Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Cor 12:31-13:13; Luke 4:21-30
I have found it to be a law in my own spiritual life that joy is always followed by doubt. Joy is always challenged, right away.
Partly this is just the way life is. Life is just up and down and we should be aware of that, not think when we’re happy that we’ll always be happy and not think when we’re sad that we’ll always be sad.
But I think it’s more than that. I think that joy calls out doubt and skepticism and fear. Draws them. I think there is something in us and something in the world that actively resists love. That is offended by love.
This is why the demons always shout at Jesus. They know who he is.
We often hear these beautiful words from first Corinthians at weddings. We hear them, and they move us, and they’re so beautiful that maybe we make the mistake of thinking that love is somehow soft and sweet. That if only we have love, everything will be fine. But no.
Love not only never fails. It always fails. Love is not only patient and kind. It is despised. Love is seen as weak. Love is seen as unmanly. Love puts down its gloves and gets hit in the face. Love never makes a million dollars and never gets on the front page and never wins the prize. Love has no answers. It doesn’t possess the truth but is possessed by the truth. Love is laughed at. Love is made fun of. Love is slapped around
and spat on. Love leads us into the desert. Love makes us vulnerable. Love opens us up to loneliness and to sorrow. To everything.
Love gets up in the assembly and reads from Isaiah and everyone is impressed. Then mad. The people are offended by love, they are outraged by love, because love tells the truth, love says no, love sets boundaries, love isn’t afraid, and so the people grab love and they take love to the edge of town and they try to throw love off a cliff.
This is how it always is. Love is always beaten and tried and hung on a cross.
Surely I’m not the only one to have this experience. I had it the other day. I woke up after a good sleep and sat down to pray and I felt the presence of God and I felt confident and alive. I felt like myself. So I got dressed and I packed my lunch and I drove to school.
And got flattened. From the minute I stepped into my office. Problems. Resistance. Meanness. I tried to do a right thing and say a right thing, and I did, as best I could, and was attacked for it. Mildly. Subtly. But really. By the end of the day I was tempted to feel like a fool. To think that the joy I’d known in the morning had been an illusion.
Because the thing that hates love and the thing that despises love isn’t just in the world. It’s in us. We collaborate with it. It’s in the voice that says: that’s stupid. It’s in the voice that says: this is the way the world is.
But Christianity can’t be about mere emotional uplift, as Bonhoffer says. If we really are disciples of the Lord, if we really want to imitate Christ, we’re going to feel it, we’re going to be opposed, and if we’re not, if we don’t encounter resistance and struggle, there’s something wrong. We’re kidding ourselves. We haven’t really stripped away our illusions.
Which is to say, too, that whenever we do feel this counter-pull, this meanness and doubt, we know that we’re on the Path. The stronger the temptation, the more we know we are inside the Pattern.
I don’t mean that evil is stronger than good. Not at all. Evil is a coward. Evil is weak. As soon as we turn and face it, it runs away. It dissipates. The Lord is our light and our salvation, whom shall we fear? Though an army encamp around us. Though we are surrounded.
Or maybe we don’t think of this as a battle exactly. Maybe we just stand back and see it. We say, oh, here are these feelings again. Here this is happening again. We don’t give into it but we don’t fight it either. We acknowledge it. We see it as simply part of the fabric of life, part of the ebb and flow.
And so, too, it loses its power to hurt us. It loses its power to persuade us.
A friend gave me permission to tell you this story.
Her father was dying after a long illness. He just shook in bed for days, rigid, his eyes closed. Sometimes he would come out of it for a few minutes and take some water or say a few words.
All his life he had been a difficult man, an angry and abusive man. He was a Viet Nam vet, he had seen combat, and maybe that was part of it. But he had been bitter and mean for a long time, and he was bitter and mean as he died.
And my friend was taking care of him. She had spent days at his bedside, feeding him and reading to him. Though she didn’t really want to, though he had hurt her so much growing up, she was there every minute at the end, in that dark fetid room.
And at one point he stopped shaking and opened his eyes. He looked right at her, his daughter, and he spoke. He said one phrase.
He called his daughter a name.
I can’t repeat it. But it was a name. A vulgar name.
Maybe he wasn’t talking to her. Maybe he wasn’t right in the head. But whatever this was, it was the last thing he ever said, to her or to anyone else. The last thing. In a few hours, he was dead. And the last thing he ever did was to say something vulgar and bitter and mean.
And how did his daughter respond?
She leaned over, and she kissed him, and she said: Dad, I love you.
Love is a mystery. Love is a heartache. Love is a tremendous heroism.
Love is beaten and love is crucified. And then it rises.
The last thing that man ever said was vulgar and mean. But that wasn’t the last thing he ever heard.
At the very heart of things, there is love. In the darkness and the light, there is love. In the darkness and the light there is love beyond counting, there is love beyond knowing.
Love is crucified. Love is buried. And then it rises. Love always rises.