By Tom Mundahl
Jeremiah 1: 4-10
Psalm 71: 1-6
1 Corinthians 13: 1-13
Luke 4: 21-30
In a talk entitled “Health is Membership,” occasioned by seeing his brother go through open-heart surgery, Wendell Berry said, “Like divine love, earthly love seeks plenitude; it longs for the full membership to be present and to be joined” (“Conference on Spirituality and Healing,” Louisville, KY, Oct. 17, 1994)). This week’s readings provide insight into the meaning of “membership” in a community of life that always seems to be pressing the boundaries that humankind erects.
While, like Moses (Exodus 4:10), Jeremiah seeks to protect himself by setting limits based on his youth and lack of rhetorical skills, the one who calls will not let him sidle away. Not only does the Word of the LORD make it clear that this calling precedes his birth (Jeremiah 1:5), but the caller assures him, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD” (Jeremiah 1:8). To provide assurance to this “outsider” from Anathoth, born to the tribe of Benjamin, that he really is a member of the company of prophets, the LORD touches his mouth saying:
Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant (Jeremiah 1:10).
At first, the terms of this call seem to come directly from an ambassador’s portfolio, but Jeremiah accomplishes his mission in the earthiest of ways. He uses pots and loincloths as symbols. He earns the contempt of the religious elite by bringing a message of repentance directly to the temple (Jeremiah 26: 1-24) and rumbles with Hananiah (Jeremiah 28) over the nature of prophetic calling. But his call to pluck, pull down, destroy and overthrow aims always to affirm membership in the community of life—to build and to plant. The compost is always used to build new soil.
Like Jeremiah, Paul ‘s prophetic apostleship rests partly on the understanding that his “call” preceded his birth, crucial for establishing legitimacy: “But when God, who had set me apart before I was born, and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles . . . .” (Galatians 1: 15-16).
Paul did just that. But now, the Corinthian community which he founded is divided and needs to rediscover the unity that comes from a new understanding of spiritual gifts and a sense of membership in the body of Christ.
Ultimately, claims Paul, it is love that serves as the dynamic antidote to factionalism in the Corinthian community. This is no frothy stream of sentimentality; love (agape) is “the generic name for specific actions of patient and costly service to others” (Richard B. Hays, 1 Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 222). It is at the heart of Paul’s pastoral strategy bolstering the character formation of the Corinthian membership. Rather than serving as a powerful engine sparking competitive spirituality, love is patient and kind; it is not irritable or resentful. “It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7).
With Jesus’ self-offering life as template, it should be no surprise that challenges to community solidarity appeared in Corinth. Yet Wirzba is right when he says, “When Christians truly love each other they will bear each other up because they know that the health of the whole body requires a common service to each other.” (Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 152). It is important to note that the Greek verbs beginning and ending the series in verse 7 both carry rich connotations of “bearing,” “enduring,” “standing one’s ground,” and “holding out.”
Not only does this resonate for those involved in serving creation, this ability to “hold on” reminds anyone who has spent time outdoors of trees growing out of bare rock walls that seem as strong as any in the forest. Recently, the word “resilience” has been used (and overused!) to describe this phenomenon in living communities—memberships of people or other living things. British naturalist Jay Griffiths sees this ability to stand one’s ground in trees, especially the willow. In fact, she notes that the word ‘resilient’ is related to the Latin word for willow, salix (Jay Griffiths, Kith, London: Penguin, 2013, p. 254).
But love does more than hold the community together. Using the example of learning to appreciate the gift of wine which “gladdens the human heart” (Psalm 104:15), Wirzba suggests that those who love extend the character of communal affection to what they know and enjoy. “Those who truly love wine, for instance, are not simply those who become drunk by its consumption. They are rather those who are open to the miracle of sunlight, water, plant, and soil transformed into grapes, open to the gift of fermentation and taste, and open to the conviviality of a shared bottle” (Wirzba, p. 185).
