Saturday, June 18, 2016

“Life Together: Reconciliation” - June 19, 2016


Text: 2 Corinthians 5:11-21

One week ago today, there was a horrific shooting at Pulse, a gay-oriented nightclub in Orlando, that wound up being the largest mass shooting in U.S. history.  49 people were killed, 53 wounded.  When we gathered for worship last Sunday, a lot of the details had not yet emerged, but as the days have unfolded since, we have learned a lot.

It was a shocking, horrible tragedy, just one in a long line of mass shootings.  This time, the killing and the carnage and the aftermath come at the confluence of multiple issues: immigration, sexuality, gun control, religion, terrorism, foreign policy, election year politics.  Our response as a nation has been less than what we might hope for.  There has been hatred, rage, vitriol, and plenty of blaming.  A pastor of a fundamentalist Baptist church in California said that he was upset that more did not die in the massacre and that Orlando would be safer now with fewer homosexuals.  (Lord, have mercy.)  This tragedy has been an opportunity for people to project their fears and hatred and agendas on to what is at the root of it all a heartbreaking human tragedy.

This shooting came almost exactly a year after the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.  A young man went to a prayer meeting at Emmanuel AME Church, a historic African-American church, and killed 9 people who had gathered to pray and study the Bible.

While the shooting in Charleston last year affected many of us deeply, the pain was especially deep for many African-Americans.  This historic church held great symbolic importance, and the shooting was a reminder of all of the prejudice and bigotry, the history of lynching and church burnings and violence, and the continuing struggle for equality and opportunity that many African-Americans have to endure.  The murders in a church, by a man who was welcomed into the community felt like an especially terrible violation.

The killings in Orlando have likewise affected many of us deeply.  It was heartbreaking to hear of stories like the 49 year old mother of 11 who had survived breast cancer and bone cancer who was dancing with her gay son and cousin and did not survive the attack.  It has been most difficult for those in the LGBT community.  For those who face the judgment and rejection of many in society, including many in the religious community, and who often feel vulnerable, a place like Pulse represents a safe place where people are accepted for who they are and not judged.  So, like the shooting at Mother Emmanuel, the killings in Orlando were the worst kind of terrorism, shattering what had felt like a safe space.

Now let me say, this is heavy stuff.  A lot of us want to come to church to escape from the problems of the world.  And to an extent that happens; we can come here and be reminded of something greater and more powerful than our day-to-day concerns, and we can gain strength and renewal and the power of fellowship as we gather together.  But we also bring who we are to worship; we can’t help but bring our concerns with us, and for a lot of us, this has been heavy on our hearts and minds.  And if our faith cannot address our deepest concerns, then what good is it really?

So with all of this in the background, in this hurting, divided, and sometimes frightening world, we come to our text for the day, and as it turns out, it could not be more timely.  As Mike Shannon would say in a St. Louis Cardinals broadcast, “Ol’ Abner’s done it again.”

I wouldn’t refer to God as “Ol’ Abner,” but it seems almost providential that we find ourselves in the fifth chapter of Second Corinthians this morning.  In our scripture last week, Paul spoke of our brokenness, our vulnerability – saying that we are jars of clay that contain the treasure of Christ.  He continues by speaking of the frailties of our human bodies, saying that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, eternal in the heavens, not made by human hands, and says that in the meantime, we walk by faith and not by sight.

And then in our scripture for this morning, we read, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.”  It is a very hopeful word about the power of God in Jesus Christ to change lives.  I heard this verse from an early age, and always thought that it meant that if somebody became a Christian, they were a new creation, a new person.  One reason I thought that, I suppose, is that some English translations say exactly that.  The King James, for example, says “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature.”

Now, the King James version has some words in italics – words that were not in the original language but added to make it smoother and more readable.  In the part that says “he is a new creature,” “he is” is in italics.  It is not actually there in the Greek.  A better sense of what Paul wrote would be, “if anyone is in Christ – boom! – it’s a new creation!” (I added the word boom in italics for comprehension).  It is not just that the person in Christ is a new creation; the point is that for that person there is a whole new world.  And that is exactly the way the New English Bible has it: “If anyone is united in Christ, there is a new world.”

This means we see the world differently.  We see everyone – every person, all of creation - in a new way.  So often, our default way of seeing people is through the lens of otherness.  We want to pigeonhole people, stereotype people.  Rich, poor, young, old, black, white, Asian, Middle Eastern, Hispanic, Christian, Muslim, Jew, gay, straight, students, townspeople, Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative.

To experience a new creation is to see the world in a new way, through a new lens – the lens of love, the lens of shared humanity.  Through Jesus, we have been reconciled to God, and God has entrusted us with the ministry of reconciliation.

Reconciliation literally means to be brought back together.  To reconcile is to bring people together – with each other and with God.  And this is where it becomes very timely, because if anything has been clear this week, it is that this world needs reconciliation in the worst way.

