Part of what might help is if we hear the words Paul wrote not as a scripture for weddings or funerals, but an angry rant. “Love is patient, you blockheads! Don’t you get it? Love is Kind, for goodness sake.” You get the picture. Both Paul and Jesus therefore are preaching news at their community that they don’t want to hear. They are being pushy about the Good news.
We dislike pushy preachers in the United Church. We very seldom ask a preacher to leave unless there is very grievous stuff going on involving either money or sex. It makes us squirm. In fact, I think that is why many people in the last 50 years dropped out. The preachers made them squirm and rather than lean into the discomfort, they left. And preachers got the message. Can’t preach about money, people might leave. Can’t preach about oil or the environment because no matter which way I look at it, someone might get offended. Can’t preach about social justice, because it might be seen as being political and heaven help us if our religion influences our vote.
Neither Jesus nor Paul give a flip about that. They cause their congregations to squirm. Jesus was doing fine for the first bit, the people loved the way he read the scripture, and kept his sermon short and sweet. Just what we want, a sermon that only lasts one sentence and doesn’t rock the boat.
But imagine that this is Justin Bieber and he’s doing a benefit concert in his home town to raise money for homeless shelters. Imagine that he invites the CEO of his town’s shelter to the stage at the end of the show and says “here’s a check for2.5 million dollars, but while you do great work with your run-down facility that sleeps 10 people if they are all under 5, I’m going to give it to the next town over. You already have what you need.” I think that CEO would probably want to throw Justin off a cliff if she heard that.
Jesus is telling his people that God’s realm is something that is already here, already fulfilled. Instead of griping about the Roman occupation or the price of lamb in the grocery store, or how the neighbor’s bratty kid broke their favorite pottery, they need to recognize the abundance they live in already. There are people in Capernaum who don’t know God, who don’t know how to worship together in peace, and that’s the folks who need Jesus. Not the hometown crowd. Ouch!
And Paul is reminding people that we just don’t know everything and we can’t be everything. Love is something that is impossible for me as a mortal human to do. Perfect love only has one source, and it’s hard to see that source now, because we are dim humans. But if we let love move us rather than us move as if we have love, things change. What is it that we have as our core understanding or our core experience? If it’s bragging or hogging conversations or acting all pompous or trying to be the richest person, that will eventually peter out and fade. Love cares and figures out when to be patient and kind and hopeful and when to act.
I heard several stories of how seeing through love changes lives. One I heard last week in Victoria. It was the story from the daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who worked with Nelson Mandela in breaking the apartheid system in South America. Nontombi Naomi Tutu is just starting on the path to becoming a priest in the Anglican Church, despite her many reservations about doing so. Someone asked, “why did you go into the priesthood?” and she told of the time she was working in a group home for children in the system; these were kids that were too challenging to have a foster family. She was assigned a seven-year old boy who had already attempted suicide five times. Yes, a seven year old boy. He told her that he knew he did bad things, but he wanted to kill himself before he did something so bad that he would burn in hell. By killing himself, he figured that he would prevent both a great evil and eternal damnation. At that moment, Naomi decided that she would become a priest and teach children that the heart of Christianity is love, not hell.
Wow. That pushes me. How do I make sure that little ones know the core value of Christianity is love not fear or hate? How do I encourage us all to root out even the most vestigial remnant of a damaging story that Christianity is about hating those who are not Christian to the point that they gleefully tell them they will burn in Hell if they don’t have the same thoughts as Christians? I start with myself, and I start with God. My vision of God is dim and small and unclear, but if I remember to set my compass to love, especially when I am caught up in the struggles of day to day living in our little version of Nazareth, then I will realize as hopefully some of Jesus childhood friends did when they chose not to throw him off the cliff, that God’s realm is indeed among us here and now.