2 Corinthians

what kind of father is that?

During the decade of the 90s, a term that became deeply entrenched in our political and cultural discussion was the term “family values.”  Many of the people who became the strongest advocates of “family values” held up, as examples of the model family, something that has largely disappeared in America: a husband and wife with no previous marriages, 2.5 kids, a dog, and a white picket fence.

1 gn[Do family values include standing under the mistletoe?]

“Family values” is usually closely linked with one’s reading of “biblical values.”  The interesting thing about this is that actual biblical families are rarely mentioned as models.  Maybe that’s a good thing, though it isn’t very honest.  Those families tend to be too messy; they have too much conflict and dysfunction.  In that sense, they tend to resemble American families!

A good case in point is the family in Genesis 21.  We’ve got all the ingredients necessary for some serious family therapy: jealousy, rivalry, power plays, squabbling over who’s the favored son, and feelings of betrayal.  I want to focus on the father, Abraham, because it is Father’s Day and because he is the one in the middle of the whole mess.

To be honest, there are two qualities of this family that don’t exist in American life—at least not legally—polygamy and slavery!  Another aspect, surrogate, or substitute, motherhood, is usually performed in a way quite different from the method described in the Bible.  Most wives today wouldn’t suggest to their husbands that they have sex with another woman (indeed a much younger woman) in order to produce a child!

And by the way, if you have access to Hulu, check out the quite excellent TV series, The Handmaid’s Tale.  The show illustrates with brutal honesty what’s behind our story and others like it.

Today’s account really starts in chapter 16.  God has already promised Abraham he will father a son, which so far in life hasn’t happened.  (On a side note, that’s something else from The Handmaid’s Tale.  Failure to conceive was always due to a barren woman, not a sterile man.)

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Abraham believes Eliezer of Damascus, a trusted servant, will be his heir.  But God assures him his heir will be his own offspring.  As you might guess, Sarah hasn’t given birth, but they do have a young woman as a servant.  So here’s the plan: following the custom of the day, Abraham is to take Hagar as his wife, and maybe she can have his baby.  The scripture doesn’t talk about Abraham’s response.  He doesn’t seem to offer much of an argument!

The son who is born, Ishmael, is legally Abraham’s heir.  And the same custom that provides for a male heir provided by a surrogate also forbids the expulsion of the slave wife and her child.  That partly explains Abraham’s distress when Sarah demands he do that very thing.[1]

But even before Ishmael is born, some of that serious jealousy and rivalry I spoke of earlier has already begun.  In a society in which women are valued largely for their ability to reproduce, as breeding stock, Hagar is empowered in a way Sarah, even with all her wealth, is not.

The three of them are driven by different forces.  Sarah feels a sense of desperation and outrage at her fate.  Hagar, the one with the least amount of say, has been forced to share her bed with her elderly master and now faces the wrath of Sarah.  And Abraham is torn by his love for Sarah, his respect for custom, and the bond that now exists with Hagar.  When Sarah complains, he simply withdraws and says, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please” (16:6).  In other words, “I don’t want to get involved; leave me out of it.”

Sarah proceeds to make life a living hell for her servant, and Hagar runs away into the wilderness.  It’s there she encounters God who tells her to return but also says she, too, will produce offspring that “cannot be counted for multitude” (16:10).  This encounter is important—Hagar is one of the few people in the entire Bible who gives God a name (El roi, “God of vision” or “God who sees,” 16:13).

Let’s jump ahead a few years, to today’s scripture reading in chapter 21.  The Lord has told Abraham and Sarah she really will have a son, and he will be the true heir.  Isaac is born, and the rivalry between the two wives now involves their two sons.

Things reach a melting point at the feast celebrating the day Isaac is weaned.  The party’s going fine until Sarah notices something that gets her really ticked off.  She sees, as the scripture puts it, Ishmael “playing” (v. 9).

What we have is a play on words, a pun.  The term for “playing” (מְעַחֶק, metsahaq) comes from the word meaning “laugh” (צָחַק, tsahaq), which is where Isaac’s name (יִצְחָק, yitshaq) comes from.  Some say “playing” can also mean “mocking.”  Some even think “playing” means Ishmael doing something even worse to his little half-brother!   In any event, Sarah demands that Hagar and Ishmael be driven out, this time, for good.

3 gnI’ve taken this time talking about Hagar’s expulsion because it’s a turning point in the story of this family.  It also helps us understand Abraham.  As I said at the beginning, I especially want to focus on him, today being Father’s Day.

[Max, the father of our dog, Ronan]

My sermon title asks the question, “What kind of father is that?”  If Abraham is intended, a rather harsh reply would be: “not a very good one.”  What kind of father would allow his own son to be driven away and abandoned in the wilderness?  What kind of father would allow the mother of his son to be treated that way?

(Even worse than that, later we have the truly horrific event of the binding of Isaac in which he is being prepared for ritual sacrifice by his father’s hand.)

Still, Abraham is chosen to be a blessing to “all the families of the earth” (12:3).  It’s God, not Abraham, who has the responsibility of bringing this to pass.  Abraham’s responsibility is to follow where God leads.  And despite himself, he succeeds.  And to his credit, we shouldn’t forget Abraham didn’t exactly ask for all of this.

Thinking about Abraham and the question, “What kind of father is that?” has led me to think of my own experience.  It’s led me to think of my own father.  And I’m glad to say: my mother never encouraged him to take another wife and to father a son with whom I now have a bitter rivalry!  I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have gone along with the idea!

On Father’s Day we are encouraged to praise the glories of fatherhood, which is fitting.  But there are others who go in the opposite direction and talk about how their dad was the biggest jerk who ever lived.  Thankfully, I’m not in that category!

What I will say is that my father is someone I know really loved me.  Having been adopted as a baby, I later came to understand all the hoops he and my mother had to jump through in order to get me.  I know I was truly wanted.

When I was young, we did the usual father-son stuff: going fishing, throwing the football, etc.  But as I approached adolescence, sometimes it seemed like we were on different planets.  (I realize, I was the only teen who ever felt that way!)  For example, he might be explaining how to fix something, and I’d be looking at our dog and wondering, “What would be like to think with her brain?”

Something happened in 1985.  Within the span of one or two months, both my father and I came to Christ.  Our relationship had never been a bad one; it just hadn’t evolved very much.  We didn’t have many deep conversations.  But Jesus Christ changed that.  We felt free to open up to each other.  And I rediscovered something I had believed as a little kid: my dad was a pretty cool guy!

Just as it was faith that redeemed our relationship, so it’s faith that redeems Abraham.  He and his family provide ample proof that “family” can be quite creepy.  In fact, we can be quite vicious to each other.  I like commercials with the promise, “We treat you like family.”  I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good thing!  But by the grace of God, we can rise above that.

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[Where along the scale of creepiness would this family fall?]

“What kind of father is that?”  We all can ask that question of our own fathers.  Each has a different answer.  But regardless of our own particular cases, there is a Father we all share.

According to the apostle Paul, this one is “the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction” (2 Co 1:3-4).  That’s a lot of consolation.  We might be forgiven if we don’t see Abraham in that light, and as hinted before, perhaps our own fathers.

