Discomfort and love: A Sermon for the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, 2019

I’m glad to see that all of you are surviving the crazy weather we’ve been having. We’ve survived it at the church and our ministries as well. I’m sure most have you have heard or seen stories of how Madison has coped with the bitter cold and especially how the weather affected our most vulnerable neighbors. The men’s shelter was well over capacity; the total number of guests on Tuesday night was 170. The Beacon was over capacity, and our friends at First Methodist provided emergency overflow shelter during the day for homeless families because there was not enough room for them at the Beacon. Through the coldest weather, our food pantry remained open, thanks to Vikki and her intrepid band of volunteers. I’m grateful to all of you who reached out to me or to others with offers to volunteer.

In times like these, we see both the strength and the weaknesses of our community—among the strengths, the resilience, cooperation, and all the amazing people who do so much to support our most vulnerable residents. But we also see the gaps or inadequacies of the services we do provide as well as the deep inequities and the number of people who lack adequate shelter or for other reasons struggle in weather emergencies. Our hearts ache as we see the need and we reach out generously but at the same time, it should become clear that our community needs to do more. As followers of Jesus and members of the body of Christ, we should help those in need but we should also call for policy changes that would help all members of our city flourish and thrive. With the mayoral campaign heating up, our voices are especially important.

It’s not always easy because calling for justice and an end to oppression, to proclaim release to the captives, can rouse opposition. That certainly happened to Jesus in today’s gospel reading.

Last week we heard Luke’s version of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. After a preaching and healing tour of the surrounding towns, he comes home to Nazareth, goes to synagogue on the Sabbath, reads a passage from Isaiah:

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free. To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

He sits down and says, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s where today’s gospel reading picks up, with a repetition of that verse. And that’s where the trouble starts. While Luke reports that the people were amazed by what they heard, it’s pretty clear that Jesus wasn’t impressed with their response.

It’s almost as if he goads them to their negative response. It’s after that question that Jesus seems to provoke them. First he quotes the proverb, “Doctor, heal yourself;” and says that they will want him to do the sort of healings in Nazareth that he has done elsewhere. Instead of answering those objections directly, Jesus cites the two examples from Hebrew Scripture, the great prophets Elijah and Elisha, and their healing of two gentiles.

The meaning of this exchange is obscure. Does Jesus want to incite the crowd’s anger? Or is something else going? Is his challenge to them a response to the question, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” If we think back to what I said last week about the Isaiah text quoted by Jesus. It serves in Luke as what we could Jesus’ mission statement and his identity as Messiah is measured by the extent to which he preached good news to the poor, gave sight to the blind, etc. So, he is basically laying out his future ministry to his listeners, identifying himself as the Messiah, and declaring the year of the Lord’s favor. And the response from the crowd was not recognition that he is the Messiah, but recognition that he is one of their own, Joseph’s son. They are given everything they need to see him as the Messiah, but all they can see is the one who grew up among them.

There’s a great deal of discussion and debate about how churches and Christians should express their faith publicly and what that public expression or proclamation of faith should be. We have people who claim to be Christians on different sides of every hot topic in our culture and politics, from climate change to immigration, from abortion to criminal justice and we are often likely to say that those who disagree with our political view aren’t Christian at all or are perhaps “fake Christians.”

It’s easy for us to justify our political views with scripture. We, all of us, cherry-pick verses that seem to support our pet causes or political convictions, extracting them from their contexts and twisting their meaning beyond recognition. A good example of that comes from the first reading which is the story of the call of the Prophet Jeremiah “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;” which has been made to do some heavy lifting in the debate over abortion, and the doctrine of predestination. But it is about neither of those things. It is about the prophet’s call and identity.

Scripture becomes a mine from which we extract the necessary means to do battle rather than a treasure house in which to explore God’s beauty or a library in which to learn of God and of Jesus Christ. We impose our political views on the text rather than wrestling with scripture and seeking to follow Jesus.

Think about what happened in that synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus read from scripture, sat down, and interpreted it. Luke says the people were amazed by his words.

