Sunday, February 17, 2013

February 17, 2013 - Lent 1C

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
            When I was in Israel just about a year ago, one of the moments that was most deeply meaningful happened at narrow spot of the Jordan River. This site is known as Qasar El Yahud and it’s a rather still and brown section of the Jordan, but scholars and religious authorities suggest that this is the site where Jesus was baptized. So our group visited that site, after a drive of about an hour through the desert of Israel, and we renewed our baptismal vows there. Behind us was Mount Temptation, the place where today’s reading from Luke took place. The link between baptism and temptation is unmistakable given the geography.
But it was an even more ominous experience. The Jordan is about 20 feet wide at that spot, and on the other side is the country of Jordan. So as I looked across the river, there was a Jordanian soldier with an M16 on patrol. And behind me was an Israeli military installation. As I walked the path down to the river, I passed fencing that had large yellows signs on it, and the signs read “Danger! Mines!”
            My experience there isn’t all that different than what Jesus would have experienced after his Baptism. Just before our reading from Luke begins today, Jesus was baptized and then was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and in the wilderness he encountered the danger of the Devil. And the Devil will be the topic for this sermon. We’ll explore several things about the Devil. And for the purposes of this sermon, the words “evil,” “sin,” or “Satan” are roughly synonymous with “Devil.”
            The first thing to say about the Devil is that the Devil is real. Now I know that for some of us, that’s a tough pill to swallow. We like to think that the Devil is some part of mythology that we don’t need any more. We say that the Devil was simply a way for the person in olden times to explain bad things. Or sometimes we even frame it in theology and argue that since the Devil is evil, and God created everything, but God wouldn’t create evil, there must not be a Devil. But those thoughts are all wrong.
            We all have experiences of the Devil in our lives. How many of us have said “I don’t know what got into me” or “I don’t know why I did that?” We all have moments of weakness, we are all tempted, and the Baptismal vows that we have made will be tested. This is, of course, is God’s world, but the Devil is a player on the field. To think otherwise is to fall prey to the very nature of evil. In The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis writes of a demon coaching another demon on the ways of leading humans to Hell. At one point the teacher demon says “the fact that devils are predominately comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in their minds, suggest to them a picture of something in red tights and persuade them that since they cannot believe in that they therefore cannot believe in you.”
            Although there may not be a being named Satan, the idea of the Devil is real. Perhaps not in an ontological sense, but evil exists. Even if we say that evil is simply the privation of the good or is the effect of the divine “no,” evil is a force in our world. The moment we allow ourselves into thinking otherwise, the Devil achieves the first victory.
            The Devil comes to Jesus in personal form because we experience evil in a deeply personal way. Some of the worst evils we know are betrayal and abuse, which happen at the hands of others. Devil is presented as a person because that is real. And by presenting the Devil as a person, Luke makes it clear that though evil can dwell within us, we are not the Devil and the Devil is something much larger than any of us.
            The Devil is reasonable. Notice the things that Jesus is tempted with, nothing too outlandish. Perhaps some other time I’ll preach in more detail on the temptations that the Devil offers Jesus, but essentially, the Devil comes and tempts Jesus with being relevant, powerful, and spectacular. And we are tempted by those things as well. The Devil uses logic in tempting Jesus. The Devil even quotes Scripture, which is a good reminder to us that just because you quote the Bible doesn’t mean that the Devil isn’t at work. You likely won’t easily object to the guiles of the Devil, because the arguments will be reasonable.
            And in a similar line of thought, the Devil is smart, smarter than you. If you got all A’s on your report card, the Devil got all A+’s. If you have a Ph.D, the Devil has two. You can’t outsmart the Devil, and the moment that you think you can, you’ve already fallen into the trap. We all know that our intellect can justify anything that we want it do. We can justify lying, cheating, and stealing. We see it happen all the time. A lot of people in Washington, regardless of political persuasion, will tell you that Bill Clinton is one of the smartest men to ever sit in the Oval Office. And look what his superior intellect of his was able to justify in the way of giving into temptation. The smarter you are, the harder the temptation because the easier it will be for your intellect to justify sin and evil.