Last Sunday evening, we watched the Tony awards.  I don’t typically watch the Tonys, but because of the musical “Hamilton” – Zoe is a huge fan – we were watching.  Hamilton won 11 awards, and like many people, we were taken by Lin Manuel Miranda’s acceptance speech for Best Musical Score.  His speech was a sonnet that began with thanks to his wife and concluded with an audacious word of hope:

...We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger.
We rise and fall and light from dying embers.
Remembrances that hope and love last longer.
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love
Cannot be killed or swept aside.
Miranda’s words remind us of another audacious proclamation which we read in worship just a few weeks ago:
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends…And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
Julie Pennington-Russell wrote,
The Apostle Paul knew something about God’s kind of love: We can mock it, ignore it, reject it, threaten it, torture it, shoot it and nail it to a cross.  But we cannot defeat it.  Love will keep coming back for us.  It will keep pursuing us and forgiving us and inviting us to come out of death and into life.
It is astonishing that God has called us to the ministry of reconciliation – because let’s face it, often as not it seems like we are part of the problem as much as we might be part of the solution.  This is not easy stuff.  Paul goes as far as to say that we are Ambassadors for Christ – we are sent out by Christ to this ministry of reconciliation.

We are given tools for this ministry.  As we have moved through Second Corinthians, we have looked at some of the themes that Paul has presented.  Consolation.  Forgiveness.  Brokenness.  Each of these play a part in reconciliation.  We offer consolation, or encouragement to others.  We forgive one another and remind others of God’s forgiveness.  We remember that brokenness and vulnerability is part of the human condition, that we are all broken people, and the power that can bring about reconciliation is not ours, but God’s.  And as Lin Manuel Miranda and the Apostle Paul remind us, the greatest tool we have as we work for reconciliation is love.

In a column for members of her conference, United Methodist Bishop Minerva Carcano of Los Angeles wrote about a lawyer she knows who specializes in immigration law.  He has seen enough that he is skeptical about our human ability to be agents of any kind of reconciliation, much less ambassadors of God’s reconciliation.  He is a cradle Presbyterian, who along the way became a self-declared agnostic.  Today he says he is a deist - there is a god out there somewhere.  More recently he’s begun to wonder whether God is closer than he had ever realized.

Earlier this year he took on the asylum case of a Syrian family.  They had suffered a great deal in Syria because of their faith and it became clear that they would die if they stayed in Syria.  The parents, a daughter and her husband, and their 6 year-old son came to the U.S.  This lawyer, deist of a man, worked hard on this family’s case.  Knowing the potential consequences of failing to get this family asylum kept him awake at night.  It did not help that the case had been assigned to an immigration judge known for his cruel way of treating immigrants in his courtroom.

Then something started to happen.  Just days before the final hearing, the lawyer received word that the case was being postponed for a few weeks, giving him more time to build his case.  And then just before the rescheduled hearing he received another gift.  The originally assigned judge would not be able to proceed with the case; the new judge assigned to the case was known as the most compassionate immigration judge in the whole circuit.

The day of the court proceeding arrived and after a sleepless night, the lawyer did his best to represent this family and won their case.  Afterwards the lawyer invited the family to a debriefing room to explain the next steps.  In a most uncharacteristic moment the lawyer shared with the family how stressed out he had been over their case.  The family matriarch who had spoken throughout their journey together of her faith and confidence in God, asked him why he had been so stressed.  The lawyer opened his mouth to answer but before he could do so the 6 year-old grandson came over to him and declared with a big smile, “That’s because you love us!”

This lawyer considers all the changes in the case – extra time, a kinder judge – as coincidences or perhaps good luck.  But he continues to wonder and marvel about the sentiment of the little boy, “That’s because you love us.”  He had not thought of his work in those terms.  But every time he thinks of that little boy and his declaration, he feels a love so profound that it breaks through the hard shell he’s barricaded his heart with and he begins to weep.  Could God be at work in him and through him?  He wonders.

Bishop Carcano said, “I’m a pest in his life because I do not wonder.   I know that it is God within him and through him bringing reconciliation, love and hope in a broken world!”

We are called to be God’s ministers of reconciliation.  We may have never thought of ourselves in that way.  We may not think of ourselves as worthy of that calling or capable of such a thing.  But as we explored last week, God looks at us and says, “You are a jar of clay that carries a great treasure.”  This ministry of reconciliation happens and we are used by God as we are able to love others.

In the aftermath of Orlando, I have thought about our church.  I thought about that pastor in California and how a lot of people might assume that he is probably only different from other Baptists in degree, not in his basic position toward gay and lesbian folks.  It is a sad indictment that for a lot of people, the church is the last place they might look for acceptance, for love, for hope, for reconciliation.

I talked with an incoming student a few weeks ago.  He asked about the church and then he pointed out our identity statement, the part where it says we welcome all people, gay and straight, and he said that this appealed to him.  I don’t know anything about this student, but I think it is important that we communicate to others that we are a church that is in the business of love and welcome and reconciliation.

Our American Baptist Churches USA has issued statements in the wake of the shooting.  “We are anguished and aggrieved at this heinous massacre where the evils of terrorism, gun violence and hatred against members of the LGBTQ communities converged,” says ABHMS Executive Director Dr. Jeffrey Haggray. “We condemn with the strongest language possible whatever ideologies and sentiments contribute to a culture of homophobia, bigotry, hatred and violence against fellow children of God, including our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. We are all created in the image of God, and God’s love for all people is steadfast, immovable and unconditional.”

I appreciated this statement, and the fact that there are people out there calling themselves Christian and calling themselves Baptist who are actually applauding what happened in Orlando makes statements like this all the more important.  To be silent at such a time is to be part of the problem.

