I have been thinking these last couple of weeks that Christianity could really use a new Public Relations campaign: not just the Episcopal Church, or even St. Margaret’s, but Christianity in general. This past week a receipt from an Appleby’s restaurant was circulated worldwide on the internet. The receipt was from a table of about ten Christians. When the waitress picked up the receipt, the automatic 18% gratuity for groups was crossed out, and the tip read “0,” with a note that said, “I give God 10%, why do you get 18?” The signer signed her name and wrote “pastor,” on the receipt. I do not know your tipping policies, but most wait staff make well below minimum wage and make up the difference with tips. So for a pastor to so rudely deny a person their livelihood is embarrassing to all of us. Now, you may argue this was an isolated incident, but as anyone who has ever waited tables knows, Christians are widely known as being the worst tippers at restaurants. Even our Wednesday night study group has reflected on the author’s negative experiences with Christians. This is not exactly a reputation we can be proud of, especially when we are to be caring for the poor – which many wait staff are.
The Church in Corinth was struggling with a similar PR campaign. We have been hearing the last couple of weeks how the Church there was fighting over who had the best spiritual gifts. Finally fed up, Paul breaks down the issue at hand. No matter what gifts a person possesses – speaking in tongues, prophecy, or wisdom – if that person does not have love, they are a noisy gong, or worse, they are nothing. Paul is a lot like the marketing director who has come in to clean up the Corinthians terrible PR problem. Love is the answer. Many of us hear Paul’s words today and we think of the hundreds of weddings where we have heard this text. But Paul is not really talking about romantic love. Paul is talking about the way Christians need to behave in order for others to see Christ in us.
Of course, love sounds easy – almost like a cheesy seventies slogan or that Beatles hit, “All You Need is Love.” But the kind of love Paul is talking about is not easy at all. The love Paul is talking about is patient; is not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude; allows others to have their way; is not irritable or resentful. This kind of love means letting going of the importance of self – which is perhaps one of the most difficult tasks we can accomplish. We have all seen glimpses of this kind of love in others. This weekend, our “Movies with Margaret” film was a movie called Saved. In the film, a girl accidently becomes pregnant, and when she most needs someone who can express Paul’s kind of love, she does not receive that love from the most pious students at her Christian High School. Instead, the characters who are seen as rebellious heathens are the ones who show Paul’s love most beautifully. They are the ones who embrace the pregnant girl when she is at her lowest point – when she is lost and utterly alone in her trials. Those widely acknowledged as un-Christian at her Christian High School are the ones who behave in the most Christ-like way of all: by showing deep, kind, sacrificial love.
As we slowly begin to wrap our heads around this concept of Paul’s love and how that love might help our own PR campaign, we hit a bit of a snag when we get to our gospel lesson. Jesus, who has just proclaimed that he is the Messiah in his hometown synagogue, where people are stunned into silence, suddenly is found today speaking so harshly to the synagogue that they angrily rush to throw him off a cliff. Jesus words do not sound full of love, but instead sound the opposite – rude, arrogant, and irritable. His anger today may have us wondering if Paul has romanticized Jesus’ life and witness.
The truth is that Jesus’ actions, as harsh as they sound, still exhibit love. The love Jesus shows is perhaps what we might call “tough love” today. Despite the fact that the people are outwardly praising Jesus for his words, Jesus sees through their words to their intentions. The people of Nazareth hear Jesus’ words and wheels start churning. If Jesus is the Messiah, then they have the honor of being the town that raised him. And if they have such an honor, then surely they will benefit from all of Jesus’ power and teachings. Instead of looking on the people of Nazareth with pity, Jesus gets angry. Jesus knows that his hometown is instantly becoming greedy, wanting to not only keep the Messiah to the people of Israel, but especially to keep him in their own town. And so Jesus reminds them that God’s love is bigger than them – in fact, God’s redemption will extend to even the Gentiles – Gentiles like that widow at Zarephath in Sidon and Naaman the Syrian.[i] Jesus’ words sound more like a slap in the face than the patient, kind love that Paul describes.
I have a friend who has many times complained to me about the differences in fighting styles between her and her husband. She tends to avoid conflict. Having been raised in a conflict-avoidant household, she totally shuts down in the face of conflict. Her husband, on the other hand, was raised in a household where conflict was a normal, and sometimes very loud, part of life. Unlike her busy behavior to squash conflict, he lets the tension build up until he explodes. Neither of them handles conflict perfectly. She does not recognize the ways in which she is not loving or caring for him, and so her behavior does often create the slow buildup. Meanwhile, by not expressing his frustration early on, her husband gets to the point where his only recourse is this last explosion of emotion. They both could use some work on the Pauline love we hear about today – both needing to be more sacrificial, less irritable, and more patient. But that work does not eliminate conflict. In fact, if we really look at what Jesus does in the gospel lesson today, sometimes the deepest love can only happen in conflict. As one scholar explains, “Sometimes we love our people in the name of Christ, enduring just about everything with them, and sometimes we love them by throwing the Book at them.”[ii]
Paul, Jesus, waitresses, and movies are all pointing us toward a basic reality today. We are Christians, and as such, we live life differently. We love differently. In a culture that says we should be self-centered, boastful, arrogant, and envious, the Church proclaims a different truth. Living in this love-centered way is not easy. Sometimes we will have the kind of conflict that Jesus has with his family. But even in conflict, we hold on to the self-sacrificing love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Why do we strive for this kind of living? Because people are watching. We are the PR campaign that our neighbors see when they wonder what Christianity is all about. As St. Francis of Assisi said, “The deeds you do may be the only sermon some persons will hear today.” Jesus and Paul invite us to live our lives as sermons that illustrate love – not in the gooey romantic sense, but in the ways that both sacrifice the self, and love through conflict.
The good news is that the rest of our liturgy today gives us the opportunity to reorient ourselves toward love. In a few moments, we corporately confess the myriad ways we do not show love to our neighbors. The section of our service that invites us forward for healing is also meant to be a place where we can come forward for healing for ourselves, for our unloving relationships, and our unloving witness in the world. And finally, at the Eucharistic table, we come not for solace only but for strength; not for pardon only, but for renewal. This liturgy today can renew and strength you so that your life might be a powerful witness of love and Christian faith. Amen.