(A sermon for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany)
I’ve run into some thoughtlessness this week, although I want to assure you it wasn’t in any way related to North Parish. The people in this church have been incredibly welcoming! No, these moments of small injury took place elsewhere, and they consisted of the words and actions of people who, I must conclude, really did not stop to think about how they might be perceived by others.
The other day I decided to stop at one of my favorite coffee shops in Portland. Now by favorite, I mean the coffee, but not the location. Parking there is always a challenge, the service is not exactly speedy, and more than once I’ve had some frustrating experience while waiting in line. But I was just a couple of blocks away at a yarn shop, and it was too close to pass up.
After circling the block, I saw a parking spot, but I had to turn around in order to reach it. As I pointed my car in the right direction, I was surprised to see someone else in the spot! A car had pulled in and parked facing the wrong way. While I thought about what to do next, I was prevented from pulling forward by the passenger, who for some reason got out of the car and simply stood in the street. He had the look of an aging hippie. I waited while a car passed in the other direction, and then Aging Hippie motioned me forward. Aggravated, but trying very hard to be philosophical about it, I turned the corner and found another spot further away.
As I walked past their car on my way into the coffee shop, I read their bumper stickers. They support the same liberal causes you might find on mine: peace and an end to discrimination of various kinds. We agree on some articles of faith, it seems, but not on a very important one, concerning thought for others and an awareness of how we take up space in our own little corners of the world. The Aging Hippies were in a hurry to park; they were meeting people, people whose bumper declared similar sentiments, and who also parked in the wrong direction across from the coffee shop.
That’s not the way my parents raised me, I thought to myself, perhaps a little smugly.
But I have to admit there was a time I happily rejected my parents’ values. I decided they cared more about politeness than anything else.
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. (1 Corinthians 13:11)
I had to grow up, and I mean really grow up, to understand that there was more to it than manners. My parents both had an understanding of their faith that emphasized hospitality and care for others. They didn’t preach it or describe it in theological terms; they simply lived it. Eventually I came around to seeing it their way. How we treat people really does matter, not because it’s “proper,” but because it’s the gospel, because it is the Good News.
In a word: love.
In our gospel lesson, Jesus has just finished reading from the Torah in his local synagogue during a worship service. Luke tells us attending worship was a part of Jesus’ regular practice, so he must have been familiar to those gathered. He shocks them and even enrages them with his commentary on the scriptures. The stories he speaks of remind the people of times when healing was needed, or famine was in the land. And in both cases, God gave the healing or the feeding to a person of faith who was not part of the people of Israel. Jesus wants them to understand that his ministry is for everyone. His prophetic message echoes and expands upon the messages of their own treasured texts. God created everyone and everything, and God’s love is for all people and all the earth.
In a word: love.
I sometimes wonder what it would be like to go home to my childhood church and announce myself as an ordained person, especially given the attitude to women in ministry in my old denomination. In the past ten or fifteen years, a superstructure of authority has developed, setting policy and practice for the denomination, its boards and agencies, its seminaries and its local churches. A slowly building acceptance of the value of women in ministry may have been the cause of a reactionary movement. This week I read about a current controversy. A professor of Bible at a Texas seminary lost her job simply for being a woman. The controlling forces of the school believe that women may not be in authority over men, even in the classroom. All the arguments rise and fall on one verse of one epistle, forgetting everything else, forgetting love.
And so I think of Jesus going back to his hometown, and I wonder about going back to mine. How would they receive me?
We know how the people of Nazareth responded to Jesus. They began by feeling proud of their hometown boy, but when his truth began to sink in, they got so angry they were ready to throw him right off a cliff, a version of stoning in which you dash the person against the stones instead of the stones against the person. After his effective sermon, they expected miracles, just like the healings he performed in the Gentile town of Capernaum. They wanted to be taken care of, wanted their widows fed—but they didn’t want to do it themselves. They wanted Jesus to make magic for them, to liberate them from their responsibilities to others. They struggled not so much with Jesus, but with their own scriptures, upon which he shone a light.
We struggle with the scriptures, too, thinking we understand the familiar stories and verses already, unwilling, perhaps, to consider they might mean something different than our favored interpretation. Corinthians 13 may be one of our most-heard passages, after the 23rd Psalm. Despite the fact that we so often read it at weddings, it has nothing to do with romantic love or sweetness. Paul instead describes active and constructive love. It nurtures, encourages and draws out; it builds up people and community. Paul writes in another part of the letter that love edifies; the word has the same root as the word “edifice.” By loving, he says, we make something; we construct something; we build something.
In a word: love.
I wonder if we can put ourselves in the places of the church members gathered in Corinth and hear the edge in Paul’s words. Paul uses himself as an example to try and teach the Corinthians how out of whack their priorities have become. He was known for his many gifts, but he makes it clear that without love, all that would mean nothing; he would be nothing. He begins with tongues “of men and of angels” because the “in” group at Corinth spoke in tongues and placed that spiritual gift above all others. Now I think that even though we don’t have a dispute here over that particular matter, we could all benefit from examining ourselves and this church and asking what we think is most important to our community of faith, and then asking what that looks like without love.
I, for instance, could turn out some brilliant sermons, gain popularity through my newspaper columns and attract many new people to North Parish, but without love, I would be nothing.
I’m still mulling over which of those I get hung up on, or feel proud of, the way the Corinthians did speaking in tongues. We all need to ask ourselves this question: What do we prize above all else?
Paul tells us what it needs to be.
In a word: love.
Faithful people, and that means you and me, I hope, must look beyond their own needs to see where God would have them share the Good News of love with others. Churches, and that means this one, too, must open up and see the community and the world as being important to God, at the risk of feeling unimportant themselves. And within the churches, and that means this one, too, we must stop trying to position ourselves above each other, stop trying to be the best or the most important or the most powerful simply for the sake of being in control.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. (1 Corinthians 13:4-6)
Can we rejoice in the truth, even in the hard truth that calls us to live knowing that God’s love is not just for you or for me or for North Parish or for the United Church of Christ or for the people who park in the right direction? It’s hard, but there is a way to get there.
In a word: love.