“Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The first words we hear Jesus preach in the Gospel of Luke, referring to the section of Isaiah we heard him read in the synagogue last week, tell of his coming to bring glad tidings to the poor and let the oppressed go free. At first, the listeners from his home town, who know Jesus from his youth and have watched him grow up, are pleased with him. However, as he continues on to spell out how that fulfillment of scripture might mean serving foreigners, as well, rather than just those closest to him at home, the Nazarenes become angry and attempt to throw him off a cliff. The story of Jesus’ first sermon ends with him slipping away from the murderous crowd, ostensibly leaving all his bridges to burn.
It was not until long after I had signed up to preach today that I realized the coincidence of delivering my first sermon on Jesus’ first sermon. Now, rest assured; as far as I can tell, there is no reason to believe that any scriptural prophecies are coming true on this last day in January, 2016. And neither, you’ll be grateful to know, did I just come from spending 40 days in the wilderness. And with luck, the end of this day will also turn out a little bit better for me than it did for Jesus. However, I do find it remarkably auspicious, just as when Jesus was given to read that section from the prophet Isaiah for his first sermon, that today I get to preach on the chapter on love from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. I say this not because I’m a hopeless romantic, which I am; and also not because I’m planning on getting married soon, which I am not; but rather because I believe that to love is what we are called to do, first and foremost, as members in this community known as Deaconess Anne House.
The word “love” in the English language has many facets to it. It can mean romantic love, which is what we most often associate with the words “I love you.” The term “love” can also signify the emotion felt between close friends. In both of these cases, the love is built upon some sort of give-and-take relationship. But in the original Greek, Paul is writing specifically about agapelove, the type of love that requires a complete outpouring of the self in service to another, without regard for one’s own self. This is the type of love we believe God has for us, and the type we hope to cultivate in ourselves for God and for each other. The extent to which we fail at this becomes obvious if you pause and reflect upon how unlikely it is that you would find yourself one day saying “I love you” to a stranger.
Paul writes to the church in Corinth about love, not to provide them with a beautiful hymn to be incorporated into their wedding ceremonies, but to instruct them on the basic attitude with which they must learn to form the Body of Christ in this world. In the previous chapter Paul described this Body of Christ as a literal body; members such as the ears and eyes and hands and feet must each go about doing their own duty, not trying to be anything they aren’t for doing so would mean spurning the essential purpose of whatever role they had in the first place. But now that the eyes know to see, the ears know to hear, and the feet know to walk, they must learn the glue that binds them all together, the lifeblood which enables and is essential to the success of any one member; this, Paul writes, is love.
“Love is not envious nor boastful nor arrogant nor rude.” Even more than simply performing the tasks that we have the skills to accomplish, Paul reminds us that it is the attitude in which we carry out our duties that makes or breaks our relationships. Back home at Deaconess Anne House, I imagine what it would be like were my roommate Burton to continue to perform his oh-so-common role of sharing his wealth of knowledge about obscure cultural details with us, but to do so impatiently and in a mean spirit; or for Sophie to still unload the dishwasher every morning, but to complain in her heart while doing so against the rest of us for using so many dishes the night before. I can tell you one thing: in such an environment, it would be hard to call Deaconess Anne House anything close to home. Though we could still be called a group of young adults living and sleeping within the same four walls of a house, I doubt anyone would truly call that “community.”
What binds any community together are the bonds of love shared between its members. And even though I imagine it will feel slightly awkward to do so, I want to try something out. Sophie, Olive, Burton, Jose, Maria, Martin, Rebecca: I love you. I love you.
I want to sit with that for a moment. Once we become comfortable using that phrase to mean more than the limited sense of passionate, infatuating and often lustful romantic love, what else can it mean? Paul writes, again, that love “does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.” At Deaconess Anne House, we would never get anything done if we all wanted to have things our own way. Every Monday evening, we prepare a dinner and eucharist with invited guests from the community – you could come too, if you wanted to make the long drive – and we split the tasks of cooking for, entertaining, and cleaning up after our guests. I doubt that there has ever been a time where everyone was completely happy with how things went, or when we were all excited about the jobs we were given. But thanks to the love we choose to share with each other and with our guests, we are able to continue this joyous, though often stressful, ritual.
As a community, we have also undertaken more ambitious projects of hospitality and service, such as collecting and distributing several hundred coats to those in our neighborhood who needed them back in November, and we are currently working on a blanket drive for the same population. Without love for the stranger, none of this would be possible. Rebecca may have many connections through building up friendships in the neighborhood, and Olive may have the unique ability to keep us all organized, on track, and in good cheer, but without love to push us into action we would accomplish nothing.
Finally, Paul writes that love “does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” Love is not about sugarcoating our experience, nor avoiding hard truths for fear of offending. It is this aspect of love that I see in Jesus’ first sermon to his home town of Nazareth. There, his fellow Jews complacently accepted the story of their being God’s chosen people; they consciously or unconsciously saw non-Jews as somehow less valued, less worthy in God’s eyes. But Jesus tells them the hard truth of God’s love for all people by showing how, like him, the other prophets came not just for the Jews but for the sake of foreigners, as well. Jesus essentially tells them that Gentile Lives Matter, and their response is to throw him out and attempt to run him off a cliff.
It is impossible to love while shying away from hard truth. And once we have recognized that truth, true love calls us into action. One cannot say, “I love you, people of Flint, Michigan,” without feeling called to speak out against their suffering. I cannot stand before you and say I love my neighbors Johnny and Gretchen and Talea without feeling called to try to alleviate their poverty and suffering, because they sleep out in the cold every night while I am warm and dry and snug in the blankets of my own bed. I cannot say I love the members of my community at Deaconess Anne House without feeling called to listening to their needs in community, obeying the core values at the heart of our program and amending my own impulses to become a more loving member of the community.
Love is patient, love is kind, yes. But love is also difficult; it sets a high bar for our values, provides the impetus to action and, in so doing, becomes the life force which keeps any community together. Love is all these things, and more. May God bless you this day with love, and transform you in your hearts to be all that he wants you to be. Amen.