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transgressive love: a sermon on a God who can’t help but love

September 2nd, 2007 by isaac · 4 Comments

Title: Transgressive love
Date: Sept 2, 2007
Texts: Jer. 2:4-13; Ps. 81:1, 10-16; Heb. 13:1-8, 15-16; Lk. 14:1, 7-14

A few years ago I went to a conference in Philadelphia, where the most significant theologians and biblical scholars of the English speaking world present their research and talk and hang out. Men and women bustle around from lecture to lecture, meeting to meeting—and there I was, out of my element and out of my league, barely staying afloat in the midst of the sea of scholars.

At first I couldn’t figure out to manage the bustle of the thousands of people and the hundreds of lectures every hour. But I finally noticed how it works—how the people-management game is organized. Here’s the secret: when you walk around, you never look at faces; eye-contact isn’t at all important. Instead, you learn to train your eyes to read the name tags around everyone’s necks.

It was a very strange experience. I would walk around, with so many people all around me, and I felt completely alone… no one ever bothered to look at my face—eye-contact was a scarcity. Once they read my name tag, Isaac, and realized that I hadn’t written any important books, they went off looking for people with name tags that read John Milbank or N.T. Wright or Stanley Hauerwas or Bart Erhman. Or the worst part about all this is that I learned how to play the game too. Soon I started paying much more attention to the name tags than the face that happened to accompany them.

(pause)

Luke 14, verse 1: “On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.” It sounds like Jesus had one of those important name tags around his neck. He’s traveled the country side healing people and saying some powerful things about God’s kingdom that’s about to happen. And even though he hadn’t yet published any major treatise, he had quite the following—everyone flocked to his side as he set his face to Jerusalem. This guy is important. And this important Pharisee has Jesus over for dinner to see for himself what this guy is all about. Anyone with a bit of social capital made sure they got invited to this dinner.

When I lived in California, depending on the type of gathering, it was important to be, what’s called, “fashionably late.” If you get there early, then you come across as having a pretty dull life and nothing else going on—or you’re just plain desperate. And if you get there on time, then obviously you’re an outsider because you are still obsessed with punctuality and don’t quite have the kicked-back California attitude yet. If you have it all together, then you better be there a half hour—maybe an hour—late, depending on the city, depending on the type of event, depending on who’s going to be there.

But when Jesus comes to town, it’s more like trying to get a ticket to the reunion tour of the Police, or the Cure, or the Pixies. You better be there early, maybe even camp out. Maybe it’s more like trying to get tickets to the UNC v. Duke basketball game.

With all eyes on Jesus, the honored guest, and the most important people scrambling for the honored positions around him and his Pharisee host, Jesus turns the tables. Jesus says, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (14:11).

That’s just not the way things are done—the culture of honor is reinforced, made visible, at meals. There’s an unspoken—and strict—code about how to manage social relationships, and Jesus breaks all the rules. Friends are important, but it’s about the right kind of friends, friends in high places. Or, at least to be careful not to have lowlifes hanging around. And if you honor the right people, if important people want to dine with you, then you can be sure you can call upon them when you need them.

Friendship become a tool, a social tool, something to use so you can get ahead, or get where you want to go. But Jesus calls all of this into question: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor” (v8)… “Go and sit down at the lowest place” (v10)… “When you have a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return… But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (vv12-13).

I should stop talking and leave it at that. Our text is quite clear. I can only make Jesus’ words more complicated. If you want a simple, clear message about what this bible passage means for our lives, here it is: When you have a dinner, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Share a meal with poor people. Invite them into your house. I’m not saying it’s an easy thing to do, I can’t say that it’s something I feel too comfortable about… it’s just what Jesus says to do.

(pause)

But if you are like me, and need a little more encouragement or rationale to do the things that Jesus says, then let me tell you a story—it’s an ancient one. Out in the dry wilderness, at the edge of a forest, a man sat out in front of his tent. It was midday, dusty and hot—he sat there, in the shade cast by the tent, waiting for a refreshing breeze. And almost silently, three strange travelers appeared nearby, apparently on a long journey. In an instant, our man awakens from his daydream, jumps up, and greets the three strangers, washes their feet, sits them down, and starts to prepare a feast.

This is the story of Abraham, when the Lord came to him near the great trees of Mamre. Let me read the first few verses of the story from Genesis 18:

The Lord appeared to Abraham…when he was sitting at the entrance to his tent… Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.

This is the memory, the event, behind our passage from Hebrews 13:2—“Do not forget to (show hospitality to) care for the strangers, for by doing so some have entertained messengers without knowing it.”

So, if taking Jesus at his word—that we should share meals with the poor—is not enough to convince us, because we are afraid or stubborn, then Hebrews gives us a little more incentive. When Abraham shared a meal with dusty strangers, it turned out to be the Lord.

(pause)

I think the heart of the matter is love, but it’s not the kind of controlled love, calculating love, manipulating love, that our world is familiar with. Jesus breaks down those important social boundaries for how affection is worked out. In our story from Luke he tells the people that they should be moved by uncalculating love—throw away the calculator, forget about reciprocity, forget about honor, forget about using friends like tools, and go share a meal with someone not because of what you can get from them, but simply because you want to be in their presence, to sit and talk and share your life with them.

It’s not about what or who they know, and it’s not about who sees you eating with them. It’s about love, transgressive love, overflowing love—love and care and affection for those who you’re really don’t have to concern yourself with, they don’t matter in your world.

