greatest of these is love
Quinquagesima Feb 26, 2017
Deuteronomy 10:12-11:1, Psalm 103, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, St. Luke 18:31-43
That They May Hear
The earth shook for 37 seconds. When it stopped, thousands of buildings were toppled and thousands of people were dead. How many thousands?
The Turkish government issued an official body count of 17,127; others put the toll as high as 45,000.
The epicenter was near Izmit, a city of a million people at the eastern end of the Sea of Marmara, in the nation’s industrial belt.
At the western end of that inland sea, in a suburb of Istanbul, Scott and Katarina, a missionary couple, were rocked out of their slumber at 3:02 a.m., local time, as their apartment building began to sway.
Scott, a Virginian, and Katarina, who is Swedish, gathered their kids and herded them through the screams of neighbors and down the darkened stairs from the fourth floor and into the street, as far as they could get from the likely landing zone of falling debris.
By this time, their building had settled back on its foundation, as had others in the area. The inevitable aftershocks came, but did no more serious damage. Their neighborhood, and most of Greater Istanbul with its 12 million souls, escaped with jangled nerves and little physical damage. But not all of Istanbul got off so easy.
I arrived more than a week later. One morning, I stood in Scott and Katarina’s living room watching the two-way procession of oil tankers making their way serenely, as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened, from the Aegean toward the Bosporus Strait and into the Black Sea and then out again.
The building swayed, and I held my breath, and then it stopped.
For several days, I visited devastated areas, some within Istanbul and some in and around Izmit. With Scott serving as interpreter, I interviewed many survivors living in tent cities. Some wore bandages that made a wreath for their dazed expressions.
One fact leapt instantly into focus: No one was surprised, either by the fact of the quake or the extent of the destruction. It was simply not possible to register surprise on either score.
This earthquake, on Aug. 17, 1999, was the eighth of the 20th century along the thousand-mile-long North Anatolian Fault that registered 7 or higher on the Richter Scale. This one hit 7.4.
The massive scale of the damage was just as predictable. By way of comparison, the World Series earthquake that rocked the San Francisco Bay area 10 years earlier registered 6.9 on the Richter Scale and killed 63. I do not mean to minimize the difference of a half-point on the scale, but that was not the primary reason for the almost unimaginable difference in death and devastation.
And those bandaged and bedraggled survivors living in tents and wondering whether the water truck would show up again knew the score. They knew the problem was not with Turkish building codes.
The nation’s cities had codes that accounted for the imminent danger and that demanded standards equal to quakes above 7 on the Richter Scale.
These survivors, each of whom had lost someone near and dear – some had lost many – and who were now homeless, faced an uncertain and potentially desperate future. And they knew the carnage resulted not from the building codes but from the lack of enforcement of them.
Some years earlier, as Turkey’s westernized economy sizzled, big buildings sprouted like toadstools. Many were large apartment blocks and many went up with insufficient rebar in foundations and walls and with poorly sealed floor-and-wall joints. They were built to topple and, when the quake hit, topple they did.
I walked the streets and saw a building standing, apparently unscathed, and the next two in piles of rubble, two more standing and another in a heap.
On and on this doomsday cityscape stretched, and those survivors also knew too well that cowboy contractors had greased the palms of building inspectors, who looked the other way as mid-rise death traps sprang from the earth.
Before long, as I conducted interviews I began to probe for how these newly made tent-dwellers were processing their grief and their loss. In my westernized mindset, they must be outraged at the needless loss of life and the stunted future they and their children faced.
A slogan I learned later, one tossed around by engineers who consult on earthquake-proofing, sums up the matter: Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings kill people. And most of those who die are poor people because they populate the projects crooked contractors throw up like houses of cards.
But among the refugees I detected surprisingly little overt anger. I did not need Scott’s translation of the phrase I heard over and over, not Turkish but Arabic: Insha Allah – it’s God’s will.
As Scott was taking me around, he was pondering how to respond to the destruction, how to help people who refused to confront pain and sorrow, instead taking refuge in a belief that impersonal forces beyond their control move events, and those events sometimes come crashing down on their heads.
They have a word for it in Turkish, too – kismet, fate.
In the weeks and months that followed, Scott put in motion a plan he formulated in those early days after the earthquake as we toured the tent cities. He created a puppet show and took it on a months-long tour of those tent cities. Its message: how to adjust to and survive in the new normal.
In the performances, victims found permission to look at their deep loss and respond in healthy ways that gave them a sense of some control. After each performance, Scott and members of his team remained and offered individual counseling, introducing these Muslim survivors wherever appropriate to a subtle gospel message.
Audiences responded so favorably to the production that a national television network took notice and interviewed Scott. What message did he hope to convey to the afflicted? He looked through the camera lens and told the nation:
“And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails . . .”
In fact, he recited 1 Corinthians 13 in its entirety, never mentioning the source. Turkey heard the gospel of love that day. And though few television viewers would identify it as coming from the Bible they would have associated this Westerner with Christianity, as Muslims always do, and so located his words in a Christian context.
What love is this that reaches across oceans to ease the suffering of those its bearer does not know, of a people not his own? For Scott was simply following St. Paul in making love personal.