            Something that deeply disturbs me is the reprehensible actions started by the Bush administration but made even worse by the Obama administration. I’m referring to the rampant use of assassinations by predator drones. Somehow, we have misused our intellect to justify the indiscriminate killing of enemies, and even worse, American citizens with no due process or judicial review. I am deeply disturbed that the inalienable rights that Americans have are being unilaterally stripped away, that President Obama’s intellect has allowed him to decide that those rights do not apply. We are not a country that kills first and asks questions later, but again, our intellect can justify anything. There’s a reason why God never asks us for our minds, but instead God prefers our hearts.
            Next, we can say that the Devil is subtle. The Devil won’t come asking you to sell the farm, but maybe to just plant a few crops. Or as someone recently told me, if you give the Devil a ride, eventually he’ll ask to drive. The Devil is subtle, sometimes by getting us to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, or the even worse doing of the wrong things for the right reasons. It has been said that it is better to have vices than a surplus of virtue. When we have too much virtue, we lack a sense of conscience because we think we’re safely on the side of morality.
            One of the ways this subtlety works is that we don’t really think we’re sinners. We had an outside speaker at clergy conference this past fall, and after worshiping with us, he remarked that during the Prayers of the People, when we prayed for the sick, we all named people out loud, and when we thanked God for the blessings of this life, we all shared joys, but when it came time for the silence after “let us confess our sins to God,” you could have heard a pin drop. How many of us really see ourselves as sinners? Don’t you think the world would be a better place if everyone was more like you?
            I’ve noticed that Episcopalians, who are by-and-large, educated and at least middle class, tend to shy away from saying words like Jesus, sin, or cross in public. Talk to a Baptist and they’ll tell you all about how they were a wretched soul until Jesus saved them. I don’t think I’ve ever had that conversation with an Episcopalian. And I think that is, in part, because we’re not so convinced that we’re actually sinners. Sure, we’ll acknowledge that we’re not perfect, but it’s far too easy to fall for the subtle argument that we’re part of the solution, not the problem.
            The truth of the matter is that we’re all sinners, Jesus did die for you in some sense, and apart from God’s grace, you’re doomed to Hell. But the Devil comes to us with the subtlety of thinking that the Confession that we say must be about other people, not us.
            Another way that the Devil uses subtlety is in redefining what is normal. One of the translations of the word “Devil” is “slanderer;” the Devil distorts reality and slanders what God would have as normal. When we start to accept as normal things that are very wrong, the Devil starts to win. Think about driving around Greensboro, on most corners you can find a homeless person. And how many times do we give it a second thought? It has become normal to see a person standing on a corner with a cardboard sign begging for money. There is nothing normal about that. The norm should not be that we have people living in our community that don’t have a roof over their head.
            Did you know that in the entire country, the Greensboro/High Point region ranks 4th worst in people who report that they don’t have enough money for food? Backpack Beginnings reports that North Carolina is the second worst state in terms of childhood hunger and over half of children enrolled in Guilford Country schools are on free or reduced lunch. If you hear nothing in this sermon, hear this- childhood hunger is not normal and it is not acceptable.
            But the Devil comes and does the work of evil, not always through genocides or mass killings, but in far more devious ways by redefining what is normal for us. By redefining the normal, we accept things that if you asked us about, we’d say we’d never allow to happen. But they happen all around us.
            This is part of what is going on in our reading from Deuteronomy this morning. God is instructing the people what to do when they come out of the wilderness and enter the Promised Land. They are to recount their history, give the first fruits to God, share their food with the hungry and the foreigners, and show gratitude. Gratitude though is not the norm. Theologian Karl Barth once remarked that all sin is basically ingratitude. How often do we take a moment out of the busyness of life to take stock of our blessings and respond with gratitude? Great evil is done by the Devil when we accept an attitude of ingratitude as normal.
