What might the Spirit be saying to us in these readings?
Some initial observations:
On the one hand, Paul’s praise and description of the virtue of love. On the other hand, Jeremiah’s commission (“to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant”) and Jesus’ words to the Nazareth congregation. Whatever love is, it’s not about being nice. Whatever love is—well, that’s the focus of this sermon.
Jeremiah’s commission and Jesus with the synagogue congregation: a visual that might accompany these is that scene from early in Genesis: Adam and Eve hiding in the trees and the Lord calling “Where are you?” There, as in Jeremiah’s time, Jesus’ time, our time, the Lord trying for a conversation. That’s love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” in spades. Any other god would have thrown in the towel long ago.
Jeremiah’s commission: specific to Jeremiah, yes, but also representative of the prophetic task. “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Not hard to imagine Jesus feeling some solidarity with Jeremiah. Again, “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant:” not a bad partial description of the prophetic task. If we wonder why four verbs for the destruction and two for the creation, Abba Nestoros (one of the Egyptian desert fathers around the end of the 4th century) noted that “it is twice as hard to drive out vice as to acquire virtue” (so Cassian, cited in Goldingay The Book of Jeremiah).
Anyhow, let’s move to the Gospel. Last Sunday we heard Jesus reading from Isaiah: “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.” And, as we heard this morning “All spoke well of him.”
Ignoring the proverbial “Quit while you’re ahead,” Jesus tries for a conversation. To unpack Isaiah’s words there are any number of Old Testament stories Jesus could have cited that the congregation would have loved: Moses to Pharaoh: “Let my people go!”, Samson killing a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, the Lord delivering Jerusalem from the Assyrian army in the time of Isaiah. But Jesus chose two stories of prophets aiding Israel’s enemies—and the congregation goes homicidal.
It’s an understandable reaction. The Jews have been under the Gentile heel for centuries, Rome being simply the latest to fill that role. And to think that Isaiah’s God—Israel’s God—cares as much about them as about us, loves them as much as us…
What’s at stake here? On the one hand, our image of God. We might have thought that the Book of Jonah had settled that question (“O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing,” gracious and merciful even with the Assyrians! But it turns out that whether then or now we’re remarkably slow learners.
On the other hand, it doesn’t take theological training to realize that if God loves our enemies, the other shoe’s about to drop, this God expecting us to love these enemies.
“Love your enemies.” That’s the obvious deal breaker in Jesus’ good news, and it gives us plenty to work on. Here I’m thinking not of our actions or our words, which we usually have under control, but of our gut reactions to moments in our daily lives or news stories. “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you:” I’m not even close to these being habitual.
But “love your enemies” is only the tip of a larger iceberg, which offers us the option of coming at the challenge sideways. And for this I’m drawing on Rowan Williams’ description of the eastern monastic perspective in his book Looking East in Winter.
Williams writes: “Our problem…is not that we are embodied spirits, but that we are incompletely embodied spirits – that is, that we are as yet unable to live in this material and mutable world without clinging to our impressions, distorting our impressions, or compulsively marking out our territory. The things of the world – and our human neighbours in the world – appear either as food or as threat to the ego. Unless we become able to receive the truth of what is before us as it stands in relation to God, not to us, we are failing to be embodied in the sense of being properly part of creation: we are caught in an implicit idolatry, the effort to separate ourselves from the order of which we are a part” (p.32).
We might hear this perspective as unpacking Paul: love “does not insist on its own way,” is not trapped in the habit of seeing everything and everybody in terms of how they might threaten or benefit me. Again, this is prior to my speech or action: it’s about what my eyes or ears attend to.
This, is probably why Paul starts his description of love as he does. One can get very far in the church—in any institution for that matter—with the ego comfortably in the driver’s seat, assessing in others the potential for threat or exploitation. And as long as the ego is calling the shots, no room for love.
What do we do about this? Within this perspective, Williams again: “the dual habits of contrition and gratitude keep before us the nature we had almost lost and preserve us from defeat by the passion of lust and anger” (p.25). Contrition: genuine sorrow over my failures; gratitude: joyful recognition of all that I nevertheless continue to receive. Contrition and gratitude, in other words, aid us in living truthfully.
So, back to Jeremiah, “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” become ongoing disciplines, part, with God’s help, of living mindfully. Here the focus is usually not on our enemies—no need to start with the hardest cases—but with family members, neighbors, colleagues. Where are my impulses to defend or use clouding my perceptions of them? Those impulses are the ones to pluck up and pull down.
Two final observations. First, Paul’s description of love is part of his advice on how to live together as a congregation that we heard last Sunday. So “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude” is not about some self-standing altruism, but about what’s necessary so that congregational life doesn’t simply mirror our society’s dysfunctional patterns.
More, recall last Sunday’s Psalm 19. The psalm celebrates the life-giving power of the Law. But toward the end it takes an unexpected turn: “Who can tell how often he offends? / cleanse me from my secret faults.” For all the power of the Law—or the Gospel, for that matter—it’s pretty much powerless against my blind spots. So how does God answer this prayer for cleansing? Until preparing last week’s sermon I’d always assumed that God answered through some sort of ethereal surgery. But reading the psalm together with Paul’s description of how Christ’s Body works… If I only listen to folk who think like me, my blind spots stay undisturbed. So God answers the prayer for cleansing by putting me in this Body with Jews, Greeks, men, women, folk all over the spectrums, many of whom I have no inclination to listen to. I can pretty much count on one of them to tell me about my secret faults. So this love that listens turns out to be necessary for my own healing.
Second, Paul’s description of love is a description of God’s behavior. Why does God keep seeking us out, trying for a conversation, sometimes directly, sometimes through another human being? God is love.