Luke 4:21-30; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Every year I find a profound sense of hope in the president’s State of the Union address, and this past Wednesday night was no different. It doesn’t matter what party the president belongs to, or whether he has a gift for words or not. It is one of those occasions when the president—Democrat or Republican—is mostly at his best. Because on that night it seems all presidents try to do the same thing. They frame the particulars of their agenda and their assessment of where we are as a nation—all of which you may agree or disagree with depending on your politics—in a broader context that resonates with our deepest hopes and aspirations as a people. Most presidents on that night try to paint a portrait of what our best selves looks like: working across partisan lines for the good of all, compassion for the least among us, and concern about the welfare of the rest of the world.

Usually there are several ordinary Americans invited to sit up near the first lady, whose stories of extraordinary courage and self-sacrifice on behalf of fellow citizens are highlighted. It’s always a speech that tries to lift us up out of our life-choking divisions, prejudices, cynicism, mean-spirited political accusations, score-keeping, and narrow self-interests. But as we know all-to-well, appeals for joining hands across our divides for the common good where the needs of all are considered are too often met by partisan ears in both the House chamber and living rooms across the land. The casting of lofty expansive visions is met with exclusive, narrow, and self-interested protests. By the end of the president’s address, some folk are actually enraged. It happens every year regardless of what party occupies the White House.

For two Sundays now we’ve been listening to Jesus give a sort of combined inaugural/State of the Union sermon in his home-town synagogue at Nazareth. He’s come to launch his public ministry. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, he rolls out a platform grounded in God’s extravagant love and inclusion for all. He announces that good news will be proclaimed to the poor—those who are poor because they have no food on their table and those who are poor in spirit because they are enslaved by too much stuff, and everyone else in between whose spirits long for refreshment and renewal by God’s grace. And the blind—those who just never seem to get it right about life, those who are awake at night worrying about who is in and who is out—will finally recover sight to see the world as it really is and will begin to see the face of God in every other person. It is a big, bold, expansive, vision that can happen in the world only because of love—a love that we can only begin to give and receive by allowing the transforming grace of God to work in and through us.

Now we hear that at first the people marvel at Jesus’ gracious words. They are blown away by his eloquence and vision, and on top of it all, he’s one of their own. The synagogue was packed! But we know how quickly soaring visions that call us to our best selves, the selves we were created for, can come crashing down on hardened hearts. By the end of Jesus’ sermon the faithful are so enraged they want to run him out of town and throw him off a cliff.

What is happening here? First of all, the people in Jesus’ hometown are guilty of the sin that has plagued religious people since the dawn of consciousness: the sin of exclusivity. God is for “us” and not for “them.” God’s primary agenda with them, so they assume, is freedom from their oppressors. Jesus is, indeed, preaching a message of freedom, but it’s not about political or national liberation, it’s about God’s liberation for all regardless of nationality, gender, race, or any other division that keeps us one from another. And Jesus tells them that God’s primary agenda is that they are to be a light the world, manifesting God’s extravagant love for all. He promises the gift of God’s grace for this awesome, transforming vocation in the world. He tells the home town crowd that their real oppression comes not from political or national foes but their own fearful, walled-in, self-possessed worldview, which keeps them from the transforming power of God’s love in the first place.

Jesus launches a ministry proclaiming that God’s grace is never subject to human limitations and boundaries. We are to be instruments of God’s boundless love but we’re never to set limits on who is to receive God’s love. This is God’s mission for us. Actor/playwright Jim Nagle, who is with us for tonight’s performance of Fourth & Walnut, a play about the spiritual journey of Thomas Merton, puts it quite simply when he describes the Christian vocation as helping all people realize that they are loved unconditionally by God. Friday night in his sermon at our diocesan convention Eucharist, Byron Rushing, an Episcopal priest, social justice advocate, and Massachusetts legislator, said somewhat shockingly, “The church doesn’t have a mission—God has a mission and a church to help realize that mission.” What he was trying to say is that God’s expansive love and extravagant grace are so much bigger than the agendas or mission statements of any one group, religious or otherwise.