This love the apostle pictures for us in his first letter to the Corinthians is so personal that it takes little detective work to find in it the character of one of the great prophets of Islam, a certain Jesus of Nazareth. The Quran mentions Him about 100 times.
I stayed as a guest in Scott and Katarina’s home. Based on conversations with her neighbors over the years, Katarina estimated that married Turkish women undergo, on average, seven or eight nonchalant abortions during their child-bearing years.
They don’t bother with what we think of as more conventional methods of birth control. Abortion is cheap and easy. Why should they?
Staying in their home and interviewing earthquake victims, I got a snapshot of a culture mired in the bitter determinism of Muslim theology, in a culture of death far darker than our own. I ask myself now, Did a recitation of that beautiful eulogy to Christian love, wrenched out of its biblical context, burrow its way into those Muslim minds? Or did it flit away on the breeze over the Sea of Marmara, forgotten the next day?
And I suppose the best answer is, But Scott and Katarina and their team did not leave the next day, nor in the days after. They stayed on to add bit by bit to the gospel of love at each opportunity, most of which never make it onto the airwaves. For that is the work of mission, an incremental advocacy of our Lord’s love for all peoples, even those who curse His very name.
Think of one born to and fed on the notion that his salvation depends on his works and that he cannot know the verdict of his balance sheet before he departs this life. Think of him sitting with a counselor and hearing for the first time of the blessed assurance that God saves any and all who call upon that name.
I think now that no other words could have been more appropriate. Even more than St. Paul – for the Corinthians had received the gospel from him before he wrote this letter – Scott was speaking into chaos:
No faith in anything real; no hope, not for peace in this life or for an eternal rest independent of their own wretched efforts, no love for neighbors who would take bribes and murder sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, for a fistful of Turkish lira.
We must do all in our power to ensure that every soul on earth hears God’s truth – the truth that faith, hope and love abide. They must attend this sparkling passage and ask, Is love like this possible? Does it truly bind together those who believe in it so that they no longer cheat and deceive and kill one another? Where may I find it?
We know that the great apostle is addressing the topic of spiritual gifts, and how the misuse of them is creating tumult in the Corinthian church. These gifts are the charismata, one or more of which each one receives when the Holy Spirit visits him.
St. Paul fires a salvo: All Christians are charismatic. Every person who confesses Christ does so only by the gift of the Holy Spirit.
If you wish to be more Christian, then, be not more “spiritual” but more loving. For it is love that marks the committed follower of Jesus Christ.
Those spiritual gifts will pass away, but faith, hope and love abide. And love is the greatest of these. Why? For St. Paul as for his Lord before him, love fulfills the law. Because Jesus kept the law perfectly, we who believe in Him, His fellow heirs by faith, have inherited His great capacity for love – even if it is not yet fully realized.
Why is love the greatest? When our Lord returns, we will have no need of faith. We will no longer see through a glass dimly but will see Him as He is. When He returns, all of our hopes will be fulfilled, for we will enter fully and finally into His eternal glory.
Faith and hope abide – but only as long as this world abides. When they pass away at the culmination of the new creation, true love will only increase even more. Love is the very head of religion, the church father Ambrosiaster said, because by Christ’s act of love this world is being renewed even now.
Love begins and ends in Christ. When we follow the model He left us we form ourselves into His body, the church. This love brims with humility and meekness, places itself at the service of others. It suffers long and is kind . . . it is not provoked . . . it endures all things.
Those who confess Christ bind themselves together by the love implanted in them by the Holy Spirit, which then flows out to others, binding more in the church, this new creation. We find in our passage what we might call the fruits of love. Love does not rejoice in iniquity but rejoices in the truth.
But squint hard and take a closer look. In our own day we have among us more than a few who love humanity but have little time for this or that suffering human. St. Paul is having none of high-blown ideas of a poetic love abstracted from the sin-stained creation we inhabit, this world of blood, sweat and tears.
If love is truly your goal, live out your love as Christ lived it. Love the unlovable, fight for them, sacrifice for them. Any sentimental sap can love the lovely. You, Christian, must endure all things for those who refuse to love you back. This love is not defined by its object but by its subject.
If our Lord loved only those worthy of His love, you and I would be tallying our merits and demerits today, and I, for one, would be staring into the blackness of an unending tunnel in which faith, hope and love do not abide.
This is the message that must go out to all the world. Our Lord commanded it so: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations . . .”
How long do we have? Those eight earthquakes along the North Anatolian Fault in the 20th century followed a pattern established centuries before, marching from east to west toward Istanbul. In 1766, No. 9 took dead aim on that city that now encompasses 12 million souls white for harvest.
We have no statistics from way back then, of course, but we do know that investigations over the last few years show that Turkey has not summoned either the political will or the resources to address the impending horror of a quake centered in or near that immense urban setting. Insha Allah.
One agency that studies such things estimates that another tectonic shock of 7.0 or greater will leave 170,000 buildings demolished or seriously damaged, 90,000 people dead and 135,000 seriously injured.
How long do we have? How long do they have? Our world needs to hear God’s gospel of love. It needs to hear it today. Amen.