Pentecost 6, July 8, 2012
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Greetings to all and best wishes for your July 4th Celebrations! Though I will be presiding at Sunday Eucharist, I will not be preaching. In view of the fact that I will be away most of the week and driving back from Chicago on Saturday, Ken Dore’ has graciously agreed to take on that office for the day. It is wonderful to have such gifts as Ken possesses in this congregation. I am sure that, as always, he will have a good word for us.
Still, I cannot seem to stay away from the readings for the coming week. Here are my thoughts. As always, I welcome yours as I am sure Ken would also.
The time is just before the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon in 587 B.C.E. The little nation of Judah, all that remains of the twelve tribes of Israel, stands alone against the might of the Babylonian Empire. Judah’s king made the decision to rebel against Babylonian regional control in hopes of receiving military support from Egypt. The decision was a bad one. Egyptian support never came. Now it is too late to turn back. The die is cast. Babylonian troops will soon encircle the city. Only an act of divine deliverance can save Judah now. That is precisely what Judah is hoping for.
In the midst of this crisis, Ezekiel is getting a tough assignment. He is sent to speak a word to people that don’t want to hear it, won’t listen to it and might even resist it violently. He has got to tell the people that there will be no divine deliverance this time. The Babylonian invasion is God’s judgment on a rebellious and recalcitrant people. Resistance is futile. In repentance alone lies Judah’s last hope. Neither king nor people are having any of that. They are determined to hold out for a miracle.
If you have ever had the experience of having to say “no” to your teenager or, as a teenager, you have tried to move mom or dad from “don’t even start with me” to “yes,” then you know how hard Ezekiel’s job was. Once people get dug into a position, the harder you try to push them off of it, the more tenaciously they cling. It seems as though God the irresistible force is pressing against Judah the immovable object and poor Ezekiel is caught in the middle. God does not seem to have much confidence that the word spoken to Judah will be received. Nevertheless, as a result of Ezekiel’s ministry, Judah will know that God’s prophet has been among them.
Perhaps the good news here comes from the mere fact that we have these words from Ezekiel at all. Obviously, the people of Judah finally did recognize that there had been a true prophet among them during those last dark days of Jerusalem. Clearly, the words of Ezekiel declaring God’s judgment helped the Jewish exiles begin to make sense of the terrible thing that had happened to them. In all probability, this recognition did not come until long after the destruction of Jerusalem and very likely after Ezekiel’s death. In short, the prophet may have died without ever seeing the fruit of his ministry.
That should give some encouragement to all of us who have taught Sunday School and confirmation class to a generation of children who are no longer in the church. It should give some hope to a church that increasingly finds itself smaller, poorer and further out on the margins of society. The word that has been sown will be received-but in God’s own time which might not be in our own. The world will one day know that prophets have been at work in its midst whether we live to see it or not.
That is not to say, of course, that we should not work at speaking the word in fresh and creative ways that engage people of all ages. The last thing I want to do is promote bad preaching and boring worship. Still, we cannot judge our faithfulness to this task by our own perceptions of effectiveness. The critical question is whether we are answering the call to preach the word God gives us in Christ Jesus-whether anyone seems to be listening or not.
I turn next to the Gospel lesson because it appears to be paired with the lesson from Ezekiel. Here, too, the prophet (Jesus) is met with hostility and skepticism. I must confess that I don’t understand the opposition Jesus faces in his home town of Nazareth. Jesus has attained rock star popularity throughout Galilee. He cannot go into a town without collecting mobs of people. You would think that Nazareth would welcome its famous son with a parade down Main Street. After all, Jesus put Nazareth on the map. Even today, would anyone know about Nazareth if it were not for Jesus of Nazareth? Yet so far from welcoming him, the people of Nazareth treat him with contempt. “Who do you think you are? What is so special about you? We know your people and they aren’t anything special. So where do you get off teaching in our synagogue as though you were some sort of celebrity?”
I suspect that this coolness toward Jesus in Nazareth might go back to chapter 3 where his family, assuming him to be insane, came out to take charge of him. When they send word that they have arrived and would like to see Jesus, Jesus responds by asking: “Who are my mother and brothers?” He then goes on to explain that his true family consists of all who obey the Word of God. So in effect, Jesus has repudiated family ties for the new loyalties created by the reign of God. Family ties run deep in small agricultural towns. Each family has long tentacles that penetrate other families and embrace the entire community. These ties are the stuff that binds a town together. When you cut them, you sever the blood vessels of the whole community. It may well be that Jesus is now experiencing the fallout from the encounter with his family back in chapter 3. If loyalty to the Kingdom of God requires one to renounce or at least subjugate family and clan loyalties, then a prophet who preaches the Kingdom in his own back yard is likely to earn a good deal of hostility.
In the next part of the lesson, Jesus sends the Twelve Disciples he selected back in chapter 3 out in twos. He does not give them specific instructions, but he does give them authority over unclean spirits. They are charged to bring with them no provisions whatsoever, but to depend upon the hospitality of the towns to which they are sent. We are told in crisp, succinct Markan fashion that they “preached that men should repent and they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them.”
