The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 30 January 2022

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

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God of abiding love.

Good morning, friends. Welcome to the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany. We’re still in the season of light and revelations. We started this season with Jesus’ baptism, and the revelation of Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved Son. And we’ve continued to see these beautiful, dazzling glimpses of the light and the love our Creator wants to show us.

Today in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we have a profound revelation about love. I think our Gospel reading also reveals something about love, but it’s a little trickier, so we’ll start with Corinthians and then go from there to read the Gospel story in that light.

Paul’s hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most gorgeous passages in scripture. Love is the core of who God is and who we are as God’s people, and here Paul shows us what love looks like in action, in its full capacity.

We get all these verbs about what love does. When it says “love is patient” and “love is kind,” those are verbs in Greek—love practices patience, love acts kindly. For Paul, love is a pattern of actions, and love is stronger and greater and more enduring than any other power in the world.

This passage reveals the truth that love is what matters most, and other things are secondary. Paul contrasts the abiding power of love with a bunch of other things that might claim our attention and that are genuinely important—but they’re not love, and when we don’t put love first, all these other things can become distractions. Paul names things that matter deeply to him as a person of faith in his time and place.

Speaking in tongues, prophetic powers, knowledge, faith, generosity, and martyrdom are the best gifts and the highest achievements Paul can think of. And yet, without love, even the best gifts are all just noise—a clanging cymbal without substance.

We might list different accomplishments now than Paul does. It could be life goals like having a fulfilling career or making art that matters or raising a family or leaving a legacy that’s remembered. It could be helping others or solving the most tragic social problems. It could be deeply spiritual endeavors like learning to live a prayerful life, or giving more, or mentoring others in faith.

But whatever it is you think would be the highest goal or the best achievement in our own time and place, Paul would say it’s all just noisy gongs and clanging cymbals unless it’s rooted in love. And if that’s true, then the less important things like wealth and status are definitely just noise without love.

Every possible accomplishment in the world, no matter how important or helpful or spiritual it might be, needs love behind it in order to be more than just noise.

Everything else that matters needs love to mean something, and it needs love to hold it together. We’ve all seen things fall apart without it: a friend group or a marriage or a church or a team or a nonprofit crumbling from the inside. Maybe the accomplishments were going great, maybe everything looked fine on paper—but people forgot how to practice patience and act kindly and believe in each other, and it could only go on so long. Our best endeavors need love in order to outlive the noise.

But on the other hand, love doesn’t need any of that other stuff to still be love. When all of the achievements and empires come crashing down, when prophecy falls silent and knowledge fails and the music stops playing, love is still there. Love abides. I heard a story about that this week at Jim Hager’s visitation before the funeral.

Those of you who knew Jim and know Shirley might be able to help me with the details—this is the story of Shirley and Jim’s wedding.

Shirley and Jim were expected to do a big wedding with drinks and dancing and all the bells and whistles, but they couldn’t afford it and they decided to have something smaller instead. When they made that call, their friends and family got so mad about it that all the guests decided not to come at all. So then it was just going to be the two of them and the best man and the maid of honor.

But then the best man, who was in the Navy, shipped out unexpectedly right before the wedding. And there was some kind of a falling out with the maid of honor, so she was out too. Another friend stepped in for the best man at the last minute, but there was no maid of honor until Shirley recruited a courthouse janitor who happened to walk by. Also the judge doing the wedding was wearing house slippers and pajamas for some reason… I didn’t quite catch why.

This wedding didn’t have the noisy gongs and the clanging cymbals of recognition and achievement. It didn’t have the glow of happy friends and family. All the fanfare failed. By many of the usual metrics for success, this wedding was a disaster. But the love was there. And love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Shirley and Jim were married for over 60 years. They cared for each other and for their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. They had beautiful adventures together. They mentored younger leaders in the church. The love that started between them touched countless lives. That love still abides after Jim’s death, and we saw it here as this community came together to grieve and to care for the family.

This is the kind of love Paul is talking about. This is love in action. This is love that practices patience, acts kindly, rejoices in the truth, bears all things, holds faith through all things, hopes all things, endures all things. That’s love.

And then we come to our Gospel reading where Jesus, who is Love Incarnate, nearly gets thrown off a cliff in his own home town.

