Epiphany 4C: ‘Tis Love

OLD TESTAMENT:  Jeremiah 1: 4-10
The next two weeks we will deal with the call stories of two of the best-known prophets (Jeremiah and Isaiah).  In the case of Jeremiah, as with Isaiah, the call takes place within conversation and the prophet protests in some way.  In Jeremiah’s case, God reassures him that “now I have put my words in your mouth”.  From that moment on, Jeremiah is single-minded in what God is calling him to do.  So much, in fact, that he becomes a typical outsider in his own society.  The passage contains indications that Jeremiah will probably be at odds with those to whom he is sent to prophesy.  He, in fact, is essentially rejected by his own people.  Jeremiah’s work involves destroying and overthrowing, then building and planting.  Essentially, his message was one of turmoil as the people journeyed toward God’s promise.
The work of the prophet Jeremiah spanned a period of about 40 years, from the 13th year of the reign of Josiah (which would be about 627 BCE) until the “captivity of Jerusalem”, which occurred about 587 BCE.  The temple was destroyed a year later.  For those 40 years, the prophet maintained a message of destruction.  All that the people knew and hold dear would soon be gone.  Needless to say, this did not go over well.  In fact, on more than one occasion, the people tried to kill Jeremiah.
These verses are the witness of those years.  They are written by one who has been tested in the fire and has stood firm, one who has experienced the strength and empowerment of God in the most unimaginable of circumstances.  God had promised to always be with Jeremiah and the prophet now looks back on a life and did indeed see God’s presence woven through it.
The order of what Jeremiah is supposed to do is important—pluck up, pull down, destroy, overthrow, build, plant.  Before building and planting, you break down and pluck up.  Spiritually we prefer just some building addition, some planting to spruce up the place a bit, so that we can hang on to what we already have; we are attached to it, we earned it.  But recreation is about starting over, it is about giving God room to work.  James C. Howell makes this observation:  Interestingly, Jeremiah uses four verbs for this deconstruction (break down, pluck up, overthrow, destroy), but only two for the new creation.  Is the deconstruction harder labor.   (James C. Howell, Homiletical Perspective from Jeremiah 1: 4-10 in Feasting on the Word:  Advent Through Transfiguration, Year C, Volume 4 (Louisville, KY:  Westminster-John Knox Press, 2009), 295.
Now I don’t think that Jeremiah was being called at this moment into some sort of alternative career path.  He was being called to look at life differently, to take on a new creativity in doing what God called him to do.  But before he launched out into building something new, he had to deal with what was there.  He had to start over.  You know, God was not clearing the path of Jeremiah to be a beloved leader of the people; rather, God was pushing him out of the fray, asking him to lead a new charge.  And, the Scripture says, God had had this in mind from the very beginning.  Jeremiah’s whole life—all the misdirections, all the roads, all the times that he just flat screwed up his life—have brought him here, to this moment.  It’s a new day, but a day that has been coming.
And the lection ends not with a directive to finish or accomplish.  It ends with a call to plant.  To plant, to seed the earth with a vision of what will be.  Jeremiah may not see it grow to fruition.  He may never see it break the top of the soil at all.  But he will know that he has done his part.  Henderson Nelson (or someone else—I’ve seen this attributed to gobs of people), said that “the true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”  Maybe our completion-driven society would do well to listen to that. Maybe, like Jeremiah, we are called to plant and to water and to nurture so that change will take root and then to hand off the doing to those who come after us that they, too, might be who God calls them to be.  We are not called to build the world into what we perceive God is calling it to be; we are rather called to do what God is calling us to do so that plant by plant, brick by brick, and faithful response by faithful response, the earth will reflect not our image of who we think God is, but the true Kingdom of God in all its mystery. 
a.      What is your response to this passage?
b.      How does this speak to you about faith?  What about courage?
c.       What reaction do you have to the message that something must essentially be destroyed before something can be built?
d.      What do you think of the idea that the tearing down may be “harder labor”?
e.       How does this speak to you about your own calling and your own spirituality?
NEW TESTAMENT:  1 Corinthians 13: 1-13
This passage is obviously a familiar one.  You’ve probably heard it read at 80% of the weddings that you’ve attended.  So try to let it float on its own, free from the way you’ve heard it.  It is, obviously, about love.  But, ironically, it’s not really talking about human love.  Instead, it’s talking about that deep and abiding love to which we are all called.  It speaks of the love that is the very essence of God.