Aside from binding and healing our wounds, this consolation has another role: we are to pass it on.  Paul continues, saying God’s consolation is given “so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God” (v. 4).  If we haven’t experienced consolation, if we haven’t experienced comfort and solace, that well will run dry before we know it.

The Father’s gracious provision enters a perpetual cycle through the risen Son.  “For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ” (v. 5).

What kind of Father is that?  Fortunately, we need not be a father to share in the self-giving that best epitomizes the character of “father.”  We need not be male to share in that.  By the way, Jesus modeled qualities which are too often labeled “feminine.”  It simply who he was.

Our final hymn today is “This is My Father’s World.”  (I realize, this being Father’s Day, it is a bit “on the nose”!)

We might see many families, as well as our society itself, being plagued by vicious dysfunction.  The second stanza has something to say about that:

“This is my Father’s world: Oh, let me ne’er forget / That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet. / This is my Father’s world: The battle is not done; / Jesus who died shall be satisfied, And earth and heaven be one.”

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[Love above all. My son and I. A picture taken in my mother's house in Kinshasa. Photo by Kaysha on Unsplash.]

As the church, as our best selves, we’re called to rescue the image of God as Father.  So much violence has been done in that name.  But the God of Jesus Christ is the Father who loves, protects, liberates, enlightens, saves.  With joy and confidence, we can ask, “What kind of father is that?”

 

[1] John Bright, A History of Israel, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1981), 79.


reset button—to hit or not to hit?

The epistle reading which is the final note of St. Paul’s farewell to the Corinthian church is to a church that has given him plenty of grief.  He’s had to get after them for being too lax, and then for being too strict.  They’ve split themselves up into competing factions; the rich among them have treated the poor with disrespect; they’ve chased after the latest fads; they’ve done these and many other things.  To their credit, one thing they have not been is boring!  But through it all, Paul has consistently guided them in, and to, the love and peace of Jesus Christ.

1 2 coHe starts by saying, “Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell.”  That word for “farewell” usually means “rejoice.”[1]  What would it mean for them to fare well with rejoicing?

The apostle has a list of instructions.  When he says, “Put things in order,” he’s not demonstrating OCD!  He’s not being a neat freak; he’s not commanding them to sort each other out.  But we’ll get back to that one in a few moments.

Secondly, his plea to “listen to my appeal” is a plea to learn humility.  That flows into his request when he says, “agree with one another.”  Paul’s not telling them to act like clones.  He wants them as best they can, to obey the law of love.  This will enable them to “live in peace.”

In verse 12, the apostle adds this: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”  He says this in several letters.  This is where the “kiss of peace” and our “passing the peace” come from.  And for anyone who’s ever wondered why we usually do not kiss each other—besides concerns about inappropriate contact (not to mention the virus-imposed concern about transmission of disease)—there’s also the fact that fairly early in church history, they had similar concerns.  The liturgical practice of men kissing women who were not their wives, and women kissing men who were not their husbands, was abandoned.

I have a little story along those lines.  When Banu and I were in seminary, I took a worship class taught by a Presbyterian professor.  She gave us an assignment.  On Sunday, we were to attend a church with a worship service very different from the one we were used to.  There was an Armenian Orthodox church about a mile down the road.  (In case you didn’t know, there are a few differences between the Armenian Orthodox and Presbyterians!)

The entire service was in the Armenian language, except for the sermon and the prayer of confession, which were in English.  Included in their liturgy was the kiss of peace, the holy kiss.  The only other people in the pew where I was sitting was a family with a father, mother, and daughter.  She looked like she was about 20.  They started down the line, kissing each other on the cheek.  Then the daughter started moving toward me; I became a bit nervous.  She extended her hand, so a holy kiss turned into a holy handshake.  Potential drama averted!

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[Ryan Gosling poses a hermeneutical question]

Paul ends the passage with a Trinitarian benediction, a triple blessing.  That’s why this is a scripture for Trinity Sunday.

What does the Holy Trinity mean in our lives?  There are many ways to go with this.  An image that might be helpful is seeing the Holy Trinity as the perfect community of love.  In this community, no one pushes the others aside.  No one tries to hog the spotlight; no one grumbles in the background.  That has ramifications for all of life, including the call to make disciples.  Then it won’t be just a song: they really will “know we are Christians by our love.”

That community of love has an even greater urgency today.  We’ve noticed how this strange new world in which we find ourselves, courtesy of COVID-19, has brought us to a relative standstill, though some places and some people are standing still more than others.  Each of us has taken notice of that reality, sometimes in quite trivial ways.  (I was alarmed when the NHL suspended its season!  But the alarm has turned to relief since they have decided to have the playoffs!)

Banu and I were discussing certain realities in the church.  We are aware that we are in an in-between time.  (We had interim pastor training several years ago, and never has it been more spot-on!)  What is happening now?  What will happen when “this” is all over?

In my Easter sermon, I addressed this very thing.[2]  “There has been much discussion about getting back to normal (post pandemic) and how long it will take before it happens.  I don’t believe it will ever happen.  If we somehow pretend to go back to the way things were, we’ll be fooling ourselves.  These events are happening; there’s nothing we can do to change it.  The question will be if we learn from this—if we allow the Spirit to teach us.”

3 2 coHas a reset button has been given to us?  What would it mean to hit it?

Let’s go back to this business of “[putting] things in order.”  It’s probably best to read that as a passive instruction.  “Be restored to order.”  Be restored.  Permit yourselves to be set straight.

Permit me to include what I said in a blog post.[3]

It appears to be increasingly certain that this coronavirus is here to stay.  We need to make long term plans, not simply knee-jerk reactions.  Unless we are prepared for chaos around the globe (okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit!), our economic, our political, and most of all, our spiritual mindsets need to change.

Is there any wisdom we can glean from Paul’s use of a single Greek word, καταρτιζω (katartizō)?  Surely “be restored to order” can be seen as applying, to not just our relationship with other humans (be they in the church or not), but to our relationship with the earth itself.  It better be—no, it must be—if we are to live within our calling to be stewards of God’s good creation.

4 2 coIt looks like global climate change has taken on a whole new dimension.  Planet earth is calling “timeout.”

Maybe hitting the reset button will become a daily exercise.  And to be honest, doesn’t that reflect teachings handed down through the centuries?  For example, the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon (who were facing their own strange new world), “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (29:7).  Every morning, when they woke up, they had to hit the reset button.  They had no choice.  Still, the prophet of God encouraged them.  He assured them that was the way to life.

If human history—if church history—is any guide, the changes we need to make are usually the ones forced on us.

Speaking of changes we need to make, I would be remiss if I neglected to address the killing of George Floyd and other unarmed black folks (especially young men) by the police and others.  Also we can’t ignore the violent opportunists who have turned peaceful demonstrations into acts of wanton destruction, even committing murder, and that includes murdering police officers.

