Sermon Seeds: Prophet on the Edge/Called to Wisdom

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany Year C color_green.jpg
(Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Lectionary citations
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Luke 4:21-30
Additional reflection on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Special preaching notes in preparation for the One Great Hour of Sharing Offering 2016
by Mary Schaller Blaufuss

Weekly Theme:
Prophet on the Edge/Called to Wisdom

by Kathryn M. Matthews

Kate_SS_at_pulpit_Advent.jpgLast week’s reading from the Gospel of Luke left us right in the middle of Jesus’ homecoming appearance in the synagogue at Nazareth, when he read an inspiring passage from the prophet Isaiah, and followed it up with a simple yet powerful sermon in verse 21: “Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.'” If this were the movies or television, there would have been a beat of silence, for dramatic effect, while his words sank into the hearts and minds of his audience.

This week’s reading picks up the story where we left off, and begins on a positive note, repeating verse 21 as a kind of hinge, and then describing the enthusiastic response of the crowd as they marveled, at least for the moment, at Jesus’ “gracious words.” Isn’t it amazing, they wonder, that one of our very own boys – Joseph’s son – could be so impressive? And doesn’t he know his Bible!

The warm reception lasts all of two verses, however, because something seems to be bothering Jesus as he listens to the hometown crowd gushing about him. Clearly, he’s not basking in the glow of their admiration. Does he know more about their expectations than we can read from the text? Does he feel that they’ve missed the point? Does he have a sense that they won’t like where he’s going with this line of thought, about Jubilee (“the year of the Lord’s favor”) and the liberation of the oppressed? Or does he suspect that that kind of talk is fine as long as it applies to them, but not to those who are somehow judged as standing outside the favor of God?

Peter Eaton reminds us that we often find ourselves in a difficult starting place when we have to “make sense of God, life, and important issues before us,” when we find ourselves “in the middle of things,” rather than at the beginning (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1). That’s certainly true of this week’s reading, which begins, literally, in the middle of a story, and provokes many questions about many things. We do not know the answers, but scholars suggest several questions we might ask as we find our way into the text.

Remember where we are

“Remember.” Richard Swanson urges us to remember where we are when the scene opens this week, and what has happened. Jesus doesn’t charge into his hometown, brashly preaching a new message that contradicts the God of his ancestors, the God of his people’s holy scriptures. No, in fact, Swanson writes, Jesus recites the “old Jewish promises that the Jewish community in Nazareth had nurtured and preserved for long centuries….through all the years of change and loss.” (We might say that he’s helping them “un-forget” the promises of God.) The vision of Isaiah has sustained the people as they have struggled to rebuild their community after exile, as they have suffered under the heel of the Roman Empire, and as they have looked forward in faith to a day when God would make all things right and whole again. And now here’s Jesus, beginning his own ministry by announcing that the day they have been waiting for has finally arrived – in him.

Did you ever hear news so good that you instinctively hardened your heart against it, in fear of disappointment? Swanson suggests that the crowd may have been bracing themselves for the letdown, protecting themselves and their ancient hope by rejecting the very one who claimed that those promises were true: “Is this,” Swanson asks, “more about the offense of trifling with hopes that have lived for so many years, and have died for so many hopeless quixotic errands? You don’t get to claim that the ‘hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,’ and then go on with business as usual” (Provoking the Gospel of Luke). Is it possible to live for the future so ardently that we do not see the day of the Lord when it arrives, or experience in this moment a time of liberation and healing, when it is right here, right now, right before us?

Reluctance, or offense?

Were the people around Jesus that day reluctant to get their hopes up, or were they mightily offended by Jesus’ call for a Jubilee? The latter seems to be Walter Brueggemann’s read on this text: he calls their reaction “the most dramatic resistance to Jubilee.” He evokes the drama of Jubilee itself by recalling the sound of the trumpet that began “the year of the Lord’s favor” – “a signal,” he writes, “not unlike the great gavel that ends the fury of Wall Street every day, only it signifies something very different.” I’ve often heard it said that the Good News isn’t going to be “good” for everybody, at least not those who want to hold onto excessive wealth and power and place. Brueggemann claims that the people were resisting any “curb” on such excessive accumulation; Jubilee, he writes, “is not just a kind thought or a good intention or a religious idea. It is about money and property being transferred” (Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann).