Throughout history the Gospel has always been more radically inclusive than any group, denomination, or church. And the paradox of the gospel is that the unlimited grace that it offers so often scandalizes us that we’re unable to receive it. It has been said that it’s not God’s aloofness or judgment that makes us angry; it’s God’s mercy. It’s too big, too wide. And that is why it is always just a matter of time before arguments that try to use the Gospel to exclude—be it by, race, nation, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or any other division—always fail. How many times has the church had to make a public apology for its part in the discrimination of some group that it rationalized with the use of Scripture?

Let’s turn for a minute to St. Paul and this morning’s first reading from his First Letter to the Corinthians. We usually associate this reading with joy and unity because we hear it most often at weddings. But the original audience of this letter was a bitterly divided church. People were taking sides as to which group was in possession of the greater truth. Sound familiar? And like Jesus before in the synagogue at Nazareth, Paul tells the church that only through love will their divisions be healed, and, once again God’s love extends to all. Is is not the exclusive claim of one group claiming a greater righteousness than everyone else—God is so big, and we are so small, as a seminary professor liked to remind us.

Paul is not talking about sentimental or even romantic love. Because Gospel love is grounded by dogged, determined commitment that requires daily, intentional work to love even when you don’t feel like loving. Or as my friend Paul Zhal, former rector of All Saints Parish just up the street, is fond of saying, Gospel love is about learning to love some of the most disagreeable people you will ever meet. Of course we can’t begin to do this on our own. Rather, this is a love that flows from opening ourselves to free gift of God’s grace.

It has been said that Christian love is understood by looking at the world as it is and the recognition that, because the world is as it is, nothing less than love will do. That is the Gospel love Jesus was preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth and what Paul is writing to the Corinthians about. “So faith, hope, and love abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.” The greatest of these is love, because the dogged determination to love even when you don’t feel like loving holds the only hope for reconciliation and redemption. Those of you in the Cathedral community who have taken the DOCC course have heard the dean talk about Christian love as agape love, love that “seeks not its own.” Christian love takes every ounce of your maturity and hard work over a lifetime, waking up every morning asking God for the grace to help you love despite others and despite yourself.

I admit when I talk like this I’ve had young couples in marriage preparation sessions say, “Good grief you don’t make love sound like much fun at all—where’s the joy, the romance, the spark?” And of course I’m sure they’re sitting there thinking no wonder this guy is single. Surely there is nothing more beautiful and energizing than romantic love; it’s just that the kind of love called for in the Gospel isn’t always so romantic—but it is always liberating. And any of you who have been in love in a romantic way know how notoriously short-lived can be our feelings of such love. That is why the question in the wedding ceremony is not Jack do you love Kim? It is Jack will you love Kim? The next time you are at a wedding notice that. Those of you who have been married or partnered for a long time know that love is a lot more dependent on commitment and fidelity than feelings.

But it is exactly through this kind of love that we become our best selves, to be the people we were created to be, and to be set free from the bonds that keep us unable to move beyond the boundaries we hide behind that keep us one from another.

Of course, left to our own devises we quickly give in to our divisions, jealousies, and partisan- and self-interests. It’s why we ask God’s blessings upon our marriages and loving relationships. Love is a gift from God, not just a human achievement. So we come here to this table to ask God to open our hearts to the grace of Christian love—to be able to start loving one another as God loves each of us in Christ. Maybe this is what is missing from State of the Union addresses. In this self-professed religious nation, wouldn’t it be something if some year the president would conclude this speech by inviting the nation into a period of prayer, asking for the grace to become agents of God’s transforming love in the world.

In spite of all of our divisions—both in and out of the church—this is the greatest gift we Christians have to offer. Such selfless, reconciling love is, in fact, our vocation in the world. Christian love is steadfast love; it’s about long-term endurance. It’s about becoming our best selves, the people we were created for in the first place.

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