Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sermon: Cliff Diving With Jesus

Rev. Maureen Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst
February 3, 2013
1 Cor. 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-44

“Cliff Diving With Jesus”

Love causes us to do crazy things.
If you’ve ever been in love, you know what I’m talking about.
It’s as if we become a very different person.
Our willingness to try new things, travel to unfamiliar places, and act courageously out of character increases tenfold, and is driven by our desire to connect with and be with the one that we love.
Love causes us to step outside of our comfort zones and to take risks that we normally would not take if we were not bolstered by its presence.

Now some of you may be recalling the time you colored your hair in high school because the boy you liked preferred blondes, or the time you fell on your face 100 times while learning to ice skate because you had a crush on a girl who worked at the local rink, or the time you drove 300 miles in one night to visit a college girlfriend or boyfriend after getting a phone message that says, “I miss you” or “I wish you were here.”
But it’s not just romantic love that causes us to do crazy things.
Love in all of its forms, as it turns out, has the power to influence, and transform us, in amazing ways.

Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat who worked in Budapest, Hungary during World War II. Between July and December of 1944 he set up housing for thousands of Hungarian Jews and issued them “protective passports” which identified them as Swedish subjects and prevented their deportation. Wallenberg rented thirty-two buildings in Budapest, and declared them to be protected by diplomatic immunity. On the building’s front doors he placed signs that read “The Swedish Library” and “The Swedish Research Institute” and he hung oversize Swedish flags on the front to bolster the deception. The buildings housed almost 10,000 refugees. All together Wallenberg saved an estimated 100,000 lives during the Holocaust. 
After the war, Wallenberg was captured by the Soviets and imprisoned, which is where he died in 1947.
We might say that Wallenberg was driven by an overwhelming sense of compassion and a true desire for justice.
But as we know, at the root of such compassion and justice seeking, is love.
It’s our love of God, and our love for each other, that drives us to take such extraordinary risks in this world.

The passage we heard this morning from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a beautiful ode to the power of love, but it also pushes us to live up to the high, high standard that being purveyors and recipients of that love sets before us.

As we noted earlier, we’re used to hearing this text from first Corinthians in the context of weddings.
Love is patient, love is kind….
As we gaze into the eyes of our beloved it all seems so easy, so doable.
Even those of us who know the challenges of maintaining marital love over time can’t help but get caught up in the moment, as the happy couple exchanges their vows and promises to love each other til death do they part. We believe it can happen. If not for us, then at least it will for them.
But when we remove the overlay of romantic love and drop this text into the context of Christian community, as Paul intended, the challenge of true love seems much more difficult, if not impossible to live up to.

The church in Corinth was in trouble.
It appeared to be thriving but once Paul looked beneath the façade he saw that it was coming apart at the seams.
To all outward appearances this was a faithful and active congregation whose people were blessed with many spiritual gifts, but in reality they were lauding those gifts over each other and going through the motions of faith to advance their own standing within the church.
They were motivated not by love but by their own desire for recognition and power.

In his letter, Paul held up a mirror and named the ways in which the church in Corinth had been perceiving and projecting a distorted image of love.

I wonder if we hear these words from first Corinthians 13 differently once we realize that this is not a poetic ode to romantic love, but rather a letter of reprimand pointing out the ways in which the people of Corinth have failed to love truly and faithfully.
We can feel Paul’s frustration and anger in his words:
If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
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.

We might wonder how these words were received in Corinth when Paul’s letter was read aloud to the congregation as they gathered for worship.
I can imagine that many of them were shifting uncomfortably in their seats, as they listened. Paul was accusing their faith filled and spiritually gifted community of being shallow and petty and having little understanding of what it meant to be a loving community of God.

I’m wondering how likely it is that the congregation collectively took Paul’s words to heart and immediately pledged to change their ways.
It’s probably more likely that a good portion of them began to call for a new leader to emerge from within their ranks, as Paul had clearly lost touch with who they were as a congregation.

Paul founded the church in Corinth, but he pastored it from a far, visiting on occasion, but primarily writing letters to chastise them when they drifted too far astray. Perhaps Paul knew from experience that the people of Corinth would have run him out of town if he stuck around too long.

But Paul was in good company in this regard.
As our text from the gospel of Luke tells us, Jesus was run out of town after reprimanding a congregation in his home city for the very same failing that Paul had seen in the people of Corinth.
They weren’t being as courageous or as expansive or as radically generous as they should be or could be with their love.

