The Most Excellent Gift

“Love: The Most Excellent Gift”

1 Cor 13 love, ring

1 Corinthians 13:4-8 (12:31) – February 3, 2019

In less than two weeks, the yearly holiday of romance and love will be celebrated. Yes, the holiday of Valentine’s Day is right around the corner. According to the popular women’s magazine Woman’s Day, people here in the United States spend a lot of money on their Valentines: an estimated $18.2 billion in 2017, including 144 million Valentine’s Day cards. [1] Gifts, cards and chocolates are wonderful for that special someone in your life! But—is this idea of love what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote the Scripture passage we read today?

As we come to the end of our series of gifts from God, we can think back over the past month. As we celebrated Epiphany the first Sunday of January, we not only saw the gifts the foreign-born Magi gave to the toddler Jesus, but we celebrated the greatest Christmas gift of all time: the gift of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. We also rejoice as we remember our baptism and the tremendous gift of God’s grace bestowed upon all of us.

We consider what Paul was talking about in the previous chapter, 1 Corinthians 12. Spiritual gifts! We spent two weeks discussing the generous gifts God gives each of us—all of us. Gifts of helps, service, teaching, healing, wisdom, understanding—and then some. What is more, Paul encourages us to put these gifts into practice for the common good of others. And last week, we explored the interconnectedness of each of us and each of the gifts that we bring to this family of faith. We learned that we need one another in a fundamental way. [2]

Which leads us to our Scripture reading for today, from 1 Corinthians 13. Paul caps off this discussion of spiritual gifts with the most excellent gift of all: love.

Many people relate the reading of the this “Love chapter” with weddings. Romance and hearts and flowers—and Valentine’s Day—seem to go hand in hand with this chapter. That is, on the surface. But, when the Apostle Paul really gets going on the depth and breadth of God’s love, he does not mean hearts and flowers and candy at all. God’s love is what is offered to all of us.

What does God’s love look like? Paul gives us some vivid examples. Reading from The Message: “If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all God’s mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, ‘Jump,’ and it jumps, but I don’t love, I am nothing. 3-7 If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.”

Forgive me. I’ve just told you what God’s love does not look like. This is what happens when a person does not have God’s love living within him or her. A very sad, despairing state of affairs, to be sure.

Paul does tell us what love is, however. Again, from the Message; “Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love 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, Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, Trusts God always, Always looks for the best, Never looks back, But keeps going to the end.”

This description from Paul tells us what love is.

Very sadly, if we read the newspaper and turn on the news, we see another expression of God-talk. This kind of black-and-white thinking, all-or-nothing talk comes from rigid or extreme religious groups. You know the groups I mean. Groups that say unequivocally “I’m on God’s good side, and you’re not. I’m going to heaven because I do the things God wants. You don’t, so you are going to hell.” It doesn’t matter whether they are stringent Christians, fundamentalist Catholics, extreme Muslims, or radical Hindus. Such hurtful thinking and corrosive speech lets us know these religious groups have likely not experienced God’s life-changing, wondrous love. You know, all of the wonderful, life-giving parts of love that the Apostle Paul just described to us.

Father Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest and director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico, has written and taught extensively on God’s love. He spoke of these hurtful religious groups, and then asked, “How can we do better? To begin, we might put ourselves in the other’s shoes and imagine why someone is so hateful.”

Father Rohr continues: “While working in the Albuquerque jail for over a decade, I met many men who had been raised in a punitive, authoritarian, absolutist way, often with an absent or abusive father. Understanding another’s story can teach us compassion. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t set some healthy boundaries. But it does open our hearts and help us recognize that other people are victims, too. They’ve been wounded, too. Yet they are still objectively an image of God, created in God’s image.” [3]

We are not all called to work in prisons, like Father Rohr. But, God has gifted each of us to offer our gifts to others. Each of us have been given gifts to reach out to our friends and neighbors with the love of God. Remember what we talked about last week, how all of our spiritual gifts are interconnected? Each of us is needed by the others in this family of faith. And, God’s love is one of the greatest connectors of all.

One of my absolute favorite people ever is Mister Rogers. Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, ordained to ministry in television and mass communication by the Presbytery of Pittsburgh in 1963. He had a marvelous, moving ministry to children—and to adults—for decades—in public television.

One of the ways Mister Rogers reached out and communicated to children with his television show was through music. He wrote over two hundred songs about important things and things that concern children very much. Like this one: “There are many ways to say I love you. There are many ways to say I care about you. Many ways, many ways, many ways to say I love you. Cleaning up a room can say I love you. Hanging up a coat before you’re asked to do it. Drawing special pictures for the holidays and making plays.” [4]

Important words from a loving, honest, generous man, Fred Rogers. He let us know that love can be as simple as hanging up a coat—or doing the dishes—or sending a greeting card. Mister Rogers would definitely agree that showing love is being kind to others, and being your honest, caring self. No matter what.

