Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Epiphany 4

January 31, 2010

The Rev Deborah Magdalene, OSH
Jeremiah 4:1-10, I Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-39

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

We are usually at a wedding when we hear this beautiful hymn to love from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The words themselves are beautiful and have a calming effect, “Love is patient; love is kind; love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful – Love rejoices in the truth....” he writes.

I look at the wedding couple and see an icon of God’s timeless love. But I know that only God’s love lasts for eternity. Human love, with all of its promise, has a dark shadow. And unless we learn the practice of giving up our own plans and expectations in order to follow God’s will in our lives we will flounder and get lost on the way.

The love that Paul describes so beautifully is about the daily struggle to lose one’s Self in a bottomless well of God-centeredness.
This is a love that only one man was able to pull off perfectly – Jesus from Nazareth. And in this letter to the Church in Corinth Paul goes to great lengths to help us understand the complexities and gifts of Christ’s God-centered love for us.

Paul is writing this letter to the ragtag group of new Christians in Corinth (in present-day Greece.) He writes his letter because they wrote to him, asking for clarification on how one is to practice Christianity on a daily basis. They have opposing and passionate ideas about how to live out God’s call, and they are feuding with each other over issues that threaten to tear the new Church apart.
Sounds like the Church we all know so well.

It is no easier for us to understand the call to love one another than it was for the first Christians, but our modern culture throws some unique stumbling blocks in our path.

The first thing that trips us up is our language. “Love” has so many meanings that we each picture our own definitions of love as soon as we hear the word.
Romantic love is everyone’s favorite – we can feel it, remember it, and at a deep level we all yearn for it to come again and wake us up. It feels good. The world is transformed when you’re ‘in love’ – food tastes better, the birds sing louder, and poetry suddenly springs from our lips.

Then there are all the other forms of love – I love the new movie Avatar, I love chocolate cake; and crab dipped in butter. I love my cat, and my parents. I love waking up on a day off and sitting by the window with a steaming cup of coffee.
When I grew up in the Episcopal Church I had a vague sense that the love we sang about in hymns was a different kind of love than the ones I’ve just described, but I couldn’t put the pieces together.

The two different worlds of church and home didn’t seem to have much in common. We went to church regularly because that was our responsibility. And we were proud that we were regular church-goers. Once home we went back to rocky and chaotic life as usual, until we dressed up in our finest the next week and proudly went off to church again.

Pride and arrogance are the primary blocks to living out God’s call to love one another as Christ loved us. It is this pride in being a Christian that threw me off track and is what gets to the heart of the problem in Corinth.

Even at the dawn of Christianity human pride started mucking up the clear Gospel of Christ. It is a very subtle and sneaky issue, this pride, which is why Jesus shows us the way to call it what it is and learn how to walk away from it.

Today’s gospel is the second half of the story we heard last week. Jesus is in his home town of Nazareth and is reading from the Prophet Isaiah. The verse he chose to read spoke of freedom, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because 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 and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4:18

Then he puts down the scroll and says to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” These are electric words. If Isaiah’s prophecy has come true then this means that their world is about to change. It would make sense to expect that their very own Jesus, Joseph’s son, would pay special attention to them since he is one of their very own.

Much of Galilee, and especially Nazareth, was looked down upon by the majority of Jews. They were called ‘peasants,’ ‘common people,’ and the ‘unwashed of the land.” They spoke with an accent colored by many different cultures and races. It is interesting to note that when Mary and Joseph are turned away from the inn in Bethlehem it was because they had no room for them, not because they were full.

It is quite possible that when the people of Nazareth heard Jesus speak they immediately pictured their long term dream of becoming privileged and chosen coming true. They wanted the privilege and status that went along with Jesus’ popularity. They had heard what he had done in other towns in Galilee. Just imagine what he would do in his home town, with the people who saw him grow up. Surely their days of hearing “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” were over.

They were proud of Jesus as long as he lived up to their expectations. But he dashed their hopes to the ground and they turned on him like a pack of hungry dogs.
The two examples Jesus gives them illustrate the true nature of his call. The great prophets Elijah and Elisha skipped over all the Jews suffering from either starvation and thirst, or leprosy, and chose to heal instead a Gentile. Jesus doesn’t want to taunt or ridicule the Nazarenes, he just wants them to let go of their pride and arrogance and see that the word of God cannot be contained in one privileged home town.