I also can’t ignore what I saw—a man in his final moments of life, calling out for his mama.  In my bold, heroic gesture, I posted on Facebook the three words, “I can’t breathe.”  One of my Facebook friends responded with a series of question marks.  She wasn’t sure what I was referring to, so I said it was about the death of George Floyd.  Her reply: “that is why I am limiting my news exposure.”  I wasn’t sure what to do with that.  (And I have since taken down my post.)

In a way, I understand where she’s coming from.  This happens over and over and over again; it seems to be part of our history.  The names and faces just blur together.

So what can we make of how Paul wraps everything up?  What does it say about being restored to order?  “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” (v. 13).  Is it just a nice, tidy way to say goodbye?  William Loader says it is “a benediction which teaches us where the heart of the gospel lies—if we ever to stop to think what it really means.”[4]

Each of those terms is filled with meaning, but I want to focus on the third one: “the communion of the Holy Spirit.”

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What does that mean?  One thing it surely means is that communion (in Greek, κοινωνία, koinōnia) is provided by the Holy Spirit.  Communion, fellowship, sharing—however you translate koinōnia—is a gift of the Spirit.  It is a gift given when we come together as the one body of Christ.

“The communion of the Holy Spirit” can also mean “participation in the Holy Spirit.”[5]  It means “the Spirit as that which is shared by believers,” being within the Spirit, so to speak.  As we consider participating in the Spirit, being within the Spirit, I would ask, “What are some other things we participate in?  What other realities are we within?  What do we surround ourselves with?”

On the negative side—I’ll start with bad news!  We can participate in cynicism, a world-weary distrust, a feeling that nothing matters anyway.  We can share in prejudice, to literally “pre-judge,” be it by ethnicity, political orientation, some religious conviction, or someone’s favorite food.  We can surround ourselves with tribalism, which leads to fear and loathing of “the other,” whoever “the other” might be.

Okay, how about some good news?  What are some positive forces, life-enhancing atmospheres we can share, we can breathe?  The fruit of the Holy Spirit is a good starting point: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Ga 5:22-23).  We can enter into confident hope, as opposed to a world in which we always have to watch our back.  We can surround ourselves with humor.  I’m not talking about pointing and laughing, giving people derogatory, immature nicknames.

When we can laugh at ourselves, we allow an easy, joyful spirit to flow among us.  It opens the door to a spirituality of a graceful gratitude.  (Granted, some of us provide more material at which to laugh.  I see evidence of that every day in the mirror!)  I often say one of the sure signs we have been created in the image of God is a sense of humor.

We are told “Paul has expanded a traditional farewell to make it match a situation where community and compassion was largely missing.”[6]  The apostle is reminding the Corinthians that they need to get over themselves.  Hit that reset button!

For us here, regarding that reset button: “to hit or not to hit”—that is the question.  Like the exiles in Babylon, in their strange new world, perhaps we need to hit that button every day.  There’s no question we are facing challenges like never before.  Hitting the reset button daily might keep us sane!

6 2 coLet me finish with a quote from Thomas à Kempis’ masterpiece, The Imitation of Christ.[7]  (With slightly different language in this particular translation.)  Maybe we can say this is his take on hitting the reset button.

“Every day we should renew our resolve to live a holy life, and every day we should kindle ourselves to a burning love, just as if today were the first day of our new life in Jesus Christ.”

That, my friends, is being restored with a triple blessing.

 

[1] χαιρω (chairō)

[2] www.zebraview.net/2020/04/rich-wounds-yet-visible-above.html

[3] www.zebraview.net/2020/06/hit-the-reset-button.html

[4] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/AEpTrinity.htm

[5] Victor Paul Furnish, The Anchor Bible: 2 Corinthians (New York: Doubleday, 1984), 584.

[6] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/AEpTrinity.htm

[7] www.ccel.org/ccel/kempis/imitation.all.html


hit the reset button

We’ve noticed how this strange new world in which we find ourselves, courtesy of COVID-19, has brought us to a relative standstill, though some places are standing still more than others.  Each of us has taken notice of that reality, sometimes in quite trivial ways.  (I was alarmed when the NHL suspended its season!  But the alarm has turned to elation since they have decided to have the playoffs!)

Shut happens
[photo by Jason Mowry on Unsplash]

Banu and I were discussing certain realities in the church.  We are aware that we’re in an in-between time.  (Never has interim pastor training been more spot-on!)  What is happening now?  What will happen when “this” is all over?

In my Easter sermon, I addressed this very thing.  “There has been much discussion about getting back to normal (post pandemic) and how long it will take before it happens.  I don’t believe it will ever happen.  If we somehow pretend to go back to the way things were, we’ll be fooling ourselves.  These events are happening; there’s nothing we can do to change it.  The question will be if we learn from this—if we allow the Spirit to teach us.”

Has a reset button has been given to us?  What would it mean to hit it?  One of the scripture texts for Trinity Sunday is the conclusion of 2 Corinthians.  In 13:11, the apostle Paul says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell.  Put things in order…”  It’s probably best to read that as a passive instruction.  “Be restored to order.”  Be restored.  Permit yourselves to be set straight.

It appears to be increasingly certain that this coronavirus is here to stay.  We need to make long term plans, not simply knee-jerk reactions.  Unless we are prepared for chaos around the globe (okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit!), our economic, political, and even spiritual mindsets need to change.

Is there any wisdom we can glean from Paul’s use of that single Greek word, καταρτιζω (katartizō)?  Surely “be restored to order” can be seen as applying, to not just our relationship with other humans (be they in the church or not), but to our relationship with the earth itself.  It better be—no, it must be—if we are to live within our calling to be stewards of God’s good creation.

Timeout popIt looks like global climate change has taken on a whole new dimension.  Planet earth is calling “timeout.”

[Gregg Popovich, awesome coach of the San Antonio Spurs, calls timeout]

Maybe hitting the reset button will become a daily exercise.  And to be honest, doesn’t that reflect teachings handed down through the centuries?  For example, the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon (who were facing their own strange new world), “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (29:7).  Every morning, when they woke up, they had to hit the reset button.  They had no choice.  Still, the prophet of God encouraged them.  He assured them that was the way to life.

ResetIf human history—if church history—is any guide, the changes we need to make are usually the ones forced on us.  But so be it.  May the Spirit lead, by any means necessary, the restoration required to live and to prosper in this crazy new age unfolding before us.


love, food, and toilet paper

One day while the Israelites were wandering through the wilderness, they were grumbling because they couldn’t find any food.  Many were saying, “Wasn’t it great when we were slaves in Egypt?  We had plenty to eat!  And now—we’re looking at you, Moses—we’re going to die in the desert.”  God told Moses, “Okay, I’m going to give them something to eat.  They’ll call it ‘manna from heaven.’  Tell them that they will have as much as they need.”  That’s what Moses told the people.  In the morning, they found it scattered on the ground.

“Moses said to them, ‘Let no one leave any of it over until [next] morning.’  But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul.  And Moses was angry with them” (Exodus 16:19-20).

They chose the path of hoarding.  Does that sound familiar?

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(Did they have toilet paper?)

At the last session meeting (that’s Presbyterian-speak for board of elders), we had an extended discussion on the uncharted territory our congregation and the whole world find ourselves in.  What to do?  How to worship?  How to care for one other?

