IV Epiphany 2016                                                                   I Corinthians 13:1-13

31 January 2016                                                                     Luke 4: 21-30

Ashland UCC

The Rev. Anne K. Bartlett


In the name of the Holy One, whose love never ends. Amen.


In our Gospel reading, we heard how the Nazareth congregation reacted to Jesus’s first sermon.  Initially, they were thrilled with him, amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. That’s music to a preacher’s ears, let me tell you.  But it didn’t last long.  “Wait a minute,” they said.  “We know you.  Aren’t you Joseph’s son?”  And then they said, “Well, show us your stuff, let’s us see some of those miracles we’ve been hearing you’ve been doing down the road in Capernaum.”  Jesus not only did not oblige their craving for a homegrown celebrity wonder worker, he said what he came to proclaim – the Kingdom of Heaven right here, right now – he told them they wouldn’t be able to see it because they were looking for show, not for spiritual substance.  It was the outsiders, the weak and marginalized ones, the “spiritual but not religious” folk who were hungry enough and thirsty enough for what he had to give.

As quick as turning on a dime, the congregation went from adulation to anger.  They drove him out of town, right up to the edge of the cliff where they were going to throw him off.  Now here comes my favorite line in this violent and sordid little story: But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

            How did he do that? I see him non-reactive in the midst of all the narcissistic rage swirling around him, I see him calmly passing through them as still as the center of the eye of a storm, going on his way.

All in all, not a particularly auspicious beginning of his ministry.

No wonder Christina didn’t want to preach this morning!

Seriously, what a gift it is to me to share worship with you and with Christina on her first Sunday as your new settled pastor.  And my last as your “interim interim.”  It’s been a long and sometimes strange journey to get to this moment, for both of you.  In the past year and a half, you have let go of a beloved former pastor, done your real and fruitful work with Diane, your skilled interim, and welcomed me so warmly as your resident “outlier” for these months of waiting for Christina and Adam and their children to make their way here.

Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a birds-eye – or better, a spiritual satellite’s view – of how the paths of Ashland First Congregational Church and Christina Kukuk’s began so far distant from each other, and how at a certain point they began to move closer to each other, and at one time it looked they would not intersect, but then – oh thanks be to God! – there!  after much discernment on both sides of what the Spirit was saying – the “yes!” came from the Search Committee and a “yes!” from Christina, and then a third and resounding “YES!” from all of you all in early November, and the paths intersected.  And now — right now, here, today — your path and Christina’s path are now one and the same path.

It’s Love, actually.  Love with a capital L.  Love as the force field of God’s energy always and ever present for us and in us and among us.  When we are guided by the Holy Spirit, we open ourselves up that divine force field and are graced to tap into its power and its promise.

Which is why I was delighted to find that the epistle appointed for this fourth Sunday of Epiphany was the from the glorious thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian congregation, words we hear so often at weddings.  For some of us we’ve heard it so often at weddings, that we hardly listen to it anymore.

So I invite you to listen to it this morning with fresh attention, in the context not of romantic love but in its original context as a letter written to a Christian congregation about how to be channels for God’s love.

Remember last Sunday’s letter from Paul, when he pressed the metaphor of the church to its manifestation of the church as the very Body of Christ?  And how Paul talked about a congregation’s body parts, how each member of the body was equal in purpose and function and due equal honor and respect.  He – and I – went on at some length about all that.

But then Paul interrupted himself and said, “But there’s a still more excellent way” to be church, to live out our various callings as parts of Christ’s Body.  And that “still more excellent way” is doing whatever we’re doing with Love.  No matter how brilliant we may as teachers or theologians, no matter how eloquent our preaching may be, how skilled we are at keeping the church running like clockwork, no matter how many cookies we’ve provided or meals we’ve delivered to the homebound, no matter how many newsletter articles we’ve written or meetings we’ve attended with good cheer, doesn’t make a difference how many committees we’ve served on, within the church and within the community, or worship services we’ve attended, or windows we’ve washed, not even how many marches we’ve marched in or causes we’ve championed, even the best ones, even the ones most needing championing – all of them, every one of those very good activities isn’t worth a hill of beans if we haven’t done them with Love.

Love is greater than our intelligence or our generosity or our skills or even our faith.  Without Love, we are just hot air and annoying noise-makers.