It’s hard to say for sure why things take this violent turn after Jesus starts off so well in Nazareth. In last week’s reading, we saw Jesus come into the synagogue and read a scripture about preaching good news to the poor and liberation to the captives and God’s favor on earth. Where we pick up today, Jesus has put down the scroll and starts to tell the people that all this good news is happening right away, that he’s here to do all those revolutionary things the prophet talked about so long ago.

And everyone is really impressed with Jesus. They’re amazed that he’s such a gifted public speaker. And they’re so proud that such an eloquent teacher comes from their own scrappy little town, and they even know his family.

But then things seem to go sideways, and it’s not totally clear why. I really wish Luke told us something about people’s tone and body language here.

But Jesus doesn’t seem to appreciate these compliments about his speaking ability. And then he tells a couple of stories. These are stories about times when God made miracles happen for people from foreign countries rather than the home town crowd—stories of love moving unexpectedly at the margins. And after Jesus tells those stories, the people who were so impressed with him a minute ago chase him out of town and try to throw him off a cliff.

And I’m not totally sure I follow the nuances of the conflict here, but I think part of it is that the people’s hopes and expectations for what Jesus will accomplish aren’t in line with Jesus’ mission of love. Jesus is here to be a loving, liberating, Spirit-filled Savior. But the Nazareth congregation wants him to be a talented, eloquent, successful preacher who will do the home town proud. And those aren’t the same.

Jesus tries to reveal himself as Love Incarnate in world-changing glory, and they want to see him as a really gifted kid bound to go far in the world and achieve a lot. When he pushes back against that expectation, they lash out.

I think maybe this Gospel is a story about how sometimes we prefer a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal over love. Sometimes we prefer talent and hard work and giftedness and accomplishment, because we feel like they’re reliable, we can count on them, we know we’ll have something to show for all the effort.

Sometimes we’d prefer being really good at stuff than really knowing love, for ourselves and for those we care about. Because in our limited perspective, being successful or gifted means we and our people will be okay. We’ll win what we need to win to feel good. Our kid or partner or friend will do us proud out there with their amazing accomplishments. Everybody will hear the noise and know that we or one of ours did something.

But love is harder. We see where love leads Jesus. Love leads to grief and risk and humiliation and sometimes even a cross. Love is unpredictable; love doesn’t let us claim ownership. Love moves in unexpected places. Love lifts up people who make us uncomfortable. Love multiplies a foreign widow’s bread so she can feed herself and host a hungry prophet through a famine. Love grabs a janitor on the job to serve as a maid of honor. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things.

And sometimes, when we have to make a choice between reaching out for love and reaching out for whatever counts as success for us, we choose wrong. We see the risk of love, we see the grief that is bound up with love, we see the sparkle of achievement and success and recognition, and sometimes we choose the noisy gongs and the clanging cymbals instead of the love that abides. This Gospel reveals the sad truth of how we sometimes choose the noise over love, especially when love is not what we expected.

But there’s good news in the story too. The crowd is all ready to throw Jesus off the cliff. And then Luke says, “he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” Jesus does not fall to his doom today. Love Incarnate walks through the crowd unharmed. Love abides.

Even when we expect the wrong things, even when we choose the noise, love is in our midst. Though we sometimes do hurt folks and cause real harm, love itself is bigger than our mistakes. No matter how many times we get it wrong, we are still God’s beloved children, and love is still in the midst of us, still surrounds us. Love never ends.

Love is moving, and it will keep on moving whether or not we’re able to move with it this time. Love moves unpredictably like the Spirit; we can’t stop it even when we want to. And because we can’t stop it, we always have another chance to be part of its movement by doing the things that love does. Love practices patience. Love acts kindly. Love rejoices with the truth.

And love abides when everything else fails. Even though the people chose violence, love walked away safe on solid ground. Even though all the guests boycotted the wedding because there weren’t enough noisy gongs and clanging cymbals for their taste, a 6-decade marriage still began that day. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 

Friends, this is the love that holds us. This is the light that guides us. May we have grace to choose love over the noise more and more each day, and may we rest in God’s abiding love.


The image is a photo of baroque sculptures of Faith, Hope, and Charity (Love) by Balthasar Ferdinand Moll from the Met’s online gallery. Notice how Love (the middle one) is in motion, actively dancing with Faith and Hope!