“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.”
I am quoting these very familiar verses from the second reading, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, as I spend my last full day in the Holy Land where I have been leading a group of students, spouses, and alums from Luther Seminary. How’s that for irony? The Corinthian issue is a divisive community. I have spent the last thirteen days in a divisive country. In fact, while writing this column I heard both church bells and the Muslim call to prayer in the span of only twenty minutes. There is no end to opinions about the conflict here, there is no end to solutions, and there is no real end in taking sides.
The lection from Luke is another divisive situation. When Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth for his inaugural address, the sermon goes well until Jesus specifies just who are the poor, the captives, and the oppressed. And when the poor and captive and oppressed are those whom we don’t like or don’t trust in the first place or even fear, Jesus’ sermon becomes more difficult to hear. Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth is only the beginning of the division that his words, and eventually his church, will provoke.
We are no strangers to the kind of division in communities of which Paul speaks — racial, denominational, and political. And our strategies for negotiating these divisions leave much to be desired. It often comes down to choosing sides, as if the spectrum between the two poles did not exist. It would be better if we only chose sides. Instead, we choose which side we are on and then, to make ourselves feel better or justified about our decision, we proceed to suspect, demonize, and tear down the other side. But as Elias Chacour (Father Chacour is the Archbishop Emeritus of the Melkite Catholic Church for Akko, Haifa, Nazareth, and all Galilee, an advocate for non-violence, working toward reconciliation between Arabs and Jews with whom our group had a chance to meet) says, “The one who is wrong is the one who says ‘I am right.’”
We are also no strangers to the kind of division that the gospel provokes. And sometimes we forget just how divisive the gospel can be. Choosing regard over rejection, respect over diminution, love over hate, peace over conflict is not as easy as we hope it could be, as we wish it would be. It seems like it should be easy — and that’s the problem. Why is it that we find it so difficult to make what appears to be a rather obvious choice? A choice for love? What stands in our way? What is at stake for us that we are reluctant to admit or to say out loud?
A couple of evenings ago on our trip we had a presentation by the Parent’s Circle, a grassroots organization for Palestinians and Israelis who have lost loved ones due to the conflict. The representatives who spoke to us were two fathers, a Palestinian and an Israeli, who had both lost daughters because of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. We had a very honest discussion about the conflict and about life before and after the Separation Wall. “No wall, not matter how high, can stop two kinds of people, one determined suicide bomber and the one determined peacemaker,” said one of the fathers. They each went through their own moments of wondering how life could possibly carry on given the death of their children due to such senseless, mindless fighting. They could have chosen revenge to ease their pain but instead realized that the only way forward was to talk to each other.
In each other, they found the way to carry on because, in their words, “our blood is the same color, our tears are just as bitter.” They found a way to carry on that chose peace instead of revenge, conversation instead of fear, life instead of death because “it is not our destiny to kill each other in this Holy Land.” At stake for both fathers was peace. Simple as that. This is the gospel. This is love.
When we gathered together as a group on this trip, our primary question was always, “where did you see God today?” What do you preach on this last Sunday before the Transfiguration? This second to last Sunday of the season of Epiphany? You preach the presence of God. You preach the truth. That no matter where we go or who we are, there is and will be disagreement and division. The answer is not to erase, pretend it doesn’t exist, or think it will eventually go away, but to embrace more fully how to live into it, among it, and with it in love — because God is love.