We could choose the path of hoarding.  I’ve got mine.  Go fend for yourself.

We decided to go another way.  We’ll be worshipping online.  We will be having prayer times, classes, and other opportunities for sacred space.

The coming weeks and months will not be easy.  (That’s no doubt a colossal understatement.)  We can choose to hoard, or we can choose to share.  Every Sunday we hear the Trinitarian benediction, “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship (or communion) of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”  The Greek word for “fellowship” is κοινωνια (koinonia), which at root means “sharing.”

When we hoard, we wind up losing what we think we had.  The apostle Paul reminds the Corinthian church, “you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

Together, we will find new ways to be “sharing.”  Let us share, not hoard, the physical means of living and thriving.  Let us share, not hoard, the care and companionship that bring support to each other.  Let us share, not hoard, the living Word who frees us from the chains of fear and panic.

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[photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash]

“Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).


the strength of weakness

All of us, to one extent or another, are encouraged to downplay our weaknesses.  In a more positive light, they can be called “growing edges.”  (Banu has said by calling them “growing edges” we’re being more honest.  I don’t really mind calling them weaknesses, since I have plenty to choose from!)

In any event, sometimes there’s the temptation to focus on, and even to exaggerate our strengths and abilities in order to impress others and to make a name for ourselves.  We might even want to fool ourselves.

As you may or may not have guessed from our epistle reading in 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul doesn’t like to operate that way, and for what it’s worth, he doesn’t shy away from speaking of his own “weaknesses.”

1 2 co 12

He starts the chapter by saying, “It is necessary to boast.”  But he quickly adds “nothing is to be gained by it” (v. 1).  Why does Paul say he has to boast?  He’s dealing with the Corinthian church, a group of people that are being wowed by preachers Paul sarcastically calls “super-apostles.”  They are superheroes in eloquence!  Unfortunately, some of the stuff they articulate so well is more focused on themselves than on the gospel.

Several times I’ve mentioned church consultant Peter Steinke.  In the epilogue of his book Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, he talks about “people of the charm.”  It deals with narcissistic, self-centered qualities.  It’s about people who are charmers and those who want to be charmed.  He describes a charmer as one who “can thrive for years without realizing that the core of his or her life is empty and that beneath the narcissistic glitter is a false and an impaired self.”[1]

The charmer projects charisma, which in reality can be “a cheap substitute for charis, the [New Testament] word for grace.”  The charmer uses charisma “to control and manipulate other people…  In the circle of charm, there is no freedom.”[2]  But that’s okay, because as I said, they admire the charmer—they enjoy being put under the spell!

Steinke quotes someone who made a nice little pun.  He said such relationships are “gilt by association.”[3]

So getting back to Paul, when he says he’s forced to brag, for a moment he decides to play their game.  He has some credentials himself that aren’t too shabby.  He can be a show off with the best of them.  Seriously, how many of these characters can honestly claim they’ve had visions of being taken to heaven and hearing “things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat”? (v. 4).  Let them try to match that!

Still, despite his visions, he says there’s nothing to brag about.  There’s no reason to play the role of charmer.  If there is anything to brag about, it’s his weaknesses.  If that’s his focus, I don’t think the apostle’s LinkedIn account would be very impressive!  I’m not sure how well he would do interviewing for a job!

2 2 co 12And just in case he’s tempted to draw attention to himself and “the exceptional character of the revelations,” he adds “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated,” from getting too big for his britches (v. 7)!

No one really knows what he means by this “thorn in the flesh.”  Some have speculated it’s an illness.  In Galatians 4, he says, “You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me” (vv. 13-14).  Another version says “you resisted any temptation to show scorn or disgust at my physical condition” (REB).  It seems like, for a while at least, Paul wasn’t very attractive.

The thorn could be something else Paul admits: he’s not a very good public speaker.  In chapter 11, he says, “I think that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles.  I may be untrained in speech, but not in knowledge” (vv. 5-6).  Eugene Peterson puts it like this: “if you put up with these big-shot ‘apostles,’ why can’t you put up with simple me?  I’m as good as they are.  It’s true that I don’t have their voice, haven’t mastered that smooth eloquence that impresses you so much.  But when I do open my mouth, I at least know what I’m talking about.”

Whatever the thorn in the flesh might be, Paul begs God three times to take it away.  But the response is, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9).  Paul eventually accepts it.  And his conclusion?  “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10).

The apostle discovers, and teaches, the strength of weakness.

On the face of it, “the strength of weakness” seems to be completely ridiculous.  It’s like saying, “as clear as mud.”  But Paul has learned from the vision he saw on the road to Damascus.  He has learned from the one who, as he says, “was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God” (2 Co 13:4).

There is indeed power in weakness.  When we’re able to admit our mistakes, to acknowledge our weaknesses, there is a sense of liberation.  When we’re freed from the compulsion to project a false front, to put on a show, to trust in our own achievements, we begin the journey of discovering who we truly are.

As Thomas Merton says in No Man is an Island, “If I do not know who I am, it is because I think I am the sort of person everyone around me wants to be.  Perhaps I have never asked myself whether I really wanted to become what everybody else seems to want to become.  Perhaps if I only realized that I do not admire what everyone seems to admire, I would really begin to live after all…”[4]

“Why do we have to spend our lives striving to be something that we would never want to be, if we only knew what we wanted?  Why do we waste our time doing things which, if we only stopped to think about them, are just the opposite of what we were made for?”[5]

3 2 co 12The strength of weakness is daring to be who God created us to be.

And it also applies to congregations.  It’s okay to admit your struggles; it’s okay to admit your weaknesses—or at least, your perceived weaknesses.  It’s okay to be who God created, and is still creating, you to be.

We can speak of many things, but one of those qualities is being able to say goodbye to the past.  This is a challenge in many congregations.  One way this presents itself is in programs and activities.  These are things that, for a long time, have been a source of health and vitality.  But at some point, they outlive their usefulness.  Participation wanes, and they become something that is too inwardly-focused.  They no longer serve the gospel imperative to go forth into the world.

Being able to say goodbye also applies to pastoral boundaries.  In many congregations, there might be “beloved former pastors” and not-so-beloved former pastors.

It’s up to ministers to respect proper pastoral boundaries.  And even though it can be tough for the congregations, they also have a role in doing it.

And being able to say goodbye applies in other areas, as well.  But identifying it as a growing edge, and working on it, is yet again a case of the strength of weakness.

As intentional interim pastors, saying goodbye is part of the job.  Saying goodbye really goes with saying hello, right at the beginning of the ministry.  Some people might not understand and think of it as a weakness.  But even if someone looks at it that way, it’s a weakness that, if honored and embraced, shows it’s a sign of strength.

Many of you have seen each other’s weaknesses.  It’s just a fact of life.  We can fall into the trap of defining people solely on that basis.  It’s like taking a photo of someone at their worst—or in their most embarrassing situation—and saying, “This is who they are, forever and ever!”  Still, if we are in Christ, we live as those who believe and expect renewal and resurrection.  In many ways, we keep on being raised from the dead.  And thinking of weaknesses, there’s nothing weaker than death!

