Being loving, by Pastor Noel

February 3, 2013   Fourth Epiphany, C

 

      “And the greatest of these is love.”

      So ends Paul’s “hymn to love” that we usually hear at weddings—just about every wedding I’ve ever been to.

      When this passage is read by itself, apart from what goes before, and after, it can seem to be about the warm fuzzy feelings that weddings evoke. But English is not the best way to read this.

      Paul was writing in Greek, and the Greeks had several words for love. Maybe you know this already, but here are some Greek words for love:

      There is phillia—loyalty or fellowship; storge—affection such as parent to child; eros—sensual desire; epithumia—strong desire; and the word that Paul used, and that is used more than the others in Christian Scriptures, agape—love that is self-giving without expecting anything in return.

      Some versions of the Bible translate this as “charity” so Paul’s letter says “faith, hope and charity.”

      Now, charity can mean giving a “handout” which can sometimes be demeaning. And when we fund a charitable organization we do get something in return—a tax deduction, so charity is not quite the right word.

      Last Sunday we heard the part of Paul’s letter just before this. He said that we are many and we are different, and we are all important and all of us are needed to make the Body of Christ complete.

      I imagine that the church in Corinth was like other groups I’ve experienced—some people think that they are better than others. I’ll bet there was bickering and snide remarks about “those” folks—who do they think they are!

      Paul say NO to this idea—He says that who they are, who WE are, is the Body of Christ.

      Paul says that the folks in Corinth should stop judging each other and start being loving.

      Stop being in their separate groups and start being Christ’s Body in the world.

      I hope that his message was received with joy— because those separate and unequal groups in Corinth might have torn the church apart.

      This is no Valentine’s card from Paul. He uses strong language to show the Corinthians what they have been doing wrong, and how to change.

      Grow up, he says, grow up and be loving in the way God calls us to be. And because these are such familiar words, here they are in a different version, from The Message by Eugene Peterson.

      “Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have…doesn’t strut, Doesn’t have a swelled head, Doesn’t force itself on others, Isn’t always “me first,” Doesn’t fly off the handle, Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, Doesn’t revel when others grovel, (Love) Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, Trusts God always, Always looks for the best, Never looks back, but keeps going to the end.”

      All the other stuff will end, and we will be with God, Paul says. And Peterson continues, “But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.”

      These loving but hard to hear words from Paul are paired with equally loving and even harder to hear words from Jesus.

      Jesus’ ministry has started, and word of his miracles spread, so he is invited to read in his hometown synagogue.

      He reads from Isaiah, “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 bring release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free..”

      Then he tells them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

      “Wait a minute!” They say, “Isn’t this Jesus? We know who he is, he’s Joseph’s son, but who does he think he is?”

      They are so incensed that they can’t hear the good news that Jesus is proclaiming—the kingdom of God is unfolding right there before them and they can’t see it.

      In the midst of worship they become filled with rage and try to kill him.

      Jesus is trying to show them the wonderful realities of God’s kingdom—reminding us of the Song of Mary, his mother, “He has lifted up the lowly, and cast down the mighty from their thrones.”

      What really incensed the folks in Nazareth, and many others, even today, is not that Jesus was too big for his britches, but that he was showing them that God’s kingdom is open to everyone. Inclusive. No one left out (unless they want to be.) Incredible!

      They couldn’t believe it—they were God’s chosen people, how could the kingdom include everyone? Jesus says that everyone is God’s chosen person—the gentile widow in Zarephath, Naaman, a leper, and Syrian soldier, another gentile!—everyone.

      They didn’t want to hear this, they didn’t hear it—just went on holding on to their exclusive right to God, even as Jesus offered that right to us all.

      They were trying to save the status quo—save the way they knew and trusted. Jesus was calling them to bigger and better ways.

       My friend Rob Hirschfeld, Bishop of NH, wrote of an aha moment that he posted on facebook.

      He said, “I think we are trying so hard to save the church, and what we are called to save is the world.”

      There are those who would get filled with rage over that idea, but that’s what Jesus was saying, too. God’s kingdom is not an exclusive, isolated club that only a choice few can enter—God’s kingdom welcomes, invites, begs us to participate.

      We do that with the agape love Paul wrote about, and the open arms and mercy Jesus lived.

      When the crowd tried to throw Jesus off the cliff, he as able to melt into the crowd and walk away. I think that’s because, obviously, that crowd didn’t recognize him, couldn’t see God’s power working through him.

      I wonder, how do we see Jesus working in our lives today, where do we find him in the world? And, more importantly, where would he find us?

      I told the folks at Ascension last week about two Facebook pages I see from time to time. One is “Clergy Dress.” Here is posted photos of glorious vestments. The other page is Episcopalians on Facebook. Here, especially at Christmas, has many, many photos of churches decorated to be glorious, too. But the vestments and the churches are often depicted without people.

      Empty.

      If you came on these pages and didn’t know anything about the church, you’d think it was all about beautiful clothing and beautiful but empty buildings. How could folks find Jesus there: How could Jesus find us there?

      There’s also a cartoon of a city that asks, “Where’s the church?” and in every building and park and hot dog stand every person is labeled, “here.”

      The church is everywhere because people are everywhere. People are the church. You, me, all the folks living around us. The folks in Corinth and Beijing and Moscow.   

      Everyone who believes God and tries to live the message of love we heard from Paul and saw in Jesus.

      Church buildings are symbols of this, and we need them, and the worship we have there. They help us connect with the holy, and empower our loving activity in the world that is the church.

      It is our loving activity in the world that makes us church, the Body of Christ. That’s where Jesus will find us.

      Helping the cold and hungry. With soup to the docks, or food for the Johnnycake Center, or getting hotel rooms for homeless folks in the frigid cold. Or working to get new laws so that there is more support for the homeless.

      Jesus didn’t say it would be easy, he just said “Follow me.”       

It is our loving activity in the world as we follow Jesus that helps fulfill God’s ancient promises of justice; mercy, forgiveness, peace, equality, hope and joy.

      When we reach out to bring God’s love to people, that is where Jesus will find us. “And the greatest of these is love.”

 

 

 

The Rev. Noel Bailey

The Reverend Noel Bailey was born in Providence, is now back in RI for the 4th time, and hopes that this stay is longer than some of the others. She was ordained Priest at St. Michael's, Bristol, in May 1988, More details