We reflected a bit last week on the discomfort we feel, steeped as we are in capitalist values and principles, at the thought of restoring property every fifty years to the previous owner (God, of course, was understood to be the actual owner in those days). And we find comfort in scholarship that says that Jubilee was rarely if ever actually practiced. Brueggemann seems particularly incensed by our need for such reassurance, and our own resistance to what Jubilee would accomplish: “It is the most difficult, most demanding, most outrageous requirement of biblical faith,” because it flies in the face of “our deep practices of accumulation and our intense yearning to have ours and keep ours and make it grow” (Inscribing the Text).

It actually is about the money after all

Brueggemann’s sermon on this text is an eloquent but hard message that wouldn’t go over very well in many of our churches, where money is not even supposed to be discussed, despite the fact that the Bible addresses the subject of money and possessions, and our attitude toward them, more than 2,000 times in the Bible (and most of us have a pretty good idea what it says about them). He notes that it’s primarily in the area of economic justice “that the Bible questions our usual assumptions about life in the world.” And it is a question of justice, because the practice of Jubilee enacted “what Moses understood” (and surely Jesus did as well): “that you cannot have a viable, peaceable, safe urban community when deep poverty must live alongside huge wealth, when high privilege is visible alongside endless disadvantage in health and housing and education. You can have some inequities, but the inequities must be curbed by a practice of neighborliness that knows every day that rich and poor, haves and have-nots, are in it together and must find ways of being together as neighbors in common” (Inscribing the Text).

For people of faith, could the challenge of Jubilee and of Jesus’ speech be more timely, as the gap between the rich and poor widens, and wealth is more and more concentrated at the top, during another heated political season leading to the opportunity to express our deepest values in the voting booth? How does “neighborliness” enter into our political and economic life, if at all? Do we even see our political life as an opportunity to “love our neighbor,” as one of the two great commandments requires?

What are we waiting for?

Many scholars approach this text and the anger of the crowd that day in the synagogue by focusing on Jesus’ words after his sermon, when things seem to turn on a dime and become quite unpleasant. The people are waiting, all right, and not necessarily for a Jubilee that means they have to give anything up, but for “the day of vengeance” – the line that Jesus, curiously, leaves out of his reading of Isaiah – when their enemies will finally get what’s coming to them. Among these enemies, and outside the circle of God’s grace, are, presumably, the Gentiles. But who are the very ones in his people’s own holy scriptures that Jesus lifts up as those who received God’s favor and attention? The (Gentile) widow Elijah helped, and the (Gentile, enemy) commander, Naaman! 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? No wonder the people are so incensed by the stories Jesus recalls: “anger and violence,” Fred Craddock writes, “are the last defense of those who are made to face the truth embedded in their own tradition” (Preaching through the Christian Year C).

Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that (it always is). The people of Galilee, including Jesus, were looked down upon even by many of their own people. Kim L. Beckmann draws on the work of Caleb Rosado (from his book, Significance of Galilee to the Mission of the Church), to help us understand that the Judeans would have seen the Galileans as “peasants,”  “common people,” “unwashed people of the land” with an accent that betrayed their region’s long history of a rich mix of cultures and races. “Rosado,” Beckmann writes, “observes that Luke mentions the inn at Bethlehem of Judea as having ‘no room’ for Mary and Joseph, not as being ‘full,'” which gives another layer of meaning to our Christmas story.”

No wonder, then, that the Galileans longed for the day when the “ancient promises of restoration for those oppressed” would be fulfilled, even (especially?) for the people of Galilee. However, Beckmann and Rosado would claim that the Galileans were, perhaps, missing the point, or maybe thinking too small, because’s God’s concern was for all the oppressed, not for one group or another, each one hoping that they would end up on top. Being only human, however, the Galileans “wanted the privileged, chosen status and the prosperity gospel that their brothers and sisters of Judah aspired to, and that the dominant culture had normed” (New Proclamation Year C 2010).

All of us in the same boat

Perhaps the most moving – and therefore transformational – way to read this text is to let it read us. Renita Weems says that’s what Jesus was doing that day, more than just reading the text itself, but “allowing Scripture to read him” (New Proclamation Year C 2001). Ann M. Svennungsen says something similar when she says, “In this text, we, too, are made known.” Both of these women join other scholars in reminding us of our human nature, our persistence in drawing lines and circles that create a world of insiders and outsiders, and the dismaying way we have, once we’re the ones on top, of stepping on those below us.