It is clear that God’s children have a long way to go.  Just to share the planet, we have a long way to go.  As a society, as a nation, as a world, we have a long way to go.  There is a great deal of division and polarization and mistrust out there.  There is discrimination and hatred.  People are hurting, people are feeling left out, people are fearful.

In this kind of world, a broken, hurting world, we have been called by God, entrusted by God, to be ministers of reconciliation – every one of us.  This is a ministry that we carry out in our homes, in our neighborhoods, at our workplaces, in our classes, in the community, in our church.

We are Ambassadors for Christ.  It is a daunting calling.  But while it may not be easy, at the root of it all, it is fairly simple.  It is about love.  Amen.

Friday, June 10, 2016

“Life Together: Brokenness” - June 12, 2016

Text: 2 Corinthians 4:1-15

Imagine that you are hiring somebody for an important job.  There are two candidates.  The first, let’s call this person Candidate A, has earned degrees from excellent schools and has received honors and awards for their work.   They have glowing references and try as you might, you can’t find anyone who will say a bad thing about them.  Besides that, they have a certain charisma - an air of confidence and certainty.  They are well-spoken, they dress well, and they look the part.

Then there is candidate B.  You don’t have to go digging to find dirt on this candidate; he just tells you right up front.  In his cover letter, he says that he has been afflicted, perplexed, persecuted.  He has done time in jail.  He has been beaten repeatedly.  He has been shipwrecked.  (Shipwrecked?  Who puts that on a resume?)  He does not have much of a physical presence and he has been criticized as a sub-par public speaker.  He has been on the outs both with his own people and with other groups.  He seems to be in danger a lot, at least that’s what he says, and to just read his resume you would wonder if maybe he is paranoid.  And then he admits to being weak.

It’s a tough choice, candidate A or Candidate B.  Who would you choose?

Well, you may have figured out that Candidate B is none other than the Apostle Paul.  In Second Corinthians, Paul is frequently on the defensive.  He has been criticized and his identity and calling as an apostle has been called into question.  We caught some of that in chapter 2, which we looked at last week.  It is disheartening to be criticized by those we are trying to help, by those we care for and have maybe sacrificed for.  Later in this letter, in chapter 10 and following, it is clear that outsiders have shown up at the church in Corinth, complete with letters of recommendation, who are questioning Paul’s authority and wanting to steer the church in another direction.  This latter part of the letter is where Paul gives the long list of his background that includes being beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, and in near-constant danger.

Paul’s defense to his critics is that the ministry to which we are all called is not really about us.  Our power and our skills and our qualifications are not what really matter.  And there is this wonderful line, maybe the best known verse in Second Corinthians, “we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”

“We have this treasure in jars of clay.”  Mark Wilson, a Professor of Early Christianity, sheds light on the background of Paul’s words.  He says that in the Cypress National Museum, you will find a clay pot lying on its side with a bunch of coins spilling out of its mouth.  Wilson wrote,

The description says it was a coin hoard found nearby dating from the first century.  The topic of coin hoards caught my interest, and I discovered that archaeologists and treasure hunters working in the Greco-Roman world have found thousands of such hoards.  The size of these hoards ranges from fifty to fifty thousand coins.  The coins were buried in clay jars for safe keeping, often in times of warfare or instability… 

The phenomenon was so well known that Jesus told a parable about a man who found such a hoard [in a field] and sold all his possessions to buy the field (Matthew 13:44). The Greek word for “treasure” (thesaurus) used by Jesus is the same word that Paul used in 2 Corinthians 4:7.  So they seem to be talking about the same thing!
What Paul is saying is clear.  We are fragile.  We are imperfect. 

One of my earliest memories was of a time when I was 3 or 4 years old and for some reason decided I needed something off the top of the dresser in my parents’ bedroom.  The dresser was pretty tall, but being the industrious, problem-solving kid that I was, I pulled out the bottom drawer and stood on it in order to reach the top of the dresser.  Well, you can maybe guess what happened.  The whole thing came toppling over on me.  Fortunately, the dresser hit the bed, which kept the full weight from coming down on me.  But on top of the dresser was an antique pitcher and basin that had belonged to great-grandparents.  The pitcher survived but the basin did not.  It shattered.

Vessels made of clay are breakable.  And that is us.  We are fragile.  And clay pots were very common.  They were ordinary.  They were a dime a dozen, unremarkable.  

We may have faults and cracks, and we may be fragile.  We are not necessarily superstars, but the Good News we share, the light we carry, the value of our ministry and our life together, is not dependent upon us.  We are simply vessels through which God’s light might shine.  We are the messengers, not the message.  We have a great treasure.  We carry a great treasure.  But the treasure is not our own.

Paul did not claim to be perfect.  He pretty well embraced his brokenness and fragility.  He said, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”  Gabe and Lyndsay – it occurs to me that this sounds kind of like parenting!  Afflicted, perplexed, persecuted… you can feel like that as a new parent, but then again you can also feel like that as parent of a teenager.  And there are those times when it isn’t easy to be a parent to adult children either, but then I suppose children can say the same thing about parents.

At some point, we begin to realize that it’s not just us.  Everybody we know, everybody we meet, is made of clay.  We all have faults, weaknesses, vulnerabilities.  Bob Dylan put it this way: “Ain’t no use jivin’, ain’t no use jokin’: everything is broken.”

