I Cor 13; Luke 4:21-30
As I wrote in the Gazette, several folks in the church are thinking of ways to serve the homeless population which is growing so dramatically in Los Angeles. The Gospel doesn't allow us to ignore a crisis situation for so many in our midst. Last week we had several meetings about how to proceed. One of the questions some people ask with this type of ministry is how to make sure people don't manipulate us to take false advantage of the resources. People ask this of the church, of non profit organizations and of the government. Hearing them makes me think about tough love.
The first time I came across that phrase, it was the title of a book by a young Christian man who had had a ministry among youth in Harlem- an inspiring story of wild-eyed, rebellious, inner city blacks coming to Jesus, and coming to a Christian camp that was one of their first forays into the white world. It was also the story of the author himself, who had to face that his own version of white Christianity was precisely that – a version of Christianity – and one that didn’t serve very well in a place like Harlem.
So I’m thinking about the phrase again as we begin this new outreach. Over the years I’ve made the mistake of giving things away too easily, and letting people get away with not putting forth their own effort. But I’ve also learned that we can’t genuinely help people with needs unless we’re willing to be taken advantage of sometimes. Tough love may be the best way to find a balance. I haven’t found it to be straight forward, though. As a parent, I applied consequences both too often and not enough; I’ve limited behaviors too narrowly & too widely.
Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, uses the phrase to describe their policy with adults who acquire houses through Habitat and fail to make their house payments. "We emphasize partnership in Habitat," says Fuller. "We would always exercise mercy with people if there's a loss of job, or an unexpected illness. But if it becomes obvious that the family is not paying just because they'd rather use their money to buy beer, or go on joyrides, or to buy two or three television sets, when it becomes obvious that they're just trying to take advantage of the program, then we exercise what I call tough love and say, 'You have decided, by your actions, not to be a partner in this ministry."'
How do we find a balance? Today’s Scriptures talk about tough love. But there’s a difference. Parents of rebellious teenagers and Habitat workers relating to poor tenants have been taught to use tough love where they had power “over” the targets of their tough love. Paul & Luke apply tough love to confront communities that were abusing their power to keep others down and out.
Paul wrote the love chapter because the Christian community in Corinth was applying every criterion but love to their relationships. They wielded knowledge as power over each other. They dangled the impressive spiritual gifts over each other as signs of being more-spiritual-than-thou. They interpreted new-found freedoms in Christ as license to eliminate ethical guidelines as if they had nothing to do with relationships. No wonder the most important thing Paul had to say about love was that it isn’t boastful, arrogant or rude, nor insist on its own way, nor rejoice in wrongdoing. And it’s kind. It seems there wasn’t much kindness in Corinth. Paul applies tough love to the arrogant, not to the misbehaver.
In Nazareth, Jesus was a grown-up kid who returned home to the village that helped raise him - not just his mother and brothers and sisters but also the neighbors who had kept him when his mother was sick, and the shop- keepers who had let him run errands for them, the old men who had leaned on their sticks in the heat of the day and told him stories that made his hair stand on end. He was their son, so of course he went home, wanting to give them the best of what he had to offer. That included tough love, which didn’t go over too well with the synagogue crowd.
The people of Nazareth heard reports of the great things Jesus did in Capernaum. If any city needed good preaching it was Nazareth. There were heathens all around. Phoenicians lived to the west and north, Samaritans to the south and Greeks to the west. They were far away from the good influence of Jerusalem. Maybe Jesus could make Nazareth a decent place to live.
We hear a lot of this kind of talk: dividing the world into good and bad nations; dividing this nation into citizens and residents on the one hand, and illegal immigrants and criminals on the other. "If we could get good people fired up; if we could put God back into our schools; if we could bring our nation back to God - if we could do all this, we would be a moral, godly nation again – a good place to live & worship."
Jesus offered an alternative to dividing the world into good/evil, terrorist/non-terrorist, rich/ poor, legal /illegal, heterosexual/homosexual by staking his life on God’s favor and building a life that lifts up interdependence. Jesus didn’t believe the world could be divided between good and evil. Anyone who reads church history knows that Christianity got rid of that heresy centuries ago. Manichaeism is a heresy that says the world can be divided between good and evil and good people can do whatever they want to evil people.
No, God makes the sun shine and rain fall on good and evil. Jesus founded a movement based on God being in favor of all people. The Jesus movement is diametrically opposed to a god of wrath that gives good people a divine right to eliminate evil ways and evil people.
That was the wrong thing to say to the folks in Nazareth. It doesn’t go down much better in the U.S. Jesus told a story from Elijah's time when God miraculously provided food for a poor, pagan widow. There were many poor, starving widows in Israel during the famine who didn't receive any miraculous food. The crowd in the synagogue started mumbling to each other: "Is he saying God likes Gentiles better than Jews?”
Jesus told another story from the time of Elisha when God miraculously cured a pagan leper, Naaman. There were many sick lepers in Israel who received no miraculous cure. The crowd's whispers got louder. ‘Is he saying God prefers pagans? He's going to destroy what little faith is left here.’ People declared Jesus a false prophet because he didn't act like they wanted him to act. False prophets are put to death. So they tried to kill him.
I think it’s pretty significant that in the Bible, tough love is more often applied to religious folks, and people who are a little too confident they are right. You know these folks. They’re the ones who find the perfect diet and look down on friends who eat the wrong things.. Or the one who discovers the benefits of yoga and begins to badger all his sedentary friends. We recognize them because they are us. Whenever I turn my good into your duty and judge you for your failure to perform it according to my standards, then my wish for your well-being becomes something dark and dangerous. Altruism becomes self-righteousness - no longer an annoying habit, but a pernicious pride that works evil in the human soul.
Barbara Brown Taylor recognized this in the community she pastored. She wrote, “The faith community is one of Jesus’ toughest audiences, especially when what he says offends us. We have our own channels of power clearly marked and we are suspicious of people who operate outside of them. We believe we know what is right and what is wrong and we do not welcome anyone who challenges our beliefs. And yet God is dedicated to doing just that, because it is the only way to get us to believe in God more than we believe in our own beliefs.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels, p. 107)
Of course, grown ups with power don’t necessarily respond to tough love any better than teenagers or low income tenants. “Jesus’ own people tried to kill him, more than once. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. How did he do that, when they were all ganged up against him? We don’t know, but that is how it still works. If we will not listen, Jesus won’t try to change our minds. He will pass right through our midst and go away.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by another Way, p. 46)
I now realize that Jesus has come and gone to St. Athanasius in members who have tried to show us how structures and programs that served some well haven’t served them well. Sometimes Jesus’ voice was soft and barely perceptible. Other times it was strident and annoying. In both cases, Jesus brought an uncomfortable message we didn’t always understand or act upon, so Jesus left.
We're always given another chance. How will we reach out to those who haven’t fit in? Some will confront the ways we exclude people while we preach inclusion. It’s painful to face the truth. But Paul says love does not rejoice in wrong doing. It rejoices in the truth. Some of us need to face uncomfortable truth, while others need patience to understand that it’s hard to change. The good news is that, even though Jesus goes away when we do not listen, he comes back again and again to give us another chance. Sooner or later we’ll hear.
Whether you’re a parent or a teenager, or you’re someone who serves the poor or you are poor, whether you’re one who has power to exclude or you are a target of exclusion, God’s loving call will come to you at some point in the form of tough love. Let’s pray that Jesus will uncurl our resistance and anoint us to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed and a year of Jubilee in our community.