SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
PRAYER OF THE DAY: God of the covenant, in our baptism you call us to proclaim the coming of your kingdom. Give us the courage you gave the apostles, that we may faithfully witness to your love and peace in every circumstance of life, in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
I am not a progressive. It’s not that I don’t believe in progress. My problem is that I am not capable of recognizing it. For that reason, I don’t share the confident 19th Century faith in the inevitable improvement of humanity through the workings of democratic government that still animates so much of American Protestantism-at least the mainline variety. Democracy gave us the Nazis as well as Lincoln. Those who follow me will not be surprised to learn that I am thrilled with last week’s Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality. But is that progress? From my perspective, yes. It makes the United States of America a more just and humane society. But I am not convinced that God’s agenda is tied into the evolution of American society. For all I know, in the grand scheme of things, America might be an obstacle to God’s ultimate redemptive purpose for the earth. God might very well be fixing to remove the United States from the arena of history through conquest or imperial implosion. That would likely render moot all of the great social achievements of which we are so proud.
If that sounds a bit harsh, it is surely no more drastic than God’s employing the Babylonian Empire to bring an end to the house of David and the kingdom of Judah. The destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile that followed did not look much like progress to most of the people of Israel. From their perspective, it was hard to see these events as anything other than the end. Existence as God’s people was unimaginable for Israel apart from the land God had given her, the temple guaranteeing God’s presence in her midst and the Davidic line that was supposed to last forever. Only the prophetic imagination of folks like Ezekiel could see in this disaster the seeds of a new beginning.
I am not a prophet. Thus, I have no idea whether the development of American society in any particular direction (or at all) represents progress or not. I don’t know what time it is in the grand scheme of things or what God is up to in the geopolitical realm. That does not mean that I am resigned to ethical paralysis, however. Jeremiah counseled the Babylonian exiles to seek the welfare of the city to which they had been taken, for in its welfare they would find their own. Jeremiah 29:7. I believe that counsel is sound for the church in the United States as well. There is much in this country that is good, life giving and worthy of preservation. There is, I believe, a “common good” toward which all Americans, including disciples of Jesus, should strive, however much we might argue over the shape of that good and the means of achieving it. But the reign of God is not the same as the common good and might very well be adverse to it. The parables of Jesus, Mary’s Magnificat and the visions of the prophets foretell not reform, but revolution. While our good works might well bring about a measure of social improvement, they cannot deliver a new heaven and a new earth. That will require a radical dissolution of the status quo and the restructuring of human/divine/ecological relationships.
Furthermore, I am wary of trusting progress, even when I think I recognize it, because I know that it is neither inevitable nor permanent. Today we see dramatic growth in the acceptance of gay, lesbian and transgendered persons that would have been unimaginable two decades ago. We have seen the election and re-election of an African American president-something I did not expect to see in my lifetime. Yet the numerous shootings of young black men in recent years and the horrific murder of black worshipers at Mother Emanuel in Charleston remind us how often the demon we think we’ve exercised comes back with seven others more evil than itself. History is filled with stories of great civilizations that have descended into barbarism. The gains we think we have made are fragile. We dare not assume that decisions of the Supreme Court, enactment of legislative reforms or changes in public opinion are permanent hedges against hatred and bigotry. Ours would not be the first society to allow its gains and achievements to be swept away in pursuit of nationalistic goals or by the false promises of some tyrannical demagogue. At the turn of the last century, Germany was among the most accepting of Jewish people among European nations-until the day it wasn’t.
So while I do believe in human progress, I don’t trust it. The only reliable anchor for faith is the “yes” to all of God’s promises, our Lord Jesus Christ. “Fear not little flock, it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Luke 12:32. Confidence in those words makes it possible to continue the good work of mercy, compassion and justice, even when we aren’t making any progress.
Though a prophet and critic of Judah’s cultic and religious practices, Ezekiel appears to have been of priestly lineage being intimately connected to the temple in Jerusalem and its worship. Ezekiel’s eccentric behavior, lurid visions and obscene imagery have discomforted both his Jewish and Christian interpreters. According to some Jewish traditions, the study of Ezekiel’s prophecies was restricted to men over the age of thirty.
