The Adventurous Lectionary – The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany – January 31, 2016
I Corinthians 13:1-13
The adventurous preacher may be overwhelmed the abundance of riches in today’s readings. These readings are a goldmine for theological reflection and practical action, not to mention mysticism and spiritual practice. We have the great love chapter from Corinthians, with its undercurrent of creative agnosticism as essential to healthy relationships, personal, professional, and congregational. We are reminded, along with Jeremiah, that God has a larger vision for us than we have for ourselves. We discover that God’s graceful inspiration pushes the boundaries of our known world and religious particularities to embrace the totality of humankind, including those peoples we deem outside God’s love and inspiration. There are no out-groups in God’s saving grace.
Jeremiah is the spiritual “everyman” and “everywoman” who has doubts about her or his vocation. Called to speak for God, Jeremiah protests his youth and inexperience. He is the youngest one among the potential prophets, as the text suggests, and, in his estimation, hardly qualified to speak God’s word to his elders. Rightly, he protests his inadequacy and wants to wait until he’s more mature. But, God has other ideas. God’s way is to use the humble and small, the youthful and marginalized, to reveal God’s vision to the world.
Jeremiah sees what he can’t do. But, God sees what he can! To God, Jeremiah is all possibility and so God speaks directly – mystically – to Jeremiah, revealing his dream for the reluctant prophet. Could this affirmation also apply to us and our congregations? Our limitations, the concrete realities of life, are the womb of possibility. Our concrete debits – even our sins – are fertile ground for the growth of mustard seeds, the feeding of five thousand from a few loaves and fish, and a life changing message from the voice of a persecutor. God has in store for us more than we can ask or imagine.
The word to Jeremiah is addressed to both individuals and congregations. We may think our congregations lack the energy and resources to be transformative but within God’s vision we have what we need to be God’s partners in healing the world. We can do small things in great ways!
Jeremiah opens the door to a deeper understanding of the message of I Corinthians 13. This favorite wedding passage is so often used that we may miss is application to our own lives. Fidelity to God and fulfilling God’s message is not a matter of achievement or giftedness or signs and wonders, but love that is revealed in day to actions. This love, commended in I Corinthians 13, is fallible, recognizes its limitations, leaves room for growth, and trusts God’s larger vision as we construct our own visions. Healthy love is open-ended. In knowing its limitations, it makes room for creativity, hospitality, and adventure. We see in a mirror dimly, and we don’t have all the answers, but we can respond lovingly as a first step in healing the world.
Healing love and inspiring vocations have a context, and that is the faithfulness of God, described in Psalm 71. God’s eternal care, throughout every season of life, delivers us from defensiveness, partisanship, and hostility to otherness. Leaning on God’s everlasting arms, we receive a springboard for creative action to bring beauty and love into the world. We don’t have to be right or exclude or other visions. There may be many right answers to theological, ecclesiastical, and liturgical questions. We trust that God will provide what we need, as Jeremiah discovered, to be faithful in our times without undermining the fidelity of others.
The Luke reading continues Jesus’ first public address – you might call it his mission statement – in which he proclaims God’s Spirit of Shalom rests upon him and as a result of his mission, now is the day of salvation and transformation. A new world is on the horizon, the world dreamed of by the prophets. Everyone is excited, but soon excitement turns to antagonism and bloodlust when Jesus extends the boundaries of salvation to include foreigners. They listeners delighted that God’s realm of Shalom is coming, but they imagine that is just for people like themselves. The Romans will be destroyed, the Temple restored to its grandeur, and the unclean neighbors, including some Jesus invokes, will be put in their rightful – inferior – place.
What preacher would antagonize an appreciative crowd? But, that’s what Jesus does! When Jesus suggests a universality of revelation along with a universality of response, they are ready to kill him. They can’t imagine God caring for foreigners. They can’t conceive of the day of Shalom involving all people. Unlike Jesus, we pastors may want to tread lightly on this passage, for to take it seriously is to assume our enemies may receive revelations and may in their benighted state find positive ways to receive God’s message. If so, what are we to do about it? Do we suffer from the same limitations as our opponents? Do they also have dreams and desire a better world, despite their violence and antagonism toward us? Could there be such a thing as a “good” ISIS member or “compassionate” red MAGS hat bearer that belongs in one of Jesus’ parables? In our highly polarized political environment, such a comment might elicit deep critiques of the pastor.
Revelation in unexpected places does not necessarily dictate foreign or domestic policy. We may still have to work for a strong national defense and neutralize, in other words, destroy groups like ISIS, or challenge the dangerous policies of our own political leadership. But, we must act recognizing our own limitations and fallibility and like Jesus’ listeners, our own need for repentance and transformation. Even if we are the closest thing to the children of light in our personal lives, theological affirmations, or political positions, we still “see in a mirror dimly” and have a long way to go to experience the fullness of divine inspiration or to embody perfectly God’s love.
The adventurous preacher will have more than enough to work with and must choose prayerfully which passages address the needs and gifts of their congregation. All of the passages take us out of our comfort zones and challenge our assumptions and in the process present a horizon for possibility that will bring new life to our congregations and communities.
Bruce Epperly is Pastor of South Congregational Church, UCC, in Centerville, MA, and author of over forty five books, including “Become Fire: Guideposts of Interspiritual Pilgrims,” “The Mystic in You: Discovered a God-filled World,” and “Process Theology and Celtic Wisdom.”