The first lesson is from the first chapter of the prophet Jeremiah. This is the beginning, the call of the prophet. In the first chapter, Jeremiah, the ancient Hebrew prophet living perhaps four hundred years before Jesus, is called to become a prophet, to carry the message of God to the people.
You can tell even from this brief passage that Jeremiah’s ministry had difficulties from the very beginning. Apparently he began his prophetic work at a very young age, and he was discounted because of his youth. He appears to be tentative and afraid. He may have not had much in the way of formal religious schooling. He faced rejection from the beginning. People did not like what he had to say. He was not a popular preacher. But Jeremiah senses that he has been chosen by God for this work, that this is his life work, and that he will put his trust in God who will give him the words to say.
The second lesson does not continue the themes of Jeremiah. We are reading it today because this time of year we have been reading the ancient Corinthian letter, a chapter or so a week. Today we have arrived at the famous chapter 13. Many scholars feel that this passage was not written by Paul himself, but inserted from other sources. It interrupts the flow of chapters 12 and 14 which go smoothly together. The language is not the usual language Paul uses. This might have been an ancient hymn that the first Christians sang often, knew and loved. It could have been an old favorite. It may have been adapted from various odes to love rumbling around Greek culture at the time, like many Lutheran hymn tunes were originally 16th century German bar songs, given religious words.
We lose much of the musical quality of the hymn in English, but in the original Greek of the letter we have still has some of the meter and cadence of a hymn with three verses. The first verse speaks to how love is the most important gift of all. The second verse speaks of how one loves on a practical level, and the third verse is that love never ends, it will never cease.
Now in the spirit of complete disclosure, we also have some additional material added to the end of the hymn about mirrors and seeing dimly and childish ways, but that too was probably a second addition to the original letter and not a fourth verse of the hymn or part of the original letter.
Luke’s passage this morning about Jesus may have been constructed on the passage from Jeremiah. For here we have the rejection of Jesus the prophet by those who know him best. It is familiarity that breeds this contempt of Jesus, not his age, but both Jesus and Jeremiah are roundly rejected. Those we know best we sometimes pay attention to the least, to our own detriment. All prophets are not without honor except in their hometown. But notice that important last verse of Luke: “But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”
I would like to suggest that these three passages, although quite different from each other together provide wisdom regarding three affectionate enterprises. The three affectionate enterprises in which we often find ourselves are: congregational ministries, house-holding or marriage, and citizenship.
The first affectionate enterprise is congregational ministry. At first this might seem like the call of the pastor to serve a congregation. Jeremiah and Jesus are called prophets. And they face rejection by the people they serve. And in the end the most important thing for a pastor is a love for one’s folk, to hold a genuine affection and high regard for these people: a love that does not insist on its own way but rejoices in the right, a love that bears and sustains.
But the affectionate enterprise in congregational ministry may be more about the ministry of the congregation to the people and place in which it finds itself. And a great deal could be said here about how St. Johns may feel inadequate to the task of caring for so many in need, in wondering whether or not we can do it all, deciding to put our trust in God, and to listen for the will of God as we go about the daily tasks of sheltering and relieving. Like Jesus or Jeremiah, as we do our mission, those who know us, may wonder why or how we feel so deeply that we are called for this. And to many we may at times seem arrogant even when we are anxious and fearful for our own capacities. We are who we are in mission because God wants us to help those in need. That will not be popular or easy thing. It just is.
But in this congregational ministry of sheltering, relieving, caring, and learning, the most important thing is love. We are called to love this neighborhood, these homeless, those struggling with finances, these people who need a place to just sit. Love is the most important thing. It requires humility of spirit, and it is what keeps us going and going and going, especially on those days when it appears we see things dimly. These passages speak to the affectionate enterprise we know as congregational ministry.
But they also speak to the affectionate enterprise we know as house-holds, partnerships, and marriages in which people grounded in their love for one another share all of life together. Notice that Jeremiah’s enterprise is built not on his talents and capacities but on his being chosen. A partnership or marriage works not because we all are just incredible people. A partnership or marriage works when we realize that we have been chosen, warts and all, by another. All of us are too flawed to base a marriage on our personal strengths. Somebody chose us and loves us and makes us special. That choosing is the thing to cherish. We have chosen each other.
And, oh yes, as in the lessons, there is the pain of rejection in partnerships, households and marriages. And that rejection hurts more because when it comes we are being rejected by the one who knows us best.
But then there is a song to sing in this affectionate enterprise, a song of love with three verses. Love will get us back on track. It is the most important thing, not that thing we were arguing about. And in the second verse, love requires us to now humbly place the concern of the other before our own. For love can be with us through all of the struggles, changes, transitions, and setbacks. Love never ends. It is what allows us to accomplish that last verse of the Luke lesson: But we passed through the midst of all this stuff and continue on life’s way. These passages speak to the affectionate enterprise we know as congregational ministry and marriage or partnerships.
But they also speak to the affectionate enterprise we know as citizenship. We are citizens of a republican democracy not because of our special talents or abilities. It is our political inheritance bestowed on us by our God and the accidents of existence. Like the call of Jeremiah, the call to be citizen is thrust upon us. And we face the challenges of citizenship no matter how we feel about them or how well we execute the task or whether or not we choose to accept our responsibilities.
But for both Jeremiah and Jesus, it is important to speak fourth, to declare, to discuss and converse and say how one believes and feels. Without that, public discourse is compromised. Yet the nature of public dialog requires that many of our personal convictions are rejected by the many as a sense of a common good is forged from the public compromises necessary for life together.
And, as Jesus indicates in Luke, often in matters of citizenship, it is those who come from the outside, those beyond our borders or beyond our media feeds that help us see what needs to be done.
And at times it will feel like we or at least something important to us is being thrown off a cliff. As we go about this common weal we will now and then as that last line of Luke says: pass through the midst of all this and be on our way dropping our nagging objections with a sense of humility.
The only way that a democracy will last is if all of its citizens, regardless of their background and convictions, hold each other in positive regard and gracious affection because we are Madisonians, Wisconsonites, and Americans together. Even in the realm of citizenship, love and tender regard for the neighbor is more important than political conviction. Life as citizens requires humility as we lift up even the concerns of those who might be on the other side of an issue. And in the end, that positive affection we have for what we used to call, ‘my fellow Americans” will sustain us as we build and rebuild and rebuild again that foundational core upon which life together is positioned.
As we continue our affectionate enterprises together: in congregational ministry, in our homes, and in our public discourse and affairs, these ancient words about being chosen despite all our flaws, about love, its struggles and importance, and the ways in which we all work through rejection on our way to something bigger; well, these ancient words sustain us on our way.