Texts: Luke 4: 21-30, 1 Corinthians 13: 1-13
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
“The more we curve in on ourselves, the more we stick to our own notions of what is good, the more we desperately need God to break in from the outside. The more cracked open we are, the more room for God to flood our lives with an expansive, unfathomable Love that we could never concoct for ourselves.
That’s good news, I promise, although it might not seem like it at the time—when reality as we conceived of it slips through our fingers and we are left only with our breath and open hands. It’s good news that was so hard to hear that Jesus’ friends and neighbors drove him out of town, intending to shove him off the cliffs.”
Good morning. As you may be aware, this is a big holiday weekend in American secular culture: a time to gather with friends with much anticipation for the end of a long season. Since I won’t be addressing it in this sermon, I want to begin by wishing you all a Happy Groundhog Day.
This week we really do have an all-star lineup of texts. But as is often the case in the lectionary, our Gospel seems to begin right in the middle of the story, so I’ll back up a little bit and share a bit of context from Luke.
Jesus, having grown up in the Jewish faith, been baptized, and spent time in the wilderness facing temptations, is now back in Galilee where word spreads quickly about this teacher who is “filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.” Luke writes, “he began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.”
In our text, Jesus has returned to his home town of Nazareth, and is asked to read from the scroll of Isaiah. He opens it and reads, “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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he proclaims, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The people are amazed. This is their hometown guy, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor in their very presence. Maybe like someone you know from high school becoming famous or being elected to office, it’s hard not to feel important or at least excited about what this could mean for your community.
Not so fast, says Jesus. Remember Elijah and Elisha, and how many widows and lepers they could have healed from the people of Israel. But their ministries began away from the flock, far from the fold, in Sidon and Syria.
At Trinity we heard this text about Elijah not long ago—that God’s salvation for all people begins in the life of a widow, from the last morsel of her flour jar. A widow gathering sticks for her last meal, on the outskirts of town. A woman who remains nameless, whose life emanates from the margins and the silences of the holy text.
We’ve heard it before: that God begins in the smallest, hardest, places within ourselves to bring healing, not only to us, but those around us. That similarly, God works from the margins of our society to speak truth, and power and grace into the center. God begins at the edges. God makes Her way from the outside, in.
Our second reading for today, from first Corinthians, is one of the most well known texts of the bible, at least in an American, western context. Personally I associate it with Mandy Moore from A Walk to Remember. In other words, I associate it with romantic love and tragic sweetness, neither of which does justice to what is written.
Paul is writing to a divided community of Corinth, and has just written extensively about how they might find ways for all people, Jews and Gentiles, newcomer and fervently devout, to find a place at the table together—literally, that they might take communion together.
Paul is not writing about love as a feeling, or an intimacy, but an action and a way of being in community — especially with people who are different from you.
The word “love” in a modern Western context is often watered down so that it is meaningless—I love the weather, I love that outfit. Or, the meaning of love is so specific that it can only include desires and relationships that stay neatly within the boundaries of what society comprehends.
This Mandy-Moore-kind-of-love fits neatly with norms about love that our culture gives us: our happily-ever-after notions of romantic fulfillment; families that look one way and stay the same forever; or bodies that match certain ideals.
But God—who works from the edges of town, of our culture, of our society— God thwarts our harmful notions of what is normal. Of what love supposedly looks like, according to the movies.
The love Paul writes about is not a feeling of patience or kindness. In fact, what is translated as adjectives are actually verbs in this text. Love is “to be patient.” And love is “to endure.” Love is “to hope,” “to believe.” Love is a way of being in the world. It is a practice. It is something we do, for the sake of community.
This afternoon, we will commit to God someone who embodied this love for many in our community. Dear Eunice was not much bothered with social norms, at least not as I got to know her. But she was radically interested in her neighbor. Eunice’s love didn’t fit any cookie-cutters, and her friendships knew no boundaries. Her life and her values are emblematic of what this congregation strives for: relationship in the midst of vast diversity.
It’s tricky business, this kind of love. There’s one thing you can count on. Whatever plans we have for ourselves, whatever we feel like we’re supposed to attain, whatever ideals we come up with, even with best intentions— God is going to disrupt and thwart.
In January two years ago I sought the help of a friend who was just getting started as a life coach. Part of my personality is as a serious planner, and I was facing much uncertainty that year: completing a capstone project, graduating from divinity school, moving to Minnesota, plus the aftermath of the 2016 election. Things were feeling out of control.
So I created a meticulous plan, from a list of values to uphold, down to monthly and weekly goals, scheduling my life down to the half hour. (I kid you not.) My friend’s last email to me went something like, “Maybe you should think of a backup plan” but I wouldn’t have it. And, as could be predicted by anyone but me, the plan I made for myself hardened, and cracked, and fell completely apart within weeks. That’s when God’s grace rushed in.
The more we curve in on ourselves, the more we stick to our own notions of what is good, the more we desperately need God to break in from the outside. The more cracked open we are, the more room for God to flood our lives with an expansive, unfathomable Love that we could never concoct for ourselves.
That’s good news, I promise, although it might not seem like it at the time—when reality as we conceived of it slips through our fingers and we are left only with our breath and open hands. It’s good news that was so hard to hear that Jesus’ friends and neighbors drove him out of town, intending to shove him off the cliffs.
And here’s some more good news: they didn’t succeed. I like to wonder what Jesus must have been thinking as he “passed through the midst of them, and went on his way.” Maybe... “Gotcha.” Or, “See you at the cross.”
Because despite our best efforts, God is always going to be larger and more powerful than any constraints on love our imaginations can muster.
In this story, Jesus evades death,
On Easter, Jesus defeats death,
Love that proclaims release to the captives,
and gives sight to the blind,
and let’s the oppressed go free--