Even the people we know who seem the most with it, the most on top of the things, even those who are seemingly the most successful and well-adjusted and happiest have hurts and pains and hidden cracks.

There is a musical group named for a neighborhood in Cincinnati called Over the Rhine.  They have a song that gets at the heart of the human condition.  The song is “All My Favorite People are Broken.”

And it is totally true.  The longer and the better and the more deeply we get to know one another, the more we appreciate the fact that we all have hurts.  We all have pains.  We all have flaws.  We all have shortcomings. 

Martin Luther said that as Christians, we are simultaneously saints and sinners.  He absolutely got that one right. 

We are jars of clay, but then - we have this treasure.  Flawed as we are, human as we are, we are called by God to carry the light of God.  We are to bear the treasure of the gospel in and through our lives. 

You might think that we have this treasure in spite of the fact that we are jars of clay.  But there is a sense in which we are able to carry the light of God because we are jars of clay, because we are imperfect vessels.

The story is told that back in the days when pots and pans could talk, which indeed they still do, there lived a man. And in order to have water, every day he had to walk down the hill and fill two pots and walk them home.  One day, it was discovered one of the pots had a crack, and as time went on, the crack widened.  

Finally, the pot turned to the man and said, “You know, every day you take me to the river, and by the time you get home, half of the water's leaked out.  Why don’t you replace me with a better pot?”  And the man said, “You don’t understand.  As you spill, you water the wildflowers by the side of the path.” And sure enough, on the side of the path where the cracked pot was carried, beautiful flowers grew, while the other side was barren. 

Our very brokenness can be used by God.  The setbacks and disappointments and pain we have endured can make us wiser, more sensitive, more empathetic, more compassionate, and help us connect with others in their struggles. 

I think of my friends, I think of my family, I think of each of you.  We have all experienced pain, sometimes tragedy.  We have all experienced loss.  Many of us have physical limitations, and if we don’t yet, our time is coming.  Right after this passage, Paul goes on to speak about the vulnerability of our human bodies and using another metaphor, he writes, “We know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”

Clay jars crack.  They can get broken.  Maybe the good news is that we are all clay jars.  We don’t have to be perfect.  We don’t have to earn God’s love or earn God’s grace.  We don’t have to earn the right to carry the treasure of God’s light and life and love.  All we have to do is be a willing vessel.

When we were in Europe several years ago now, we went to a little restaurant in Germany.  The 3 or 4 cars that were there had backed their vehicles into their parking spots, so I thought I would follow suit.  Here’s the deal: we rented the car in advance and reserved a Volkswagen Golf, but instead we were given an Alfa Romeo.  It was awesome.  This was not a high-performance luxury vehicle like the new Alfa Romeos being sold in the U.S., but still.  It was an Alfa Romeo.  This was great.

The little place sold Turkish döner kebabs, which are very big in Germany.  We thought we would try them.  The restaurant was on the edge of town and there was a fence along the parking lot, at the edge of the property.  So I backed our car into the parking space up against the fence when we heard a terrible sound.  As it turned out, one of the concrete fenceposts behind us was crumbling.  I couldn’t see it backing up, but a downed piece of concrete left a scratch on the back bumper.  The back bumper of our rented Alfa Romeo.

If I would have just pulled into the place to start with, or if I hadn’t tried to back the car in just right, we would have been OK.  Then and there, I decided that my new philosophy was going to be, “Good enough.”  If I had just settled for “good enough,” I wouldn’t have scratched the car.  I haven’t always lived up to that philosophy, and I can struggle with perfectionism, but it has often been a helpful way of thinking about things.  “Good enough.”

Our cat Harry is quite a character.  He has gotten into trouble more than a couple times.  We had a very nice pottery plate that Susan’s sister had given us.  It was sitting on the coffee table and it was decorative more than anything, but it would get used occasionally to set things on, maybe the remote control, or it would get used as a big coaster.  Anyway, Harry and our dog Rudy were chasing each other, having a big time, when Harry leaped onto the coffee table and ran into the plate.  It’s a good-sized plate and heavy, more of a platter.  The plate scooted across the table and then, in slow motion, it fell from the coffee table.  It wasn’t a long way to fall and it landed on the rug but it must have hit just right because improbably, a big piece broke off of the plate.

We were not happy about this, of course.  So I went to Ace Hardware and got some super-glue.  The repair worked, I looked at it, and while it wasn’t perfect, I said, “Good enough.”

We are jars of clay.  We are not perfect.  We are fragile.  We can become broken.  But God is there to repair the broken places.  And God looks at us and says, “Good enough.”  In fact, God looks at us in all of our brokenness and says, “You are just right.  You are fantastic.”  God can use our very brokenness to build the kingdom.  Because who better to serve broken people, who better to take the Good News to a broken world, than broken people – people like you and me?  Amen.

“Life Together: Forgiveness” - June 5, 2016

Text: 2 Corinthians 1:23-2:11

At our work day yesterday, as we were cleaning out the garage, somebody found a couple of packs of printed cards – Pastoral Record Forms.  They had been in the desk in the garage, probably had been in that drawer for 50 years.  It had a line for the family name and address, a line for the husband’s name and wife’s name and up to 4 children’s names.  There was a space for birthdays and just one space for occupation.  At the time these were printed, I guess the expectation was that only one person in the family worked outside the home, and it probably wasn’t the wife.  And then there was a space beside each name for “church status.”  That could have meant whether a person was a member, but I suppose a person’s church status could be something like “shaky.”  Or it could be like marital status, and you could maybe put “available” on that line.  There was also a line for notes. 

