The Reverend Seth Ethan Carey
November 16, 2008
First Congregational Church,
Introduction to the Scripture:
This passage of scripture is typically heard at weddings, and occasionally funerals, but seldom on Sunday mornings. It comes from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, a booming seaport known for its dubious clientele of prostitutes and smugglers. Now, it’s worth highlighting the fact that Paul’s correspondence with this church was extensive—which is why the New Testament includes not one but two lengthy letters to the Corinthians. The reason for this is simply that the church had so many problems, ranging from opposing theological factions to rampant sexual promiscuity. The church at Corinth was large, complex, and deeply troubled.
So in this brief passage, Paul speaks about the importance of faith, hope, and love—three principles that are extremely valuable to anyone in the midst of difficult circumstances, whether they live in Corinth or the Western Suburbs. Are they enough, I wonder, to see us through to the end of our troubles?
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 13:8-13
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; 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. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
Beneath these tranquil waters, something lurks.
It’s dangerous—maybe not as lethal as a nuclear-armed submarine, or as mythic as the Loch Ness Monster. I think it’s safe to say that this is still a very bad place to go fishing—which is precisely what Alistair Gellatly has come here to do. Along with his wife Faye and three of their closest friends, he has organized a strange vacation. Alistair is a professional game warden by trade, and a lover of nature and the great outdoors. Rather than settle for a drive up to Lake Michigan, he and his companions have sojourned deep into the Zambian jungle to cast their lines into the Zambezi River, in the hopes of making an exotic catch.
Conditions are perfect. It is a warm and pleasant day, and the waters of the Zambezi carry Alistair’s humble vessel swiftly along the river. In addition to catching some rare specimens of fish, these tourists are privileged to observe a veritable host of the local wildlife along the banks of the river. It is a beautiful morning in Africa.
There’s just one problem, really. This stretch of the Zambezi River also happens to include some of the most crocodile-infested waters in the world. You might have expected a professional game warden to take this factor into account when planning the itinerary―but hey, it’s an honest mistake. Perhaps Alistair believed that this would not be an issue, so long as no one decided to go swimming. Just as he and his friends are preparing to eat lunch, a hungry hippopotamus emerges from the depths and makes a go for Faye’s peanut-butter and jelly sandwich. In its mad rush, the beast destroys their boat and forces Alistair to take the whole crocodile issue a bit more seriously. Treading water, these five companions have been robbed of their lunch, and as far as the crocodiles are concerned, they’ve just been added to the menu.
The events that I’ve been relating to you are part of a true story, in more than one sense of the word. On the one hand, all of this actually happened. Now, I may have chosen the wrong Sunday to tell this story, being as Pastor Lillian and several members of our Church are on a mission trip in Guatemala, but I’m sure they’re just fine.
This story is also true as a metaphor. While an extreme case, this awful scenario of wilderness survival also embodies the fear and uncertainty of our daily lives. And when evil times do come, we often find ourselves looking towards the future—hoping and waiting for a day when things will be different. Whether we suffer from a broken marriage, economic hardship, a crippling illness, or soul-crushing grief, it matters not. Just as many of you are surely wondering what has become of Alistair Gellatly and his friends, we also want to know how our story ends, too; and we can only hope that it will end well. Looking at today’s scripture, we find that the apostle Paul reflects this tension in his letter to the Corinthians: For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.
Paul sets up a dynamic here: the present and the future. His words remind us that we aren’t there yet, wherever “there” might be. Before we come to the story’s end, we may yet have a long time to wait. While we wait, we hope; but what if hope is not enough?
For Alistair and his comrades, there is little hope and less time. With a legion of reptilian predators circling them, they cannot afford to wait for a happy ending. By a stroke of sheer luck, they have found temporary refuge on a sand bank in the middle of the river. They’re no longer in danger of drowning, but they’re still knee-deep in water and surrounded by crocodiles.
Alistair knows that something must be done. In desperation, he dives into the water and swims for shore, hoping to find help and praying that the crocs won’t reach him first.
And he almost makes it, too.
Just as he sets foot on the banks of the river, he sees a massive crocodile eyeing him not ten feet away. Alistair knows that it is futile to run. In an equally futile attempt to frighten the thing away, he decides to strike first, a decision that demonstrates even poorer judgment than taking this trip in the first place.
The ensuing battle is one of unrelenting brutality, but amazingly, the man emerges with his life. That being said, his shoulder is dislocated, his arm is broken in three places, and he is bleeding from countless injuries. He knows that the lives of his friends are on the line, and that their survival hinges on his own. Broken and exhausted, lost in the middle of nowhere, he can do little more than collapse beneath the shelter of a nearby tree and wait for nightfall.
Throughout the duration of his presidential campaign, President Elect Barack Obama spoke frequently about what he called “the audacity of hope.” Indeed, hope is a bold and audacious thing, a kind of defiance, an unwillingness to succumb to the tyranny of despair. Hope is, above all else, stubborn. It embodies the best of the human will, the refusal to give in or give up.
Hope is an admirable principle; and yet, it was this very hope that drew Obama’s fiercest critics. Their concern—and it remains to be seen if this concern is justified—their concern is that Obama’s great hopes are just that—hopes, unfulfilled by action. They’re afraid that the man is all talk.
They’re wondering if hope is enough. And it’s not. I’m sure that Barack Obama and his supporters would be the first to agree. While we wait for better days—both in our country and in our individual lives—we have to do more than sit still and hope for the best. I’m reminded of a poignant song from the band Marillion, a song called “One Fine Day.” It goes like this:
Listening to the pouring rain
Waiting for the world to change
Beginning to wonder if we’ll wait in vain
For one fine day
Waiting is not enough. Hope is not enough. Again, if we turn to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we find a valuable insight. In addition to hope, Paul writes of faith and love―that gives us three principles to work with.
