Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
"Beyond Measuring," Pastor Fred
Nowhere is loving your brother and sister more difficult, than in the Land we call Holy, Israel-Palestine. As the place where the three Abrahamic faith’s live together side by side, it remains full of tension, and filled with opinions ‘beyond measuring’ on how to get along.
I’ve been there on two separate study tours. Once in college, and once as a pastor, which was sponsored by our seminary, in 2005. We took just enough Lutherans to fill an Israeli tour bus. And one day after we had visited the Palestinian town of Hebron, with its Ibrahimi Mosque which is the burial site of Abraham and Sarah, we went to a far less-well-known village called, At-Tuwani. Our guide for the day, was Art, a seasoned veteran of CPT, the Christian Peacemaker Team, founded by Quakers, that sent missionaries like him to live with and protect the poor and least among us. At-Tuwani, said Art, with a twinkle in his eye, was like the real Bethlehem! Not like the one of our modern-day American making, but an agrarian village, where many of the villagers still lived in the caves they shared with their sheep and goats, and drew water from a well.
Art was working with the people there, commuting from Hebron, and his job of late was to accompany children walking to school. The reason being that, the children had been endangered by extremist Israeli Settlers who built a new illegal settlement on the top of the hill, and some of the Settlers had taken to sneaking up on the kids, and even hurling rocks at them, putting one child in the hospital, in Intensive Care. So Art, some 70 years old, but as fit as a fiddle, came to walk with them to school every morning, and hopefully deter any more rock throwing. So far so good!
We approached the village by way of a brand new Highway, built by the Israeli government, to run through the far side of the West Bank of, in occupied Palestinian territory. And yet the highway, pristine blacktop, was made illegal for Palestinians to traverse. Our driver was Palestinian, but he was employed by the Israeli Tourist Department, and was cleared to drive it in our Israeli licensed tour bus.
When we arrived, Art insisted that we could drive up the dirt road to the village. But the bus driver was not happy with that. Seeing we had a few people that couldn’t climb this terrain, the bus driver was coaxed into giving it a try. The biggest hang-up, as it turned out, was just crossing the newly dug-out ravine alongside the highway. It was positioned just so – that as the front wheels went in it, it almost got the carriage of the bus hung up on the edge of the road. He tried every angle he could, getting out of the bus each time to take a good look, and ‘measure’ his dilemma, but it just wouldn’t work. And we finally had to concede defeat.
Meanwhile, a caravan of UN vehicles, full of diplomats had come by, and was blocked by the bus, as it rocked back and forth across the road. And the Israeli military, in their jeeps accompanying the UN vehicles, got out and told our Palestinian bus driver that he couldn’t park there. Well, by that time, Art had already ushered us out, and started us hiking up the hill. Our poor bus driver – between a rock and a hard place – was left to handle the tension-filled crisis down below, all by himself!
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
The Israeli officers, the Palestinian bus driver, and our Christian cable, marching up the hill, were all doing our best not to be irritable or resentful, arrogant or rude. But, it was a difficult love to fulfill.
Paul’s advice is one of the most familiar passages in the New Testament. Every wedding we go to, we hear it again, right! It has become a kind of go-to for defining romantic love. But that’s not what Paul had in mind.
Paul purposefully stuck it in the middle of his letter to the Corinthians, between chapters about the things that were divisive and pulling their community apart – between a rock and hard place.
The Corinthians Paul wrote to, lived in a cosmopolitan town, a port-city that entertained the rich and famous from every corner of the empire. Competition to be successful was fierce. And even in the church Paul founded, there was sharp division over which leader’s beliefs to follow. If my talent is speaking in tongues, I must be better than my new Christian friend who is gifted with prophetic powers, they were saying. This is what Paul was talking about in chapter 12, before our reading today, the reading from last Sunday: utterances of wisdom, of knowledge, the gift of healing, the working of miracles, speaking in tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. How can one be better than another, said Paul, when we need all of them to work together in harmony, like a well-coordinated body – the Body of Christ. Why are you in rivalrous competition, measuring who is better than the other one?
So, if the Body is to work together, says Paul, what is the principle from the Holy Spirit that we can go to, to guide us? Gifts and talents are all good in and of themselves. But what will keep the Body healthy and whole?
I will show you a still more excellent way, said Paul. Or a better translation might be, I will show you a way that is ‘beyond measuring!’ Literally, it is a way that goes past the tiresome ways the Corinthians measured everything by, to see who was winning.
Paul will go back to the matter at hand about spiritual gifts after our Chapter 13 reading from today, in chapter 14. So this beautiful and ever popular chapter on love, is really an interlude in Paul’s argument, within the whole letter.
Love is greater, even than faith or hope, says Paul. And if you’re starting to get Paul’s drift here, you’ll notice that the love Paul introduces, is not romantic love, but how to love one another, in a community. The same kind of love Jesus talks about in the gospels: as in, love your neighbor as yourself.
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
This is the kind of love needed to move mountains, in the tension and conflict of the Holy Land, according to Elias Chacour, a Palestinian Christian, born and raised in Israel, even before it became a state. We visited him in 2005 in his modest village in Galilee, and his unique church, built in the shape of an ark. Fr. Chacour, the Archbishop Emeritus of the Melkite Catholic Church for Galilee, is an advocate for non-violence, working toward reconciliation between Christian-Muslim Palestinians and Jews. But he is no Pollyanna, and understands how polarized each side has become. One of his quotes describing this unrelenting competition is, “The one who is wrong is the one who says ‘I am right.’”
So, when we’re between a rock and a hard place, the way out includes love, and maybe a little humor as well!
On this RIC Sunday, when we remember our welcoming status as a Reconciling in Christ congregation, we give thanks for the work of many activists and lovers, who worked tirelessly in the Lutheran church to free our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender friends and family, from the dark ages of discrimination, and won for us all, the right to marry the ones we love, and to call LGBT pastors openly, to serve, whatever their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Picture being stuck in that bus, rocking back and forth, trying to get up the hill, with your oppressor coming towards you, somewhat annoyed and having all the privilege and authority on his side. And then picture, a new road paved just for you, that leads to your beloved home, and Jesus accompanying you on your journey, walking by your side – and the feeling of safety and peace.
That’s the kind of church we strive to be today. That’s the mission and ministry we engage in, in Jesus’s name – whether here in this building, or out in the world – empowered to be the Body of Christ, in all we do.