2 Corinthians 12:2-10
The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan
I love lawyer shows on television.
Lawyer shows are all about loyalty. Each show follows the dramatic story of loyalty among the members of the firm, who’s up for partner and who’s got who’s back on whatever the deal of the week is.
I recently asked an attorney (Kristie McCraw’s daughter) if it really is like The Good Wife or Suits and she laughed and said, “No. Sometimes there’s a bit of drama, but mostly it’s just a lot of paper work.”
But lawyer shows are about much more than paper work. Every character is tough and beautiful and amazing and apparently at work at all times - except when they meet with each other in bars or bedrooms - but soap opera part aside, lawyer shows are, well, all about what we really want in life. Right? Lawyer shows are about power.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about power. It seems to be the topic of most conversations these days.
Jesus is powerful. He was and is and will be always God in the flesh. He heals and fixes and even resurrects people, then and now. He’s super smart and teaches with wisdom and prophecy. He’s like superman. He’s everything we want to be like. He’s the one we want on our side when things get touchy.
So, when he was traveling with his ministry of teaching and healing and he came to his home town, you would think he would be a big star and get a parade, right? But instead he seems less powerful for some reason. The story in Mark tells us that he was greeted with lots of “wows” but that then the people there “took offense at him” and “he could do no deed of power there.” And he explained that a prophet is without honor in his hometown, among his own kin. Home is the only place a prophet is without power. He named it. And then he left.
In Mark “he was amazed at their unbelief.” In Matthew it spells this out and says that he was powerless in his hometown because of their unbelief. In Luke they were so angry with him they drove him to a cliff and tried to throw him off of it but he slipped away.
So much for homecomings.
When that rain shower finally came on Friday night, after several days or was it weeks of what has seemed like a big draught, I rejoiced. I ran to the window and thanked God as I watched my little collection of flowers get drenched. I imagined my impatiens and geraniums and tomato plants relieved and quenched and blessed. I felt that I was blessed by this rain shower. And I was so pleased with God for sending it to us.
And then I looked across the tree tops of the neighborhood and I thought about the other flowers and vegetable gardens in the other yards and then I imagined the fields beyond that and the farms beyond that and I remembered that mine is not the only garden that longs for nourishment.
It’s so easy to get caught up in our own little world, in our social media bubble and in our little community and forget the woe’s of the rest of the world.
I think I would probably join the crowd that drove my crazy brother out of town on a rail. I think I might get angry too if a hometown boy, someone I’d known my whole life came back from a time of absence and upset the status quo. I can see where that would be upsetting if the boy next door destroyed the inner circle of my little world by showing up with the power to heal and change people. I can see where folks might get into some group think and decide they didn’t want Jesus around. I can hear them saying, “He might change us too much and then we wouldn’t be us.”
That’s what happened when Jesus went home. He didn’t think of it as home so much as he thought of it as part of the mission field that he was visiting with his gospel message. But home is that place where it is more difficult to heal. Or preach. Or teach. Or bless.
It’s just too intimate.
This is what my favorite bible scholar (Karoline Lewis adapted) says about this scene:
There always has been and always will be resistance to the true power of God’s love, (and this is) mostly because it is indeed God’s love. When we realize that this is a love over which we have no control, a love that will infiltrate the world like a persistent weed despite our best efforts to curb its spread, a love whereby we do not get to decide its objects, it seems less attractive than it did at first. The sooner the disciples, the sooner we, understand that - the better.
It’s a hard lesson to learn, a hard truth to believe. After all, we want desperately for the world, the entire world, to experience God’s love and grace and mercy -- and why on earth would anyone want otherwise? We have committed our lives to following and spreading God’s love. And yet these days, it seems clear that the more dominant voices get the airtime to proclaim the selectivity of God’s love and that somehow, by some miracle of their own making, they are the ones privy to God’s choices. Or so they say.
But Jesus get’s rejected in his own home.