What a revelation for Epiphany season! And yet there is hope, great hope, and Svennungsen describes God’s indifference to “who” we think we are: “God is not interested in faces,” she writes; “God is interested in hearts. Not beautiful hearts, not pure hearts, nor perfect hearts, but hearts that know their need of God.” (Now, there’s a sermon!) If there is something that needs to be made clear to us in this season of light and manifestation, it is this deep need that we have for God, and “recognizing our need,” Svennungsen writes, “will transform our relations with others.” (We might say that our need for God levels the playing field for all of God’s children.) There are no lines, no protective walls: “We are all in the same boat – lost without God” (New Proclamation Year C 2007).

Shining the light of the gospel on the experience of women

Renita Weems and Ann Svennungsen provide two entry points for deeper consideration of the text in light of the experience of women. No, it might be better to say that they suggest ways to shine the light of the gospel on the lives and the dreams, the suffering and the hope, the responsibility and the call, of women in the church and in the world. We recall that, when we read the story of the miracle at Cana two weeks ago, Asian women theologians observed that Jesus had learned “compassionate justice” from his mother, Mary (remember her song, the Magnificat?), and that Mary’s attention toward the predicament of the host facing a wine shortage was a good illustration of women’s “compassionate sensitiveness” deepened, perhaps, by spending their own lives on the margins rather than at the center of power. These women theologians suggest that Jesus, then, was formed in his passion for compassionate and inclusive justice by being raised by such a woman (Chung Hyun Kyung, Struggle to Be the Sun Again: Introducing Asian Women’s Theology). How do you respond to this suggestion?

It’s also striking that Jesus uses the example of a woman – a pagan woman, definitely an outsider – to illustrate the expansiveness of God’s grace and of the vision he is presenting in his inaugural address. It’s that example, of a woman, that infuriates the crowd, of course, for there are lines drawn around who is in, and who is out of the circle of God’s mercy. We need to challenge ourselves today to “next steps,” now that women have made recent progress in securing their rights and freedoms, without slipping into the same kind of longing of the Galileans to be privileged and prospered, even at the cost of others. Is it possible for women to hear a call never to forget the “others” who have made little or no progress in recent decades? (Granted, most of women’s progress has occurred only in the last few decades, and there is still a long way to go.)

Freedom and justice for all

How fitting that it was a woman, Emma Lazarus, who said, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free”! Lazarus was, of course, the author of the words on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” an inspiring vision of a community where the oppressed can taste and breathe both freedom and dignity. Is that what Jesus was talking about when he said that he had come to let the oppressed go free, and wasn’t he talking about all the oppressed, not just the group we belong to? Where have we fallen into the same pattern of drawing lines around us, and around them?

The other note in Ann Svennungsen’s commentary is intriguing in light of the experience of women in a culture that tells us that how we look matters more than just about anything else: the “indifference” of God toward “faces,” and God’s focus instead on our hearts. Does this ring true for you, and does it mean something different or particular for women? It may be that women have already been raised to have tender hearts even as we exert considerable energy toward maintaining a “face” that is pleasing and socially acceptable (but strong, too); do those hearts have enough time, given all the demands in a “you can have it all” way of life, to recognize our deep need for God, which might be nourished even by the simplest of spiritual exercises, like sitting quietly in God’s presence, and breathing more slowly, more contemplatively, more gratefully? How do you think women would have reacted that day, if they had heard Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue? Did women have anything to lose? Would they have been threatened by Jesus’ message, or would they have had the courage to hope for “the day of the Lord’s favor”?

What would we have said, and what would we have done?

A few weeks ago, we began a new year, but we brought many of the old fears right along with us into a “new” day. If we just sit quietly with this story for a time, would we be able to feel ourselves in that crowd around Jesus in Nazareth so long ago? Is Brueggemann telling us something that we don’t want to know about ourselves, that we dread the demands of Jubilee so much that we find incendiary “code” words for it, like “redistribution,” so no one will even think of proposing ideas that might make our systems work more compassionately, more justly for all of God’s children?

Or does Swanson expose our deep anxieties about hope itself, and our refusal even to try to give ourselves over to a whole new vision for our lives, to risk what we have for what might yet be? Perhaps the other scholars are right: the story of Jesus being driven to the edge by the crowd that day is a story about us, too, because we don’t want to hear the truth about ourselves, and we don’t want to think that “those other guys” could ever be like us, with us, one of us. Barbara Brown Taylor says that we should expect to be challenged and upset by the truth, by the “people sent to yank our chains and upset our equilibrium so we do not confuse our own ideas about God with God.” We don’t like “being told that our enemies are God’s friends,” she writes; “No matter how hard we try, we cannot seem to get God to respect our boundaries. God keeps plowing right through them, inviting us to follow or get out of the way” (“The Company of Strangers” in Home by Another Way).

