Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Gold Standard

Scripture for the 4th Sunday in Epiphany includes Jeremiah 1:4-10, I Corinthians 13:1-13, and Luke 4:21-30

St. Paul’s great hymn to love, his exaltation of “agape”, self-yielding love, all-accepting love, entirely-committed love, over-the-top love which we know in Jesus Christ, the gold standard for the Church.

How irritating a standard this is! How unreasonably demanding.

Just when we imagine we’ve found a hot new step to clang and gong our way into the limited attention span of our culture, with plugged-in worship and express-lane religion, we keep getting held to the standard of “as I have loved you, so you must love…”

And while editors sharpen the edges of intriguing faith formation programs, encouraging fresh interpretations and dynamic understandings, St. Paul is still singing in the background about how we’re measured not by our having faith, or by our having understanding, but by our having love.

For heaven’s sake, the apostle even dismisses extreme stewardship—giving away all my possessions—as being no gain, without love.

How very irritating this is. At this rate, even fitness and health could get knocked off their pedestal, if they’re the be-all and end-all, and not love.

How annoyingly counter-cultural, this standard of love. It’s against our ways as a church, not to clang our cymbals and flex our powers. And it’s against our culture to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things. We don’t know how to rejoice in the truth—we spin the truth, we distract ourselves from the truth.

You would think St. Paul might have learned from what happened to Jesus, who came telling truth, and look at the results. Instantly, his hometown crowd turned cynical on him. He heard them warming up to give him a ribbing: “Doctor, cure yourself! You aren’t looking very successful. Same scuffed sandals we wear… and from the look of that tunic your wardrobe hasn’t gotten updated in years… Where’s the good news, brother? You sure aren’t wearing it!”

“Always seeking a new improved model, are you?” Jesus asks. “Small wonder that no prophet is accepted in that prophet’s hometown. You want a few healings, the kind we saw in Capernaum?

“What if I told you that a clean bill of health isn’t everything? That freedom from pain and escaping illness are not essential signs of God’s favor? That what matters is your being open to the presence and love of God in whatever circumstance or condition you’re in? That all that matters is that you not reject grace when it meets you?”

Grace, he says. Love unmerited, unearned, undeserved, pure gift. No clanging bells, gongs, or whistles.

And there we go again, that annoying measure requiring us to welcome, treasure, and imitate the unmeasurable.

That irritating standard, the grain of sand that agitates, stimulates the forming of pearls, pearls of great value, like the one Jesus holds in his hands as the crowd rushes at him to hurl him off a cliff.

And what has he done to deserve this? He has told them truth. He tells them of a time when catastrophe racked the middle east, a severe famine, and the great prophet Elijah was sent, not to a widow in Israel, but to help a widow in Syria.

Grace: love unmerited, undeserved, generous, gift.

And on the heels of that story, another: when God showed unmeasurable love to someone simply because he needed it—and, annoying, irritating, this recipient was also a foreigner, not one of the hometown crowd, a fellow not covered by insurance, not one of the favored chosen, yet met by grace.

It didn’t take a third story to get the hometown crowd ripping mad at Jesus. Some of them rushed at him, but somehow he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. I picture just enough of them believing with him, hoping with him, forming to his right and to his left a gauntlet of grace to bear him, to endure all this rage.

And there is a homely image of the Church. As he moves about the world holding out the pearl of truth, the pearl of grace that people need, all who believe with him, who hope with him, who love with him make way for him to reach all who need him.

And that way is known to be formed of faith, and hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love.