Parker Palmer writes, "At the heart of any authentic religious experience is recognition that God's nature is too huge, God's movement too deep, ever to be comprehended by a single conception or point of view….God's truth is singular and eternal, but the forms in which we give it expression are as finite and fragile as clay pots, and we must always be ready to break them open on behalf of a larger vision of truth."

There is a reason that Luke uses this story as the introduction to Jesus’ ministry. It has all of the themes that Luke returns to again and again in his Gospel and the Book of Acts. Luke stresses throughout both books that Jesus came in order to bring the Gospel, the Good News, to all lands and all peoples.

Jesus fulfills what the prophets promised and brings his message to the people who need it the most – regardless of their class, status, religious beliefs or cleanliness. Jesus is persecuted by his own people because he shakes up the status quo and turns his back on their expectations of grandeur and fame.

At the end of the Gospel Jesus is crucified in Jerusalem – at the very heart of the Jewish power center. Today’s reading prepares us for what lies ahead for Jesus and his followers – the vengeance of an angry crowd that has missed the point of Jesus’ words.

What the crowd at Nazareth didn’t have was the love of God that drove Jesus to find a more receptive audience. The full extent of this cosmic love wasn’t understood until Resurrection. It was only then that everything he taught began to fall into place.

Paul was one of the people that hunted down the Christians with vengeance and murderous rage. His conversion showed him the extent of his pride and arrogance and gave him the fuel to warn others of the dangers self-righteousness.

Paul is able to see that the Christians in Corinth are in grave danger. Their self-centered dissents threaten to break the church apart. The love Paul describes is agape, the unmotivated and free gift of God’s love for us. It is vibrantly different from the self-seeking, romantic love of human beings. It doesn’t necessarily feel good when we act in accord with this agape love, but it does resonate with God’s will for us and for the entire world.

The people of Corinth were proud of all their spiritual gifts – they were speaking in tongues and prophesying. They were eating together and singing songs of thanksgiving and praise. But they were excluding many people from the inner circle and were fighting with each other over who had the best gifts.
Paul emphasizes that any spectacular manifestations of spiritual power or prophecy are pointless unless they flow from the selfless and unmotivated fountain of God’s love.

There are two important characteristics of this love: agape is beyond our control and it depends upon a deep and abiding humility. One cannot love by willpower alone. We can’t leave the church today and make the promise, “Today I will love,” and then succeed at loving everyone.

Love is beyond our control. In order to understand its illusive and penetrating power you must practice true humility. And this is the most difficult of Christ’s teachings.

There is a story of a man who wanted to be humble: “He was very happy when he managed to be humble. But he was very sorry that he was happy that he was humble. And he was very happy that he was so sorry that he was happy that he was humble.”
This story describes the problems we run into when we try to be humble – it creates a vicious circle. Once humility is possessed it is lost, since humility grows out of knowing one’s poverty.

This poverty is what connects us to Christ’s love. He became poor for our sake and asks us to do the same. Love is not a feeling at all, but a relationship with the divine that is simply there at times and not at all in our control. It is a radiation of cosmic power, like a wave. Our job is to lose our need for control and let the wave of God’s love overpower us.

We can’t really love one another without admitting that our human ability to act out this love is wounded. We are dependent upon God acting through us. We must attribute any true act of love as stemming from God alone. And we must learn the difficult task of letting others glow with the love of God when we feel left out. Love is not a quantifiable substance. There is enough love of God to fill each of us for eternity. And we need not be jealous of other’s gifts.

The people of Nazareth didn’t understand this. They were angry, threatened and jealous that Jesus took his gifts elsewhere. They were left standing on the precipice wondering where he disappeared to, and clueless to the message he brought.
If they were to act in the spirit of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians they would give up their self-centered need to be famous and accepted and follow Jesus to the next town. Agape love celebrates at every lost sheep found and every wounded soul saved.

It is our daily challenge to let go of our own preconceptions of love in order to admit we have no idea where God’s love might take us today. May we help each other to nurture this love in our own community.

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