“As finite and fragile as clay pots”

When Taylor draws on the thought of Parker Palmer in his book, The Company of Strangers, I’m reminded of one of my favorite passages from that excellent work: “At the heart of any authentic religious experience,” the Quaker theologian writes, “is recognition that God’s nature is too huge, God’s movement too deep, ever to be comprehended by a single conception or point of view…. God’s truth is singular and eternal, but the forms in which we give it expression are as finite and fragile as clay pots, and we must always be ready to break them open on behalf of a larger vision of truth.” If that’s true, and if this reading of our text is true, then isn’t it also true that God calls us, who claim to follow Jesus, on a path that may get us into trouble but impels toward an expansive, generous, justice-seeking vision of the world, a vision that shapes a ministry to and with all of God’s beautiful children?

What would it look like for Jesus’ first sermon and the reading from Isaiah to be fulfilled this day, in your midst? Might it, for example, inspire not only compassionate, generous aid to those who are in need, here and around the world, but also a deep hunger to understand the root causes of that need, and then an even deeper commitment to transforming that suffering – and the systems that cause it – into a new and better way of life for all? Might it call for the kind of interfaith respect and dialogue that could model discourse across divides for our polarized and deeply antagonistic political parties? Would such commitments take us out to cliffs, to “edges” we would rather not face? How large is your view of God’s nature, how wide is your understanding of God’s embrace, how deep is your sense of the movement of God? Will we run from such a love, and such a call, or will we seek it with all our heart, and let it take us out to the edges, where risk, and hope, and courage all lie?

The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Parker Palmer, 20th century
“[T]he mission of the church is not to enlarge its membership, not to bring outsiders to accept its terms, but simply to love the world in every possible way – to love the world as God did and does.…If we are able to love the world, that will be the best demonstration of the truth which the church has been given.”

Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books, 21st century
“I experience religious dread whenever I find myself thinking that I know the limits of God’s grace, since I am utterly certain it exceeds any imagination a human being might have of it. God does, after all, so love the world.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
“We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

Henri Nouwen, 20th century
“Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing….The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
“Whatever you do, you need courage. Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising that tempt you to believe your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires some of the same courage that a soldier needs. Peace has its victories, but it takes brave men and women to win them.”

Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, 21st century
“Protesters are still on the fringes like satellites, revolving around the system. But prophets and poets lead us into a new world, beyond simply yelling at the old one.”

Julie Polter, 20th century
“This is the big lie the world tells us: that the universe is connected by trade agreements, electronic banking, computer networks, shipping lanes, and the seeking of profit — nothing else. Whereas this is the truth of God: all creation is one holy web of relationships, and gifts meant for all; that creation vibrates with the pain of all its parts, because its true destiny is joy.”

Julian of Norwich, 14th century
“If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.”  

Lectionary-based reflection on Disaster, Refugee and Sustainable Development ministries of the United Church of Christ through One Great Hour of Sharing (OGHS)
by Mary Schaller Blaufuss

Focus Text:  
Luke 4: 21-30

Preaching theme: OGHS.jpg

Jesus’ ministry of wholeness is for the whole world, not about “taking care of our own.” We care for those affected by disaster or disease wherever they are without exclusion of those not like us or even of those we fear.  

Interpretation and Informing Stories:   

In the world of crowds, public perception can change quickly. In Luke 4, Jesus goes quickly (10 verses) from the crowd’s amazement that lifts him up as “man of the hour” to rage that drives him out of town with threat of being hurled off the outskirts’ cliff. What changed? People loved hearing that God’s word for good news, release, recovery and liberation had been fulfilled in their hearing. They loved having one of their own as the Anointed One. Benefits will surely come their way. But as soon as Jesus clarifies that his ministry does not preference them, but is for all, the mood at home shifts dramatically.

Jesus references former prophets Elijah and Elisha to reinforce that recovery in the midst of crisis extends to the whole world, including those unfamiliar or even disliked by Jesus’ childhood friends and family. In the midst of a 3 ½ year drought and resulting famine, Elijah’s focus was the widow at Zarephath in Sidon rather than those affected in Israel. Elisha cleansed Naaman the Syrian rather than lepers in Israel. The anger of the crowd in Nazareth is ignited against Jesus with these references to God’s care of those outside “their own.” They drive him out of town. He, though, “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” (Luke 4:30). This anger at the universality of Jesus’ mission provides the very pathway he uses to make his good news real in all the world.