Ezekiel was a contemporary of Jeremiah. But whereas Jeremiah’s ministry took place in Jerusalem during and immediately after its final conquest and destruction by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E., Ezekiel preached among the exiles deported to Babylon ten years earlier in 597 B.C.E. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel viewed Jerusalem’s destruction as God’s judgment for her unfaithfulness. Judgment, however, is not Ezekiel’s final word. The book of his oracles ends with a glorious vision of a restored Jerusalem and a new temple from which rivers of healing water transform the land of Israel into an Eden-like paradise. The parallels between this vision (Ezekiel 40-48) and that of John of Patmos in Revelation 21-22 suggest inspiration of the latter by the former. For further general information on the Book of Ezekiel, see Summary Article by Dr. Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org.
The Book of Ezekiel opens with a tough assignment for the prophet. 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. Vss. 3-4. He has got to tell the people that there will be no divine deliverance for Jerusalem this time as there was in the days of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah 36-37; II Kings 18:13-19:37; II Chronicles 32:1-23. 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, they are not inclined to move. 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. The prophet may never have seen the fruit of his ministry.
This should bring some comfort to those of us who have preached, taught Sunday School, led youth ministry or spearheaded stewardship for congregations with dwindling membership and resources. Like everyone else, I like to be assured that what I do is making a difference. I tend to look for that confirmation in measurable results-something I can express with positive numbers on my annual parish parochial report. But the results I am looking for might not have anything to do with what God is working to achieve. If God needs to destroy the existing infrastructure of the church I serve-just as God needed to destroy the monarchy, priesthood and land occupation of Israel-in order to make something altogether new, then my lust for “measurable results” shoring up the old order constitutes rebellion. It is not about results. It is about faithfulness. God will see to the results.
I understand that this argument can be invoked to rationalize failure and provide cover for laziness and incompetence on the part of clergy and lay leaders alike. I am not suggesting that the church should be resigned to failure, only that it should not be driven by fear of failure. I do not mean to say that the faithfulness, competence and diligence of ministers cannot or should not be evaluated, but only that the evaluation should not be made on the basis of “measurable results.” The principal standard governing ministry is faithfulness to the Word. Such faithfulness calls for devotion, sacrifice and ceaseless striving. Results of such ministry may or may not be measurable, but will surely further the redemptive purposes of God.
This psalm is labeled a “Song of Ascents.” It shares this title with a group of psalms of which it is a part (Psalms 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. E.g., Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 114. 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 post-exilic pilgrimage tradition. E.g., Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 100.
The psalm begins as a personal individual lament. The psalmist makes a humble affirmation of faith in God. In verses 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, despite the so called “war on Christianity.” See my post of Sunday, May 31, 2015. 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 too, I think, the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston in South Carolina might well pray this prayer with conviction. What is more peaceful than prayer, or more violent and warlike than shooting those who engage in 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?”
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. II Corinthians 11:21-29. 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 also comes off as a little hypersensitive, tending 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.” Vs. 7. There has been no end of speculation as to what that thorn was. Some of that makes for fascinating reading. See Furnish, Victor Paul, II Corinthians, The Anchor Bible Commentary (c. 1984 by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) pp. 548-550. Yet for all of the erudite speculation put forward by eminent scholars, speculation 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 were 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 long to 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.
The Gospel lesson 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?”
Perhaps this coolness toward Jesus in Nazareth goes back to chapter 3 where his family, assuming him to be insane, came out to take charge of him. Mark 3:20-35. 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. Mark 3:31-35. 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 (Mark 3:13-19) 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.” Vss. 12-13.
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 patterns 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. The gospel lesson thus provides a necessary counterpoint to the warnings about rejection and persecution. Disciples are also to anticipate hospitality and welcome.
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 of this mission, it would never have happened. Thanks be to God we were not in charge. And very great thanks be to God that we still are not in charge!