The Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany: February 3, 2019
We live in a strange time in the life of the Church, and I don’t just mean in The Episcopal Church in South Carolina. Participation numbers in any kind of a faith community across our country continues to drop. If we are paying attention we must always be asking what it means to be a people of faith in a 21st century context and how we will live fully into our call to be disciples of Jesus. We do this work knowing that there are no easy answers or any quick fixes. What we do know is that we have a God who promises to be with us always and is calling forth our trust in the possibility that God’s vision can be made manifest, an epiphany, in you and in the life of our own faith context.
We talk a lot about love in the Christian faith. You will recall this theme from our most recent diocesan convention. Today we hear once again that great ode to love in I Corinthians 13, commonly heard at weddings. In some ways that’s unfortunate, because it means that the point St. Paul is making is often lost in that context. His letter to the Church in Corinth is not about a feeling, an emotion, or a romance. He is talking about a gift of the Holy Spirit given to a community of people in order that they might be who God calls them to be. To Paul, love is selfless action always seeking the good of the other. In Jesus’ life we see this perfectly on the Cross. Our discipleship as a community of faith is to be an outward and visible sign, a sacrament if you will, of the radical nature of God’s love for the entire creation, including you and me, as found on that Cross. Allow me to share with you some places where I see that kind of Jesus-love lived out.
In about ten days I will be leaving for El Salvador. I will be meeting as a member of the Board of Trustees of a human rights organization called Cristosal, originally founded through The Episcopal Church and with continued close ties. The people of El Salvador continue to struggle for the basic norms of justice that you and I might take for granted. When there, I witness the people of that country who, in costly ways and sometimes at great risk, seek to change the structures and confront the violence that keep God’s people oppressed and without the basic rights that all human beings should inherently be able to enjoy just by being human – made in God’s image. The work is about loving as we seek to tell God’s truth to power.
Or perhaps you recall an occurrence in an Amish community in Pennsylvania a few years ago, when many of their children were horrifically murdered while at school. Do you recall the response by the Amish? It was to forgive, right in the midst of their own deep pain. They said that the killer had been hurting too, clearly ill, and had not yet come to the light. They even went to his family to console them. Why? Because they said, it is the Way of Jesus.
Then there was the moment in Florida outside of a prison where an execution was about to happen. In a TV interview of the mother of the murder victim, there protesting the execution, she said, “To execute this man only perpetuates the violence, it doesn’t end it.” Contrast this with another scene on that same parking lot where at a beer party the group cheered when the body of the executed man was taken away in a van.
All three of these accounts are about radical ways of loving. They challenge us. They might make us a bit uncomfortable. Such a feeling may give us a sense of what Jesus’ hearers may have been thinking and feeling when they heard his teaching in today’s Gospel. Jesus was at a homecoming of sorts, in his home town, Joseph’s boy, but does not hold back confronting them with who they are called to be as the people of God. He lays before them the thought that God always tends the outsider, those on the edge and beyond our comfort zones. He was confronting a community that had focused too much on itself. What was the result? They tried to throw him off a cliff. Indeed, he ended up on a cross.
Likewise in the I Corinthians reading. It is not about weddings. It is about loving your worst enemy, the quirky neighbor, the person in the pew next to you, the refugee, the outsider. It is about loving those who want to saw you in two as tradition tells us happened to Jeremiah when he dared to speak God’s truth. It is about loving those who want to crucify you. This is radical stuff. No sentimental loving anywhere to be found here. Jeremiah protested that he was not capable to speak for God. God’s response? I called you and will give you what you need. God expects big things from us while on this earth.
True justice is love in action. Love is hard work. We don’t have to look to El Salvador, or the Amish community or that prison parking lot. We know its hard work. Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom, his way of loving, is not passive. It does not settle. It is about leveling the playing field of the exercise of power and dominance over one another, calling all of us, including politicians by the way, to a way we’re often not ready to hear much less put in place in one’s life.
Herein lies my struggle with being a disciple of Jesus. It is the Christian’s call to stand not only with the victims of our world, and here’s the rub, but also with the unforgivable, the condemned and the hated. Why? Because this is what Jesus embodied in his life. It cost him his life and he forgave them from the Cross even as they were executing him.
I am convinced that being an authentic community engaged in radical, costly love is how we begin to reshape who we are as the people of God. People would find the integrity of this way irresistible, as hard as it may be. We know it is the better way and it is the work we are called to do. This way of love is to be definitive for all who follow in the Way of Jesus.
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.