A reminder, from the Message: “[Love] Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, Trusts God always, Always looks for the best, Never looks back, But keeps going to the end.” That is the kind of God we have. Love is a gift God offers to all of us, freely.

It doesn’t matter how each of us expresses God’s love. God gives many gifts to all of us, freely. Let us give love away to everyone, no matter what. Just as freely as God gives to us.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] https://www.womansday.com/relationships/a4702/10-fun-valentines-day-facts-103385/

[2] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/season-after-epiphany-2019-part-1-worship-planning-series/february-3-fourth-sunday-after-the-epiphany-year-c/fourth-sunday-after-the-epiphany-2019-year-c-preaching-notes

[3] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Exploring and Experiencing the Naked Now, disc 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2010).

[4] http://www.neighborhoodarchive.com/music/songs/many_ways.html

(Many thanks to the Rev. Jeff Campbell and http://www.umcdiscipleship.org for ideas and assistance for this series on spiritual gifts.)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Follow Jesus in Service

“Follow Jesus in Service”

John 12-26 serves, follow me

John 12:20-33 (12:26) – March 18, 2018

Following a leader can be a challenge. People follow all kinds of leaders, leaders in serious and not-so serious areas. People flock after leaders and trend-setters in fashion, certainly, purchasing the latest styles or shoes, or the newest fabrics and colors of the season. People follow charismatic leaders who convince their followers to diet or exercise or vote or meditate or do some other worthy cause.

But, what about here? What about now, in today’s Gospel reading from John? Our Lord Jesus says some pretty amazing things. Jesus wants us to follow Him with our actions. (Just as He said in weeks past. We are to follow Jesus.)

Let us take a step back. Where are we in the Gospel of John? The chapter before, chapter 11, concerns the raising of Lazarus in the town of Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem. Immediately after that comes the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. We know that well from our celebration next week, on Palm Sunday. This reading from John 12 comes right after that.

Remember, Jerusalem is jam-packed with observant Jews from all over the known world, coming to worship at this special time of Passover. Not only from all over Palestine, but from Egypt, parts of Asia, and Europe. Maybe even further away than that. Some Greek-speaking Jews who must have heard about this Rabbi Jesus want to see Jesus and talk with Him. Perhaps, they even would like to consider following Him.

This is exactly what Jesus has wanted from people all along. At the very beginning of His preaching and teaching ministry, Jesus said, “Follow Me!” At various times throughout His journey up and down the country, and as He turned His face toward Jerusalem, Jesus repeated His call to follow. “Follow Me!” And, during this final week, this Passion week, just days before He went to the Cross, Jesus again says “Follow Me!” But, follow, how? In what way?

John calls these people “Greeks,” but he is not specific. They could be Greek proselytes, or they could be Greek-speaking Jews from far away. Whichever it was, they were more comfortable speaking Greek, which was the international language of trade and commerce, and the dominant international culture of the time. As one of my commentators said, “These foreigners wanted to investigate the possibility of becoming disciples. They had heard about Jesus (i.e., His reputation or ‘glory’) and wanted to ‘see’ if they could follow Him.” [1]

When the disciples bring these Greeks to Jesus, He responds with what seems to be an analogy, only sort of connected to becoming disciples. Listen to Jesus’s words: “23 Jesus answered the disciples, “The hour has now come for the Son of Man to receive great glory. 24 I am telling you the truth: a grain of wheat remains no more than a single grain unless it is dropped into the ground and dies. If it does die, then it produces many grains. 25 Those who love their own life will lose it; those who hate their own life in this world will keep it for life eternal.”

Come on now, Jesus! How did Jesus get from becoming disciples to talking about grains of wheat? And then, wheat being planted and dying in the ground? Okay, I can see what Jesus meant about a single grain growing into one stalk of wheat which can produce many grains of wheat. But, does that really connect to becoming disciples?

My commentator Larry Broding is helpful here. “Those who gave their lives to others would die, but see others live and would enjoy eternal life. They would bear ‘much fruit.’ Notice those who gave up their lives unselfishly followed Jesus to his death.” [2] That is one way of seeing discipleship. Following Jesus, in a challenging, unselfish and giving way.

What a way to demonstrate becoming disciples of Jesus!

Sometimes you and I have a problem. Sometimes, we cannot accept what Jesus sets in front of us. Sometimes, we are unwilling to follow the guidelines and rules God places before us. On occasion, some of us are too stubborn to do what God wants us to do. Even though we might know what God wants, and how to follow, sometimes—we do not.