To make it real, we have to love one another.  We must learn to love God in each other.  It’s not always easy, but if we do that, we draw out each other’s strength from weakness.

It’s been said about weaknesses that they “play a most important part in all our lives.  It is because of them that we need others and others need us.  We are not all weak in the same spots, and so we supplement and complete one another, each one making up in [him- or herself] for the lack in another.”[6]

4 2 co 12

That is why the apostle Paul says, “on my behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses” (v. 5).  That includes identifying and laying down improper or unfair claims, identifying and laying down our pretensions, identifying and laying down our striving which kills us and others.

It’s not enough to embrace our weaknesses; we can do it and actually hold on to them.  We embrace our weaknesses—we own them, so to speak—but then turn them over to Christ.  We yield all of that stuff to the Lord.  And when we do, we are enabled to enter a new world, the upside-down world of Jesus in which when we are weak, we are strong.

That is the strength of weakness.

 

[1] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What (Herndon, VA:  The Alban Institute, 2006), 169.

[2] Steinke, 171.

[3] Steinke, 175.

[4] Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (New York:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1955), Kindle edition, chapter 7, section 8, paragraph 2.

[5] Merton, 7.8.3.

[6] Merton, Prologue, paragraph 25.


the art of blessing

Trinity Sunday is the only major holiday on the church calendar that isn’t based on the life of Jesus.  Instead, it’s based on a theological doctrine.  That might sound dry and academic, but the Holy Trinity is infused with life and joy and beauty and even humor.

Trinity Sunday doesn’t commemorate a single moment, but rather an eternal moment.  It’s not something in the life of Jesus the human, but rather the eternal life of Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, one with God and the Holy Spirit.

With the Holy Trinity, we have the very definition of community.  We have the perfect example of κοινωνια (koinōnia)—of communion, of fellowship.  In this community, everyone abides by the law of love.  No one prefers self before others.  This is the model for human family, for human society.  There is no grasping for power.  The desire is to be a blessing.  The Trinity lives out the art of blessing.

Speaking of blessing, the last verse of 2 Corinthians should be familiar.  It is to me, since that’s the benediction I like to use at the end of services of worship.  This is the Trinitarian benediction, with all its simplicity and depth.

1 trinity

It’s included at the end of St. Paul’s farewell to the Corinthian church, one that has given him plenty of grief.  He’s had to get after them for being too lax, and then for being too strict.  They’ve split themselves up into competing factions; they’ve treated the poor with disrespect; they’ve chased after the latest fads; they’ve done these and many other things.  To their credit, one thing they haven’t been is boring!  But through it all, Paul has consistently guided them in, and to, the love and peace of Jesus Christ.

In fact, he tells them how “the God of love and peace will be with” them.  That’s ultimately what verse 11 is all about.  First of all, when he says, “Put things in order,” he’s not demonstrating OCD!  He’s not being a neat freak; he’s not being a tidiness Nazi.  The apostle wants to avoid the disorder that has so often plagued them.  The word used, καταρτιζω (katartizō), can also mean “be restored.”  So he’s not browbeating them.

Secondly, his plea to “listen to my appeal” is a plea to learn humility.  That flows into his request when he says, “agree with one another.”  Paul’s not telling them to act like clones.  He wants them as best they can, to obey the law of love.  This will enable them to “live in peace.”

In verse 12, the apostle adds this: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”  He says this in several letters.  This is where our “kiss of peace” comes from.  And for anyone who’s ever wondered why we usually do not kiss each other—besides concerns about inappropriate contact—there’s also the fact that fairly early in church history, they also had concerns.  The liturgical practice of men kissing women who were not their wives, and women kissing men who were not their husbands, was abandoned.

I have a little story along those lines.  When Banu and I were in seminary, I took a worship class taught by a Presbyterian professor.  She gave us an assignment.  On Sunday, we were to attend a church with a worship service very different from the one we were used to.  There was an Armenian Orthodox church about a mile down the road.  (There are a few differences between the Armenian Orthodox and Presbyterians!)

The entire service was in the Armenian language, except for the sermon and the prayer of confession, which were in English.  Included in their liturgy was the kiss of peace.  The only other people in the pew where I was sitting was a family with a father, mother, and daughter.  She looked like she was about 20.  They started down the line, kissing each other on the cheek.  Then the daughter started moving toward me; I became a bit nervous.  She extended her hand, so a holy kiss turned into a holy handshake.  Potential drama averted!

2 trinity
Ryan Gosling does some theologizing.

In any event, maybe you can see why this epistle reading is used for Trinity Sunday.  With the Trinitarian benediction, we get a triple blessing.  Something similar is going on with our gospel text in Matthew, the so-called “great commission.”  The baptismal formula of “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” fits nicely for today.

What does the Holy Trinity mean in our lives?  There are many ways to go with this.  An image that might be helpful is one I suggested earlier—the Holy Trinity as the example of the perfect community of love.  That has ramifications for all of life, including the call to make disciples.  Then it won’t be just a song: they really will “know we are Christians by our love.”

I must confess, though; I don’t know what I’m talking about!  I say the words, “perfect community of love,” but I have only the scarcest idea what that means.

Well, it’s been said a picture is worth a thousand words.  And it is a picture, more specifically an icon, that I want us to consider.  It’s “The Trinity,” by Andrei Rublev.  This icon is a prime example of the art of blessing.  Rublev was inspired by the visitation of the three men/angels to Abraham when they announce that Sarah will have a child (Genesis 18:1-15).

The word “icon” (εικων, eikōn) appears many times in the New Testament.  It’s usually translated as “image.”  The apostle uses it in Colossians, when he says Christ “is the image [the icon] of the invisible God” (1:15).  We Presbyterians, as well as Protestants in general, tend to be suspicious of icons.  They seem to be too “Eastern Orthodox,” like the Armenians I spoke of a few moments ago.  You know, there’s nothing wrong with being in an Orthodox Church!  (We all have our plusses and minuses.)

Icons are considered to be windows into heaven, windows into the eternal.  This one features, from left to right, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  They show mutual deference to one another.

Over the centuries, many gallons of ink have been spilled over descriptions of the icon and what the various parts of it mean.  As you might guess, there is far too much for us to deal with right now.

Briefly, we can see the Father wearing a shimmering robe, reflecting many colors.  One writer says it “seems transparent,” it “cannot be described or confined in words.  And this is how it should be.  No one has seen the Father, but the vision of him fills the universe.”[1]

The Son is the Incarnate one, and his garments unite the brown of earth and the blue of heaven.  “In his person he unites heaven and earth, the two natures are present in him.”

The Holy Spirit is clothed in “the clear blue of the sky…with a robe of a fragile green.  So the Spirit of creation moves in sky and water, breathes in heaven and earth.  All living things owe their freshness to [the Spirit’s] touch.”

4 trinity
There is so much here.  We can go riffing, waiting to see what inspires us.  There’s the house behind the Father, maybe the one Jesus says has many mansions.  There’s the tree behind the Son—maybe the tree Abraham sat under, maybe the tree of life.  They all have wings; they all are carrying staffs.  They’re seated around a table featuring a chalice, which has been surmised to hold the lamb slain for us.