More often than not, rejection of any kind is symptomatic of a larger issue. In the case of resistance to the indiscriminate nature of God’s love, the underlying disease is idolatry. The worship of that which has been put in place over God is more than prevalent. We almost can’t see it anymore, recognize it anymore. But we should always be on guard against it. We know it well -- and yet more often than not, it’s the very thing that trips us up, trips up the church. We think we will be able to see it coming. We think we’ve moved passed it. But history teaches us that our track record shows a different reality.
I imagine we are quite aware of these idols with some being more obvious than others -- power, money, influence -- and not even the church and its institutions are immune to the sway and appeal of such attractions.
The disciples, then and now, are sent out knowing God’s love for them known in Jesus but will quickly realize not everyone will see what they know. It’s in those moments that the mission gets dangerous. Yes, it’s a hard mission regardless. But it suddenly gets even more difficult when the love they preach is dismissed by others, they start to wonder about themselves.
Because rejection sets in motion a kind of unraveling, doesn’t it? Causing a questioning of the self. Justification of the self. Validation of the value of the self. All of which are located in external forces that clamor for our attention and our loyalties. And all of a sudden, you start trusting, believing in that which makes you feel loved in the moment, worthy in the moment, rather than the one who made you feel more loved than ever before in your whole life.
Rejection is never something easily sloughed off as, “Oh, well. That’s their problem” or, “That’s ok, I’ll just move on.” Jesus knows. Rejection is what eats at the soul, even a soul already saved. So, Jesus goes first. Jesus always goes first.
C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series is not really a children’s book. It began as one. It came from stories he made up for his goddaughter (Lucy Barfield), who was the daughter of (Owen Barfield), Lewis's friend, teacher, and adviser. But it seems to have taken on a life of its own as he spun the sotry, and the great theologian couldn’t resist including theological themes.
The main theme is his choice of a great lion named Aslan. Aslan, most scholars agree, is an image of Christ himself. Aslan is beautiful and powerful and kind and wise and he guides the children in their adventures in Narnia. But he ends up getting crucified, if you will remember.
The main story is an allegory of Christ's crucifixion: Aslan sacrifices himself for Edmund, a traitor who may deserve death, in the same way that Jesus sacrificed himself for sinners. Aslan is killed on the Stone Table, (symbolizing Mosaic Law) which breaks when he is resurrected.
But I remember Aslan was first shaved. The White Witch cut off all his hair, and he especially seemed weakened by the loss of his mane. Like Samson who once slayed a lion but was weakened when his hair was cut and then nearly destroyed only to resurrect his strength through prayer later.
I saw a video on social media this week of two male lions in a zoo. They seemed young and strong with their thick manes and muscles as they were pacing in their cage. It didn’t look like a cage, what with all the naturalization zookeepers create - it looked as nice as any zoo you might visit. But caged they were none-the-less.
They were both pacing back and forth along the edge of a pond on a retainer wall that was less than a foot above the pond when one of them misstepped and fell into the pond. It was as if the glassy reflection on this water looked like a solid surface to him and he meant to step on something solid but fell head first into a full body dunking. He popped right back up and swam toward the phone camera of the person filming this. The other lion, his brother I assume, seemed very concerned and leaned over the water, sniffing and pacing faster back and forth to sniff again while the wet one swam.
But I was struck by the profundity of watching the king of the jungle stumble in weakness and cause himself to look foolish. He was vulnerable. Even Kings are sometimes vulnerable.
These are all images of what Paul was talking about in this section of his letters to the Church in Corinth. He said, in the last verse of our reading this morning “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.”
Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
To be strong through weakness is a difficult concept. But it is essential for every Christian to understand this.
Christ said yes to God the Father and submitted himself to the crucifixion. He was weakened and destroyed only to rise again. So, for us to follow Jesus, we are called to take up our cross, to accept the thorn in our side, whatever that may be - it is that thing for each of us that reminds us we are mortal. If we honor our weaknesses, admit them, live into them, then we will live like Christ and follow appropriately and obediently.