            And moving into our next point, that the Devil challenges our identity, it is vital to be thankful. Remember what happened at Jesus’ baptism, the heavens opened up and the voice of God was heard saying “You are my son, the beloved.” And immediately, the Devil challenges Jesus’ identity. Jesus was just called the Son of God, and the Devil comes and says “IF you are the Son of God,” asking him to prove his identity. Part of the reason why Jesus was able to resist the Devil is that Jesus knew who he was and was confident in his identity, and he had gratitude for being the beloved of God.
            It is fitting that the wilderness is the setting for this passage. Alfred North Whitehead said that “religion is what we do with our solitude.” In those moments when we are alone in the wilderness the voices of self-doubt will creep in. But if we can remember, as Jesus did, that we are the beloved of God, we stand a better chance at resisting temptation.
            In the Bible, the wilderness is a special place, it is where God ministers to Hagar in her grief, where God meets Moses and baptizes Jesus, and where the wandering Hebrews become the nation of Israel. And wilderness is not a bad place to be, remember, the Spirit, not the Devil, led Jesus into the wilderness. One desert theologian wrote that “The wilderness, in short, is a place of threat, vulnerability, and danger. Yet it is also a place where we encounter a love we never could have imagined.” The wildernesses of our lives are the times and places where we will find our true identity.
            Our identity is one of the things we hold most dear in our hearts, and rightfully so, so it is no surprise that the Devil comes to attack us there. Using a term from the work of Edwin Friedman, Jesus was self-differentiated. Self-differentiation happens when we are able to define our goals and values apart from surrounding pressures, when you are able to say “I” instead of “we,” when we are able to take responsibility for our own destiny and emotional being while still remaining connected to others. Jesus was able to do this. He didn’t need the approval of the Devil, or the glory of others, to be confident and happy. He wasn’t going to live on someone else’s terms. Jesus knew that his identity was the beloved of God, and so when the Devil came to challenge his identity, he was ready for it. Never forget, you are the beloved of God, and so is everyone you meet. Keep those things in mind and the Devil will have a much harder time testing you.
            And the last thing to say about the Devil is that the he or she is persistent. At the end of the reading, the text says that “the Devil departed from him until a more opportune time.” The Devil doesn’t give up and will come back when your defenses are down and your emotional vulnerability is high. Even if you resist a temptation today, you can be assured that another temptation will be around the corner. There is a reason why Jesus says “for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.” Perhaps the persistence of the Devil is why when Jesus teaches us to pray, he includes the line “and lead us not into temptation.”
            So the things to say about the Devil this morning are that the Devil is real, personal, reasonable, smart, subtle, challenging our identity, and persistent. As we embark on our Lenten journey, we will be tested. Perhaps you’ve given something up for Lent, chocolate or meat, and that’s good. But it’s fairly easy to give up luxuries, but far worse to give up our soul to the Devil. I don’t know how the Devil will come to you. I don’t know what your wilderness exam will be. Only you know what devils have your number and what bribes they can use to get you. But I know that they’ll be calling you.
            As we enter the wilderness, may it be a holy time, a time of finding our true identity. Come Easter morning, may we be found to have the strength to resist temptation and confidence in our being the beloved of God. And dear Lord, lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. Amen.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
            The refrain found in Psalm 103 today is “bless the Lord.” Today, I’d like to consider what it means to bless the Lord. It is often assumed that God is the one who blesses us. Blessings are usually seen as signs of divine favor and providence towards us, so why are we being told to bless the Lord? The word “bless” in Hebrew is very closely related to the word for “knee.” So the Hebrew people would be on their knees in prayer, and the word for that action became bless. Blessing is not something we just do with our words, not a few thoughts throughout the day, but blessing is taking time to be with God, it is something physical. So when we hear “bless the Lord”, it is not that God needs our approval, but rather that we offer ourselves to God. A fitting message for Lent- bless the lord.