The Rev. Janet Hunt relates something that happened about a month ago at her Lutheran church in De Kalb. Let’s see whether this helps us to understand Jesus’s words better.

“A few weeks back [in February], 93-year-old Vivian suffered a brain bleed. The damage was great and irreparable and her family opted to bring her home on hospice care. For the next almost two weeks, her 94-year-old husband sat by her bed, held her hand, and prayed and prayed and prayed. He was utterly heartbroken. From the start, I knew that they were just shy of their 70th wedding anniversary. Over the course of the last few weeks, I learned that they had been together much longer than that. For Bob actually held Vivian’s hand as he walked her to kindergarten 88 years ago.

“As the vigil neared its end, Bob became ill as well and was taken to the hospital with a severe case of pneumonia. A day later, his family talked his doctor into letting him go home, for they knew he had to be there when she died. And so he was. A day later he was back in the hospital once more. And a day after that, with a full heart and clear eyes, he declined all invasive treatment. He told me he was tired. He told me he only wanted to go to Vivian. I will not ever forget standing with him and with his family, praying for their hope and trust in God. His eyes were open and comprehending the whole time. Moments later, his nurse turned down the oxygen. After saying good-bye to his children, a few hours later he died, three days after his wife had breathed her last.

“Yes, he was 94. And yes, his health had been poor for some time. And no, he could not imagine a life without his beloved Vivian. And so, in a world where our medical system is set up to sustain ‘life’ at all costs, Bob faced it down and chose something other, something more. I cannot help but believe that while he surely did it for himself, he also did it for her. For while there was nothing more he could do for her, nor nothing more he needed to do for her, Bob was imagining heaven as a place where he could still be and do for his beloved. Even as he had always done. And he was willing to die to be able to do just that.” [3]

Do you understand? Do you see? Jesus was willing to serve and to die, for each of us. He wants us to be ready to serve and to die, for each other.

That is where our reading from Jeremiah comes in. God doesn’t have the rule book on stone tablets any more, like the Ten Commandments that Moses brought down from the mountain top. No, the prophet Jeremiah tells us that the Lord will write God’s laws upon our hearts. We do not have to blindly follow rules, but instead enter into a relationship. A real, loving relationship with Someone who loves us more than anyone on earth possibly could. God writes guidelines of love, service and relationship inside each of us, on our hearts.

God loves us so much that God sent the man Jesus into this world, to communicate that wondrous love to humanity. Jesus is communicating that wondrous love and generous service to each of us, today.

Are you ready to follow Jesus? Let us follow Jesus in love, and follow Jesus in service. Who can you serve today?

[1] http://www.word-sunday.com/Files/b/5Lent-b/A-5Lent-b.html   “The Glory of the Cross,” Lent 5B, Larry Broding’s Word-Sunday.Com: A Catholic Resource for This Sunday’s Gospel.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://dancingwiththeword.com/a-single-grain-dying-for-the-sake-of-life/ Rev. Janet Hunt, Dancing with the Word

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Words of Wondrous Love

“Words of Wondrous Love”

resurrection Jesus - medieval manuscript

Luke 24:1-12 – March 27, 2016

Have you ever had a very full week? Where a month of experiences have been packed into seven hectic days? At such a busy, sometimes tumultuous time, it’s hard to focus. Difficult to pick up the thread of conversations. Challenging to decide what important thing to do when, especially when there are so many urgent matters waiting for you. Calling for you. Nudging your elbow, clamoring for your attention. Add to all that tumult the trauma of a sudden death.

That is the situation for these faithful women. These women have gone through some gut-wrenching things, these past few days. After the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem just a short seven days ago, these companions of the Rabbi Jesus had seen their leader in debate with some of the most learned religious teachers and leaders of Israel. Jesus had delivered one of His most stirring sermons—the Olivet Discourse from Matthew’s Gospel, as well as one of the most poignant—the Discourse from the Upper Room, from John’s Gospel.

As if all of that heavy theology from Rabbi Jesus wasn’t enough, their leader Jesus showed Himself to be everyone’s servant. Since there was no servant present at that Passover dinner on Thursday night to wash the guests’ feet, Jesus did it Himself. He took the position of a servant and washed His disciples’ feet. Talk about a mind-blowing experience. Your Rabbi, your teacher, whom you have been following for several years, hanging on His every word and action. This Rabbi, this Jesus becomes a lowly servant and washes everyone’s feet.

But, wait. We’re only getting started. Their Teacher, Rabbi Jesus did something completely unprecedented at supper that night. He took one of the loaves of bread, tore it apart, and said, “This bread? It’s my body. It’s going to be broken for all of you. Take it, and eat it.” Shortly after that, Jesus took one of the cups of wine and said, “This cup? This is the new covenant in my blood, given for you. Take it, and drink.” Jesus took the familiar Passover supper and instituted a new thing—the Lord’s Supper. What we call communion, the Eucharist.

