Preached at St. John's Lutheran Church, Victor, New York
South Wedge Mission, Rochester, New York
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
3 February 2013
Day Texts: Jeremiah 1.4-10
1 Corinthians 13.1-13
"You shall love, whether you like it or not. Emotions, they come and go like clouds. Love is not only a feeling. You shall love. To love is to run the risk of failure, the risk of betrayal. You feel your love has died. It is perhaps waiting to be transformed into something higher. Awaken the divine presence which sleeps in each man, each women. Know each other in that love which never changes.” - Kierkegaard
Note: I've been experimenting with trying to move towards a more extemporaneous-manuscript hybrid style as of late. The text below is a partial transcript, partial manuscript from Sunday. As such, slightly longer than usual.
Audio for the proclamation at South Wedge Mission can be found here.
-Grace, mercy and peace is yours from the Triune God. Amen.
-Re-reading the beautiful passage on love in 1 Corinthians 13 is a cool experience for me today. Because we actually had that read at our wedding. Which was one of the very first times I ever preached in public – because of course, you know, I had to preach at my own wedding. And I remember being so excited to preach about this passage – to tell many of my gathered family and friends, many of whom had been hurt by the church, about God’s unconditional love for us. It’s a great text to read at weddings.
-Except that it wasn’t actually written to be read at a wedding. It was actually written to a community of people who hated each other’s guts. (Which might be true at some weddings you’ve been to.) It was written to enemies. Who were not loving each other unconditionally. Who were ready, perhaps, to throw each other off of a cliff.
-Not unlike the scene we stumble upon at the end of our Gospel lesson today. I can’t forget that last scene. Its downright painful. Jesus is dragged out of his home synagogue, and led to the top of a high cliff. To be chucked over the edge. By a mob most likely comprised of people he knew well. People he grew up with. Who knew him as a kid. A little league coach. A next store neighbor. His father’s customer. A best friend’s mom. A Sunday School teacher. Maybe some of his relatives. His family and friends.
-Because something Jesus said to them filled them with rage. A rage fiery enough to consume them with enough violence to take that little boy from Nazareth, now a grown man, and bring him to the precipice. Moments ago, he was their hero. A real-life prophet, homegrown in their village. He’d made them all so proud. They had all spoken well of him. This was Joseph’s son. They’re ready to put his face on the billboards welcoming people to town. “Nazareth: Home of Jesus Christ – State Champion!”
-What he said must have been something that made them feel very betrayed. Like saying, “I’m that Messiah. I’m here to proclaim release to the captives, sight to the blind, and Good News to the poor. But I’m not here just for you. And God is not just for the people of Israel. God has sent me with the Gospel of God’s love to the whole of creation. And that means, for those foreigners too. Those Gentiles. Alien widows. And enemy generals.” You know, like those Roman centurions who regularly rape and pillage our town.
-And part of me can feel their pain too. The deep pangs of betrayal. After all, aren’t the people of Nazareth poor too? Don’t they have their share of widows, and aren’t they the slaves of enemy generals? And God’s promised Messiah, the liberator – he’s being sent to them, too? And won’t even do a miracle for us, the ones who made him?
-I feel like we all throw around language of a loving God so often that we’ve lost a real sense of how terrible and scandalous this news actually is. Because I wonder if, like the people of Nazareth, we haven’t also been conditioned by a world of conditional love to have certain expectations of God. If, somehow, we believe that more of God’s love for the rest of the world might mean less of God’s love for us. I wonder if we too feel betrayed, and angry, when our expectations are not met.
-See, when we are going by strictly human love, we’re generally going to see the world, not as it is, but as we are. Human love, in a broad sense, doesn’t love things in themselves. It looks for objects to meet its conditions. And only then, when it’s found its expectations met, does it give its love. So, for example, when Jesus fails to meet the expectations his listeners have for a Messiah, for their little hometown superstar, for “Joseph’s son,” well, they feel betrayed. And they withdraw their love. And they’re ready to chuck him.
-This week, I was reminded how conditioned I’ve been by conditional love in my life. Not one but three different friends confronted me, telling me they’d noticed that I’d been rather negative, cynical and bitter. After the third go around, I was able to admit a certain amount of resentment I’d been harboring towards a dear friend. Someone who I felt had shown me conditional love, and who had wounded me deeply. My colleague Chris helped me to see that I was wounded because this friend had not lived up to my expectations and conditions for her. And so, I was returning the favor by placing conditions on her. And, pushing other people away too. Thank God for friends who care more about telling us the truth than about our conditional acceptance.
-Because even at its best, human love still creates conditions and expectations. We have them of God, and then, we start to imagine God has them of us. And then, we start to imagine our conditions for ourselves are also God’s conditions for others and…well, you see the point, right? It’s a tangled web of unfulfilled desire, endless disappointment, frequent betrayal, and unbridled resentment. Human love says, “do this first, climb this ladder, meet these stands…and then you’ll be loved in return.” So much for human love.