The form had that “this is going in your permanent record” look to it, and we kind of got a laugh out of it, but I think the intent was good – a pastor is supposed to care for his or her flock, and this was supposed to help with that.

Caring for folks in the church is not always easy.  Just ask Paul.  This is our third week in Second Corinthians.  This book is actual correspondence between Paul and the church in Corinth, and it reveals some of the possibilities as well as some of the challenges of living as a community of faith.

Now reading someone else’s mail can be a problem.  I’m not talking about intercepting somebody else’s mail and reading it – I mean, that is definitely a problem.  Trying to steam a letter open and reading it and then resealing it as best you can so that the recipient of the letter doesn’t know you have read it – that is not just a logistical problem, it is an ethical problem.  I saw that on a TV show just last week, and I know it happens more often on TV than in real life, but still.  It happens. 

But that’s not what I’m talking about when I say that reading someone else’s mail can be a problem.  Paul’s writings were open letters, intended to be read by the community, and from very early on they were passed on to be read by other churches and provided wisdom and instruction not only for those to whom the letter was addressed, but for all Christians.

The problem is that when we read something written for a different person or a different audience, we do not always know the context and history surrounding the writing.  And that is very clear in our passage today.  Paul can sometimes be a little obtuse, a little verbose as it is – OK, sometimes more than a little obtuse - but in today’s reading that difficulty in understanding is magnified because he is referring to events that were painfully obvious to the church in Corinth, but not to us.  He didn’t explain everything because he didn’t have to.  The Corinthian church knew full well what Paul was talking about.  But then we come along 2000 years later, reading this same letter, and I’m thinking it would have been nice if Paul had spelled it out a bit more.

In Paul’s defense, we do exactly the same thing.  There is a big blowup somewhere along the line.  Sides are drawn, feelings are hurt, relationships are damaged.  It may have been controversial.  It may have been scandalous.  Because it was so painful and talking about it is so awkward, there comes a point that when the past conflict is mentioned, it gets referred to as something like “that past unpleasantness.”  It is easier and a lot less painful to just leave it at that rather than rehash all the details.  Everybody knows what you are talking about, except that if you weren’t around at the time and haven’t been clued in, you have no idea of what “that past unpleasantness” means.

That is what we are dealing with here.  While we don’t have the specifics of what had happened in Corinth, we have the broad outlines of the story.  Paul had promised to visit Corinth again, but changed his mind and was criticized by some in the Corinthian church for not returning as he had promised.  He was accused of vacillating and being undependable.  Paul responded by saying that in light of what had happened and the atmosphere in the church, he had decided not to make another “painful visit.”  His presence might have inflamed the situation and just made things worse, so even though he had very much wanted to visit in person, he had sent a letter instead.  (We don’t have that letter.)

Paul then speaks of someone who had caused pain both to him personally and to the church as a whole.  We don’t know who this was or what had transpired, but it required church discipline.  As you read though 1 Corinthians, it is clear that there were all kinds of issues in this church.  A man was having an affair with his mother-in-law.  There were problems with gossip and slander.  Some people were getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper.  Rich people were enjoying feasts at the church potluck while some poor people barely got anything to eat.  There were arguments over whose gifts were more important and there were cliques and competing groups in the church. 

Here, we are not really sure what had taken place, but someone in the congregation had caused pain to others, including Paul, and the church had determined to punish the offender.  “Punishment” is really a stronger term than the sense of the Greek word.  The person was not banned or excommunicated; it was something more like a censure or rebuke. 

At any rate, one who had disrupted the fellowship and acted inappropriately in whatever way had been challenged on his behavior, and there had consequences of some sort.  Now Paul counsels that this person be forgiven.  The point of whatever measure that was taken against him was not retribution but to bring a return to right fellowship.  Paul says that this person should now be consoled, going back to the language and theme of chapter 1 - consolation and encouragement, which we looked at a couple of weeks ago.

So it is a bit of a convoluted argument, especially for those of us reading the letter 2000 years later, but Paul comes down on the side of forgiveness of this one who had wronged others.  And he adds in verse 11, “we do this so that we may not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.”  To not forgive can create all sorts of problems.  To hold on to anger, to hold on to hate, to hold on to a desire for retribution, can wind up damaging us – it gives the forces of evil room to operate.

We can talk abstractly about forgiveness.  A lot has been said about it.  Alexander Pope said, “To err is human, to forgive divine.”  Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.”  Marianne Williamson said, “The practice of forgiveness is our most important contribution to the healing of the world.”

And what do we pray nearly every Sunday?  “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

The idea of forgiveness sounds good and right.  Most of us agree with the idea, in principle.  But in real life situations, it is not so easy.  Paul gives us an example of forgiveness in a community.  Someone had caused deep pain, and you can just imagine what people were saying.  “We’re better off without him.  I’d be glad if I never saw him again.  We can’t run the risk of having him in the church.  We know old so-and-so.  He’ll never change.”  Emotions were running high.  This could not have been easy. 