            Our theme at St. Francis this season of Lent is practices of faith, or perhaps in the words of the Psalmist, our theme is blessing the Lord. Practices of faith though are not something that our culture often makes time for or appreciates. Practices of faith are not productive in the sense that there is no tangible product with which to sell and market. Practices of faith are not about us, something difficult for the narcissist in us all to deal with. In his book Religious Literacy, Stephen Prothero traces our cultural history of religion and practices. He notes that families used to take seriously practices of faith and teaching their children about faith. And they had to because ministers would only come by their village on horseback every few months. But over the years, people moved from the country into cities and they found regular clergy. Then in the early 20th century, the Sunday School movement began and we essentially “outsourced” the Christian formation of our youth to the Church. Instead of families taking ownership for faith, we relegated it to one hour a week. And our lives started became inflated with busyness and slowly the disciples of faith were squeezed out, or were at least made a lot harder to maintain.
            I bring this up because there is some research that suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a true master in a particular field. So to be the world’s top golfer would take 10,000 hours of practice. But even if we discount that research and go with a much lower figure, say 5,000 hours, it is a substantial amount of time. Or perhaps being a master isn’t our goal, but just being competent is what we can live with. In that case, at the rate of one hour a week spent in Sunday School, it would take 96 years to get to 5,000 hours of practice. The point is that we don’t have time to fit discipleship into our schedule, you just can’t do it. But we can live a life of practices in which we do other things. But practices must come first.
            When I was a young boy I fell in love with baseball, and I dreamed of being the greatest baseball player ever. One of my idols was Greg Maddux who pitched for the Atlanta Braves. I had his jersey, I used the same equipment that he did, and I tried to mimic his pitching style. But none of those things made me the next Greg Maddux; in fact, I was terrible at pitching. The problem is that it doesn’t work to just copy someone. And in our discipleship, we have confused following Jesus with copying him. It’s part of the reason why I think the What Would Jesus Do? movement is so harmful to Christianity. It doesn’t really matter what Jesus would do in a given situation, but what does matter is what we do as his followers. And the only way to follow Jesus is to practice.
            In the Episcopal Church, we often say lex orandi, lex credendi, which is often paraphrased as meaning “praying shapes believing.” The prayers that we offer in our worship shape what we believe about God. If we pray that God is loving, compassionate, and caring, then we will likely believe in a loving God. But if we pray to a vindictive and vengeful God, then we will likely believe in a God of wrath. St. Paul in his letter the Thessalonians tells them to “pray without ceasing,” meaning that all of our life is a prayer. What is prayer if not relationship with God? And don’t we say that God is always with us? So then, all of our life is a prayer. How we respond to being cut off in traffic or given a compliment at work is a prayer. What we do when we are alone is a prayer as much as what we do when we come to church. So the question then is- what are you praying? In our practices of faith, or lack thereof, what are we communicating to God?
            In fact, practicing our faith is the assumption of Jesus. Note that in our Gospel reading today, Jesus doesn’t say “if you pray, if you fast, if you give alms” but instead he says “when you pray, when you fast, and when you give alms.” When, not if.  The idea of being religious or spiritual without daily practices of faith would have made no sense to Jesus’ audience. Jesus also condemns the hypocrites. The meaning of the word “hypocrite” is a “stage actor.” A hypocrite is someone who pretends to be something they are not. A hypocrite is someone who does not practice what they preach. Jesus is placing a lot of emphasis on keeping genuine practices of faith.
And consider the words of St. Paul in our reading from 2 Corinthians, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” One theologian has astutely remarked that how we spend our days is how we spend our lives, and what we are doing at this moment, in this hour, is what we are doing with our lives. And so it is. How many of us though turn around to look at what has happened in the past and wonder “where did the time go?” “Whatever happened to putting more emphasis on God and coming to church?”
