The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany 2019

Feb 03, 2019

Preacher: The Rev. Sandi Albom, Curate

Summary:

The Practice of Love/Jesus and the Hometown Folks Epiphany 4C Jeremiah 1:4-10 Psalm 71:1-6 I Corinthians 13:1-13 Luke 4:21-30

Detail:

Since being ordained priest last April it has been my joy and privilege to preside at the joining of three couples in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Each of the three chose the passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians to be read at their ceremonies.  It’s a natural, don’t you think, “Love is patient, Love is kind…”.  That scripture and the words of the invitation into the service, “Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here…” are pretty much all that the couples were familiar with from the liturgy.  And perhaps that is enough to begin with. 

Those are such lovely words to hear, patience, kindness, dearly beloved…..  And the couples I spent time with in preparation, despite the stressors of planning and coordinating and managing family drama, were truly enjoying the excitement and anticipation of celebrating their love for each other and their hopes for lives filled with that love.

And in reality, the words that Paul writes to the community in Corinth have little to do with the feelings of newlyweds.  You might remember that, for the most part, Paul was not a fan of marriage.  He actually recommended against it for various reasons, and he never married himself.  Paul is addressing the same people that Jamie spoke about last week, when he reminded them that they, (that we), are the inextricably connected, interdependent members of the Body of Christ. 

As Paul continues to write to them, he goes on to address another concern. It seems that the Corinthian Christian community celebrated dramatic displays in their experience of worship and spiritual practices, with some speaking in tongues, others going into trances and experiencing feelings of ecstasy. I know, this sounds strange to our Episcopalian ears. We aren’t particularly disposed to dancing in the aisles at Sunday services. And I daresay that the raising of arms in prayer might cause a curious sidelong glance.

But shows of powerful emotion was common in the Greek religious practices of the time. And it seems that Paul suspects that many who touted these supernatural occurrences in the Corinthian Christian community did so as celebrations of their own personal accomplishments, fueled more by pride than thanksgiving in the Spirit, more driven with desire for spiritual thrills than a desire to benefit their neighbors and fellow worshippers.  And he seeks to set them straight, and to do it with love.

At its core, the love that Paul speaks of is not really about our feelings.  For him love has everything to do with how love looks within the community.  The word he uses is agape.  One of the sources I looked at suggested that word, agape, might not have been seen previous to being used in the New Testament.  It is a new kind of love, different from eros, sexual love, or philio, love of friend, or storge, familial love.

Agape is an unconditional kind of love, a gift given freely, not because the beloved deserves it, (though they may), but because the lover chooses to give it.  In the summer before 9/11, Philanthropist John Templeton gave Case Western University $8M from the Templeton Foundation to underwrite research on unlimited love.  The head of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, Dr. Stephen Post, is a lifelong Episcopalian and a graduate of St. Paul’s School.  I recently watched a TED Talk that he gave where he talked about the positive psychology of common or shared humanity.  According to the Institute,  “When happiness, security and well-being of another feels as real to us as our own, or perhaps more so, we love that person.  Unlimited love extends to….all humanity based on our shared dignity and interdependence with one another and with nature.”

Dr. Post spoke about the impact of moral imagination, describing the effect that simply thinking about doing good for other person causes activation of certain pathways in our brains that simulate us to feel deep internal peacefulness.  A large health care system surveyed a random selection of 5,000 of retired persons.  41% of those surveyed volunteered around 100 hours/year, just a few hours a week.

  • 96% felt happier once they began volunteering
  • 68% felt physically healthier
  • 76% reported feeling less anxiety
  • 78% felt that spending time volunteering helped them to recover from loss/disappointments

Well, what do you know, giving enhances the health and happiness of both the giver and the receiver? Now, I wonder what Paul would have said about this?  It is a bit ironic that a study of altruism primarily touts the gain for the giver. Now, I’m not trying to be a cynic.  I think it’s pretty cool that giving has been shown to be of benefit all the way around. It makes sense to me. I imagine God wired us that way.  Seems like something God would do, don’t you think?

 Paul has no problem with sacrificial giving and the promotion of justice within the community. His question challenges us about the core motivation from which our actions arise.  This is the translation from The Message Bible. “If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.”  It makes me wary of photo opportunities to showcase charitable acts that focus more on the person giving than on the need being met. Or, to bring it a bit closer to home, have you ever volunteered to do something and then, finding yourself over extended, inwardly complained about it.  Quoting one commentator I read, “How many good deeds are ruined by the inner self-congratulation that places the doer in the moral spotlight? Likely the one who is the object of a loveless loving act sees right through to the pretense.”[1]  What Paul really asks us is, how would Jesus love?

 Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of a weekend retreat she attended. The opening exercise was to “tell a story about someone who had been Christ for us in our lives.” People shared stories “about a friend who stayed put through a long illness while everyone else deserted, and another one about a neighbor who took the place of a father who self-destructed.” There were a lot of warm fuzzy stories being shared about comfort, compassion, and rescue. Until one woman said, “Well, the first thing I thought about when I tried to think who had been Christ to me was, ‘Who in my life has told me the truth so clearly that I wanted to kill them for it?'”

 Now granted, Paul was not there physically with the community, so the danger was not as clear and present for him as it was for Jesus’ experience of preaching in his hometown temple. But I have to think that some among the Corinthians were none too pleased with the thinly cloaked admonishment Paul is giving to them. It’s never comfortable to have someone call you on your stuff.  It’s not easy to accept that you may have let your ego take a giant leap over your heart. It can hurt to look at the truth.  But honestly, I don’t believe Paul is not being cruel when he confronts the community. I actually think he’s being a bit of a mensch.  He knows the challenges of loving in community as well as anyone else, perhaps even more.

 In his TED Talk Dr. Post talked about those people in our lives, our trusted truth-tellers, confronting us in loving ways that keep us on the right path.  He called those fearless ones that show us agape, our “carefronters”.  Paul knows that we cannot come to agape without Jesus and the Body of Christ in the mix.  If we are to know the benefits of unconditional love, we must become willing to die to ourselves, to release from our grasp those things that feed our egos and insecurities, like seeking approval and affirmation, and having to have the answers to show just how wise we can be.

 Paul does try to reassure us that we can only see a cloudy portion of true life on our own.  “For now, we see in a mirror dimly.”  If you have ever lost power in your home for an extended period of time, you may have had this experience. Have you tried looking in a mirror with only a flashlight or candle to illuminate the space?  If so, you have a glimpse of what Paul is talking about.  You can make out your reflection, but the light is imperfect, with shadows and no really clear image.  Our vision is blurred by darkness that surrounds us.

 We all, in the course of living, come up against the darkness of our own struggling and failures of learning to love.  We need the light of Christ to illuminate our vision, to show us the way to love, to transform us into new beings.

 I am reminded again of those wedding couples seeking to express their hope for an enduring love as they begin their lives together.  Paul’s message to them is the same as to the believers in Corinth; Loving is hard work. Loving is what it looks like, much more so that how it feels. The Message Bible translates the scripture this way, “Love…puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back and keeps going to the end.”  This is the love that God has for us.  We can seek to love because we were loved first.  Loving is worth it.   

Amen.

[1] Cynthia Jarvis in Connections, A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship. Westminster John Knox Press. 2018.