What I find striking here is that the disciples are dependent upon the hospitality of strangers. The sharing of hospitality and meal fellowship is an intimate act-usually restricted to family and clan. One does not go into the home of sinners to eat with them. But Jesus’ disciples are sent out to question that proposition, as indeed Jesus himself already has. Repentance means breaking away from learned patters of behavior and acculturation to embrace the openness and generosity of God’s table which is open to all. In return, the disciples are commanded to make available to all people the blessings of God’s reign in the form of casting out unclean spirits and healing.
Note well that it appears there was no formal education to prepare these disciples for their ministry. They were not authorized by any ecclesiastical authority other than Jesus. There was no “mission feasibility” study done in advance; no demographic research done to ascertain the racial, ethnic and cultural makeup of the target populations. Needless to say, if we in the church had been in charge, this never would have happened. Thanks be to God we were not in charge. And very great thanks be to God we still are not in charge-even if we like to act that way sometimes.
This psalm is labeled a “Song of Ascents.” It shares this title with a group of psalms of which it is a part (120-134). The meaning of this title has not been established beyond doubt. The title is thought by a number of scholars to mean that the group of songs was composed for use in the procession of pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for high festivals. Other scholars cast doubt on this hypothesis, pointing out that most of these psalms appear to have been composed for cultic purposes unrelated to the Zion tradition. This psalm begins as a personal individual lament. The psalmist makes a humble affirmation of faith in God. In vss 3-4 the psalm continues as a communal plea for deliverance from oppression. This could be a plea on behalf of Israel as a whole or an oppressed group within Israel. Either way, it is clear that the psalmist/s are subject to oppression and contempt by “those who are at ease” and the “proud.”
It is difficult for me to pray this psalm. I have never been held in contempt (though I came close a few times while practicing law). On the whole, I have been relatively at ease in the land. Nobody has ever detained me, asked for my citizenship papers or inhibited my ability to speak my mind or worship freely. So this psalm seems not to apply to me personally. But then again, being a disciple of Jesus is never just a personal thing, is it? There are other parts of the Body of Christ that live under grinding poverty. There are places in the world where simply being a follower of Jesus places one in jeopardy. There are disciples living in war zones, refugee camps and prisons whose lives are in constant danger. They are no doubt praying this prayer or one like it. So should I not be joined in this prayer with them? In fact, is not more than prayer required here? Recall how, in last week’s lesson from II Corinthians, Paul reminded the Corinthian Church that where one church has a surplus, it should be applied to any other having a deficit. So the psalm poses the question: How can disciples like us, who are “at ease in the land,” use our wealth, position and influence to meet the needs of those “who have seen more than enough of contempt” and “scorn?”
II Corinthians 12:2-10 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1291&cmpgn=5244
This is without doubt one of the most fascinating and difficult Pauline passages in the New Testament. Again, we are a little embarrassed by Paul here. That, I think, is why the folks who prepare the readings have clipped off verse 1 of chapter 12 which reads: “I must boast; there is nothing to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord.” Paul has already delivered a laundry list of his many accomplishments, his many sacrifices for the work of the Gospel and the suffering he has endured. If you have been reading the last couple of chapters, you are by now probably a little sick of Paul. I think there is no getting around the fact that Paul had some serious personality deficits. He was arrogant and prone to boasting. He was also hypersensitive and tended to take a lot of things far too personally. I have noticed that these two personality defects often come together. Yet it is precisely this-and the fact that Paul is very self aware-that makes the man so endearing. At the end of his unabashed boasting that climaxes in an account of a profound mystical experience, he goes on to say that God afflicted him with “a thorn in the flesh.” There has been no end of speculation as to what that thorn was. Some of that makes for fascinating reading, but for all that, it is still just speculation. We don’t know whether Paul suffered from a physical ailment, a moral weakness or some spiritual/emotional struggle. Whatever the case may be, it was of sufficient severity that it kept Paul’s inflated ego in check. Paul recognizes that it is this very weakness that has made him realize how he must rely solely on God’s grace and mercy. The power of God, Paul knows, is made perfect in weakness, in vulnerability and in the recognition that we have nothing but what is given to us. Without that thorn, whatever it was, could Paul have reached such a profound understanding and acceptance of God’s grace?
Like Paul, I struggle with my own thorns and limitations. I often wish the quality of my voice was richer, more powerful-more like James Earl Jones and less like Woody Allen. I wish I had a more impressive physical presence-which is another way of saying I wish I were less of a geek. I wish I could stop blinking. Life and ministry would be easier if I were not such an introvert. I could name perhaps a dozen other changes I would make to myself that, in my opinion, would make me a more effective minister. But highly effective ministers typically face highly charged temptations. How many powerful and charismatic preachers can you name that have been brought down by scandal of one kind or another? Maybe pride is a vocational liability for preachers. As Mac Davis says (or sings): “Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.” Neither Paul nor I come close to perfection and it is still hard to be humble. Since humility is essential to faithful ministry, perhaps it is a good thing that we are so far from perfect. Maybe it is better to have a few thorns keeping the helium from inflating your head than to experience a spectacular explosion and fall from high altitude. I cannot imagine how insufferable we would be if, God forbid, either Paul or I ever achieved perfection. Perhaps flawed, imperfect and broken people make better ministers than would the perfect people we would like to make of ourselves.
These are my thoughts. As Always, I welcome yours.