Sermon preached January 31, 2016
Texts: I Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30
Paul Stookey, “The Wedding Song” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aZbhrO4IEtI
There was a time when this was among the most popular songs to have at your wedding. Julie and I had it sung at our wedding in 1982. My sister had it sung at her wedding a couple of years earlier. You could almost pair this song with the reading read by Diane, I Corinthians 13.
To hear that song, and hear that reading, one can be transported to a delightful summer day with a bride adorned in a beautiful gown, accompanied by friends in lovely dresses, a handsome groom outfitted in a tuxedo, with some best friends also so dressed. There would be flowers and lace, images adorned with gossamer. There might be a recollection of a romantic proposal. There might be dancing. There would be joy and passion. On a cold January day, it is kind of fun to simply think about such times.
Romantic love is wonderful. That’s why there are songs and poems and movies that celebrate it. Yet love is more than romance. Even married love, if it is to be lasting, must be more than gossamer and lace, candles and flowers. Love not only carries us to places of ease and delight, love carries us to tough places.
What an interesting pairing of readings for today. I Corinthians 13 with its celebration of love and Jesus in his hometown synagogue where not all goes well. It starts off nicely enough. Jesus offers a wonderful reading from Isaiah. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”
Then things turn, almost inexplicably. You get the feeling that there must have been more to the story than is told here. You get the sense that the people, amazed at Jesus eloquence, are now waiting for some special treatment because they are his hometown folks. If he has done such wonderful things elsewhere, think of what we have coming. Jesus will have none of that. He reminds the people of two stories in their tradition. There is the story of Elijah during a deep famine, who offered help only to a Gentile woman, a widow at Zaraphath in Sidon. There is the story of Elisha, who healed only a Gentile leper, Naaman, the Syrian. Suddenly the eloquent hometown boy has become unwelcome. The reaction against him is filled with rage, and teeters on violence.
Jesus was talking about love. His reading from Isaiah 61 was about a God of love who acts to heal and free, who is at work in the world to make human lives more free and whole and the world more just and free. Yet this God of love is always widening the circle of love. There are no claims to special favors, and that part of the good news of love the people don’t get. When Jesus presses the point, they turn on him.
Love calls us to the things of this world. If you have not already read this, you will soon in our church newsletter. Love calls us to the things of this world is a wonderful phrase and the title of a Richard Wilbur poem. In his poem Wilbur imagines a line of laundry hanging out to dry, flapping in the breeze. It is an image with which we are much less familiar these days. Wilbur imagines the wind-whisked laundry as our souls, Spirit blown above the earth, reluctant, in a way, to engage again with the everyday. Yet as the sun acknowledges/With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,/The soul descends once more in bitter love/To accept the waking body. Love calls us to the things of this world. The love of God we know in Jesus calls us to enter into the mire, to engage in the messiness of life. This love is not simply sweetness and light, gossamer and flowers, lace and lilacs. It asks of us our best gifts and strengths. It requires of us a willingness to dig deep inside.
The love of God Paul writes about and Jesus speaks about, this love calls us to the things of this world. If we are going to try and follow Jesus, if we are going to be Spirit-led people of love, we cannot avoid engaging in issues that may make us uncomfortable sometimes.
Love calls us to the things of this world. Love pushes us to ask about poverty. We celebrate a world in which extreme poverty has been diminishing. We wonder about a world with growing inequality, where moving toward even more economic security for many is becoming more difficult.
Love calls us to the things of this world. Love moves us to inquire about the persistence of racism, about our seeming inability to move past racial stereotypes and systems that work against groups, particularly African-Americans and Native Americans. All lives matter, but we need to honestly acknowledge those places in our society where some lives have historically mattered less. African-American slaves were considered less than human by their owners, and in our constitution. Native Americans were seen as wholly other. The more Indians we can kill this year the fewer we will need to kill the next, because the more I see of the Indians the more convinced I become that they must either all be killed or be maintained as a species of pauper. Their attempts at civilization are ridiculous. (Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman)
Love calls us to the things of this world. Immigration and refugee issues in our country and around the world need to be considered through the eyes of the love of God who continues to push us to expand our circle of caring. Secure borders have their place. Working to prevent terrorism is important. And we need to consider that the suffering of human persons, people fleeing war-ravaged countries, people fleeing gang violence that riddles many Central American countries, that suffering matters, too. There are no easy solutions, but we cannot turn away from engaging in the conversation.
Nor can we simply ignore the issues in the United Methodist Church that are swirling around our inclusion of LGBT persons. Things can get tense in some of these discussions as we move toward another General Conference in May. Love calls us to stay engaged.
Perhaps Jesus’ reminder to his hometown friends is a reminder to us that love calls us to the things of this world in a world of multiple faiths. Jesus seems to remind the people in Nazareth that God can be up to something in the lives of persons of other traditions. How might that affect how we think about our Muslim neighbors?
Love calls us to the things of this world and Jesus words in Nazareth remind us that it is not all about us. It is about us, for God’s love is there for us – healing and freeing. God’s love is an expansive love that continues to press us to widen the circle of love, and that can be messy sometimes. It means we engage in the muck and mire of everyday life.
There is also a very personal dimension to this love that calls us to the things of this world. Married love, if it is to be sustained, needs to be a love that also enters into the muck and mire, the ups and downs, of intimate relationships. I just finished a wonderful novel by Kent Haruf. Benediction is set in a small town called Holt on the Colorado plains. To describe the plot of the story does not make the book sound like much. The story begins with a diagnosis of terminal cancer for the owner of the hardware store in Holt, Dad Lewis. The book is about his dying, and about the care of neighbors, friends, family and his wife, Mary, for him. It is a story of how love calls us to the things of this world.
Mary came into the room with a pan of hot water and set it on the chair next to the bed and brought in a second pan and set it on another chair and went out again and returned with towels and washcloths. She switched on the bedside lamp and got Dad out of his pajamas and his diaper and covered him with a flannel sheet. Are you ready to get cleaned up, honey?
That water isn’t too hot, is it? he whispered.
No, but I don’t want you to get chilled.
She began by washing his face and head with a soapy washcloth and rubbed his face and head with a washcloth from the rinse water and dried him with a towel. She washed his chest and arms and hands and rubbed him warm, and washed his wasted legs and feet and rinsed and dried them. Roll over on your side now, honey. Hold on to my hand. He made a little moan in pain and turned slowly to his side and she washed his back and his gaunt behind and cleaned him thoroughly and dried him, then he turned back and she washed between his legs…. She put a new diaper on him and helped him into his pajamas and drew up the sheet and summer blanket, then he lay back and looked at her.
I appreciate all this, he said.
I wish I could do something for you.
You have. All these years. I’ll just clean this up and come back and lay down with you. (223-224)
One kind of love is passionate and exciting, in turns like fireworks and like lace. That love is just fine. It is a joy. Enjoy it. It is a gift of God that God celebrates.
And the love of God in Jesus is a love that calls us to the things of this world. It calls us to patience and kindness, even when they are difficult. It calls us to rejoice in the truth, even when it is difficult to discern. We are called to a love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. One rendering of that verse says that “love is always loyal, hopeful, supportive and trusting.” The love of God in Jesus calls us to widen the circle of caring. Love calls us to the things of this world. God give us the courage to love. Amen.