Hmmm. Superbowl Sunday and a whole inch of melting snow on the Cumberland Plateau. It will probably be a small group at church today. It's not about making excuses: when you're elderly, as most of my folks are, and your driveway freezes, you don't go out till it melts (tomorrow, probably). In these mountains, driveways often are at about a 45-degree slant, so ice makes it pretty difficult.
Here's today's sermon. I'm incubating another piece that may or may not get written today, and may or may not get posted. Except for church, Sundays tend to be not-so-productive for me. I read on Facebook the other day that clergy, often introverts (as am I), are especially "on" on Sunday morning, like "rock star at a concert" on. That's kind of how it feels for someone who has to push to get outside herself at all. So I'm pretty tired by early Sunday afternoon. I wish I were more extroverted, got more energy out of the Sunday morning crowd -- but it depletes me.
Okay, here it is.
Epiphany 4C, February 3, 2013Psalm 71:1-6; Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30
You know, there are always themes in our readings, and they usually jump right out at me the first time I read them through, most often on Monday morning. This, I think, is when the Holy Spirit speaks: showing me what themes God wants you to hear from me this week. And today there are two themes. When I first saw them, I thought I had to pick, because I didn’t see any connection at all. When I say what they were, you may catch the connection before I did. In the Old Testament reading and the Psalm, the theme that stands out today (other themes for other lectionary years – that’s the way scripture works) is fear. Jeremiah was afraid to be God’s prophet, and God had to spend some time reassuring him that it would be all right, that God would accompany him wherever he went, whatever he did or said. Maybe it’s not so much fear as God’s reassurance that there is no need to fear. There is that assurance of safety and comfort in the Psalm, too: “In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge…be my strong rock…keep me safe….” There it is – security in God, and asking for that feeling of reassurance. There is also that recurrent theme of being known and called or consecrated by God before we’re born in both these readings (see it at the beginning of the reading from Jeremiah, and verse 6 of the Psalm). God knows us so well that he even knew us before we were born, chose us before we were born. As I said last week – we must start our ministry from a place of safety and security in God’s love – not a place of resentment or fear.
The second theme I saw was, of course, love. You can’t read that passage from Paul’s letter to the Church at Corinth without thinking of weddings. Paul emphasizes that ministry must come from a foundation of love, or it’s worth nothing. Sometimes we get so earnest in our ministry that it begins to feel like a sense of duty or “should” or “must.” That’s when the joy goes out of it. And ministry is always received in the spirit with which it’s given. You know when someone is doing something because they have to, rather than because they love it. I know which way I prefer it. If I’m in the hospital and have a choice (I think I’ve used this example before) between a nurse who loves their job, and one who only does it for the paycheck, I know the one I’d prefer. Same with wait staff in a restaurant: I much prefer the person who loves their work. Without love, any gift, any service, is as unpleasant to receive, as the giver feels about giving it. Don’t even bother, is how I feel.
Jesus is also talking about love in the Gospel reading. He’s talking about inclusiveness. He’s addressing people who are unappreciative enough to expect that if he’s really someone special, he’d better come up with a few miracles. And he speaks of Elijah and Elisha, two of Israel’s greatest prophets, and how their miracles weren’t done for the people of Israel, but rather for Gentiles. He’s warning against feeling entitled, against the feeling that we “deserve” certain privileges (like seeing miracles) because we’re somehow special or “chosen” or “deserving.” He’s saying that God’s favor is given to everyone, that God’s love and abundance don’t know the same boundaries that we humans construct. We’re so good at making judgments, so good at setting up fences and walls, at deciding who’s deserving and who’s not, who’s in and who’s out, who’s a member of our special, privileged “club,” and who’s not. God never asks those kinds of questions. Jesus didn’t, either. And if we want to imitate Christ, we need to look at our own expectations, our own sense of entitlement, at what we feel we deserve over and above what others might or might not deserve. We’re called to be a inclusive as God is, as Jesus was. We’re called to work at transcending our so-human need to include and exclude, to be a tight-knit little “us,” looking out from safety on the not-included “them.” It’s just not the way God sees things, not the way God loves.
But now the connection between the two themes: love and fear. They’re two emotions that can’t exist at the same time. Back in the day when I studied psychology (can it really be 40 years ago???), we were taught the basic principle that two opposite feelings can’t exist within a person at the same time. Therefore we could help people with anxiety by introducing a way for them to relax; this was called desensitization, and it’s still used to treat anxiety. The same is true of love and fear: We can’t love well if we’re operating out of fear, and perfect love drives out fear. I don’t know about you, but hard things are easier for me to face and to do when I know I’m loved. If we are secure in God’s love, the kind of security that God instilled in Jeremiah, the kind of security in which Jesus lived and moved and had his being, then we don’t fear the things that God gives us to do. We’re able to step out in faith and live in the kingdom, and bring others into the kingdom, as well. In fact, if we live and walk in love, we don’t even have to be intentional about spreading the good news – it just emanates from us. Remember that in John’s letter he says that God is love. So if we’re “delighting in God’s will and walking in God’s way,” as our confession says, we’re loving. Everyone. All the time. It’s a struggle, but we know what God wants, and when we walk in love, we do it without hesitation. It’s only when fear creeps in that we begin to doubt and question and second-guess ourselves and others. When we’re doing that, we need to ask ourselves what we’re afraid of, from where is the fear coming, and take the time for prayer, and to re-center ourselves in God’s love.
Paul says that the things that last are “…faith, hope and love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Faith and hope can’t really exist, apart from love. Love is like trust. The very same. It’s what gives us the courage to believe, the courage to persevere, the courage to hope. Without God’s love, we’ve got nothing. It’s all, as Paul says elsewhere, rubbish.
So it seems to me that the very best thing we can do (as usual) is to look to Jesus. Look to Jesus for an example of the kind of courage that perfect love can give. Jesus had the courage to speak the truth to power, the courage to love those that others considered unlovable, to take his ministry wherever he felt God called him. Jesus (and the angels, and Godself) spent a lot of time, a lot of breath saying to us humans, “Fear not,” knowing that where fear existed, the good news couldn’t be truly heard and felt and given away. It’s resting in that divine love that allowed Jesus to do the things he did, and finding and resting in it ourselves that will allow us to do the work we’re given to do by God. Amen.