Maybe you get what I’m talking about.  All kinds of meaning can be seen in it.

In his excellent book, Praying with Icons, Jim Forest says this of Rublev’s work: “If one were to search for a single word to describe the icon, it is the word ‘love.’  The Holy Trinity itself is a community of love so perfect that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one.  All creation is a manifestation of God’s love.  The Incarnation of Christ is an act of love as is every word and action that follows, even if at times it is what Dostoevsky calls ‘a harsh and dreadful love.’”[2]

At first glance, I wondered what the big deal was.  Why all the fuss about this image?  But it was just that: a first glance.  I hadn’t taken the time to be with the icon, to pray with it, to let it speak to me.

Forest finishes his discussion of the icon in what I thought is a surprising way.  He says, “‘Of all the philosophical proofs of the existence of God,’ wrote the priest and scientist Pavel Florensky, who died a martyr’s death in the Stalin era, ‘that which carries the most conviction is not mentioned in any textbook.  It may be summarized as follows: “Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon exists, therefore God exists.”’”[3]

Imagine that: a work of art, the product of human hands, being given such lofty praise.

In a few moments, we’ll sing the hymn, “O Lord, Our God, How Excellent,” which is based on today’s psalm reading, Psalm 8.  The second stanza goes, “The heavens shout Your handiwork; / We stand beneath in awe, / To think the One who made all things / Should care for us at all.”

We are surrounded by blessing, even if you’re like me and really don’t understand!  Trinity Sunday reminds us that we are not alone, in fact, we are enveloped by love.  In one of my favorite verses in the Bible, Jesus says in our gospel reading to “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).  The blessing given to us—the benediction pronounced over us—both reassures us and calls us to action.

In our stumbling, halting way, we try to envision the Holy Trinity.  We use geometry, such as a triangle.  But that’s not the only way to picture the Trinity, with the inner being separated as points.  The Trinity can also be envisioned as a circle, ever flowing, never ending, encompassing all that is, existence itself.

I want to close with this.  It’s a question and a challenge.  How can we choose blessing over cursing?  How can we model the art of blessing?  How can we do that even today?

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.  Amen.

 

[1] www.sacredheartpullman.org/Icon%20explanation.htm

[2] Jim Forest, Praying with Icons (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1997), 99.

[3] Forest, 100.


spirit to forgive

I want to begin with a story about something that happened almost thirty years ago.  This was when I was a student at Southeastern College (now Southeastern University) in Lakeland, Florida.  That’s an Assemblies of God school.  For two semesters, I was part of a street ministry team that traveled to Tampa on Friday nights.

Our “parish,” so to speak, was a quarter-mile strip along Kennedy Boulevard.  Our “parishioners” were the street people who lived, and passed through, the area.  In those days, I don’t think it was the best part of town.

On my very first night, the very first person I approached was a gentleman clad in shabby-looking clothing.  He appeared to be in his fifties.  Not knowing what else to say, I told him, “Jesus loves you.”  As soon as he heard that, he began crying and telling me how he had lost his family and his career.  I don’t remember if it was because of drinking or gambling or something else, but he recited a litany of his mistakes.

1 pentecostWhen he had finished listing his failures, he asked me if I would forgive him.  At the time, I was thinking, “It’s not my job to forgive him.  I need to direct him to Christ.”  So I told the man Jesus forgives anyone and anything.  But that didn’t work.  It seemed like he needed to hear the words, so again he asked me, “Do you forgive me?”  I relented and said, “I forgive you.”  And with that, he shuffled away into the Tampa night.

Why do I begin with this story of speaking and hearing words of forgiveness?  One might ask, “Is this a theme for Pentecost?”  It’s not even about the Day of Pentecost!  I begin with this story on forgiveness because Jesus makes it a theme in our gospel reading from St. John—which is the gospel text.

I should say some people refer to the event in our gospel text as a “pre-Pentecost” Pentecost.  Already, on the evening of the day of his resurrection, on the evening of Easter, Jesus is giving his disciples the Holy Spirit.

I don’t know about anyone else, but if you picture this, to me it seems kind of strange.  “Receive the Holy Spirit” (v. 22).  That’s what he says, but first, he breathes on them.  (Blow!)  Really?  Is that what it takes?

Actually, it doesn’t say he “blew” on them, but he “breathed on them.”  This is the posture of one who is not reactive, but responsive.  Being in a reactive posture or mode means coming from a place of defensiveness, a lack of listening and learning.  Being in a responsive mode means the opposite.  It is a place of openness, a place of listening and a curiosity which wants to learn.

There are many other things that could be said, but in a physical posture, it means remembering to breathe, paying attention to one’s breath.  (Breathe.)  When we remember to do that, it’s amazing how it helps us to be calm and patient and reflective.  (But it is something I find myself continually needing to practice.)

2 pentecost

The Hebrew word רוח (rua), which means “breath,” “spirit,” or “wind,” was a familiar idea.  John surely would have known about it.  Earlier in his gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (3:8).  So I suppose it does make sense for Jesus to use his breath in granting the Spirit to his disciples!

But we need to back up and see what’s going on, since this is the evening of Easter.  Our scripture text ends before we get to the part about St. Thomas and his questions of believing all this resurrection stuff.  Verse 19 says, “the disciples were gathered together behind locked doors, because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities” (Good News Bible).  Jesus suddenly appears out of nowhere and says, “Peace be with you.”  He shows them the now-glorified wounds in his hands and side.  He is not a ghost!

We’re told the disciples have been hiding from the authorities.  No doubt, they’re fearing for their lives.  Before Jesus appears to them, with his words of shalom, they’re thinking about what happened to him.  Still, Craig Barnes, who is president of Princeton Seminary, thinks there’s more to it.  If one understands the human psyche, it seems to be an unavoidable conclusion.

Barnes speaks about, not only fear, but shame.  “Like the disciples,” he says, “we try to hide when we’re ashamed.”[1]  It’s a defense mechanism; it’s almost instinct.  It may seem like a good strategy for a little while.  But, as Barnes says, “Nothing is more crippling to our souls than working at hiding shame.  We lock up more and more doors, sealing off more and more rooms of the heart to prevent our true selves from being discovered.  We think we are keeping the world out, but in fact we are keeping ourselves locked in.”

The disciples are ashamed because, when Jesus needed them the most, they turned around and took off.  They carry a horrible burden of guilt.

But thank God, that isn’t the end of it.  “At the center of the gospel is the proclamation that Jesus Christ has come looking for us.  According to John’s text, he walks right through the locked door to find us.  He shows us his wounds from the cross, which are the marks of our forgiveness.”

With verse 23, we come to what I said earlier may be an unexpected theme for Pentecost: speaking and hearing words of forgiveness, or more directly, forgiving and refusing to forgive.  Right after Jesus tells the disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he adds, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

3 pentecostJesus entrusts the disciples with a great deal of authority.  It isn’t something they have, in and of themselves, but as the community gathered in his name.  As the community—as the church—they have the authority to offer forgiveness of sin.  We do something similar to that every week with our prayer of confession and assurance of pardon.

