for anyone you come across. To give the best you can to anyone you can – the people you see daily, who ask for your charity, or those who just want fair payment for their work. Begin close to yourself, then reach out around world. Today you might reach to Haiti, to the Gulf Coast, or just to the person right next to you.

Love begins with each other at church That’s where Paul really directed this chapter, to a church. Granted, that church was sick with arguments over faithfulness, but what he said is true for all of us. This is a “better way” to order our life together. Rather than argue about status, gifts, and committee roles, the “better way” is to order everything according to love. To make decisions based on our concern for each other. That doesn’t avoid the hard decisions, it makes them tougher, because you have to look past yourself and see the greater good. To love your neighbor at church is to find ways to make decisions that bear with different ways of seeing the truth. It is to insist on welcoming different gifts, to ask gentle questions that seek the truth without insisting on your own way. And it is to direct this whole institution to making that kind of room for the rest of world to be loved too.

Love also begins at home, which is the context where we usually think of this passage. It’s at home where we practice a self-giving life together. Maybe we use 1 Corinthians 13 at weddings to raise the “love” that gets people married into the Love that keeps them there. Love is not about getting along, enjoying activities, or finding each other attractive, as nice as those things are. All these things are about love, not the other way around. You don’t love someone because you can agree on a budget, you find ways to agree on a budget because that expresses and builds your love for each other.

Love puts words in our mouths, the way God reached out and put words in Jeremiah’s mouth. It doesn’t always do that directly, but through our gifts, skills, and experiences. Then those words are filtered through the fundamental question: “what would be loving?” Jesus asks, “what would I want?” and then does that for others. Maybe Paul invites another question, if we read this passage at weddings: “what would I want for my spouse, child, or parent?” Then do that for everybody. Speak out for someone weak, give to someone in need, or teach someone who is ready to learn. Don’t do that for just any someone, do it for the particular someone you’ll meet today, or interact with tomorrow, or hear about on the news tonight. That’s what God intended for you before your life began. That real, tangible love is what we’re made for.