Hope is the desire for an outcome that is merely possible, however unlikely. Alistair Gellatly’s comrades, left to fend off crocodiles with nothing more than an oar from their sunken boat, uncertain of whether the man who has gone to get help is even alive, are still holding out hope for survival. They know that their chances are slim.
Faith, on the other hand, is a little different. Faith is our steadfast conviction that even when tragedy strikes, it is not the end of the story. Our faith tells us that God abides with us regardless of the outcome, even in the most horrendous of circumstances.
Still, both faith and hope are passive, and insufficient. Neither one is really going to accomplish anything, or bring us any closer to the final chapter of the story. They give us strength for the journey; they give us the courage to rise above our circumstances, to do something, to take action. That action is what Paul calls love.
As the moon rises over the Zambian jungle, Alistair Gellatly listens intently. Deprived of sunlight, he cannot see the leopards, hyenas, and other roving predators that have been led to him by the scent of his own blood. But he can hear them.
It doesn’t take long before the first beast makes its appearance. A wild buffalo ambles onto the scene and stares at Alistair for a number of minutes. As a game warden, he knows that even the crocodiles fear these volatile creatures, these unpredictable buffalo, who fear nothing but the firearms of big-game hunters. In the end, something rather unexpected happens. The buffalo sits down next to Alistair and keeps him company, like it was the family dog. Alistair would later recall a sense of comfort that he derived from the buffalo’s presence, as though this wild sentinel were watching over him like some bestial guardian angel. Safe in that thought, he falls into a deep sleep.
In the unlikely character of this buffalo, we are reminded that love takes many forms. As we’ve already seen, love can drive a person into a kind of wild and desperate compassion. After all, it was love for his wife and his friends—and perhaps a healthy dose of fear—that drove Alistair Gellatly to take action, to dive into crocodile-infested waters on a quest for help. When the wider world is in trouble, it’s up to us to take action and do something about it, too. When millions die of hunger and disease, when genocide devastates nations, when people are oppressed, when our economy collapses, when the whole world is hunted by the proverbial crocodiles of greed, prejudice and injustice, it’s up to us to fight them. As a contemporary theologian once said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
This buffalo reminds us that love can also be a gentle presence in the midst of our suffering, and that by providing that presence for others, we are acting out of love. It’s up to us to help one another in the midst of our darkest hours.
Love stretches from the halls of the United Nations to the lonely bedroom of the widow. Whether we’re talking about the ills of society writ large or one person’s struggle to get by, the fundamental principles of hope, faith, and love still apply―and the greatest of these is love.
Yet it is not love that saved Alistair’s life, but rather a seething horde of driver ants. He awakens the next morning to find hundreds of them feasting on his wounds. This shocking horror sends a jolt of adrenaline through his body that finally gets him back on his feet in a desperate bid to escape the ravenous insects.
In the end, Alistair does find the help he is seeking. While wandering aimlessly along the banks of the Zambezi river, he discovers, of all things, a young couple having a picnic by the water. I can’t imagine why this hellish jungle is such a popular destination for tourists, but then again I went to Chicago for my honeymoon, so I guess I’m just not very adventurous.
So, now you know how the story ends. All five of those unfortunate souls survived the grim ordeal and returned to business as usual, albeit a little wiser than they were before. If they had just sat and waited, treading water and hoping for a happy ending, I’m not sure they would have found one. One man’s act of courageous love saved them all.
Now that I think about it, perhaps this is the right Sunday to tell this story. I had initially feared that it might be in bad taste to talk about the dangers of traveling abroad, as several of our friends are currently in Guatemala. They aren’t there to go fishing. They went to Guatemala because their love for humanity has driven them to make the world a better place. They’re there because they weren’t content to sit and wait and hope for the world to get better by itself.
Mary Lou Wallner is here with us this weekend for the same reason. The tragedy she has lived through taught her that hoping for the best just isn’t good enough. Whether it’s the loss of a loved one or a horde of driver ants on your arm, sometimes it takes a painful experience to push us into action.
If that action is motivated by love, then God will empower you. Remember that God so loved the world that God took human flesh in Jesus and walked upon it, never watching nor waiting, but living and breathing and loving, and healing the wounds of a broken world.
Not long ago, I went with my wife to the perfume store Sephora—an act of self-sacrificing love, if there ever was one. As I was biding my time, hoping to get out of there as quickly as possible, I found myself reading the labels of various lotions, all of them of a particular band called Philosophy. Now, the Philosophy marketing gimmick is a clever one. Every product is given a different label of some philosophical or ideological significance. Their lotions go by names like, “Beauty,” or “Grace,” or “Falling in Love.” Each of these names is accompanied by a brief philosophical discourse on the subject.
I eventually discovered a lotion called “Hope,” which makes a bold theological statement on the label. It simply reads, “Where there is hope, there can be faith. And where there is faith, miracles can occur.” Being a minister, I noticed that love was conspicuously absent from the formula of hope and faith. Indeed, this bottle of moisturizing cream appeared to defy the message of my sermon today, proclaiming that with enough hope and faith, things will get better in this world, regardless of whether we do anything at all. So I was comforted to see the bottle of lotion standing next to it. It was a shameless marketing ploy, but it eased my theological discomfort. This lotion was called, “When Hope is Not Enough.” On the label, this is what it said: “Sometimes we need to believe in miracles. And sometimes, we need to make them happen.”
Truer words have never been spoken, at least, not on a bottle of skin moisturizer.