Jesus is speaking about something very powerful.  On the one hand, if we forgive someone, they are forgiven.  In Matthew 18, Peter has a little chat with Jesus about that (v. 21).  On the other hand, if we retain the sins of any, they are retained.  The Good News Bible says, “if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

The Greek has an even stronger force.  First of all, the word for “to forgive” (αφιημι, aphiēmi) also means “to send off,” “to let go.”  I think anytime we’re able, by the grace of God to forgive, we can feel what it means “to let go.”  It’s a burden we’re glad to be rid of.

On the flip side, there’s an equally strong force.  The words “retain” and “not forgive” don’t quite capture it.  The Revised English Bible says that “if you pronounce them unforgiven, unforgiven they remain.”  The Greek word for “retain” (κρατεω, krateō) also means “to hold,” “to seize.”  It comes from the word (κρατος, kratos) that means “strength” or “power.”  It takes a lot of strength to hold on to that stuff.  You wear yourself out.

According to the New Testament, we are a “holy” and “royal priesthood” (1 Pe 2:5, 9).  One of the key roles of a priest is to declare the forgiveness of sins.  We’re told “we disciples are not called to produce forgiveness.  We’re called to be the priest pronouncing that which has been produced on the cross.  We’re called to open the locks and throw open the door, and walk back into the world as a priest who is unafraid.  The only alternative is to live in shrinking prisons of hurt.”[2]

I imagine most of us have sometimes heard it said forgiving also means forgetting.  In order to forgive, we have to forget.  I would humbly have to disagree.  I don’t believe we are called to display amnesia.  I don’t believe we are called to have the attention span of gnats.  That doesn’t improve the character of either party.  That doesn’t help us deal with life.

At this point, I need to interject something.  When someone has been the victim of abuse or assault, forgiveness is a very tricky thing.  Telling someone, “It’s your Christian duty to forgive,” only adds another layer of abuse.  Forgiveness often takes a very long time to come, if it happens at all.  Sometimes the scars are too overwhelming.  I just mentioned the grace of God.  When grace can break through the hurt, it is a wondrous thing.

Moving on, there’s a concept known as “the shadow.”  It’s described as “the place we put all the suppressed and repressed parts of our lives.”[3]  The shadow isn’t evil.  Rather, it’s the stuff about us we want to keep hidden from the world, and even from ourselves.  It’s the stuff we find embarrassing and shameful.

As Richard Rohr says, “Suppressing what we don’t want to deal with is like trying to hold a basketball underwater while going on with life as usual…  What we suppress—the shadow aspect of life—ambushes us sooner or later.  We don’t know why we’re depressed or angry, why everyone and everything is out to get us.”[4]

One big sign of some major repression is the lack of a healthy sense of humor.  Can we laugh at ourselves?  (That might be an unfair question.  Not everyone has the treasure trove I possess which is needed to laugh at oneself!)

Rohr continues, “People who are overly stern and moralistic usually have a significant, repressed shadow.  They walk through life shaking a judgmental finger in disapproval—and they disapprove of just about everything!  They’re often incapable of easy enjoyment.”[5]

I fully believe humor is one of the greatest gifts of the Holy Spirit.  I say that because I can recall a time when I had no genuine, joyful sense of humor.  Was I a jerk who thought humor consisted of snide comments and sarcastic remarks at someone else’s expense?  Yes.  I was a living example of having “no patience, no forgiveness, no mercy, but only harsh judgments.  No gospel.”[6]  No good news.  (Sad to say, sometimes I still fall into that trap!)

4 pentecost

Looking at our text, one sign we’re open to the Holy Spirit is how willing and able we are to forgive.  Both are important.  There must be both the willingness and the ability.  Remember, just as the disciples find out in their encounter with Jesus, the ability to forgive is a gift.  But the willingness must also be present.  We need to have a spirit to forgive.

In 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul tells us “the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (3:17).  That is the deep meaning of Pentecost.  The Spirit of God brings freedom; the Spirit of God liberates.  As people of the Spirit, we reclaim our identity when we send out—when we unleash—the forgiveness of Christ.

When we allow that Spirit to run free in the world, who knows what dangerous and wonderful things will happen?  Why don’t we find out?

 

[1] www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3138

[2] www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3138

[3] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2010), 129.

[4] Rohr, 196.

[5] Rohr, 197.

[6] Rohr, 198.


Independence Day theological reflections of one American

The wording of my title has been carefully chosen.  First of all, “Independence Day.”  It is the one day of the year in which we’re especially called to be grateful for the gift of nation.

Then there’s the word “theological.”  That speaks to questions like:  how is God involved in it?  Where is God to be found?  And they are “reflections.”  I don’t pretend this is some universal truth that applies to everyone.  I’m speaking from my own experience.

And indeed, this is the viewpoint of “one” American.  But though I am one, I am an “American.”  In some ways, I feel like I could be nothing but an American.  Having been adopted as an infant, I don’t know who my genetic ancestors are.

In a similar way, America as a nation has no single clear understanding of its genetic makeup.  After all, what does an American look like?  What does an American sound like?  Our political history mainly ties us to England, but as a whole, Americans look to all parts of the world, not to mention those who were here before the Europeans ever showed up.

So there’s that.  But I do have a better reason for saying that “I feel like I could be nothing but an American.”  It’s because I love my country.  I love America.

For the first ten years of my life, we were a military family.  My dad was posted to various naval bases around the country, from coast to coast to coast.  That meant plenty of moving around, guaranteeing that I saw a whole lot of this country.

But like most of us, whether or not we’re from a military background, I was taught at an early age that God has blessed America.  However, my young mind—not so good with nuance—made the assumption that since God had blessed America, we were better than people from other countries!  (I’ve since learned that Banu was raised with a similar belief about Turkey—that’s there’s nothing more glorious than being a Turk!)

Ferguson flag

There is within the spirit of America a conviction that people have human rights, that they shouldn’t be tortured, that the government shouldn’t tell them how to think, that they are truly “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  That’s why it’s a shame when we, as a country, don’t live up to those convictions.

I realize that many say faith and politics should be kept separate.  (By the way, that’s a whole different animal from separation of church and state!)  When it comes to airing one’s political opinions from the pulpit—such as telling people who to vote for—I would agree.  As Christians, we need to learn to think theologically, not just politically.  As I said earlier, “Where is God in this?  How do we think of God?”  That’s what the New Testament church does.

The gospel is inherently political; it’s inescapable.  Words like “Lord” and “Savior,” in the first century, are political terms.  They aren’t merely spiritual in the sense of being disconnected from everyday life.  The terms “Lord” (κυριος, kurios) and “Savior” (σωτηρ, sōtēr) are titles attributed to the emperor.  Nero and Domitian, a couple of emperors with really big egos and serious self-esteem issues, are especially insistent about it.

When the early Christians call Jesus “Lord and Savior,” they are well aware of what they’re doing.  For them, it isn’t an empty phrase.  It’s not something to put on a bumper sticker or post on Facebook.  They are saying “no” to the arrogance of empire.  They risk losing their jobs, their freedom, or something even worse.