            Lent is the season of the Church year that falls between Ash Wednesday and Easter, and it comes from the root word meaning “lengthen” because the days are getting longer this time of year. But I would suggest that this root meaning also encourages us to lengthen, or deepen, our practices of faith. To decide each day to practice our faith so that we might spend our life being closer to God and God’s love and transformative power.
            Joe Anybody was the only Protestant to move into a large Catholic neighborhood. On the first Friday of Lent, John was outside grilling a big juicy steak on his grill. Meanwhile, all of his neighbors were eating cold tuna fish for dinner. This went on each Friday of Lent. On the last Friday of Lent, the neighborhood got together and decided that something had to be done about Joe. He was tempting them to eat meat each Friday of Lent, and they couldn't take it anymore. They decided to try and convert Joe to become Catholic.
So they went over and talked to him and were so happy that he decided to join all of his neighbors and become Catholic. They took him to church, and the priest sprinkled some water over him, and said, “You were born a Baptist, you were raised a Baptist, and now you are Catholic.” They were so relieved, now their biggest Lenten temptation was resolved.
A year later, the first Friday of Lent came, and just at dinner time, when the neighborhood was setting down to their tuna fish dinner, the smell of steak cooking on a grill filled the air. The neighbors could not believe their noses! What was going on? They called each other up and decided to meet over in Joe's yard to see if he had forgotten it was the first Friday of Lent. The group arrived just in time to see Joe standing over his grill with a small pitcher of water. He was sprinkling some water over his steak on the grill, saying, “You were born a cow, you were raised a cow, and now you are a fish.”
Transformation happens not with words, or even with the best of intentions. That piece of beef wasn’t a fish at its core. And we will not be transformed either unless we are changed at our core. The word “heart” shows up both in our reading from Joel and Matthew. Joel talks about “rending our hearts and not our clothing.” The custom was the tear your garments as an outward sign of penitence, but Joel challenges people to instead go inwards and examine their inner life. And Jesus, in the same way, challenges our outward actions that we do for others, and exhorts us to go deeper into our practices of faith. He says that “where your heart is, there also will your treasure be.” The word heart, both in the Hebrew of Joel and the Greek of Matthew, means a lot more than the organ which pumps blood throughout the body. Instead, the heart was the core of your being, it was your will, your inner life, your being. The heart is who you are at your core, it is what you practice.
And so I hope thus far that I’ve made a compelling case for the importance of practicing our faith. But you might ask, how do I do that? Practice is a great word because it has two meanings. On the one hand, when we practice something we are trying to perfect our skills, so we practice our performances before they happen. And on the other hand, practice also means something that you do. So lawyers practice law, doctors practice medicine, pacifists practice peace. So on this second meaning of “practice,” I would suggest that we practice our faith by making it a priority in our lives.
This will be a sacrifice in our busy lives. It will take discipline and endurance to daily practice our faith so that instead of it being something we do, it becomes who we are.  After spending several hours in prayer in a chapel, someone once asked Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “you’re one of the most sought after speakers in the world, you’ve written several books, and are so involved with the work of the Church, how can you afford to spend so much time in the chapel each morning?” And he said in response, “I can only do those things because I spend so much time in prayer.”
And towards the first definition of practice, I would invite you to our Wednesday night Lenten program. We’ll meet at 6 pm for 5 weeks starting next Wednesday. We’ll have a simple Lenten dinner together and then we’ll explore different practices of faith such as prayer, reading the Bible, discernment, and evangelism. These are important practices of faith, but recent studies have shown that they are very loaded words and that many people have trouble defining them. And if you struggle to define what prayer is, it’s awfully hard to actually do it. So on Wednesdays we’ll start with the basics of practicing our faith, working toward building a strong foundation for holy living.
