Shoving Jesus Over a Cliff and Other Bad Habits

Here’s a heads up for all you aspiring preachers out there. Don’t ever be snotty about a scripture passage or someone will challenge you to preach on it.

That’s what happened to me.

I arrived at 4 Epiphany and the 1 Corinthians 13 passage came up.

I immediately groaned, visions dancing through my head of skimpily dressed bridesmaids and questionably sober groomsmen staring off into space while this text was read at weddings I’ve officiated and attended.

My inner cynic popped up—overdone! Trite! Boring!

A friend immediately called me on it.

“1 Corinthians 13 is a beloved scripture. If you think it’s so dumb, why don’t you preach on it?”

Well, I couldn’t let a challenge like that pass me by.

And he’s right. It is a beautiful scripture, that’s the reason it has been so used so many times that it has become clichéd.

It’s theologically sound, and considering many of St. Paul’s works, quite pastorally sensitive.

I just have such a hard time stepping back and appreciating it for what it’s worth.

Even in my mind when I think of it, I recite it like a bored teenager: “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful, blah, blah, this is dumb, I’m going to update my facebook.”

This is exactly the moment when visitors to our congregation could rightfully ask, “And this woman is a priest?”

Yes, I am, and clergy are not immune to being unable to value the treasures that are right in front of them.

We have a perfect example of the phenomenon in our gospel today, when Jesus’ hometown friends and family try to throw him off a cliff.

I knew even though I had to tackle 1 Corinthians 13, I simply could not let today’s gospel go unremarked. It is one of the craziest stories in the Bible—a group of people drag Jesus from the pulpit at the synagogue and try to throw him off a cliff.

It’s like a Jerry Springer episode right in the middle of the Gospel of Luke.

But the question immediately makes me examine my own life.

How often have I failed to recognize Christ and pushed him away from me?

Or worse, and more akin to the story, how often have I recognized Christ, seen holiness right before me, but been so convicted by it that I try to drive away the person or situation serving as a witness to me?

I fear it has happened more often than I would want to admit.

Because the people of Nazareth found that the Divine Presence came to them in a disappointingly familiar package.

They knew Jesus.

They had seen him grow up, as a little boy fall down and skin his knees, run around the town and play, become a teenager studying Torah with a rabbi, and finally as an adult, work in his father’s carpentry shop.

They perhaps had gossiped about him when he was a child, discussing the rumors that Joseph might not be the father of Mary’s little boy.

As the old saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt.

When the Messiah came, they wanted him to be big and important and mysterious, arriving in a cloud of smoke and fire or something.

They were thoroughly unimpressed with some guy from their hometown who didn’t have a job, a wife, or a family.

He was supposed to be the Messiah, the bearer of the presence of God? What an awful thought.

In fact it was blasphemous in their eyes. How dare this ordinary man claim to have fulfilled the scripture in their hearing?

But before I get feeling too superior, thinking, well I would have recognized and valued Jesus as the Christ, how often every day am I committing the same sin?

How often do I not see and appreciate the spirit of Christ, the indwelling Christ, in my neighbors all around me?

Some of them I may find irritating, sure, but I love and admire and enjoy many of them. Isn’t that enough?

The answer is no.

It is not enough to simply judge people with our human eyes and fickle human tastes.

We have to look deeper, to honor the spark of the Holy Spirit that is a part of each human being on this Earth no matter how hidden to our jaundiced eyes.

One of our most important tasks in life is to love our neighbors for who they truly are, those created in the very image of God.

And the riches we’re missing in each other are as deep and valuable as the riches I missed when I dismissed our 1 Corinthians scripture.

What is the antidote to our judging others and finding them wanting?

What is the corrective to being unable to recognize the living Christ among us?

Or worse, recognizing him easily but pushing him away because he does not appear in a form we find palatable?

The answer to all of these negative impulses is love.

Plain and simple, patient, kind, enduring love as Paul describes it. Love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

As simple as it appears on the surface, it’s worth thinking about the nature of love if we are to seek it out to pervade our lives.

I’ve been reading a book called Love 2.0 by Barbara Frederickson that examines love from the perspective of evolutionary biology.

Yes, God created us to be vessels of love, but how did that happen in terms of how we evolved as human organisms over the millennia?

Frederickson writes: “Just as your body was designed to extract oxygen from the earth’s atmosphere, and nutrients from the foods you ingest, your body was designed to love. Love— like taking a deep breath or eating an orange when you’re depleted and thirsty— not only feels great but is also life-giving, an indispensable source of energy, sustenance, and health. New science illuminates for the first time how love, and its absence, fundamentally alters the biochemicals in which your body is steeped. They, in turn, can alter the very ways your DNA gets expressed within your cells. The love you do or do not experience today may quite literally change key aspects of your cellular architecture next season and next year— cells that affect your physical health, your vitality, and your overall well-being. In these ways and more, just as your supplies of clean air and nutritious food forecast how long you’ll walk this earth— and whether you’ll thrive or just get by— so does your supply of love.”

“Prominent within your evolutionary ancestor’s toolkit— among the life-saving and life-giving resources upon which they could time and again draw— were the strong bonds that they’d forged with those with whom their genetic survival was yoked: their mates, kin, and coalition members. These were the ones in whom they could place their trust and loyalty, the ones to whom they became irresistibly drawn. Without bonds, an ancient animal died young or failed to reproduce. With bonds, an ancient animal stood a chance to become one of your ancestors. Because bonds made the difference between life and death for your ancestors, so did opportunities to build bonds. Those opportunities presented themselves within safe moments of connection. The good feelings that arise when connecting with others trigger biochemical changes that reshape the lenses through which those others are seen, increasing their allure. Love is [from a scientific point of view] a product of human evolution. In this very literal way, you were made for love.”

That’s how science sees it.

And how fascinating that after years of trying to explain away every theological idea of human functioning with a scientific principle, scientists are now discovering that theology and science are actually saying the same thing—human beings need to give and receive love to reach their highest potential.

So the question we need to ask ourselves is this: do we see how often we’re standing on the edge of that cliff trying to push Jesus off?

We need to stop and evaluate what’s happening when we’re having a negative reaction to a person or a situation.

Some moments in life are purely negative and there’s no need to sugar coat them. Sometimes it is enough to realize something is bad and simply get through it.

But more often than we are willing to admit, a person or situation we are reacting to negatively is pulling that visceral response out of us because we are afraid.

We fear the realization that this person or situation is asking us to look beyond our comfortable labels and reactions and grow.

The cost of pursuing love is pursuing maturity, as Paul says in our lesson today. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”

Reaching for love, no matter the person or situation, is reaching for maturity, reaching for clarity, reaching for God.

So the next time you’re on the cliff, ready to push Jesus off the edge, ready to shove away this challenging person or situation in your life, stop and think of Paul’s words for a moment.

I guarantee you’ve heard them enough times at weddings to remember them: love is patient, love is kind, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

Search for the way to find love within yourself in that moment of fear and challenge.

Rather than pushing Jesus over the cliff, reach out your hand to him and ask him to help you from going over the cliff of negativity and dismissal and indifference.

We will never be able to spontaneously generate love for all people ourselves out of the goodness of our hearts.

We individually do not have enough love to go around.

But asking God to help us love others—that turns the key and opens us up to become vessels of love.

The pitiful trickle of our self-generated love becomes an almighty flood of God’s love flowing through us out into the world, a world in which loving ourselves and our neighbors comes as naturally as breathing, as naturally as any good thing we were created to do.

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