The opposite choice is arrogance and willfulness and selfishness. This is the attitude of many leaders in our world. And it was the attitude of some so called “missionaries” who were attempting to take power of the church in Corinth and were attempting to discredit Paul with lies about his character. So, instead of go down there with an army and picking a fight, Paul wrote to his church and admitted his own vulnerabilities, the thorn in his side, his weakness. He laid himself on the stone table and allowed his hair to be cut, he laid aside whatever power he may have had because of his faith in Christ who called him to teach the love of God in Christ Jesus - not only to his fledgling church in Corinth, but to the whole church ever since.
General Convention is in full swing in Austin, Texas this week. I find myself ignoring all the hierarchy and reveling. I have to admit I’m a bit jealous to not get to go and join the big party so it’s easy to roll my eyes at the meetings and the resolutions and the very idea that we might change our prayerbook again!
But the first day of convention, Presiding Bishop Curry released a model for how we should practice our faith. And I was really excited about this. This is what I want to do. I want to work, together with you, on renewing our daily walk with God.
I’ve included in our bulletin this morning an image of this model (which he created with our friend Stephanie Spellers who was the speaker at our diocesan convention in January). It accompanies a video which I’ve posted on our Facebook page of the Presiding Bishop explaining his model.
This image starts with “Turning” and suggests that we need to continue to “pause, listen and choose to follow Jesus.” This is a daily practice. It’s not a “once and done” sort of thing that happened years ago when you had a conversion experience or when you were Baptized or Confirmed. Then, if we keep working it, we Learn daily through Bible study and the like. Then Bishop Curry talked about prayer and worship, about blessing each other and going into the world to act and “live like Jesus.” The final step is to remember to take times of rest.
I think that is what we’ve been doing here at Grace this past couple of months and that’s O.K. Our parish went through some stuff these past couple of years and maybe we needed one big sabbath, a couple of months of rest and retreat.
That’s been hard for me. I’m newly vetted here and chomping at the bit to get to work on the next phase of this parish. And it seems like everyone is on vacation! But that’s O.K. We all needed to rest.
So, maybe this model, if you will consider joining me in using it, maybe for us this model starts with that rest triangle. We’ll rest a bit first and then we’ll look at how we can renew our faith practice in these other ways.
I’ll provide new opportunities this Fall for study and prayer and we always have Sundays for worship, for the chance to come together as a community. I suppose there is always room for improvement in these sorts of daily practices. I hope you will pray about this and talk with each other and with me about how we can “up our game” in our daily walk as disciples of Jesus.
A week from Thursday my old college friend is coming to play some beautiful music for us on his classical guitar. I’ve been listening to his most recent album in preparation for this. One of the songs he plays is called A Thousand Years (by Christina Perri). You may remember this love song that was popular on the radio in 2011 and was used in the Breaking Dawn series. I think that was a vampire story, but I never saw it.
Anyway, the lyrics to this beautiful tune do speak to me.
One step closer
I have died everyday, waiting for you
Darling, don't be afraid, I have loved you for a thousand years
I'll love you for a thousand more
And all along I believed, I would find you
Time has brought your heart to me, I have loved you for a thousand years
I'll love you for a thousand more
We all listen to that sort of love song and sigh, perhaps. But imagine, if you will, that the message is not between lovers but a message from God in Jesus through the Holy Spirit to us. A love letter from God to us. Each of us. He has loved us for Two Thousand years and has “died every day waiting for us.”
I was deeply moved on Friday when that thought occurred to me while listening to my friend Mark play it on his CD. We are so very loved by God and yet we spend our lives trying to be strong, powerful, and right about stuff. We spend our energy working to overcome our enemies or our fears or our devalued images of ourselves. We would do better to lay our pride down on the stone table and submit our power to this God who loves us this much. In this way, vulnerability is love and arrogance is lost.
So I ask you to pray with me in the coming weeks that we might find our own power in weakness. That we might be renewed in our daily walk with Christ. That we might come together as a stronger community through a new awareness of ourselves as the body of Christ, in humility, ready to face the challenges of our current world, ready to lead each other and new friends to the only true power there is - the love of God in