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus says to “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (20:25).  Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.  I wonder, what does that mean for us, on our nation’s 240th birthday?

We see the scribes and chief priests sending representatives to Jesus, but they’re hardly doing so in good faith.  The scripture calls them “spies who pretended to be honest.”  That’s not a vote of confidence.  Their job isn’t to pursue meaningful dialogue; their job is “to trap him by what he” says, so that they can hand him over to the Romans (v. 20).  They aren’t there to listen; they just hope he screws up!

The backdrop of our story is the payment of taxes to the Roman authorities.  Any loyal Jew, with any patriotic sensibility, considers being taxed by this foreign government reprehensible.  The enemies of Jesus have racked their brains, trying to come up with some way to get rid of this guy.  He’s drawing too much attention, and they feel that can only spell trouble.

Somebody has one of those “aha!” moments, and says, “I got it!”  If Jesus teaches “the way of God,” let’s see what he says about the law.  If Jesus says it’s legal to pay those taxes, he’ll anger the Zealots.  (They are the Jewish insurgents who want to overthrow the Romans, by any means necessary.)  No doubt they will say, “If he won’t lead the revolt, then it falls to us.”

However, if he says “no,” the Romans will step in and take care of him.  Either way, we win.

The folks trying to trick Jesus haven’t done their homework, or they might have guessed their plan won’t work.  Jesus is proactive, not reactive, about the job of reconciliation.  He is intentional.

For example, among his disciples he’s included Simon the Zealot, one of those Jewish revolutionaries.  He’s also included Matthew the tax collector, a collaborator with the Romans.  Not exactly birds of a feather.  Compared with them, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are identical!

In answering the question about paying taxes to Caesar, Jesus elevates the discussion.  Changing the perspective, he gets to the heart of the matter.  He gives the perfect answer to their question, one that invites them to challenge their assumptions.

Christ and caesar

Ten days after the 9-11 attacks, a well-known person spoke of his own assumptions that needed to be challenged.  I’m referring to the guy who went from being Terminator to Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger.  He spoke of growing up in the scarcity of postwar Austria and of his dream of going to America.  He arrived in 1968 with $20 in his pocket, and within six months starred in his first movie, the classic work of art, Hercules in New York.

He said, “I called all my friends back in Europe and said: ‘It’s true!  You can do anything in this country!  Come over here!  It’s everything you imagine—and more!’”[1]

Arnold spoke of 1989, when President George H. W. Bush named him the Chair of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness.  He traveled all over the US, promoting fitness programs in schools.  He believed if a poor farm kid from Europe could make it in America, anybody could.  Encountering the poverty of American cities forced him to challenge his assumptions.  He said he used to go around saying, “Everybody should pull himself up by his own bootstraps—just like I did!”  But he changed, and said, “What I learned about this country is this:  Not everybody has boots.”

Arnold finished by saying that “it’s not just the bodybuilding and the business and the box office for me anymore.  Helping the kids who need help is the most important goal I have.  This is what it means for me to be an American.  Maybe that’s what it could mean for you, too!  No matter how much success you have, you can be more successful by reaching out to someone who needs you.”[2]

We are called, both as Americans and especially as Americans of faith, to expand our vision, to look outward, to be proactive about reconciliation—to take the first step in peacemaking.  We’re called “to form a more perfect union.”

And again, as the church, St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (5:17-18).

Our second hymn today, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” was one I had never heard or sung until going to seminary in the 90s.  I found out that it’s often called the national anthem of the black church.  It was that second verse which reinforced it for me.  “We have come / over a way that with tears has been watered; / We have come, / treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.”

That comes from the black experience of America.  I’ve had friends who told me some stories, stories of everyday life: stuff I’ve never had to deal with or even think about.  Still, black history, Native American history, Latino history, white history (although we usually don’t think of it that way)—all of that and more is American history.  But more than just national history—the civic side of things—all of that belongs to church history.

Now, to recall my question from a few moments ago, how do we as Americans of faith live on the 240th birthday of our country?  There is a vast difference between being an American and an American of faith, just as there’s a vast difference between Caesar and God.

As Americans who belong to the body of Christ, we are called to actively celebrate the good and to challenge the injustices, not only in our country, but in ourselves.  To say that each person is born with inalienable rights means respecting and honoring those who are different from us, in whatever way.

It also means not denying our identity in Jesus Christ.  It’s easier than we think to conceal the cross behind the flag.  Remember, there is a difference between Christ and Caesar!  We mustn’t confuse the two as we rightfully celebrate, as we seek to be grateful to God for the gift of nation.

May we live lives that are authentically Christian this Independence Day.  May we sing with sincere belief in mind and genuine joy in heart:

“Shadowed beneath Thy hand / may we forever stand, / True to our God, / true to our native land.”

 

[1] Arnold Schwarzenegger, “The Education of an American,” A Patriot’s Handbook, ed. Caroline Kennedy (New York:  Hyperion, 2003), 567.

[2] Schwarzenegger, 568.


systematic strongholds

Philosophy
When I was in college, I took several philosophy classes.  In one class, we looked at logical positivism.  Very roughly speaking, it holds that a statement is meaningless if it cannot be verified in an empirical, or experimental, manner.  It has the effect of ruling out, for example, theology.  When our professor asked us to critique this philosophy, I responded by saying that it simply chooses to ignore what doesn’t fit into its system.
 
In chapter 10 of 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul deals directly with his opponents among the “super-apostles” and their followers.  Here is his reminder:  “The weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds.  We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (vv. 4-5) 
 
We don’t often think of “strongholds” as “arguments.”  But we are more than capable of letting a philosophy or a system of thought become a “proud obstacle.”  It can be a proud obstacle that hinders the flow of wisdom which opens us to “the knowledge of God.”  It can be an obstacle in other ways.  It can close our minds to other possibilities—possibilities which our self-imposed system doesn’t allow us to explore.  Maybe we think those other possibilities are meaningless.
 
And maybe those other possibilities never occur to us because we only know our own system!

open

“People of Corinth, we have spoken frankly and opened our heart to you.  Any distress you feel is not on our side; the distress is in your own selves.  In fair exchange—I speak as though to children of mine—you must open your hearts too… Keep a place for us in your hearts.  We have not injured anyone, or ruined anyone, or taken advantage of anyone.  I am not saying this to condemn anybody; as I have already told you, you are in our hearts—so that together we live and together we die.” (2 Cor 6:11-13, 7:2-3, New Jerusalem Bible) 
 
This passage flows so smoothly.  The apostle Paul speaks of openness.  Inserted in the middle of it is 6:14-7:1, a warning about tying ourselves to the “untrustful,” the “unbelieving.”  By his own admission, Paul is not the world’s greatest speaker, but his writings are at times more than a little eloquent! 
 
It seems that while he repeatedly reassures the Corinthians of his good intentions and trustworthiness, Paul is also careful to warn his readers against being gullible.  It is possible to open one’s heart without being naïve.  The opposite temptation is to fall into the cynicism that hardens the spirit.