Parallels today

The current crisis of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons seems to parallel this scene today. Violence has wreaked havoc in Syria, forcibly displacing millions from their homes.  Some have fled across national borders to become refugees, others are internally displaced within Syria. The violence has affected those of all faiths. Because much of the Syrian population is Muslim, most of these refugees are Muslim. We are in the midst of the largest refugee crisis since World War II. Neighboring nations of Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey have taken in refugees beyond their capacity. Local populations in those nations are on edge about the new-comers in their midst and resources available.  

In the summer/fall of 2015, thousands of refugees, seeing no hope for permanent settlement in their first country of haven, nor the possibility of returning to Syria, risked their lives to flee into Europe. Thousands, not only from Syria but also northern Africa, boarded boats to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean in hope of reaching Greece or Italy. Others trekked across land, seeking to enter Europe through eastern countries of the continent. Some nations welcomed people to pass through their borders in transit or to resettle. Some set up camps within their territory. Other nations closed their gates. And still others, like the United States, publicly debated whether we would welcome or limit Syrian refugees for resettlement, some of that discussion based on whether to accept refugees who are Christian but regarding differently those who are Muslim.

Finding common cause against violence and need

The United Church of Christ has been well-positioned for a wide-ranging engagement in this refugee crisis in all its layers. With long-term trusted relationships with churches in the Middle East, since being the first Protestants to send missionaries to the region in the early 1800s, the UCC through Global Ministries has first-hand access to situations of great need and those involved in significant actions of relief and interfaith relations to form a common cause against the violence of the region. Churches with whom Global Ministries has partnerships have access to displaced persons within Syria and are offering food, shelter and heat for the winter. Global Ministries’ partners in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey welcome refugees and work to provide safety and integrate them into the existing landscape of their communities.  

In addition, a strong ecumenical commitment places the UCC as a strong member of global humanitarian church agencies working in refugee relief, such as Church World Service and ACT Alliance.  Early 2015 news of food drops in northern Iraq for refugees was partially food provided through UCC-connected ecumenical ministries. This winter, Syrian refugees are fed and housed in Serbia through these avenues. And, within the United States, the UCC work through Church World Service in the resettlement of refugees helps provide personal stories of positive resettlement experiences and a public voice that encourages the United States to provide more welcome, not less, and to change hearts and minds of those who are afraid.  What you can do.

Opening doors, sharing food

Rev. Balazs Odor, Ecumenical Officer of the Reformed Church of Hungary, was in the United States in October. He serves as one of the international board members of the Common Global Ministries Board. It was soon after refugees had come en masse to Hungary’s borders. At first, Hungary had let them in and then, in fear, closed its borders. Rev. Odor was aghast at his nation’s actions and of a public attitude that supported the exclusion. But he also recognized that this is a time for people in the Reformed Church of Hungary to really live their faith. He saw this faith in the local church that opened its doors to provide shelter and a hot meal for people stranded at the train station on the day the borders closed. He sees that faith in the on-going refugee ministries of the Reformed Church of Hungary.

MSB.jpgPerhaps Jesus would include in his list of those prophets who ministered in the midst of famine or disease, those who minister in the midst of refugee crisis. And, in that reference, list Elijah and Elisha who are present and active with the outsider or least likely recipient of aid, along with Christians in the U.S. who open our hearts and provide an extravagant welcome to those we may have otherwise been taught to fear. And thus instead of our anger driving Jesus out of our midst, we would stay in the moment of Jesus worship and join him bringing abundance to all who suffer.

The Rev. Dr. Mary Schaller Blaufuss serves as Team Leader, Global Sharing of Resources, with Wider Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ at the national offices in Cleveland, Ohio.

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Additional reflection on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13:

by Kathryn M. Matthews  
“A still more excellent way”: the Apostle Paul leads up to his well-known but rarely lived description of love. Most of us have attempted to preach this text, usually at a wedding, but we mostly fail to do it justice. Its overuse (in the eyes of some) may be a sign of its power, because little else in the Bible can be seen as more important to the Christian life than striving to love, and people in every age and every place long to hear about love. God is love, we are taught from early childhood, right from the Bible, of course (I John 4:16b), and we know that Jesus loves us and all the other little children, too, because the Bible tells us so.

And here, again in the Bible, in a letter from Paul to the church at Corinth, love is held up as the “still more excellent way,” the gift greater than any of the things we think the church, and the world, need so much: our eloquence, our intelligence, our generosity or our faith. Hal David and Burt Bacharach famously claimed that the world needed and needs “love, sweet love,” but perhaps we seem busier with trying to figure out how to accomplish the tasks that lie before us, and whom to recruit to do them, than with how to love in the meantime.