We like the idea of forgiveness, especially when we are the one being forgiven, but to actually practice forgiveness in a community is tough.  Just how difficult the dynamics of it are comes through in Paul’s letter – look at the words he uses: pain, distress, anguish, tears, sorrow.  Maybe another way of saying all of this is to simply say that forgiveness is one of those things that is a lot easier to talk about than it is to actually practice. 

Back in 2005, in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Jameel McGee was minding his own business when a police officer showed up and arrested him for dealing drugs.  “It was all made up,” said McGee.  Of course, a lot of people accused of crimes make that claim, but in this case it was true.  Former Benton Harbor police officer Andrew Collins admitted that he falsified the report.  “Basically, at the start of that day,” he said, “I was going to make sure that I had another drug arrest.”  He just made it up.

“I lost everything,” McGee said.  “My only goal was to seek him when I got home [from prison] and to hurt him.”  Eventually, that cop was caught and served time for falsifying police reports, planting drugs and theft.  McGee was exonerated, but he had spent four years in prison for a crime he did not commit.  Can you imagine what that would be like?

Today both men are back in Benton Harbor.  Last year, by sheer coincidence, they both ended up at the faith-based employment agency Mosaic, where they now work side by side in the same café.  And it was in those cramped quarters that the bad cop and the wrongfully accused man had no choice but to have it out.

Collins, the former cop, said to McGee, “Honestly, I have no explanation, all I can do is say I’m sorry.”  McGee says that was all it took.  “That was pretty much what I needed to hear.”

Amazingly, McGee was able to forgive this man who had put him in prison for four years.  He had dreamed of retribution, but instead he forgave this man.  Today, working together in the café, they are not only cordial, they’re actually friends.  They hang out.  They are such close friends that not long ago McGee told Collins he loved him.

“I just started weeping because he doesn’t owe me that.  I don’t deserve that,” Collins said. 

McGee was able to forgive because of his Christian faith and his hope for a kinder world.  He wants to be an example -- so now he and Collins give speeches together about the importance of forgiveness and redemption.

It is hard to fathom such forgiveness.  But what is the alternative?  Holding on to bitterness and hatred, holding on to the need for revenge, makes us smaller people.  Jameel McGee was imprisoned on false charges, but without forgiveness, he would have remained in a prison of a sort.  Lewis Smedes, who wrote a wonderful little book on forgiveness, said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”

Jameel McGee understood that, but for him it was even deeper.  He didn’t forgive just for his sake, or even for Collins’ sake.  It was for our sake,” McGee said.  “Not just us, but for our sake.”  And by that, he meant all of us.  A world that practices forgiveness is a better world.

The basis for our forgiveness and the example for our forgiveness is Jesus.  Jesus, who offers us forgiveness – no matter what we have done.  Jesus, who on the cross said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  Those words were directed at his accusers and executioners, but in a sense they were also directed at his disciples who abandoned him, and they were directed to us, even today, who foolishly, carelessly hurt one another.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in the aftermath of the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa and the work of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, wrote The Book of Forgiving.  In it, he says,

To forgive is not just to be altruistic.  It is the best form of self-interest.  It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger.  These emotions are part of being human.  You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things: the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.

However, when I talk of forgiveness I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person.  A better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred.  Remaining in that state locks you in a state of victimhood, making you almost dependent on the perpetrator.  If you can find it in yourself to forgive, then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator.  You can move on, and you can even help the perpetrator to become a better person, too.
I think it is important that Tutu speaks of anger and hatred as being part of the process of forgiveness.  We can’t really forgive unless we have come to terms with the pain.  Jameel McGee had to deal with a lot of anger and hatred.  And sometimes, so do we.

Forgiveness is so hard because it means giving up something.  It literally means that something has to die.
What has to die?  What do we have to give up?  Maybe the right to get even.  Maybe the right to feel superior.  Maybe the right to feel like we have something on another person.  Maybe we have to give up an idealized version of someone.  Or of ourselves. It might mean giving up bitterness when we we have grown accustomed and comfortable with bitterness.

Forgiveness is not just saying everything is OK, and it is not just letting bygones be bygones.  It means facing the pain, acknowledging the pain, and then, however slowly or excruciatingly, choosing to give up our right to get even.  It means letting go of the anger and the hatred and letting go of the hold the other person has on us.  We do this for our own sake.  We do this because of what holding on to the anger and hurt can do to us.

And while, depending on the circumstances, we may not be able to say “I forgive you” directly to the other person – we may not even know the other person - we also do it for their sake.  Lewis Smedes said, “You will know that forgiveness has begun when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.”

Families are great places to practice forgiveness because, let’s face it, when we live together, we are going to hurt each other, whether we mean to or not.  It is just part of life.  And so practicing forgiveness is essential for family life.  And it is no less so in the church.

The community of Christ is to be a community of forgiveness.  This doesn’t mean allowing others to walk all over us or to hurt others.  Forgiveness does not mean being a doormat.  In Corinth, the one who had caused so much pain was held accountable.  But being a community of forgiveness means that just as Christ has forgiven us, we are willing to forgive – both for our sake and for the sake of a better world.  Amen.