The other practice that I commend to you all is taking the Bible Challenge. Starting today, and going for the next 365 days, we will be reading the Bible. I invite and encourage all of you to join us. We will read two chapters of the Old Testament, one Psalm, and one chapter of the New Testament a day. And while it will take some intentionality to keep up this practice, it is manageable to spend 15 or 20 minutes a day reading the Bible. The Bible is our story, it is God’s story. The Bible is the one book that has transformed our world and billions of lives like no other work. Whether you believe that the Bible is the literal words ordained by God, or if you believe that it’s a collection of humanity’s best efforts to capture their experiences of the divine in writing, you are welcome to join us. Surveys have shown that Americans simply don’t read the Bible, one reporter even suggested that our Bibles must be the most valuable thing that we own, because we keep it in pristine, unused condition. Those who follow Jesus ought to read the Bible because through it, we find our place in God’s unfolding drama. And so at St. Francis, we are taking the Bible Challenge. If you haven’t already emailed me to tell me that you’re signing up for it, I anticipate getting an email from you later today. You can pick up a reading schedule in the back of the church on your way out.
I invite you therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent. I invite you to consider how we are spending our lives. What are we practicing? Are we being transformed by God? Do we know our story of faith? How do we bless the Lord? I invite you to the observance of a holy Lent, a Lent full of practicing and living our faith, that it might take deep roots within our souls and enable us to be instruments of God’s love, redemption, and peace in the world. I invite you to the observance of a holy Lent, that this Lent might be another step in the journey towards living a holy life. Amen.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

February 3, 2013 - Epiphany 4C

In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            For those of you that were here last Sunday, you’ll recall that I started a two-part sermon series on the concept of fulfillment. Our New Testament and Gospel readings last Sunday were the verses preceding today’s readings. Fulfillment has two meanings, the first is to accomplish a mission, and the second is to have a sense of purpose. We explored how Jesus was the fulfillment of Isaiah 61- bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and Jubilee to the world. But this fulfillment was not instant, but instead is unfolding through a process. And we are a part of that process by being members of the Body of Christ as St. Paul illustrated. Together, we continue the fulfillment of Jesus. I then ended with a question- why should we bother being a part of the body? Why not focus on ourselves? I left you with a cliff hanger and asked “why should we seek fulfillment outside of ourselves?”
            I promised to answer that question this Sunday, and the answer is love. Love is our fulfillment. Love is our mission, and it is what will satisfy us. Love is the reason why Jesus took on those tasks. I preached a sermon about a year ago on love, and one of the things I said was that love is often misunderstood. We use love as a catchphrase. We love our cars and our recipes. But this is not the sort of Biblical love that St. Paul is speaking about in his letter to the Corinthians. Love is not an emotion or even an affinity, but love is an action and an orientation.
            This passage from 1 Corinthians is often read at weddings because it talks so much about love, and that really is a shame, because St. Paul was not speaking about marriage. And I know it will be hard, but while we explore this passage, try not to think of all the weddings you’ve been to and heard this passage. Try not to think of love in the sense that you like something, or that you’re impressed with it. The love that we will be discussing today is the powerful love with which God created the universe, it is the vulnerable love with which Jesus gave himself up on the cross, it is the transformative love that conquered death on that most holy Easter morning. Charles Wesley, in his work called “Easter Hymn” wrote that “loves redeeming work is done.” We are speaking of the love which is the fulfillment of Jesus.
            The context of the Corinthian passage really matters. Remember that last week, St. Paul was speaking about the fact that we are all members of the body. Every part is important and necessary to the overall health of the body. And then St. Paul talked about different gifts that people have- some apostles, teachers, prophets, miracle workers, and speaking in tongues to name a few. Paul wasn’t exactly happy with the church in Corinth. They were fighting with each other. Factions were becoming more and more popular and the body was being torn apart, so Paul wrote them this letter. And in this particular part of the letter, Paul is writing polemically to instruct them.