And this love is at the heart of Hebrews 13. The first verse, the theme for everything else that follows: “Let mutual love continue.” Other translations say, “Let love for the brethren abide.” Mutual love, brethren love—translations are trying to get the sense of the Greek word philadelphia. Everyone knows that word—the city of brotherly love (philia means love, and adelphos means brother). It’s sibling love—a love that binds us together at our very core, deeper than blood and genetic codes. Hebrews says, let that kind of deep and profound, unalterable, love continue among us. That’s an important admonition.

But then Hebrews takes us on an unexpected turn. It’s enough of a task for our love for one another to run as deep and permanent as siblings—that takes work, especially if there are people here you don’t like. But this love also overflows, it transgresses the bounds of the community, it escapes—this love can’t be contained.

That’s what the second verse is about: “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers.” (I usually don’t do all this Greek stuff in my sermon, but I think it’s important for understanding how love works in this passage, and the translations have a hard time helping us see what’s going on.) What we read as “hospitality to strangers” is one word: philoxenias. The first part of the word is our familiar philia: love. So it has to do with love—hospitality, sharing a meal, opening our home, is about love. And then the second part of the word: xenos—that’s where we get the word “xenophobia,” fear of foreigners or strangers.

And Hebrews is saying that we shouldn’t fear the stranger or foreigner, but we are called to love them: philoxenias—our love for each other overflows the boundaries of our community and pours out into a love for foreigners or strangers. From philadelphia to philoxenias. It’s transgressive love. Cities of brotherly love are also to be the cities of foreigner love—at least, that’s what Hebrews says, and, as a side note, that’s how I think we should (pause)

We are bound together by love, and as we love one another that love overflows and washes over strangers and foreigners—not because that’s a good thing to do, but it’s because that’s just the way God’s love works, it’s the logic of God’s love, of the God who is love. We love because God first loved us. That means that the way love works in God, is also the way it works for us.

And Jeremiah is all about God’s transgressive love; it’s about the way God can’t help but let love drive him to absurd measures when it comes to Israel, the people of God, his beloved. In our passage, God wonders how it’s possible for his beloved to leave him. How could the people of God forget about the one who brought them out of Egypt, who fed them in the wilderness, who gave them fruitful land, and now turn to other gods, other lovers? This passage is about a people, married to God, who turned unfaithful.

We hear the marriage part at the beginning of chapter 2, verse 2:

I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the desert.

And here is where we begin to see the God whose love is transgressive, who even breaks laws, his own laws, because he can’t help but be moved by his love of his bride, his people, us.

According to God’s law in Deuteronomy, when a marriage partner leaves and finds another, the original partner may not take him or her back, even if there is a change of heart. The restoration of the marriage relationship is absolutely restricted after infidelity. This is from the first part of Deuteronomy 24. “Her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled.”

But it is God, the God of Israel, the one who gave this law restricting a husband from pursuing his wife who left him for another—it’s this God who can’t help but seek after his bride, Israel. God is so moved by love, that God can’t help but transgress the law, God’s own law regarding marriage. God’s love for his people is transgressive, excessive, overflowing proper bounds, overturning laws, because God can’t help but be in love, and be moved by ecstatic love, for his people. Nothing will separate the people from God’s love, not even God.

And this is the message of the good news of Jesus Christ: the one in whom we see God’s transgressive love. Jesus is God’s mission of love for us, even when we are unfaithful, and even though we are Gentiles, foreigners and strangers to the promises of Israel. Jesus is God’s love poured out for us that overflows lawful boundaries. It is Jesus who prepares a banquet and invites us, outsiders to the promises of God, and shares his life, pours out his life, for us.

I think we are now given new eyes to read the story from Luke, and I want to offer you two ways to read it.

Here’s the first one, based on what we learned in Jeremiah: Jesus enters into the house of Israel, the house of the Pharisee, and takes over as the host. And when he does, he breaks all rules so he can feast, so he can fellowship, with the excluded and the outsiders. And he does so because he is consumed with God’s love, this love that transgresses laws and boundaries because it knows nothing else but abundant love. So, in the story, we are the poor, the lame, and the blind. And Jesus opens up to us a way into a new covenant, a marriage relationship with our creator and our lover.

Now here’s a second way to read that story, based on what we learned in Hebrews 13: Maybe Jesus is also found among the dishonored guests, the ones without the social capital to get a place of honor up front. Maybe it’s Jesus who went and took the lowest place, who humbled himself, who did not seek exaltation. And maybe it’s this strange and disfigured Jesus who we find, who we love, who we welcome to our table, when we go to the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.

Because it was Jesus, as the gospels tell us, who was so poor that he did not have a place to lay his head. And it was Jesus who was made crippled and lame through torture at the hands of Herod and Pilate. And it was Jesus who, ultimately, was made blind by death on the Roman cross. Maybe, just maybe, our call to love like God loves us—this transgressive love—is the way we may come to receive the gospel, the good news, Christ our Lord, the messenger of God.

Tags: sermons

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Erin // Jan 21, 2008 at 10:38 pm

    I stumbled across this while doing research for a literary theory paper on transgressive love, it was so wonderful to come upon somethin enlightening rather than a little bit scary – (as you never know whats going to come up with that as a search term) truely a beautiful sermon. thanks.

  • 2 isaac // Jan 25, 2008 at 10:25 am

    Erin, thanks for reading my sermon, and for the kind words: “truly a beautiful sermon.” Most of the time I am disappointed by what I say after I preach. But I think this is one of the few sermons that I think turned out alright.

    And I can only imagine what comes up when you google “transgressive love”... I don’t think I’ll try it.

    peace,
    isv

  • 3 benedict phang // Jan 4, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    It is a most beautiful sermon.Love makes saint into “sinner”!

  • 4 isaac // Jan 5, 2011 at 6:02 am

    Benedict, thanks for the kind comment.