Sermon from January 31, 2016
Luke 4:21-30 and I Corinthians 13:1-13
They had heard about him – this hometown boy – and the impact he was making in the region. So, when he came home, there was a buzz. Then, he went to the synagogue. He, it seemed, wasn’t above them. He still remembered his roots. And, imagine how excited they were when he stood up to read! And such a wonderful passage he chose:
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.
Were they not the ones who needed God’s favor? They, compared to the Romans, were the poor. They were captive to an occupying power that controlled much of their lives. They were the oppressed waiting for the year of the Lord’s favor! God’s anointed – God’s Messiah – had come. It was time to celebrate!
There are soaring, beautiful words in the Bible. There is poetry that stirs our hearts. I Corinthians 13) is one of the most familiar Biblical passages. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals or angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” These words are so familiar that they are often chosen by couples getting married – as a celebration of their love. “Faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Oh, the beauty of Paul’s words are so appropriate for those couples making a public declaration of their love!
Context. Last week I spoke about context. I read Paul’s words in I Corinthians in a way that would never fly in a marriage ceremony. The tenor of that reading would be more appropriate for marriage counselling, when everything seems to have gone wrong. And that is closer to the context out of which these lofty sounding words come. Paul wrote this treatise on love for a church community that was plagued by conflict. It follow his reflection that the church is like a body – and that each part of the body matters. (Paul’s imagery is frequently used in our ordination and installation liturgies, reminding us that ministry is a shared endeavor.)
When Jesus spoke to the hometown folk in the synagogue, he quoted from Isaiah – a beautiful passage of God’s promise. Then, he began to expand the context. He “gave the interpretation” for his hearers. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Well, that was nice. Yay! God was going to take care of them. But, he went further. “But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
Jesus was telling them that they had limited the scope of God’s concern, the scope of God’s promise. They could not hear these words as words only for the Israelites. God’s redemptive presence was and would be wider than they had conceived. To use Paul’s imagery of the body, the body had a diversity they had scarcely imagined. Jesus was anointed by the Spirit to do God’s work – and God’s work could not be owned by any particular group of people.
It’s easy, looking back, to judge them harshly. “How could they not see that the Messiah would be for all of the people of the earth?” We look back as those who have heard the good news and count ourselves among the family of God, a reality that would have been difficult for the people of Nazareth to imagine.
It’s harder to ask what the context for these words looks like in our own time. Someone suggested that we consider the “Black lives matter” movement. That assertion has generated great anger. There is the backlash movement that declares, “All lives matter!” But, that assertion is often a way of dismissing the injustices and the pain of a particular group of people. A colleague said, “Firefighters tell us that all houses are important. But the one that is on fire gets immediate attention!”
Last Sunday, Patrice Hatley, our presbytery’s coach and coordinator, spoke about churches needing to have satisfaction and energy in order to thrive. I was struck by the word “satisfaction.” Too often it seems that churches are torn asunder when personal preferences become the means by which the church is judged. “I’m not satisfied,” can be detrimental to the well-being of the congregation. How would it be possible for everybody’s personal preferences to be accommodated? We would have total chaos. It’s hard enough dealing with just a few preferences. “I wish we’d sing such and such a hymn more often!” or “I think a church has to do…whatever!”
I’ve been reading the book which gave her that information. The author wasn’t talking about satisfaction that comes from having one’s wishes, desires, or preferences fulfilled. He wasn’t talking about making the church according to our own visions. If we are pulled asunder by the misguided notion that we can “satisfy” everyone’s desires, we will never be able to be the church in the world. Paul saw the disastrous results in Corinth. He called them to consider a larger context than the self. They were to consider the community – the body of Christ. For Crabtree, the author Patrice was quoting, satisfaction was more about recognizing that a church was striving to be faithful in the world and living according to a vision of what God was calling it to do.
Living toward a larger context is never an easy thing. The people of Nazareth demonstrated that. And we see how hard it is over and over again in the church of this day and age. It’s tempting to become obsessed with our own status in the world – and forget that God’s vision is always larger. Crabtree says that flexibility is key. Paul would add that “love” is also key – not the romantic love that gets lifted up when his words are read at weddings, but the hard work of love that looks for the well-being of others, that seeks the health of the every growing body of Christ.