            People are trying to boast of their gifts, and their superiority over others. Normally when we hear this passage at weddings the reader using a sweet and soothing voice, but Paul is yelling. You think you’re something special with your speaking in the tongues of mortals and angels? You’re nothing without love, you’re just a noisy gong! Even if you’re audacious enough to think you have prophetic power or understand all mysteries, even if you have the faith to move a mountain for God’s sake, but if you don’t have love, you are absolutely nothing! You want to be generous and think you get award for giving away all your possessions? Do it without love and you don’t even deserve any credit! You see, what you people need to understand is that love is patient, it is kind, it’s not envious or boastful as you seem to be making it. It doesn’t do injustice, but instead it rejoices in truth. And I don’t see much rejoicing in truth out of you all! Your silly prophecies, they will end! Your tongues, big deal! You can only see through the mirror dimly now, but instead, strive for love. Because what you all really need to know to be a wonderful church, to really be the body of Christ you have to understand this: faith, hope, and love, that is where it’s at. And the greatest of these is love!
            That is what St. Paul is saying. He is making a very strong appeal to the Corinthians, and to us, to actually practice love. And there are three things that he says about love, and then Luke adds a fourth in the Gospel.
            The first thing to say about love is that it is essential. St. Paul says that all of these gifts of the Spirit don’t add up to anything without love. Love is their fulfillment, and if we take love out of the equation, we’re left with nothing. We must ground ourselves in love. What is the point of having all of these skills if we don’t have the outlet of love in which to use them? St. Paul invites us to consider our motivations, urging us to ask the question “why am I doing this?” The answer should always be “in and for love.”
            Next, Paul says that love is effective. Love is about truth, and it endures all things. You can’t stretch love to the point where it will break. Love hopes all things, it yearns for justice, for reconciliation, for peace. Love has no end, or as other translations put it, love never fails, it never goes astray, it never becomes invalid. In other words, love is always the right choice. It will always work, it will always lead us to God, and it will never let us down. People will fail us, institutions will become corrupt, governments will fall, disasters will happen, but love, love will endure, and not only that, love will thrive.
            Love isn’t going to worry about getting its own way. Love will not lead us to be arrogant or rude. And love is not a contest. There is no such thing as being the best at loving. There is no winning and losing in love. Love is the one thing that can transform our world. Love is the one thing that we need more of. And as Christians, love is our fulfillment, it is our mission.
            Love is effective. When Ellie was born 12 weeks ago, I got a lesson in love. From the moment I saw her, I learned something new about love. I learned how powerful it could be. My life will never be the same because of her, my priorities immediately shifted to meet her needs. The little annoyances of life seem to melt away when I hold her. And I am reminded that each person, no matter how much I might dislike them, was also born as a sweet and innocent baby. If we truly believe, and I suggest that we should, that God is our loving Creator, then we must acknowledge that each of us is loved by God in a way that makes my love for Ellie pale in comparison. And I wonder, what if we loved like this more often?
            What if we realized that our fulfillment is to love each person in this fashion. What if we didn’t insist our own way on things like tax reform, gun control, energy policy, or immigration policy? What if the way a parent loves their newborn baby was a guide for how we loved our neighbors? What if our priorities shifted for the sake of others? What if we lived not for ourselves, but for the Kingdom of God? I think our world would be a better place, and I think we’d be a bit closer to “on earth as it is in heaven.” Love can do these things, it is effective, we just need to love each other with this radical love of God.
            And lastly, St. Paul says that love is eternal. Leading into this passage, he says that love is the more excellent way. The word for way in Greek is o`do,j, which was also the codeword for the earliest followers of Jesus; they were known not as disciples, or Christians, but as members of “the Way.” But what I want to point out about this word is, although it does mean “way” it is also the word for “road.” As I said last week, fulfillment is a process, a journey, a road. Love never ends. It never ends because it is as eternal as God is. It is often said that one of the reasons why God is Triune is because God is always in a relationship of love, even if it is within the Trinity. Love never ends because it will always have a place. But love is also eternal because it is a process. God may have perfected love, but we have not. As Martin Luther King said, “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” In a similar way, we’re a long way from perfect love, but we hope, pray, and work towards that goal. Love is eternal because love is not an accomplishment or a merit badge to earn, but it is a continual process.