The same love that unifies a community, then, extends affection to the created world, expanding the very notion of membership. This is nothing new to those who live closely connected to the wild. Poet Gary Snyder reminds us that such people rarely seek wilderness thrills. “If they deliberately risk themselves, it is for spiritual rather than economic reasons. Ultimately, all such journeys are done for the sake of the whole, not as some private quest” (The Practice of the Wild, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990, p. 23). When asked by a young anthropologist, “What can I do for self-respect?” contemporary Haida elder Florence Edenshaw responded “stay home” (Snyder, p. 24). She was not being hostile, but simply expected everyone to pay attention to the “real work” of building their own culture—strengthening the affection among their own memberships—humankind and otherkind.
This sounds much like the proverb “charity begins at home,” often ascribed to William Tyndale. Perhaps this week’s continuation of Jesus “Inaugural Sermon” in Luke can serve as a test case. We recall that after reading from Isaiah 61, Jesus assumes the sitting position of authoritative teaching and begins to say, as all eyes in the synagogue are fixed on him, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4: 21). James Sanders notes that this phrase—used only here in all the scriptures—must have sent a powerful shock wave through the congregation (God Has a Story Too, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979, p. 72).
But the fireworks were only beginning. While some marveled at the gracious words that Jesus spoke, others began to wonder: “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4: 22b). Regardless of the reception, Jesus began his midrash—sermon by explaining his low-key approach in his home town with the proverb, “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (Luke 4: 24). Ironically, the one who declares Jubilee—the acceptable year of the Lord, is not accepted in the very place he was nurtured.
Jesus continues his talk by citing examples from the lives of two model prophets—Elijah and Elisha—instances of providing food and healing for those who were clearly foreigners. Suddenly any benefits the local clan might have expected from Jesus are thrown out the window. As Sanders asks, “ . . . what’s the use of being faithful if God does not intend to honor our efforts on his behalf?” (Sanders, p. 74). In their anger at not being able to benefit from the fame of their “hometown hero,” they attempt to throw him off the edge of a nearby hill.
As so many discovered as they encounter Jesus, “God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts” (Isaiah 55: 8). In his midrash, Jesus, in effect, says that God will not embrace holy mother church, or Israel, as the sole possessor of the truth. Does charity begin at home? Yes, of course. But only because “charity,” the English translation of the Latin, caritas (itself the translation of the Greek agape), is most often shaped and learned in one’s community of origin as a basis—with the generativity of the Spirit—for expanding that love beyond the boundaries to new memberships.
This should be no surprise. because the sabbath tradition—Sabbath day, sabbatical year, and the year of Jubilee—goes far beyond parochial limits set by synagogue worshippers in Nazareth or restrictions proposed by anti-immigration forces in the U.S. Recall that the Sabbath commandment stipulated rest not only for the community of faith, but also for “male and female slaves, livestock, and the alien resident in your towns” (Exodus 20:10). To the list of beneficiaries of Sabbath rest is added the land and economic inequity as we move to sabbatical year and jubilee (Leviticus 25).
The idea that old limits are erased is no surprise to the author of Luke, who, with Simeon, sings of God’s healing salvation for “all peoples” (Luke 2:31-32) and records the Baptist’s word that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3: 6). To some, this new construction of identity beyond a set of agreed-on boundaries provokes anxiety. Yet the freedom announced by Jesus provides the best basis for building new relationships. It is a freedom that is best captured by Luther’s paradox from The Freedom of a Christian (1520): “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly free servant of all, subject to all” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 31, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957, p. 344). Here radical freedom issues in radical servanthood resulting in new and imaginative communities of caritas.
Gathering — “You Are Holy” — ELW 525
Hymn of the Day –”Although I Speak with Angel’s Tongue” — ELW, 644
Sending — “Light Dawns on a Weary World — ELW, 726
Petition for Prayers of Intercession:
Liberating One, you have freed your people so that we may serve one another and all of creation. Remove the chains of prejudice and the limits of imagination so we may learn from the stunning interdependence of all that you have made. Lord, in your mercy, Hear our prayer.
Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN email@example.com