Friday, May 20, 2016

“Life Together: Consolation” - May 22, 2016

Text: 2 Corinthians 1:1-11

Since last fall, we have been on a journey through the Bible.  We began in Genesis, with creation, and continued with stories of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Esau, Moses and the Ten Commandments, Ruth and Naomi.  We read about the prophets Elijah and Hosea and we read from the Psalms.  We came to Advent and considered the hope and anticipation of the coming Messiah and then celebrated the birth of Jesus.

After Christmas we followed the story of Jesus through the gospel of Mark – his life and teachings, his parables, his miracles, calling and sending the disciples, growing conflict and finally his arrest and crucifixion, and then we celebrated Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday. 

Since Easter, we have been in the book of Acts, the story of the growth of the church and the spread of the gospel though the Mediterranean world, and 1 Corinthians, a letter Paul wrote to one of the early churches in an important city in the Roman world.

The Narrative Lectionary, which we have followed this year, is designed around the way that church actually works, so it starts in the fall, on the Sunday after Labor Day, and runs through Pentecost, around the beginning of summer.  The thinking is that a lot of folks, ministers included, are in and out over the summer and that things are generally a bit looser, so there is not a prescribed plan for the summer months.

But we will be continuing the sweep through the scriptures with a couple of sermon series this summer.  This will get interrupted, of course, by vacation, services at the park, and so forth, but the plan is - at least when I am preaching – to do a sermon series from 2 Corinthians and then a series from the Book of Revelation.  Which only seems right: when it is almost time for school to start, it can feel like the end of the world, so Revelation in late summer seems appropriate.
 
On this day that we highlight Christian Education, it needs to be said that a lot of Christian Education takes place in worship, and the hope is that the way we have structured our readings and sermons through this year has helped us all develop a bit more understanding of the Bible as we see the scriptures as a continuing and unfolding story, and as we spend concentrated time in one gospel as well as pay attention to parts of the Bible that may be less familiar.

At any rate, that has been the game plan for the scriptures we have read in worship this year – that’s the big picture, and here we are today, with our reading from the first chapter of Second Corinthians (or Two Corinthians as some like to call it).

There was a time when a lot of people were regular letter writers.  When I was a kid, my mom and my grandma wrote each other about every week or so.  There didn’t have to be a lot going on; my grandma would just write a few lines about the goings-on of the day. 

Today, letter writing is pretty well a lost art.  Sending an email or just texting some emojis is not the same.  I can remember when long distance phone calls were expensive and money was tight, so you wrote letters.  Cheaper long distance seriously cut into letter writing, and then more recently, email and Facebook and skype and the like have pretty well finished off what was left of the letter writing community. 

But smartphones and ipads and computers and even the basic telephone are very recent in the big picture of things.  For nearly all of history, if you wanted to communicate with someone from a distance, you wrote a letter.  Several books of the New Testaments are actually letters – correspondence with churches and individuals.

In our Bible, the book is called 2 Corinthians.  But this is actually something like the 4th letter, at least, that Paul has written to the church at Corinth.  1 Corinthians includes a reference to an earlier letter.  And 2 Corinthians chapter 2, as well as chapter 7:8 include references to an earlier letter that is clearly not 1 Corinthians.  I mention this as a way of saying that this is a congregation that Paul knows very well and he has kept in touch with the church in Corinth, even while he has been away.  This letter was written while Paul was in Ephesus. 

He begins with a greeting – Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus along with our brother Timothy, to the church in Corinth, including those in Achaia (the surrounding area).  Grace and Peace to you.

Then he goes into a blessing.  “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all consolation…”  Amy-Jill Levine points out that the reference to God as the “Father of Mercies” is a very familiar part of the Jewish liturgy.  It is something people expect to hear, almost boilerplate language.  But the part about the God of Consolation was not.  This was different.  And if you want to know how important Paul’s description of God as the God of Consolation is, we can maybe quantify it.  “The God of all consolation who consoles us in our affliction, that we may be able to console those who are in affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God…”  And it goes on and on.  It’s almost the Department of Redundancy Department.  I counted the words console or consolation 10 times in 4 verses.

I might have used a few different words if I had been writing this, just for style – lift, comfort, commiserate, empathize – but I’m not sure we can compare first century Greek and 21st century American writing styles.  But I do know that in any language, when you repeat a word so many times, you get emphasis.  If you are reading this section and find the word consolation over and over, you get the message.  The theme here is consolation.

Now consolation is not necessarily a highly valued idea for us – we might speak of something as being “small consolation,” but I don’t remember hearing of anything being “large consolation.”  The winner on Jeopardy! goes home with $37,420 while the other contestants get a consolation prize – the home version of the Jeopardy! game.  Compared to the first place contestant’s winnings, that really is small consolation.

But the word that Paul uses here is actually a powerful word that means something like strength, encouragement, comfort.  When you have suffered affliction, when you have endured suffering, consolation is no small thing.  Encouragement and strength and comfort are not small things.

There was a 60 Minutes segment last Sunday night about a very promising treatment for glioblastoma, an especially virulent form of brain cancer.  The bold treatment at Duke University involves using the polio virus to attack the tumor.  It sounds crazy at first, but the polio virus has been re-engineered so that it can’t replicate in normal cells – it won’t paralyze a person.  But in cancer cells it does replicate, and it leaves behind a toxin that kills the cancer cells.