I find it instructive that Jesus elicited such a negative response in his hometown. What was it about what he said that roused the ire of his neighbors and fellow townspeople? The examples Jesus cited, Elijah and Elisha, were the two great prophets of the Jewish tradition. Elijah, alongside Moses was a mythical figure, in part because of the tradition that he did not die but was carried up to heaven. In Jesus’ day, many expected Elijah to return. The two of them were model prophets and Jesus cites their example to justify his own ministry. Two of their most spectacular healings took place away from home; they healed outsiders, Gentiles, not Jews.

For Jesus to cite these examples was to challenge his listeners’ expectations, to confront them with their biases and assumptions and encourage them to think differently about them.

To be honest, this incident is a challenge to me as well. Whenever someone says to me after a sermon, “That was a really good sermon,” I wonder whether they liked it only because I confirmed their biases and assumptions. The gospel should be unsettling. It should make us uncomfortable. Jesus certainly made his listeners uncomfortable. When we’re reading scripture, when we’re listening to a sermon, we should be asking ourselves whether we are being challenged to see things in a new way, whether our world and our worldview is being upended and unsettled, whether our deepest held values are coming under scrutiny. If we say yes to these questions, it may be that we are hearing the voice of Jesus.

But discomfort is not the only point of the good news or of following Jesus. It’s worth recalling the lesson from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, the famous “Love Chapter” which has nothing to do with marital love, but rather with the love that binds the body of Christ together, and binds us all to God in Christ.

In the course of this beautiful and profound meditation on love, Paul reminds us that our perspective is narrow, faulty. “Now we see through a mirror darkly; now we know in part.” Recognizing our limitations, the limitations of our knowledge and perspective goes a long way toward teaching us humility, an important lesson in the divided world in which find ourselves. And finally, Paul tells us, at the end, there is only love. Love abides. May we know something of that love in this life, in our common humanity and in our community and congregation, and may we all experience the fullness of that abiding love in the age to come.

What’s Love got to do with it? A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany

What’s love got to do with it?

One of my professors Krister Stendahl, the great new testament scholar, churchman, bishop of Stockholm, once produced a list of the ten commandments of preaching. One of them was, don’t use the word “love” in your sermon unless it’s in the text. Well, it’s in the text today, so here goes.

I Corinthians 13, the so-called “love chapter,” is among the most familiar texts in all of scripture. We hear it most often at weddings, when its language becomes at least in part, a set of instructions for the couple: Love is patient; love is kind. Love is not arrogant or boastful or rude…

But this lovely chapter was not meant to be read at weddings. Paul writes it nearly at the end of a lengthy letter to the congregation at Corinth that he had helped found. He was no longer there but he maintained a close interest in what was taking place there. There’s evidence in this letter that earlier letters had passed back and forth between Paul and Corinth. We also know that he sent messengers to Corinth, and they in turn sent people back to him. Some of this is to be expected. As the congregation’s founder, Paul would have continued to be an important figure, an authority to whom this fledgling group of Christians would turn for advice and support.

It doesn’t take a very close reading of the text to discern that the relationship between this Christian community of Corinth and Paul is strained. There have been challenges to his leadership and to his version of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This tension would grow, I Corinthians doesn’t resolve it at all, and by the time of the correspondence that would eventually become II Corinthians, the two are barely on speaking terms. In fact, Paul implies that during a visit to Corinth, he got in a shouting match with one of its members.

So there is conflict. Some of it is personal. It’s absolutely obvious from Paul’s letters that he wasn’t an easy guy to get along with. Some of the conflict has to do with matters of faith and doctrine, and it’s here that we see some of the deepest disagreements. Many of these disagreements seem strange to us in the 21st century, like the question whether it was OK to eat meat that had been sacrificed to the Greek or Roman gods. Some of the issues are downright bizarre—like Paul’s outburst at the fact that one of the members of the Corinthian congregation is living with, presumably having sexual relations, with a woman identified as his father’s wife. Some of the issues cut closer to home for us, like how to behave in worship, well, how women should behave in worship, and for today, the issue of the nature of authority in the congregation and the relationships among various spiritual gifts.

