January 31, 2016, 4th Sunday after Epiphany YR C
Sermon preached at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Eugene,
Oregon, 30 and 31 January 2016. By Loren Crow.
Scripture Readings: Jer 1:4-10; Ps 71:1-6; 1 Cor 13:1-13; and Luke 4:21-30
O LORD, open thou my lips and my mouth shall proclaim thy praise. In the name of God
— Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — Amen.
You might think you know someone, but you don’t. No matter who you are, and no matter
who she is, you perceive at best only a dim reflection her. Love her anyway. But be ready for her
to surprise you, and to disappoint you, and to challenge your assumptions about who she is.
She is herself, and who she really is, is a mystery to everyone but God. Just love her.
We’ve just heard two stories, one about Jesus and one about the prophet Jeremiah. And
we’ve heard a very famous passage from St. Paul’s first letter to the Church at Corinth (I don’t
care whether you call it First Corinthians or One Corinthians, as long as you read it!), the so-called
Our gospel reading begins with Jesus telling a group of people that a piece of Scripture
has been fulfilled. The back story is that Jesus has been preaching and doing miracles in the
Galilee region of northern Israel and is becoming famous. He returns to his home town of
Nazareth, goes to synagogue (“as was his custom”) and reads the passage “The Spirit of the
Lord God is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor….” Today,
he says that Scripture has been fulfilled.
We’re told that everyone was impressed with his eloquence, and doubly so because they
recognized him as a local boy, the son of Joseph whom they knew. But for no apparent reason
Jesus launches immediately into a pronouncement of judgment on the town, telling them that
prophets are never accepted in their own homeland, and citing two examples from sacred
Scripture of prophets —Elijah and Elisha — who saved foreigners rather than Israelites. Jesus
had to realize that telling these two stories to his parents’ friends, who after all were just trying to
be supportive of this local boy who spoke so well, would be sure to rattle some cages. It does
even more than that! They mob him and are going to throw him off a cliff. But Luke concludes
the story, abruptly, with “But passing through the midst of them he went away.”
These people had a script in their heads for who Jesus was supposed to be. They
recognized Jesus, Joseph’s son, and they were willing to be supportive as long as he continued
in the role they had in their mind for him. But He refused to play along. In the end, their inability
to recognize the real Jesus, as opposed to the Jesus of their mental image, allows him to walk
right through the middle of the crowd with no one the wiser. They were open to the Jesus they
thought they knew, but could not accept the Jesus who actually was, and so they missed out on
his miraculous presence.
No matter who you are, I’m willing to bet there’s someone in your life who doesn’t quite fit
into the role you envision for him. Learn from the people of Nazareth: when the person you think
you know turns out to be different from what you expect, who doesn’t fit into the script you’ve
got running in your head about him, don’t throw him off a cliff. Just love him.
Now, on to Jeremiah. We’re not told when in Jeremiah’s life this event occurs, but it’s at
the beginning of his book so most of us presume that it’s at the beginning of his ministry. It tells
the story of Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet. Since before his birth, says God, he has been
known by God, sanctified by God, and appointed by God as a prophet — and particularly as a
prophet to the “nations” or “gentiles,” which is to say, to people other than Israel. Naturally
enough, Jeremiah objects: “Ah, Lord GOD, I wish I could — honestly I do — but really, I’m not a
very good speaker and I’m way too young!” (In my head, he sounds a lot like Woodie Allen.)
What I notice here is that Jeremiah’s self-image is different from God’s image of him, and we
have to assume that God’s assessment is the correct one. As it turns out, reading the rest of the
book, we find Jeremiah to be an eloquent poet and an influential commentator on the politics of
his day. How often, I wonder, do we have a self-interpretation that threatens to inhibit us from
doing what God wants us to do? How often do we hate ourselves because the selves we are,
are at variance with the selves we envision? I don’t know if you feel this way or not, but I’m
largely a mystery to myself on so many levels. If you sometimes don’t meet your own
expectations, or if like Jeremiah you suffer from a tendency to under-rate your abilities, relax.
Love yourself anyway.
That’s what First Corinthians chapter 13 is about. The whole letter addresses a church
that was filled with power struggles and sinful people, with charismatic tongues-speakers and
prophets, with rich merchants and poor beggars. Corinth was a very cosmopolitan and
commercial city, lying on the isthmus between the Greek mainland and the Peloponnesian
Peninsula, midway between Athens and Sparta. It lay on a major shipping crossroads between
Italy and the East. The Church in Corinth was about as diverse as you could imagine.
That diversity was tearing the Church apart; Paul argued, conversely, that its diversity
was its great strength. Their view of themselves was that of a church divided, but that view was
misleading. It was like viewing oneself in a mirror, dimly. But in this letter Paul begins to
formulate his metaphor of the Church as the “Body of Christ” where all the body parts need one
another, and need one another precisely because of their different-ness. What good would a
hand be if it were shaped like an eyeball? A head without feet wouldn’t be able to accomplish
much. The body isn’t a body unless it’s composed of parts that are different from one another
and equally necessary.
The problem is that it can be terribly difficult to see that unity, maybe even impossible. We
have these scripts running in our minds about the importance of this or that ministry, and it’s not
that we’re wrong, but we are short-sighted. We see only part of the picture. God has given us in
our diversity to one another, so we have to assume that the diversity is a good. This is
something we should constantly bear in mind as we struggle to make sense, for example, of the
struggles within the Anglican Communion: We NEED them and they NEED us. Our vision is
limited, and none of us is the head of this body (the head is Christ, and He’s the one who
understands the whole).
We have to honor our limited vision because it’s what we have and the understanding we
have is a precious gift from God, but we also have to realize that we see in a mirror dimly.
Others won’t fit into our notions of what they should be. We’re commanded to love them
anyway. We may be less important, or more important, than we understand. We have to love
ourselves anyway. This isn’t just one of those “Oh wouldn’t it be nice” sorts of things; unless
we’re willing to love people despite tensions and failures and different-ness we’ll find pretty fast
that we can’t live with, well, pretty much anyone except ourselves. And then we’ll find that we
can’t live with ourselves either.
But there is a better way, “a more excellent way.” We have to have faith that what we see
is false, incomplete, finite, and that God really does see and hold the truth. We have to have
hope that the truth is better than we can imagine. And in light of that faith and hope, as we wait
for the coming of God’s Kingdom, we have to love. Love, despite the fact that we don’t
understand. Love, even when we think we’re right and are disappointed with others. Love may
not make the world make sense, it may not solve all our problems, it may not even make you
happier. Love anyway.