In 2011, Stephanie Lipscomb was a nursing student suffering from headaches.  A doctor told her she had a glioblastoma tumor the size of a tennis ball.  She had 98% of the tumor removed, as much radiation as a person can have in a lifetime, and chemotherapy.  But before long, the cancer was back.  There was no treatment for recurrent glioblastoma.  It is a hard thing to be 20 years old and told that you have but months to live.  

The only option was one that had never been tried – on anyone - but she felt like there was nothing to lose.  So Stephanie was the very first person to receive the experimental treatment.  She received the treatment in May, and by July the tumor looked bigger.  The doctor wanted to stop the treatment, but Stephanie said no, she wanted to continue.  As it turned out, the tumor was actually shrinking.  The MRI only looked worse because the presence of the polio virus had caused her immune system to wake up and go to war.  What they saw on the MRI was inflammation from her immune system fighting the tumor.  

Stephanie is now cancer-free.  No one could have imagined that outcome.  Nobody expects a cure in a Phase 1 study.  All you are trying to do is find the right dose and if a patient lives longer or has a better quality of life, that’s gravy.  This kind of a result in a patient with this kind of cancer was completely unheard of.

Scott Pelley did the interview with Stephanie.  She has completed her studies and is now working as a nurse.  Pelley asked how this experience had made her a better nurse.   She said that she can talk to her patients and tell them, “Look, I’ve been in the hospital; I’ve been sick like this.”  As she shares her experience, she said she can just see the hope in her patients’ eyes.

Vice-President Joe Biden is focusing a lot of effort on the fight against cancer.  He visited Duke to learn firsthand about this novel and very promising treatment that could potentially work against a whole range of cancers.  As part of his visit he had the chance to meet Stephanie.  She told him that she was the first person to get the polio treatment.  He took her hand and told her that his son had died of the very same cancer.  She said that she could feel the mourning for his son, but she could also see the love and the hope he had for cancer patients and how much it meant for him to see someone like her surviving and thriving and living their life.

Pelley asked Stephanie where she wanted to take her nursing career.  She said that she wanted to do pediatric oncology – to work with kids with cancer.  She said, “I was 20 when I was diagnosed.  I wasn’t completely an adult.  And I absolutely love kids.  With this unique experience of surviving Stage IV cancer in my brain, if I don’t do this, then it’s kinda like a waste.  A waste of being cancer-free.”  From helping kids with cancer to bringing consolation to the vice-president, this young woman has used her experience to offer comfort and encouragement.

Paul speaks of mutual encouragement within the church.  Christ’s sufferings on our behalf bring us consolation.  Because Paul had suffered affliction, he was able to bring consolation to other who were suffering.  Because God had brought them through hardship and suffering, there was hope for others. 

And Paul is very honest here; he says that there was a point when “we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.”  That is pretty low, friends, but many of us have been there.  Yet through the grace of God and through the consolation that we may offer to one another, we can still cling to hope even in the toughest of times.

Stephanie Lipscomb said that to not use her experience as a Stage IV brain cancer survivor would be “a waste of being cancer-free.”  We may not have that kind of dramatic experience, but we can all use the experiences we have had, our sufferings and our afflictions, as Paul puts it, to bring consolation and encouragement to others.

It may be as simple as sharing with a younger student how you survived Physical Chemistry or Anatomy and Physiology or English Literature.  It may be as simple as commiserating with someone over car repairs or water in their basement or a bad knee, or letting the overbusy working parent know that you have been there and offer to lend a hand, or lend an ear. 

There is a reason groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous have sponsors.  You are paired with someone who has been there, who has gone through what you are going through.

Some of us have lost parents.  Some of us have lost children.  Some of us have lost spouses.  Some of us have been through divorce.  Some of us have had our parents divorce.  Some of us have lost jobs.  Some of us have faced serious illness.  Some of us have tried to do the right thing, tried to do the Christ-like thing and we only seem to get grief for it.  Some of us have been the object of bullying.  Some of us have had struggles in life for all kinds of reasons.

Through all of this, God has been there.  God has seen us through, even through those times when we were “so utterly crushed that we despaired of life itself,” as Paul puts it.  And out of the consolation we have received, even the consolation that can seem slow in coming, we are able to offer consolation – to offer strength and encouragement and hope to others.  To do otherwise, as that young cancer survivor said, would be a waste of our pain and struggles.

It’s not simply that we can bring comfort to those going through the same struggles we have experienced.  By God’s grace, all of our suffering, all of our pain, can change us, and we can become more caring, more empathetic, more sensitive to the hurt that is around us, whether we have had the same experience or not.

Jeff is a friend of mine from seminary days.  He was in a terrible automobile accident several weeks ago.  He had fractures and injuries in various parts of his body, and it could have been a lot worse.  After a few weeks in the hospital and a rehab center he was able to go home.  He was out in the driveway when an 11 year old neighbor girl came over.  She said that she and her family were worried about him after hearing about his wreck and she said how happy she was that he was still alive.  She also told Jeff that her family had been praying for him.

I don’t have to tell you that this young neighbor brought a whole lot of comfort and encouragement.  And that is what the church is called to do.  This letter of Paul offers us ways to live out our lives together as a community of faith.  One of those keys to Christian community is consolation – offering strength and encouragement and comfort to one another.  “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in our affliction so that we may be able to console others.”  Amen.