Sermon preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson – January 31, 2016

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
January 31, 2016

Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

Let us pray.

Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.

Even if you don’t typically pay attention to the readings from Scripture each Sunday and even if you’re not accustomed to expecting that what you hear in church will make any sense to you at all, my guess is that your ears perked up during our New Testament lesson this morning from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. “Love is patient, love is kind,” the passage we heard a few minutes ago goes, “it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” These words are familiar ones: it’s the rare wedding that avoids them entirely, and I am fairly certain we have all heard them before at one point or another. But these words are also relevant ones, for love is something we all at some level cherish and yearn for. And love is something that our culture sees as central to our human identities. Just think for a moment about all the attention we will pay to a certain holiday called Valentines’ Day, which takes place exactly two weeks from today. Indeed, I suspect that as many of you contemplated Paul’s classic definition of love this morning you thought to yourself, “it’s that time of year again.” While Paul rambled on about cymbals and mountains, perhaps it occurred to you that it might be smart to snag a table at Tarantino’s before reservations run out or prudent to order that piece of jewelry on Amazon while you can still get free shipping.

Yet though the first association that comes to mind when reading this famous chapter from the Bible may be a beamingly happy couple exchanging metal rings and proclaiming their firm “I do”s, this chapter in its original context had almost nothing to do with marriage or romance whatsoever. The love that Paul speaks of is not fundamentally the love that is shared between a man and a woman, or, for that matter, the love that is shared between a man and a man or a woman and a woman, but about the love all of us share together in community. Prior to the words we read this morning, Paul had been helping the Corinthians work through a series of arguments relating to their communal religious practices. By inserting an entire chapter about the importance of love, Paul attempts to pull the Corinthians away from their fierce debates and focus them on the hard work of loving each other.

On the one hand, 1 Corinthians 13 unashamedly glorifies the virtue of putting others first. Love, it says, holds precedence over all of the issues that we human beings are prone to argue about, over all of the horrible things that drive us apart. Caring about others, it explains, is more important than what we possess, than what we believe in, than what we know, than even the very best of any other intentions we might have. With time, it tells us, everything else will fade away, but love will last forever. This, Paul’s most well-known chapter, makes clear that love may require us to give up on our own needs or desires. Love, it explains, does not seek the triumph of one person over another or allow the bearing of grudges against those who have caused pain or hurt; love is humble and patient and endures everything that it is faced with, however unjust and terrible. 1 Corinthians 13 leads us to believe that the security of our relationships and communities takes precedence over even the wellbeing of our selves.

But even as it characterizes concern for others as irreproachable, placing love on an invincible pedestal, telling us that love will bear all things and never end, 1 Corinthians 13 also paradoxically portrays love as something uninterested in its own survival. After all, if love truly is completely patient and kind, if love does indeed bear and endure all things without exception, if love without a doubt never ultimately insists on its own way, then love must be willing to give free reign even to what has the capacity to overpower and destroy it. In characterizing love as something that is willing to surrender its power, as something that refuses to put up a fight, Paul seems to be suggesting that love that is incapable of being forced, that love constructed as a rule to follow or a requirement to uphold can never really be love at all. Built into Paul’s very definition of love is vulnerability and precariousness. In a funny way, Paul allows for the possibility that the most loving thing to do may actually be to give up trying so hard—to yield, to let go, to walk away.

Walking away was something Jesus did over and over again in his own life. When Herod started killing infant children in Bethlehem, Jesus and his family walked away from his birthplace and into a foreign land in order to save his life. As a young boy, Jesus walked away from his parents to spend time in the temple all by himself and grow into his own person. After reaching his limit with the crowds that overwhelmed him, Jesus walked away to rest. And losing his life on a cross, Jesus walked away from human beings only in order to demonstrate how much he truly loved them and set them free.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus as a young man beginning his teaching career walks away from his home town of Nazareth. This episode from Jesus’ life contains a conflict as intense as the one the Corinthians faced, with Jesus’ fellow Nazoreans displaying such rage towards him that they threaten to throw him off a cliff. Yet, at least according to Paul’s definition, Jesus also clearly acts towards them with love: he rejoices in the truth, giving them plainly his assessment of the situation he sees, but he does not insist on his own way by making them accept what he says. He resigns himself to the fact that they will reject him, that no prophet will be accepted in his hometown. Jesus, as God, holds all sorts of power and could, if he wished, subdue the Nazoreans’ rage and force them to acknowledge his authority. But Jesus doesn’t do that. Instead, he lets them be and walks away.

In a poem I have loved for years, British writer Cecil Day Lewis reflects on an episode that first showed him what it would be like to watch his son grow older. The poem is called “Walking Away.”[1]

It is eighteen years ago, [the poem reads,] almost to the day –
A sunny day with leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play
Your first game of football, then, like a satellite
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away

Behind a scatter of boys. I can see
You walking away from me towards the school
With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free
Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path should be.

That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.

I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.

The speaker of the poem decides to let go—he knows he has to. But in the process of doing so, he never stops loving. Letting go and loving, he learns, are not mutually exclusive: one can love and let go all at the same time.

Of course, loving well, so much of the time, involves faithfulness, dedication and persistence. That beaming couple on their wedding day even now still promises to be faithful for life, and so many relationships, whether they are relationships between family members or partners or among colleagues and friends, rely on steadfastness and commitment over the long-haul. But perhaps you, like me, have too often turned love into a compromised crusade, holding on stubbornly to those whom you love without regard to reason or fact, or pressing yourself to complete a checklist of good deeds in which your heart was never fully invested. Perhaps you, like me, have become convinced that the natural fading of a relationship with a person or the gradual deterioration of one’s membership in a community must by necessity signify the end of love. But through relationships may end and though communities may fall apart, love never does. And, as Paul so eloquently shows us in 1 Corinthians 13, love in its essence is about truth, meaning that a love that is forced is no love at all. Paul’s depiction of an indispensable, all-enduring love suggests that love needs no pushing by or advocating from us; that love will take care of itself. So, this morning, I invite you to release yourself from the prison that what you think is love may have locked you in. Consider this morning the possibility that you might actually love others more if you could in some way loosen your grip, if you somehow could manage to take a step back, if you, with God’s help, could finally find within yourself the strength and the courage to walk away—and let go.

[1] As a teenager, I often listened to the sermons of Alan Jones, who regularly quoted this poem.

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