The last three weeks, we’ve been hearing how Paul tries to explain to his readers the fundamental idea of the body of Christ. All of this conflict has been tearing this little community apart, and from a distance, Paul is trying to remind them that they are all one in Christ. In chapter 12, he is addressing the particular problem of spiritual gifts. The Corinthians seemed to have seen such gifts in a hierarchy with the more spectacular, ecstatic ones, being evidence of a higher spiritual attainment. Paul denies such a hierarchy of gifts: there is a variety of gifts but one Spirit, he says.

Then he appeals to a familiar image, the human body. In 12:12, he writes, “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” He continues by pointing out the importance of each member, each body part to the body, and then concludes this section with the observation that no one body part, no one gift is more important, and that not all share in all of the gifts. And then he writes, a verse that oddly is omitted in either last week’s or this week’s reading, “And I will show you a still more excellent way.” That’s Paul’s introduction to chapter 13, today’s reading. And it’s worth pointing out the significance of that little sentence. I will show you—this is the language of Epiphany, promising that God will be made manifest to us. And “the more excellent way” suggests that what will unfold before us is a journey. As we will see, that journey will culminate in seeing God, “face-to-face.”

But first, a little more about the chapter as a whole. It is pure poetry, richly cadenced and carefully constructed to build toward the climax. There are four sections, verses: the first a series of contrasts between conditions with and without love: “f I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” The second, a series of statements about the qualities of love: love is patient and kind. The third, a series of contrasts between the perfect and imperfect, the complete and the incomplete: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. And then the conclusion—the climax, the pinnacle: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Paul’s writing about life in community, life in the body of Christ. He’s writing about the love that binds the body of Christ together just as our bodies are bound together by muscle and tissue and tendons and nerves. We can’t be in community together without love; that love which binds us together in Christ, which is a gift of God in Christ. But there’s more here, too.

In the end, Paul is saying that the love we experience together in community, is like the love that we will experience in the presence of God. Our life together in community is like, it’s a foretaste, a simple, a reflection, of the full and complete life lived in God. We see that now, dimly; we experience it, in ways broken by our own fallenness, imperfections, and the fallenness of all humanity. But when we catch sight of it, we are also catching sight of the presence of God.

It was a hard message, hard words to hear in that first century community in Corinth. As I said earlier, Paul’s relations with that congregation would deteriorate after writing this letter, deteriorate so far and so fast that he didn’t dare come to Corinth for fear of what might happen.

It’s also a hard message to hear in this day and age. We know conflict all to well—we know it here at Grace and in the larger community, nation, and world in which we live. Conflict is so prevalent, so much a part of humans being in community that our tendency is too withdraw in disgust, anger, and exhaustion. That’s true of our connections with all sorts of institutions; it’s also true of our attitudes toward the church. Our anger, disgust, and exhaustion often results in us withdrawing from the body of Christ, to seek our salvation on our own, or to cultivate that relationship as individuals, silently, pursuing our private vision of the divine.

Paul understood that all too well. The beauty of his writing here points to his deep and profound dis-ease with life lived in the body of Christ—those words “But now I see in a mirror dimly, then I will see face to face.” Those words testify to the pain between the experience he lives now and the experience he hopes for in God’s presence. But at the same time, he knows that he cannot remove himself from the body of Christ, to do so would be to be cut off from life itself, and from love.

That tension is at the heart of the Christian faith, in the first century and in the twenty-first. To see the other, even in the midst of the most painful and divisive conflict, to see the other as part of Christ’s body, that is the hard work of being God’s people. To see the other—the one we’ve never seen before, the stranger, the alien, the outcast. To see them as part of Christ’s body, to welcome them in and shower them with love, that too is the hard work of being the body of Christ. And when the work becomes simply too hard, the way forward impossible, when there is only pain, or dark, or noisy gongs, at that point of spiritual emptiness, to open oneself to God’s love in Christ, to open oneself to the love of the body broken, that is, to use Paul’s words, to know that “faith hope and love abide; these three, and the greatest of these is love.”