When I was a high school English teacher and teaching Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, one of the lesson plans I did was to have the youth design their own epitaph. It may seem, at first, like a morbid assignment, but the youth were quick to find ways to describe what they enjoyed most about themselves and their life and to put that on their own fictional tombstone. The purpose was to help to help them appreciate the countless epitaphs in the Anthology (the anthology is a collection of fictionalized epitaph poems from all the townspeople from Spoon River). However, the larger purpose was to help them to understand that our time here on earth is limited, precious, and beautiful in its own right.
It wasn’t a bad lesson for the youth to learn, and not a bad lesson for adults either. Together, we studied famous epitaphs, and some not-so-famous ones, weighing our words and theirs. Some epitaphs were humorous and gave a flavor of the person. The comedian, Rodney Dangerfield, had written on his tombstone, “There goes the neighborhood.” The talk show host, Merv Griffin, apparently put “I will not be right back after this message” on his memorial marker. A woman named Kay had her fudge recipe listed, ingredient by ingredient on her stone, including the directions to “cook to softball stage and pour on marble slab.” After the recipe, her loved ones engraved the words, “Wherever she goes there’s laugher…” I imagine that calories followed Kay too.
Other epitaphs are more serious, yet still in keeping with the person. The NAACP claimed the remains of writer Dorothy Parker and designed a memorial garden for them in Baltimore. Her plaque reads, “Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker (1893–1967) humorist, writer, critic. Defender of human and civil rights. For her epitaph she suggested, ‘Excuse my dust’. This memorial garden is dedicated to her noble spirit which celebrated the oneness of humankind and to the bonds of everlasting friendship between black and Jewish people. Dedicated by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. October 28, 1988.”
Friends, if you had an epitaph what would it say?
Or, if I may ask a different way, what wouldn’t it say?
We had a memorial here yesterday for James Queen and the family described his creativity, his brilliant mind, his idiosyncrasies, but also that he valued relationships over and above opinions and beliefs.
Today, we’ve heard Paul’s words about love. These familiar words are often used at weddings and it may be hard for us to appreciate them outside of that context. But perhaps in light of this discussion about epitaphs we might see these words as an epitaph of love’s character. What does love walk like, look like, and ultimately act like? And so together we read, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant…” These words are to help us understand how love lives in a community built on Jesus’ example.
When Paul writes his letter to the church in Corinth and reminds them about love, he’s not talking to a star-gazed couple about to tie the proverbial knot. He’s speaking to a church that has become fractious and self-satisfied, a church that contained members fighting with one another, jockeying for power, and using their many spiritual gifts and talents to compete with each other. On top of that, they are busy taking each other to court, and one person was rumored to be sleeping with his stepmother. Many ministers smile at this irony: these words that so many couples select to have read at their weddings are intended not for partners basking in marital bliss, but for a community that threatens to break up and break apart.
If Paul were writing an epitaph for the ideal Christian community, he would likely write, “Here lives love.” Alive and well. Present tense and presently understood. Love as present and presenting. And not the sappy, overly romantic, passionate kind. Paul urged the church to live in agape love, the kind of love that we see embodied in Jesus Christ. Love that is patient and kind. Love that celebrates the truth.
You can tell that Paul is trying to get the church at Corinth to think about the truth of how they have been treating each other by telling them what love is NOT. Love isn’t boastful. Love isn’t rude or unjust. Love doesn’t dominate others or insist on getting its own way. Love doesn’t rejoice in wrongdoing.
If our actions do not have this kind of love, then, he says, they are no better than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal, or someone who is full of words, but no embodiment. You see, Paul knows that we can have the best of intentions, go through all of the proper motions, and even be technically correct, but still get it completely wrong…because we have not acted with love. Love is foundational.
He’s not talking about feelings here. A relationship based on feelings, whether it’s the parishioner to the church or the partner to the spouse will not last long. Sooner or later warm, fuzzy feelings will cool and we start to wonder who and what went wrong. Love is what begins we’ve come to the end of our feelings—even, and especially, our frequent demand for good feelings. Love is a state of being in a healthy church and in healthy relationships. If we are having trouble in our relationships, we might look to our relationship with God and see if we can improve upon that, before we start trying to improve our partner. Or we might look upon our specific actions toward our fellow human beings. For as St. Theresa of Avila has written, “we cannot be sure if we are loving God, although we may have good reasons for believing that we are, but we can know quite well if we are loving our neighbor.”
Love, Paul says, is not irritable or resentful. The author, Eugene Peterson, paraphrases this as: love doesn’t fly off the handle and doesn’t keep score of the sins of others. Are we easily angered? Do we keep score? A hint as to how well we practice love for our neighbor, our spouse, our partner, our sibling, or our church may be found on our lists. Do we have an imaginary list in our heads on which we write down every past mistake, a permanent record of every slight or injustice that has ever been done to us? How many wars in the bedroom, on the battlefield, and in the church have been fought because we are carrying around these terrible lists in our heads and hearts?
As we are descendants of the church in Corinth, the question for us today is whether we are tuned to love that Jesus demonstrated. When our epitaph is written will our love be mentioned? Sometimes, it is true, our love will be as confrontational as it will be confessional…but mutual, forgiving love will be primary rather than our need to be correct, or to seek our own self-satisfying good. Being the “priesthood of all believers,” how can we minister in the church and in our particular vocations with greater love? How can we practice greater love in our relationships now, before we leave this earth?
So a story:
Once there was a young couple in Arkansas and they began to attend a church that had a great deal of religious enthusiasm. There was a whole lot of shouting, praising, and clapping for Jesus. The couple tried to convince Grandma to attend.
You should have seen it, the young man said to Grandma. The Holy Spirit was really there!
Grandma kept rocking and didn’t say a word.
“And Grandma,” said the young woman, “you should have seen the preacher. He was really into it and the people, the people were popping up like popcorn to praise the Lord. It was unbelievable!”
Grandma just kept right on rocking.
Finally, the young man said, “Grandma, don’t you like our church? You never seem to say.”
Grandma finally spoke: “Honey, let me just put it this way. I don’t care how loud they shout, and I don’t care how high they jump. It’s what they do when they come back down that counts.”
Brothers and sisters, it’s what you do when you come “back down” that counts. It’s how you learn to practice love between those two dates on your imaginary tombstone. Paul reminds us that whatever knowledge we think we possess is only partial. The mirror into which we gaze is clouded over—and we can see ourselves only from one perspective. That means that we know each other only in part. Our thoughts about the past, present, and future of our partner, our child, our enemy, our grandma or our church are totally, and thankfully, incomplete.
Our vision is incomplete. That is why we need one another. That is why we need to practice loving our enemy and, for many of us, loving those with whom we live in close proximity. We follow a relational God; we are relational beings. We need each other to find a more complete vision about the things that matter. We won’t realize it in this lifetime…but God help us, with love as our lens, we may come down to seeing the world and each other as God does, whatever our epitaph says or does not say.
 Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2007) Fifth Mansion, Chapter 3, 147.
 From Hal Brady via Rodney Wilmoth, Homiletics.