In the passages that we read the last two weeks, Paul was concerned about the spiritual gifts of the Corinthian community and how they viewed those gifts.  This is a follow-up to that.  His point is that even the incredibly zealous and competent use of gifts—speaking in tongues, prophesying, wisdom, knowledge, even faith—is absolutely useless without love, without the very essence of God.  It is that love, that which is of God, that will survive when everything else slips away.  Everything else is really just a bunch of noise.
Even faith and hope can slip away if they are not borne within the right Spirit, if they are not part of God.  It is love, though, that survives.  The essence of that love is something toward which we must journey.  We may not even completely understand it.  But it is the very essence of life.  But it is not blind love.  This is a seeing love, a knowing love, a love that we must strive to understand and strive to come near.  The point is that when you boil our Christian understanding down to its very core, what remains is not doctrine or rules or creeds or confession but rather the very face of love.  It is the face that we struggle to find, the face that we struggle to see, and the face we struggle to grow into.  It is the face of Christ.  It is the face of Love.
Paul’s idea of love sounds a lot like perfection (or maybe it’s just the Methodist in me that is coming up with that!).  It’s not a picture of what love is but a picture of what love is supposed to be.  It’s that vision that God holds for us all.  Pure and true love is essentially that vision.  It’s that to which we all aspire, that to which we all journey in this life of faith.  It is that which bear all, believes all, hopes all.  It is that which surpasses whatever it is that you think it is.  That’s right.  Think about what love is.  And then go farther.  Now, there…go farther than that…farther…farther…farther…THAT is love.  Our life is one that seeks that love and knows that it has already found us.  ‘Tis love, ‘tis love…
This pursuit of this love IS our faith journey.  For us, it is the journey itself that brings light into the darkness and unity to our world.  God isn’t commanding us to be perfect; God is calling us to love—“to love God with everything we are and to love our neighbor as ourself.”  It is pure, unadulterated, selfless giving.  It is God.  ‘Tis love.
a.      What  meaning does this passage hold for you?
b.      What does this depiction of love mean for you?
c.       What gets in the way of this type of love for most of us?
d.      What does this depiction of love mean in terms of reaching out to the world?
e.       What does this depiction of love mean in terms of loving our enemies?
GOSPEL:  Luke 4: 21-30
This Scripture is a continuation of the Gospel passage that we read last week.  Jesus is still in his hometown, having unrolled the scroll and read from it.  But Jesus was not seen as a prophet or as the Messiah by these people that had known him for so long.  He was just one of them, that little kid who they had known when his nose was running and he was getting in trouble for getting too dirty.  But he was one who had made good and of whom they were very proud.  They probably thought that Jesus’ ministry would be a reflection on them—something they could chalk up to “You know, I knew him when…”.  And now here he is saying things that were not the things to which they were accustomed.  Jesus was actually calling them to change, calling them to step out of their boxes and away from their temples and become who God was calling them to be.
But they rebelled.  This was not part of what they knew.  Now we need to be careful that we do not assume a sort of anti-Semitic stance on this.  Jesus was not against the religious “establishment”.  He was just trying to get people to realize its true meaning, he was trying to compel them to realize that it was not about rules but about openness, about (remember!) love.
And, to be honest, we could put ourselves in the same story.  We are comfortable being open and exercising radical hospitality as long as they leave us be, as long as we don’t have to change, as long as we can go home and be warm and comfortable and relax when it is all over.  Isn’t that right?  But that’s not the way it works.  After all, when you think about it, this level of commitment, this pure untainted love, did not elevate Jesus to the point of having his own mega-church on the freeway and a Sunday morning televised service.  Instead, it led to the Cross and, ultimately, to Life.
Bishop William Willimon says of this passage:

A friend of mine returned from an audience with His Holiness the Dali Lama. “When his Holiness speaks,” my friend said, “everyone in the room becomes quiet, serene and peaceful.” Not so with Jesus. Things were fine in Nazareth until Jesus opened his mouth and all hell broke lose.  And this was only his first sermon! One might have thought that Jesus would have used a more effective rhetorical strategy, would have saved inflammatory speech until he had taken the time to build trust, to win people’s affection, to contextualize his message — as we are urged to do in homiletics classes.