When Jesus stood up in his home synagogue to read from the sacred text from the prophet Isaiah we might imagine his friends and family beaming with pride. This was Joseph’s son.
A carpenter by trade who had been declared as the Messiah by John the Baptist. Reports of his teaching and preaching had spread throughout the countryside and now here he was, about to deliver his first scripture interpretation, his first sermon, in his home congregation.

Jesus stood up and read the familiar words of Isaiah 61:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

After reading these words, Luke tells us that Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down, with all eyes fixed upon him.

He then said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Yes, this was Jesus having the audacity to claim that he was the one who had been sent by the Lord to do all these amazing things for the poor, the blind, and the oppressed, but that’s not what caused all eyes to be upon him, or caused him to be chased out of the synagogue only a few moments later.

The people were starting to believe that he might be the Messiah, so they likely weren’t angry or perplexed that he was making this claim.
It’s more likely that they were angry and perplexed because Jesus didn’t read the text from Isaiah in its entirety. 
In fact he abruptly stopped in the middle of a sentence and left out what was for them the most vital part of the scripture.
The part where Isaiah says, “He has sent me to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God.”
Jesus left off the part about God avenging Israel’s suffering and providing for his chosen people of Zion.

This is the day of vengeance the people were waiting for. Receiving their freedom was only the first part of their redemption, watching their enemies get what was coming to them was what would make it all worth while.

The people in that Galilean synagogue most likely knew the text of Isaiah by heart so it’s natural that they would question why Jesus chose to end his reading as he did. Was it intentional? What message was he trying to send?

To get ourselves inside the minds of the people in that synagogue, we might imagine someone standing up before a crowd of modern day Americans and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and leaving out the phrase, “One Nation, under God.”

Although the “under God” portion wasn’t added until 1954, most of us have become so accustomed to hearing it this way that we would notice if it were left out.
And it’s likely that some might question why it was left out and what message the one reciting it was trying to send, about their faith, and their loyalty to the nation.

Which is exactly what the people in that Galilean synagogue did with Jesus. Especially when Jesus raised their suspicions even further by peppering his sermon with scriptures that suggested that those outside the circle of God's grace, the Gentiles, were meant to receive God's favor and attention as well.
Jesus now had two strikes against him.
What kind of Messiah shows up and announces "the day of the Lord's favor" without also bringing "the day of vengeance" that was promised so long ago?
What kind of Messiah would take the grace and favor that was meant for just a few and make the claim that it was meant for all?

We may now understand how the people in the synagogue went from praising Jesus to threatening to throw him off a cliff.
We can imagine that the people of the church in Corinth thought about throwing Paul off a cliff as well. 
All because they so desperately wanted their people to broaden their understanding of love. They wanted their people to imagine God in a much bigger and much more inclusive way.

We know what happened to Paul. He was arrested and ended up dying in prison.
And we know what ultimately happened to Jesus. Somehow he slipped away from the angry mob on the edge of that cliff in Galilee, but they eventually caught up with him. And he was nailed to a cross and left to die because he dared to imagine a love that was meant to be freeing for all.

Love causes us to do crazy and courageous things.

Love is what causes some people to lay their lives on the line, to risk arrest, beatings, loss of freedom, loss of livelihood, loss of respect, loss of life, because of a principle, a belief, an inner knowing that they must DO SOMETHING to stop an injustice or an act of fear or hatred.

Love is what drove Raoul Wallenberg to risk his freedom and his life to save so many during WWII, even though each passport that he signed and each person that he stowed away brought him one step closer to being caught.

Love is what drove Rosa Parks to look a white man in the face and say, “No, I’m not doing it anymore. I’m not moving to the back of the bus. I’m staying right where I am and you’re just going to have to learn to deal with it.”

Love is what drove an anonymous man carrying a shopping bag in each hand to step in front of moving tanks in Tiananmen Square. Love is what caused him to step out of his routine life and into the center of a battle between freedom and oppression.

Love is what drives any one of us to step out of our comfort zone – To invite a homeless person to stay in our spare bedroom, to volunteer to visit a prisoner who has no family, to stand up to a bully in a middle school hallway.

Love is what strengthens us when we feel backed up to the edge of cliff and we’re fearful that those who oppose our generosity of hospitality just might throw us off into the abyss.
Love is what gives us the courage to teeter on that edge, and to take a leap of faith on our own accord, as we break our hearts wide open and follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

      Love is patient; Love is kind;      
        Love bears all things, believes all things, 
                hopes all things, endures all things.     
                 Love never ends.

                         Thanks be to God.

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