-And yet, there is another kind of love. There is, after all, God’s love. And we know what God’s love looks like, not by projecting our own human love onto God. But by looking into the face of God Incarnate in Jesus Christ. Who says to his family, uncontrolled by a need for their acceptance, that “look, what y’all are about, that’s not God’s love. That’s that human love again. It’s limited by your fear and pain. And I get that. But let me show you a more excellent way.”
-When we look into the eyes of Jesus, we see a love that is led to the edge of a cliff by family and friends. That values truth and love more than acceptance and accolades. That doesn’t lift a finger in violence or anger or reactivity or resentment. The same love that, many years later, will be led to the top of another cliff. Bearing a cross. And when the whole weight of the conditions of merely human love was piled upon him, when it was utterly rejected by human expectations, still refused to fight back. But said, I’d rather die than that you miss knowing the truth of how much I love you. The unconditional love of God, you see, is found on the cliffside and on the cross. And it is for you, and it is for me.
-But God’s love does not stop there, merely with acceptance. While human love only accepts that which it finds beautiful, God’s love first finds the ugly, the utterly unlovely. It reaches out to the distorted faces of enemies. And then forgives them. And seeks reconciliation. And then, it starts to transform them. And make them people who are not only loveable, but also, capable of love.
-See, God’s unconditional love, it un-conditions us. And then restores us to our truest selves. It doesn’t just leave us to continue in blindness. Because when we see the love of God in Christ Jesus, the more we gaze upon it and accept its acceptance, the more we are able to discern. To tell the difference between merely human love, and God’s unconditional love.
-God loves us so much that God will not allow us to stay the same. God’s love teaches us to let human love be human love. To acknowledge that, in some sense, there are some things human love will never be capable of. And so to have realistic expectations towards others, and towards ourselves. And to not be surprised when it causes us suffering. A suffering God shares with us.
-God’s love is not like any human love you’ve ever received. Not like the love that comes when you achieve success and hear the thunder of applause. Not like the love that comes when you meet all of the expectations and conditions of your parents, your children, or your friends. Not like the love that is withdrawn because you made a mistake, or because you spoke the truth in love, and hit a nerve. God’s love is not like facebook love, contingent on the number of likes you receive or the number of friends you can boast. God’s love is never unspoken, never unfelt, never kept inside because of embarrassment or weakness. God’s love never fails to make itself known, never fails to do what it desires, is never stopped by weakness, or fear, or resentment, or failure.
-God’s love, you see, is the love St. Paul writes of in that famous poem from 1 Corinthians today. It’s not human love, but the love of God, the love that created us, redeems us, sustains us, and fashions us into its image. God’s love is patient. God’s love is kind. God’s love is not envious or boastful or arrogant. God’s love is not irritable or resentful. God’s love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth. God’s love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Even death on a cross. Even our conditions and expectations. Even our hatred and our resentment and our rage. Even our failures. And God’s love, God’s love in Christ Jesus - it never, ever ends.
-And this love, promised by St. Paul and given in Christ Jesus, it is like a mirror. We look into this mirror, into the eyes of Jesus, and we see God’s love for us. And we also glimpse who God is making us. We are given, as Paul writes, permission to believe all things and hope all things. To be patient and kind. Not to react to the hard truth or the heartbreaking failure. But to bear with it, to ask questions, to consider all angles, to be free from reactivity. Not to have to throw it over a cliff. It will still hurt us. True love always does. But it will be the hurt of human love being transformed more and more into the love of God.
-Returning to that cliff side, I wonder if that’s how Jesus got away. I wonder if the people holding Jesus down looked into his eyes. Looked into the very heart of the universe, into the love vortex of the Incarnate Trinity. And saw mirrored back to them, not their own hatred and resentment. But forgiveness, and grace, and a power more beautiful than they could have possibly imagined. And for a split-second, felt themselves beloved by this power.
-And so they let go. And Jesus gazed around at them. At his family turned enemies. With that gaze of heart-breaking, heart-broken love. And walked silently through their midst. And back to his work of ministry. Back to proclaiming the Gospel of God’s love. No matter what the cost.
-I’m not sure I’d be as cool under pressure as Jesus. I don’t have the Buddha-like ability not to react. But somehow, Jesus’ love, revealed in vulnerability on the edge of a cliff, changes those around him. It releases the tension. Frees from anger. Heals the heart. And transforms the world.
-As a good friend of mine is fond of preaching, nothing and no one else get to tell us who we are. And no human love gets to define God’s love. Some day, St. Paul promises us, we will understand this fully. We will look into the face of Love, and see ourselves as we truly are. And we will see others as loved too. And it’s gonna be great. But for now, we look through a glass dimly. Thank God, the loving gaze of Jesus, and not the image of our own expectations, our own conditions, our own failures, or our own self-hatred, is looking back. Unconditionally. And always.