The church and love

It is well known that many people have been hurt by the church. Not just by their parents and their families, their playmates and friends, but by the church, the Body of Christ that is supposed to be one, to be a community “better together,” not “more hurtful together.” Sometimes this hurt is institutional, and other times it’s the work of individuals who fail to live up to Paul’s ideal or Jesus’ example. In addition to the many people who are un-churched, never having been raised in a religious tradition, there are countless thousands who have left their childhood faith not because of intellectual doubt but because they were not loved there – in a sense, they have been “de-churched.” Perhaps they felt judged, excluded, or insulted. Perhaps their gifts were not recognized, or perhaps they felt misunderstood.

Our churches ought to be the beginning-again places of love, and the love we offer should be a spiritual gift in itself, a gift of healing and hope, a promise of what could yet be in their lives, and in the life of the church because they are now there, too. In this case, the gift of extravagant hospitality can be seen as one more expression of love.

More beautiful than all the rest

So how do we approach this reading today? It’s ironic, perhaps, that Paul seems to pause in the midst of writing so much more about the gifts of prophecy and speaking in tongues to write just thirteen verses about the one thing that he claims is more important than those gifts are. Just this one, inexpressibly beautiful chapter, but one that we all know and remember when we do not know or remember the rest. Nothing that we do matters, we remember that Paul tells us, if we don’t love as we’re doing it. Not one of our gifts matters, if our heart is not filled with love. None of our accomplishments stands up before love, which never ends and which outshines all the other virtues, even the great ones of faith and hope.

Many of us may preach this text, but most, or all, of us, spend our lives trying to figure out how to be patient, kind, able to bear, believe, hope, and endure all things. How do we do all these things and still get our tasks and projects done? How do we do these things, and be this way, and not get “used” or “stepped on”?

The already-but-not-yet of love

Paul may suggest something of a response to these questions in his reminder that we live in the “not yet” of anticipating the fullness of God’s reign: “when the complete comes, the partial will end” (v. 10). The “already” of Jesus’ life and teaching, his death and resurrection, have taught us of love, but the “not yet” is what we cannot see or know, the incompleteness of our efforts, the unrealized dreams and goals, the limitations that make us human but also prevent us from being as loving as we would be.

Yet God is love, and God loves us here and now, in the partialness of our efforts and our programs and our gifts, in the dimness of this mirror that nevertheless reflects, here and there, a bright, shining glimpse of our beauty now and of all that is yet to be. That is why this reading is so appropriate for weddings, with their promise of all that is yet to be. That is why it is so beautiful every day, in the life of the church, when we have the opportunity to welcome every child of God into our midst and invite them to the feast of love at our table, when we invite them to join us in this journey of love, accepting our heartfelt commitment to follow in the way of the One who is love.

For further reflection:

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, 21st century
“Love is holy because it is like grace–the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.”

Robert Frost, 20th century
“Earth’s the right place for love.”

St. John of the Cross, 16th century
“In the evening, we will be judged on love.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 19th century
“Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.”

William Sloane Coffin, 20th century
“I think, therefore I am? Nonsense! I love, therefore I am.” 

Lectionary texts

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
    “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
     and before you were born I consecrated you;
     I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Then I said, “Ah, Lord God!
     Truly I do not know how to speak,
          for I am only a boy.”
But the Lord said to me,
    “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
          for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
          and you shall speak whatever I command you,
     Do not be afraid of them,
          for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth;
          and the Lord said to me,
    “Now I have put my words in your mouth.
     See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
          to pluck up and to pull down,
          to destroy and to overthrow,
          to build and to plant.”

Psalm 71:1-6

In you, O God, I take refuge;
   let me never be put to shame.

In your righteousness
   deliver me and rescue me;
incline your ear to me and save me.

Be to me a rock of refuge,
   a strong fortress, to save me,
for you are my rock and my fortress.

Rescue me, O my God,
   from the hand of the wicked,
from the grasp of the unjust and cruel.

For you, O God, are my hope,
    my trust, O God, from my youth.
Upon you I have leaned from my birth;
    it was you who took me from my mother’s womb.
My praise is continually of you.

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.

Luke 4:21-30

Then he began to say to them, “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.

Liturgical notes on the readings

In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:

First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel

The first and second readings are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.

The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.

A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.

Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.  
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”   

So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the “received” tradition!