No, instead he threw the book at them, hit them right between the eyes with Isaiah, and jabbed them with First Kings, right to the jaw, left hook. Beaten, but not bowed, the congregation struggled to its feet, regrouped and attempted to throw the preacher off a cliff. And Jesus “went on his way.”
And what a way to go. In just a few weeks, this sermon will end, not in Nazareth but at Golgotha. For now, Jesus has given us the slip. Having preached the sovereign grace of God — grace for a Syrian army officer or a poor pagan woman at Zarephath — Jesus demonstrates that he is free even from the community that professes to be people of the Book. The Book and its preachers are the hope of the community of faith, not its pets or possessions. Perhaps the church folk at Capernaum won’t put up such a fight. Jesus moves on, ever elusive and free….
Kierkegaard noted that many great minds of his century had given themselves to making people’s lives easier — inventing labor-saving machines and devices. He said that he would dedicate himself to making peoples lives more difficult. He would become a preacher…
In a seminar for preachers that I led with Stanley Hauerwas, one pastor said, in a plaintive voice, “The bishop sent me to a little town in South Carolina. I preached one Sunday on the challenge of racial justice. In two months my people were so angry that the bishop moved me. At the next church, I was determined for things to go better. Didn’t preach about race. But we had an incident in town, and I felt forced to speak.  “The board met that week and voted unanimously for us to be moved. My wife was insulted at the supermarket. My children were beaten upon the school ground.” My pastoral heart went out to this dear, suffering brother. Hauerwas replied, “And your point is what? We work for the living God, not a false, dead god! Did somebody tell you it would be easy?”
Not one drop of sympathy for this brother, not a bit of collegial concern. Jesus moves right on from Nazareth to Capernaum, another Sabbath, another sermon, where the congregational demons cry out to him, “Let us alone!” (Luke 4:34). But he won’t, thank God. He is free to administer his peculiar sort of grace, whether we hear or refuse to hear. This is our good news.
As for us preachers: “See, today I appoint you over nations and over Kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy, and to overthrow.” (Jer. 1:10) — with no weapon but words. (Bishop William Willimon, “Book ‘Em”, in The Christian Century, January 27, 2004, p. 20, available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2955, accessed 27 January, 2010.)

a.      What  meaning does this hold for you?
b.      Where do you find yourself in this story?
c.       How does this story read to you in light of the 1 Corinthians reading?
d.      What about “faith” makes you the most uncomfortable?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
The doors we open and close each day decide the lives we live.  (Flora Whittemore)
Too many religious people make faith their aim.  They think “the greatest of these” is faith, and faith defined as all but infallible doctrine.  These are the dogmatic, divisive Christians, more concerned with freezing the doctrine than warming the haeart.  If faith can be exclusive, love can only be inclusive.  (William Sloane Coffin)
Like a love who spends all his time thinking of his distant love, God has been thinking of me since before I was born, for all eternity. (Ernesto Cardenal)
Closing
Come, O thou Traveler unknown, whom still I hold, but cannot see!
My company before is gone, and I am left alone with thee, with thee all night I mean to stay and wrestle till the break of day.
I need not tell thee who I am, my misery and sin declare; thyself hast called me by my name, look on thy hands and read it there.  But who, I ask thee, who art thou?  Tell me thy name, and tell me now.
With thou not yet to me reveal thy new, unutterable name?  Tell me, I still beseech thee, tell, to know it now resolved I am; wrestling, I will not let thee go, till I thy name, thy nature know.
My strength is gone, my nature dies, I sink beneath thy weighty hand, faint to revive, and fall to rise; I fall, and yet by faith I stand; I stand and will not let thee go till I thy name, thy nature know.
‘Tis Love! ‘tis Love! Thou diedst for me, I hear thy whisper in my heart.  The morning breaks, the shadows flee, pure Universal Love thou art: to me, to all, thy mercies move—thy nature, and thy name is Love.  Amen. (From “Wrestling Jacob” (aka “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown”), by Charles Wesley, from The United Methodist Hymnal, # 387.

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