Homily Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Richmond VA
February 4, 2019
Love is in our lectionary today, just as we flip over our cultural calendar into a month where another kind of love is in the air. It’s fascinating to me how the minor feast day of St. Valentine, a martyred third century Roman priest, has become the cultural festival of romantic love. We have become infatuated with the idea that paper hearts, cards, flowers and candy are the ways one demonstrates love. The angelic tongues of music and poetry express our human affections; we wax poetic and prophetic about which romances may indeed give us a glimpse of our supposed soul-mate; if we find ourselves single we may ponder the mysteries of true love, or profess faith that one day our beloved and we shall indeed find each other. Or, we just check out and write it all off as childishness. But today’s Epistle makes it exquisitely clear that life as the Church isn’t about candy-heart kind of love. It’s about an entirely different and transforming kind of love. And that is the kind of love that lands us squarely inside our Gospel reading today.
We’re dropped right in the middle of a story of Jesus’ ministry which began with last week’s lesson. So, let’s recap. Jesus goes to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, unrolls the scroll to the portion of the scriptures to be read from the prophet Isaiah and proclaims:
“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.”
After some short-lived praise for his gracious delivery of Isaiah’s prophecy, the hometown crowd quickly deteriorates to nervousness, discomfort and then outright hostility as Jesus challenges their assumptions and makes it known that prophecy is being fulfilled in their midst. Soon he’s getting run out of town, practically meeting his early demise being chased off a cliff.
It’s the preacher’s dilemma: bearing witness to God’s Love can be a dangerous thing.
Preacher Paul (the Apostle) was also wrestling with Love while writing to the Church in Corinth. Today, we hear him speaking to the cultural experience of love in their own vernacular which stood in sharp contrast to the life-altering conversion he had come to know in the love of Christ. Christians in Corinth were living in a Roman occupied and rebuilt Greek city, bringing the cultural and religious practices of two distinctly different philosophical traditions into play even as they were trying to figure out how to live together in community following the Way of Christ. There were big identity questions facing the Corinthians, as well as opposing viewpoints about which practices were allowable and aligned with this new way of being together in Christ. There’s a lot of sorting that out in Paul’s Epistles. In the midst of that is this incredible passage which reveals the character of Paul as pastor and preacher, drawing people from their divisions back to one central theme which he learned in his own conversion. That theme is LOVE.
Paul took up the preacher’s dilemma and reminded the people of Corinth that the human ways we struggle and strive to feel special, to feel we belong, to assuage our longings, jealousy and selfishness is not the same kind of Love which God has shown to us. God’s love is eternal, not temporal. It is about commitment, not sentiment. It doesn’t belong to me more than you. It doesn’t love me more than you. It isn’t arrogant, or rude, or envious or insistent. Love isn’t selfish or even self-serving. Love…the Love of God…is focused on seeking and serving God the other, undoing the prideful and arrogant nature of our human grasping and fear. God shows us, as Paul reminds the Church in Corinth, that divine Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Love, which is God, never fails to expand our hearts or stretch our imaginations.
Jesus took up the preacher’s dilemma in his hometown of Nazareth. His friends and neighbors gathered in the synagogue wanted to hear about human love and hometown privilege: they wanted to be pointed out as the favorites, the special ones. Instead, Jesus delivered a message of revolutionary and transformational love: Love that frees the imprisoned, that upends the status quo and breaks the bonds of oppression. Love that makes the blind to see…whether the literal eyes of St. Paul or the figurative eyes of our hearts, even today. Jesus preaches good news to his own people…then and now…reminding us that we are beloved and so is everyone else, including people we like and people we don’t, as well as people who belong to groups we consider to be poor, outcast, undesirable and marginalized. Jesus’ fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah that day in the midst of the hometown crowd wasn’t sentimental flattery to puff up the chosen few, but good news for the whole world. Even 2,000 years later. Even today. Even to us.
I wonder what would happen if Jesus stood here today in the midst of this hometown crowd: His Church. If Jesus were to unroll that ancient scroll and speak these prophetic words to us, would the sounding brass of cynicism or the clanging cymbals of divisive ideology make us quick to try to dismiss his divinity, or to downplay the message of good news to the poor? Or, would we take the risk to step into the fullness of that love…to deeply listen, and hear, and respond with open hearts and courageous wills to what that divine, transforming love calls us to do?
Rejecting the messenger is a short-sited attempt to bind up the message. But the Good News of transformative, divine love has a way of continuing to emerge. It emerges through Jesus’ life and ministry, and his death and resurrection. It emerges through the conversion of St. Paul and again in the words from Paul to the church in Corinth. It emerges through centuries of saints, prophets, priests, martyrs and regular, everyday folk among our Great Cloud of Witnesses who set about to live fully in the love of Christ, seeking and serving Christ in all persons. Think about the good news of the Way of Love which permeated the fairy tale setting of the royal romance of Meghan and Harry through the sermon preached by our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. Consider how we liberate love when we embrace the challenges of living as church together in this community through the mission and ministry we gather to hear about today in our annual meeting. Most of all, draw near to the profound love we experience in the Body of Blood of Christ we receive with outstretched hands, bringing us together across context, time, and place into the presence of Christ no matter who we are or where we come from. It is powerful love, y’all. This kind of divine love can heal our divided world in ways we can only begin to imagine.
Bearing witness to divine Love can be a dangerous thing. It was for Jesus, and it was for Paul. And I’ll take up the preacher’s dilemma today and remind us that Love isn’t arrogant or boastful or envious or rude…if we’re living with those things as our companions, we’re not living in the Love of God. God’s Love persists even when we mess things up. God’s love persists even when our human leaders fail miserably. God’s Love persists in spite of the racism and sexism and classism and ableism that create structural barriers to seeing each other as full human beings. We only have each other in this world in which to see the image and reflection of God. We can try to bind up that message, or blame the messengers. But we’re only fooling ourselves.
But even when we fail to live into the fullness of that love…and this week has surely provided evidence of that failure…there is still Love, because God is Love. Love that frees the captives and breaks the bonds of oppression. Love that shows us another way where we experience love through serving one another instead of our own self interests. Love that is given with total abandon rather than selfish intent. Love that we come to know and accept will be lavished upon us relentlessly until we can finally look through that glass and see ourselves and each other…every single one of us…as fully known and fully beloved by God. That is the love that persists. That is the love of God which is being fulfilled in our midst today, transforming this world and each one of us, if we let that message of love take hold. That is the dangerous, transforming and liberating love that abides with us, if we will open our hearts to receive.
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.