            So St. Paul in his polemic says that love is essential, effective, and eternal, and Jesus in Luke would add that love is radical. After preaching his sermon last Sunday, today Jesus begins to explain his remarks. He reminds the crowd that in the time of Elijah, salvation came not to those who expected it, but to the widow at Zarephath in Sidon. And the prophet Elisha did not heal any of the lepers in Israel, but instead healed the Syrian, Naaman. Now this really angered the crowd in the synagogue, who were of course, Jews. Jesus reminded them that the love of God wasn’t just for them, but it was for the outsiders. The idea of salvation outside of Israel was radical.
            Love is radical because it will not be confined to the bounds we expect. We cannot contain where the Spirit will go. This is a provocative love, reminding us that God does not belong to anyone, but everyone belongs to God. The great preacher Peter Gomes once said that “people took offense not so much at what Jesus claims about himself, as with the claims that he makes about a God who is more than their own tribal deity.” Jesus is telling us that we will find love where we least expect it and that God loves the people whom we abhor.
            God loves you, but God also loves your enemies. God loves radical Muslims and Zionist Jews. God loves peaceful Buddhists and defiant atheists. God loves conservatives and God loves liberals. God loves abortion doctors and God loves those who work to overturn Roe v. Wade. God loves us all. And Jesus came to remind us of that, but he also came to push us towards receiving that love and sharing it with others.
            There was a powerful piece written in the Huffington Post this week. It was written by Shane Windmeyer, a partnered gay man and gay rights activist, and his unlikely but genuine friendship with Dan Cathy, the president of Chick-fil-A. Windmeyer had launched a series of campaigns against Chick-fil-A after Cathy publicly stated that profits of the company would support organizations that fought against marriage equality. Back in August, during the heat of the controversy, Cathy called Windmeyer and it wasn’t to ask him to stop the protests. Instead, Windmeyer admits that his view of Cathy was flawed and incomplete. Cathy called him to ask questions about the LGBT community; he called to listen, not to convert. And they began to meet and listen to each other. Cathy is still against homosexual marriage and Windmeyer is still gay. But the two men realized that the Chick-fil-A controversy was being used to fuel hatred, on both sides. And through these talks, they came to respect and trust each other. And so at the Chick-fil-A bowl last month, Windmeyer called off the protests of the football game, and Cathy stood on the sidelines with his gay friend, much to the ire of his conservative supports. They both took a risk, they took a risk in the name of love.
            What if we took the risk of loving like that? What if Democrats and Republicans loved each other like this? What if Palestinians and Jews loved like this? I realize that what I’m proposing is radical, but then again we follow a God who was radical enough to take on human flesh and die on a cross to get the point across. For love, nothing is impossible.
            Love is the answer. Fish live in water, it is their entire world, and it is all they know. Without it, they die. The same should be true of love for us. But our culture is a bit like fish out of this water of love. We can fulfill our mission, continuing the mission of Jesus. We can be fulfilled and satisfied in love. Love is essential, effective, eternal, and radical. Through love, we can transform our world to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Through love, we can bring justice and peace to the world. Through love, we can be the hands and feet, the eyes and ears of Jesus in our world. Through love, we can be made whole and complete. Through love, we can find true joy.
As we get ready to finish this season of Epiphany in which we remember the manifestation of God in our world in the person of Jesus, we give thanks that love came down to be with us, to redeem us, to teach us, to love us. I’ll conclude with the great prayer offered in the hymn “Love Divine” by Charles Wesley:
Love divine, all loves excelling / joy of heaven to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling / all thy faithful mercies crown!
Finish then thy new creation / pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation / perfectly restored in thee.
Changed from glory into glory / till in heaven we take our place.
Till we cast our crowns before thee / lost in wonderful, love, and praise.