Sermon for Sunday, January 30,  2022  – “Loving What We Cannot Save”

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany- Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Decorah, Iowa – Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Click here to read scripture passages for the day.

Beloved of God, grace to you and peace in the name of Jesus.

This is a weird story. Yet it also feels strangely familiar. It’s full of the outrage and entitlement and violence that we know all too well these days.

Jesus announces God’s good news with words we heard last week. He declares that the good news is fulfilled in him – even better! But his hometown crowd gets angry that they aren’t getting any special treatment. He’s one of their own. Shouldn’t they get some benefit from that? There are lots of hurting people in Nazareth after all. Yet Jesus doesn’t do any miracles there and he adds to the insult by naming outsiders who receive God’s care: Namaan was a general in an enemy army, the widow at Zarephath a foreigner. Jesus sounds irritated, the people get outraged, things go downhill quickly, even as Jesus somehow manages to avoid getting thrown off that hill.

Maybe there’s some small comfort in the realization that the challenges we’re facing today are nothing new? Of course, that’s also cold comfort. Will anything ever change? Is there any hope for us as a species? What then should we do?

This week, I encountered a poem that honored these questions and opened me to God’s wisdom. The poem is by Wendell Berry. I want to share a portion of it with you.

“To My Children, Fearing for Them”

Terrors are to come. The earth

is poisoned with narrow lives.

I think of you. What you will

live through, or perish by, eats

at my heart. What have I done? I

need better answers than there are

to the pain of coming to see

what was done in blindness,

loving what I cannot save …

That line, loving what I cannot save, opened me to both the grief and the wisdom I needed this week. I came across this poem thanks to an article in Living Lutheran, the magazine of our ELCA. The article is “Still Loving What We Cannot Save, The Gift of Neighbor Love in Times of Crisis,” by Jason Mahn, a religion professor at Augustana College, Rock Island. Mahn writes, “The deepest pain lies in our inability to make things right, coupled with the anguished grief of still loving what we cannot save.”

Mahn shares a story that captures what he means. He writes, “The only time I tried to hurt my brother was in high school when he was living with our dad and I was living with our mom and

he didn’t show up for a reconciliatory birthday dinner that my mother made for him. I found him leaving my dad’s apartment, dragged him down a flight of stairs, glanced a fist off his face and told him that he wasn’t my brother.” Mahn can see now that, “I did [this] because I couldn’t put the bro- ken family I loved back together again. Living that brokenness was too painful to bear, so I thrash- ed about in the stairwell instead.”

I wonder how much of the violence and outrage we see today around us, and within us, comes from the pain of not being able to fix things, not being able to make things better. I wonder if that inspired the violence in Nazareth. The people looked around at the community and saw so much pain. When Jesus didn’t fix it all, they just couldn’t bear it.

Mahn continues, “This excessively long time of COVID-19 seems too much to bear. Its gift to me is training in bearing it, endurance, long-suffering, in continuing to love all that we cannot [save].

This is the kind of training that Paul calls us to in our second reading today from 1Corinthians 13. Paul calls us to practice a kind of love that bears with what is hard, that persists in loving, that endures. Paul shows us what it looks like to keep on loving others, to keep on loving our world, even when we can’t make everything better.

And Paul gives us very specific guidance about how to live out this love. We might miss that in the English translation of this passage. We hear that “love is patient, love is kind, love is not irritable or rude”- a long list of adjectives. That can make it sound like love means always feeling patient and kind, never feeling grumpy or annoyed.  What do we do then when we are grieving and hurting, angry and afraid, not feeling kind or patient in the least?

The way Paul actually wrote the passage, those words aren’t adjectives describing love. Those words are verbs. Paul uses 16 verbs in a row to say what love does and does not do. Paul says to love is to be patient, to be kind, to not be jealous, not boast, not be arrogant, not be rude and not seek our own way, not be irritable, not be resentful and not rejoice in wrongdoing. To love is to rejoice in the truth, to bear all things, to believe all things, to hope all things, to endure all things.

Paul is saying love is active and concrete. It takes work. It takes practice. It is hard. Yet these actions Paul calls us to take are available to us even when we feel irritable, impatient, annoyed. 

We may not feel loving, but we can work on not being rude. We may not know what to do in these days, but we can work on not being arrogant and boastful. We don’t know how long COVID will disrupt the world, but we can practice letting go of what irritates us.

Paul gives us concrete guidance about how to keep on keeping on in the work of loving what we cannot save. Paul’s own story also points us to the ultimate Love that makes our own practice of love possible. Paul once lived without love. He stoned followers of Jesus. He terrorized the newly forming church. He did this with the best of intentions. He thought he was doing the right thing. 

He thought he was saving people from going the wrong way. Yet he was not practicing love.

An encounter with Christ Jesus on the Damascus Road transformed Paul. Paul encountered the risen Christ, the One who embodies the love of God. He encountered the One who bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things, the One who continues to love us, who loves us into loving. He encountered Christ Jesus who saves us by loving us.

As author Debie Thomas puts it, “Paul can write about love with such authority only because he knows firsthand what it can do. He knows what God’s love did to his own stony, self-righteous heart. Left to ourselves, we cannot love in the ways Paul describes so beautifully. The only hope we have is the hope Paul clung to, the hope that [Christ Jesus] will love us into loving. That Christ will be love in us, around us, through us, and for us.” 

Today, in scripture and song, bread and wine, you, too, encounter this Christ Jesus, the One who cannot be stopped from loving you, the One who makes your love possible.

Through Christ, we can persist in the work of love.



 3 “The Greatest of These” by Debie Thomas lectionary blog on Journey with Jesus