Things really started to follow in rapid succession. The time of intense prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. The betrayal of Judas, and the arrest of Rabbi Jesus. Repeated trials before Pilate, Herod, the Sanhedrin, the whipping and the scourging. I am certain all of this was reported to the disciples in great detail.

Pilate bringing Jesus before the crowd that Friday morning. The crowd yelling, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” So, Pilate sentenced this Rabbi Jesus to death. The Roman death of a criminal, death on a cross. Crucifixion.

Some of Jesus’s followers were there as He bore His cross out of the city of Jerusalem. They saw that agonized walk down the Via Dolorosa, the way of sorrows. Finally, as the cross was raised on Golgotha, Jesus suffered that most painful death, death on a cross.

All of that heartbreaking trauma, horror, and extreme grief were packed into just a few days. Plus, for all good Jews, Saturday was the Sabbath. Not only a regular Sabbath, but the special Sabbath during Passover. The women—the rest of the disciples hardly had a chance to begin to process all of those tumultuous events. They did their best to rest, to hide, to grieve on that seventh day of the week, on that Saturday.

I include the women as disciples of Jesus. As commentator Dennis Bratcher says, “Luke tells us that these women followed Jesus from Galilee and watched Him die on the cross (23:49). The Greek word for “follow” is the usual word used for a disciple …. It seems that Luke wants the readers to understand these women to be disciples of Jesus.” [1]

After all this, the women—trying so hard to be faithful in their friendship and following of their leader and teacher Jesus—take spices to anoint the body. They go to the tomb where Jesus had been hurriedly laid late on Friday, before sundown. As the Gospel tells us, they found the stone rolled away. And, the tomb was—empty!

Can you imagine how confused they were? Distracted? Astonished? Yes, it was early in the morning. The women had difficulty comprehending what was before their eyes. After all the horror and trauma of the last few days, while the women were talking amongst themselves, things got even weirder. As Luke says, “suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground.”

What would you do if two guys in gleaming white clothes showed up, suddenly appeared right here, in St. Luke’s Church? Pretty scary! Talk about being amazed. Astonished.

The men (we can call them angels, because that’s what they were) said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; He has risen!”

What did I say, a few minutes ago? How at such a busy, sometimes tumultuous time, it’s hard to focus. Difficult to pick up the thread of conversations, to pay attention. What on earth is going on here? We hear the angels say, “Remember how He told you, while He was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’”

Then—finally!—the women remember the words of their Teacher Jesus. They run back to their friends, the other disciples, telling them what happened. They are witnesses! They say, “The tomb is empty! Jesus is gone! And, we saw angels!”

I suspect we all can predict the reaction of the other disciples. “What? You saw … what? Are you crazy? What is the matter with you?” Luke tells us, “They did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”

What must it have been like for the disciples to hear the Good News the angels brought? A little far-fetched. Maybe a whole lot far-fetched. They couldn’t take it all in. They didn’t believe it! They thought what the women were saying was crazy talk!

What is it like for us, today, to hear the Good News the angels brought?

Who do you identify with? Do you identify with the women? Do you believe in those words the angels brought, and run and tell your friends? Are you witnesses to the Resurrection? Or, are you like the other disciples? Doubting. Skeptical. Thinking those words seem like nonsense! Crazy talk! Perhaps the disciples didn’t remember the words of Jesus. No, not yet.

Ah, that first Easter morning. As Luke says, the angels remind us that our Lord Jesus told us what was going to happen beforehand. Our Lord Jesus predicted that He must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again. Those were the words that the women remembered. And just like the women, we, too, can witness to the Resurrection. We can proclaim that powerful, loving, transforming experience that has happened!

What does that message, that Good News the angels brought, mean to you and me? Do we know the wondrous love of Jesus? The wondrous love that led Him to the cross, the wondrous love that pierced Him for our transgressions. And, by His wounds we—all of us are healed. Thank God Jesus died in our place, so we don’t have to be separated from God for eternity. Thank God Jesus conquered death. We have been reconciled to God. That is the Good News of wondrous love the angels brought.

Believe the Good News of the Gospel—Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!       

 

(I appreciate Readings, Analysis of Texts and Preaching Paths, Dennis Bratcher, Christian Resource Institute. Thanks for the assistance in understanding the text from Luke.)

[1] http://www.crivoice.org/lectionary/YearC/Ceaster1nt.html#text2

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers– where I am doing a Lenten journey.  #PursuePEACE – And my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind -Thanks!