Year C 4th Sunday of Epiphany, 30 January 2022
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Through the Midst of Them”
Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
Jesus began to speak in the synagogue at Nazareth: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'" And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
Good morning. This is the continuation of the story that I preached on last Sunday, and I alluded to these verses last week. I spoke to the pre-judging that was done by the hearers that day. Last week I was looking at the congregation's perspective, but this week I want to turn to Jesus’. Initially the people were amazed, but then he said things they did not expect, they turned on him. Confronting things. Challenging things. And people do not appreciate being confronted or challenged. Most of us avoid conflict as long as we can.
It is easy to make friends when you tell people what they want to hear. But challenge or confront someone in their comfort or privilege and the rage comes out quickly. Headlines local and national prove this daily.
Jesus spoke truth, but when the hearer’s heard the implications the furor rose up. They were assuming that they were the righteous, the chosen, but Jesus in his statement cited twice when the outsiders were favored instead of the ones expected. Confronting privilege and challenging expectations are dangerous indeed.
What is the purpose of education? What is the point of teaching?
It is to equip students. Plain and simple. But to equip people, you have to enable them to handle things that are not part of the plan.
Scientists and programmers at NASA find this the problem when they are developing the systems for the rovers on Mars. They have to be able to make the rover smart enough to do things that it can operate on its own. Think of driving your car, but it takes 20 minutes for your decision to reach the gas or brake pedals or the steering wheel. That just would not work. You cannot remote control your car, and a teacher cannot remote control the student. A teacher must equip a student to be autonomous.
The equipped need to be able to handle things on their own. And to do that they need to meet challenges and rise to the level of competence and confidence to make the tough calls and work things out.
Education is about equipping, not indoctrinating. So easy to say, and so hard to do. We train our muscles at the gym by lifting heavy things. We have to stress our muscles for them to grow and maintain what they already are. Lifting a can of beans is not a workout for me. It is comfortable to do so, but it does nothing if I am trying to be strong. Strength comes from stress. Resilience comes from facing hardships.
Education is not, and cannot be about coddling. I heard it from a preacher one time that the role of a powerful sermon is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Jesus came home to confront the comfortable, and they had assumed they were the afflicted.
I have had some folks upset with me over sermons or other things in worship times, but I have never had a group try to throw me off a cliff, or any other attempt to kill me. Not yet, anyway.
But one of the challenges of speaking the truth is that sometimes you must say the hard thing, the thing that people need to hear, but do not want to hear. One of my mentors used to remind me, a leader does what needs to be done. And as poet Alistair Plass put it:
Are you man enough to see the need?
And man enough to go?
Man enough to care for those who no one wants to know?
Man enough to say the thing that people hate to hear,
To battle through Gethsemane in loneliness and fear? [from Murgatroyd & Pratt]
Jesus told the truth. And that made uncomfortable people angry.
Where is the Epiphany in this? Good question.
In the season of Epiphany, we are given readings where we are shown Jesus being seen as something different, something set apart, something WONDERFUL.
Maybe it was him proclaiming the truth. Maybe.
But think on this. We are given the most ordinary, which in my books makes it extraordinary if we really look at it. “Where’s the miracle in this?” you may ask. Let’s look at the end of the reading…
…all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
We have Jesus getting railroaded, and an attempted lynching. Imagine facing a crowd like that. Imagine the emotion for people that he knew, and knew WELL having grown up there. People who liked, respected, and even loved him were trying to kill him. And in this context, somehow, we see him “[pass] through the midst of them and [go] on his way.” There are times like this when I wish we were given more details, but that is what we have so that is what I teach and preach.
So Jesus stopped the crowd and walked away in their midst. Standing up for oneself and having healthy boundaries is a struggle then and now. Imagine having the strength of spirit and healthy sense of self to stop a crowd. Jesus’ no was No. Period.
He, somehow, did not allow the crowd to have its way. He walked through their midst. That alone is an Epiphany, a show of his light and his power. It was and remains a wonder.
And how do we do this? How do we speak the truth, even when it costs us, especially when it costs us? And how do we set healthy boundaries, for love of God and care of others and care of self? It goes back to our basic programming as followers of Christ. Our discipleship is not about correcting or controlling. It is not about judging or winning. Our discipleship follows Jesus’ Way. And what was Jesus’ Way? The Way of Love.
So often we gloss over the beauty of I Corinthians 13, the “Love Chapter.” Or we dismiss it to weddings. But it is for me a wonderfully concise argument for our foundational programming. Finding that delicate and near impossible balance amongst love of God, others, and self. I read today from a more modern translation so you can hear it again for the first time. From Eugene Peterson’s The Message:
If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.
If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.
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.
Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love 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,
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.
Love never dies. Inspired speech will be over some day; praying in tongues will end; understanding will reach its limit. We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete. But when the Complete arrives, our incompletes will be canceled.
When I was an infant at my mother’s breast, I gurgled and cooed like any infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways for good.
We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!
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.
Jesus loved like that. He loved God, self, and others. And he models for us how we can attempt it, too. We can walk through the midst of an angry crowd or even the Valley of the Shadow of Death with Love.
God bless you in your truth speaking. God bless you in your healthy boundaries. But most of all, God bless you in your loving. Amen