It’s so tempting for church members and especially church leadership – this was my own besetting sin in the years I was the rector of my church – it’s so tempting to become task-oriented rather than grow and deepen as a lover of souls.  All souls, in and out of the church.  So often I felt bifurcated in my ministry:  the better part was my priestly self; the other part I call Mrs. Mugillicutty, who is highly-skilled in operating the machinery of the church, knows how to design and build the infrastructure of committees and teams, can run a meeting like a seasoned C.E.O.  She got a lot done, many tasks accomplished.  But whenever it was done without Love, it was nothing.

It’s no wonder church publishing houses print dozens of titles every year on how to grow your church using the latest marketing techniques, and how to recruit and retain volunteers, and how to run successful pledge drives and capital campaigns.

But without Love…

Do you know why people leave the church?  Almost always it’s because they don’t feel loved there.

One of my heroes is a now-retired Episcopal bishop of New York who told his priests who came to him for counsel about their congregations: “Love them.  Just love them.”

And let’s be clear, as clear as Paul is:  The kind of Love we’re talking about is is not a feeling.  It’s not some soft and sometimes gooey emotion that is marketed on Valentine’s Day.   Nor does Love have anything to do with being a doormat. One of my least favorite books is “The Giving Tree,” which seems to have the moral that we are to give ourselves away until there’s nothing left of us but a stump of our former, fruitful selves.  That’s not what Paul is talking about.

Nor is Paul talking about pretending that all is well when all is obviously not well.  Covering up conflict and divisiveness isn’t love; it’s denial.  Loving is working through it, however painful it may be.  Staying connected to the Body.

Paul uses no less than sixteen verbs to describe what Love is and what it isn’t, proving love is an action, and often a choice, not a feeling.  I find it helpful to look at various biblical translations to find even greater nuances about those action verbs.

Listen: Love is kind; is not boastful or envious or arrogant or rude; does not insist on its own way; is not irritable or resentful; does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth; bears, believes, hopes, endures all things.  Love never ends.

And these verbs from The Jerusalem Bible: love is patient, love builds up, love is not proud, not conceited, never seeks its own advantage, does not take offense, does not store up grievances, always ready to make allowances, to trust.

And, this from Eugene Peterson’s “The Message”:  Love never gives up, cares more for others than for self, doesn’t want what it doesn’t have, doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always ‘me first,’ doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, always looks for the best, never looks back but keeps going to the end; Love never dies.

Love is infinite.

In a word: Love is God.  God is Love.  Where Love is, there God is.

Richard Rohr, contemporary Franciscan priest and author, says that when we love, we experience ourselves as “in the flow.”  Athletes and creative people know what being “in the flow” feels like, but I’d bet all of us have experienced it at some blessed time or another in our lives.  When we’re in the flow, whatever it is we’re doing comes easily, organically, naturally.  We are not constricted, held in but rather are open, with a felt sense that we have more than enough.  When we are in the flow – when we are in Love – there’s no measuring going on or counting or comparing or judging;  we are not guarded or defended, we aren’t armored up, physically or emotionally, but rather we pass through the midst of whatever is happening around us with calm and grace, drawing upon a Source larger than ourselves.

Being in the flow…being “in Love” comes and goes.  As humans, we don’t sustain it very well.  It takes a lifetime of practice and even then, we’ll never get it right, not in our earthly lifetimes.  Here we still see our own reflections dimly, as in a dark and clouded mirror.  We know that we don’t know it all.  We know we’re never 100% right about anything.  And we know there will again be times when we feel that we have lost our capacity to love and then we fall into the fallacy of imagining we are the source of Love.  Being able to Love is itself grace.  And mercy.

As holy, blessed Henri Nouwen said, “The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway to the unlimited and unconditional love of God.”

When we are open to the energy of the divine force-field of Love, we allow it – we allow God, who is Love – to flow through us. That is when we are “in the flow of Love.” Faith is the instrument that opens up our hearts, puts us in touch with the Source of Love itself and allows us to draw from that Source.

In the process of “allowing” ourselves to be used as channels of divine Love, we will be changed.  Transformed, little by little.  And we will be undone.  When we are “in Love,” our hearts will be continually broken – shattered both by sorrow and by joy — and then our hearts will be remade, over and over and over again, each time made bigger and deeper and more full of vitality than before. And that is how we become Christs to one another and to the world.

May it be so for you, dearly beloved ones, as you begin this day a new chapter in your life as this congregation with your new pastor.  Trust that it is the Spirit who has brought you both to this time and place.  And may the Love of God that is beyond our understanding keep you and bless you this day and always.