Thursday, February 17, 2011

Crazy for You

2 Corinthians 12:11-21

by Daniel Harrell

So here it is almost Valentine’s Day. I’m saying this out loud so that I won’t forget it. I’m usually pretty good about remembering my wife—though I’m never nearly as creative as she is. It’s my mother whom I always forget. The main reason is that I always link Valentine’s Day with romance, and well, my mother, she’s my mother. When I explain this, her reply is of course I’m your mother. I’m the one who carried you and birthed you and raised you and loved you your whole life. You can’t send me a two dollar card on Valentine’s Day once a year? Actually she would never say it like that. We Southerners are rarely that straightforward. We like to circle round and round—kind of like vultures. Bless our hearts. Mom calls me on the phone. Asks how I am. And how are Dawn and Violet? Then about how my brother and sister and their families are doing—meaning the ones who didn’t move 1000 miles away from North Carolina and rip out her heart more than 25 years ago. And then how they’ll be stopping by tomorrow, which they don’t do every Monday, but since this is a special Monday, and 75 degrees and beautiful, and by the way how’s the weather up there in frozen, liberal and tax-laden Minnesota? I kid her about reminding me to send her a Valentine’s card. Wouldn’t it be better just to enjoy my unprompted remembering? But then she knows how bad my memory is; and frankly, she’d rather not risk the disappointment.

Did you know that there’s no disappointment in the Bible? I’m thinking about writing that to my mother when I mail her Valentine next week. “There’s no disappointment in the Bible.” At least there’s no mention of the word disappointment. Of course there is plenty of blame. And shame. As well as sarcasm and sadness and anger and self-reproach—all sentiments associated with disappointment. In fact, all of these sentiments show up right here in the latter half of 2 Corinthians 12. The apostle Paul portrays himself as a disappointed parent to a church full of children who have somehow managed to forget the God who loved them and they gospel that saved them. They’ve chosen to follow a different gospel that threatens to upend their faith and ruin their ethics.

This second letter to the Corinthians has been a long one. It started as a follow-up to 1 Corinthians, which ended by paving the way for a visit to the fledgling Corinthian church by Paul’s associate, Timothy. Unfortunately Timothy’s visit didn’t go so well. Actually it went so badly that Paul had to rearrange his travel plans in order to get to Corinth and deal with the fallout. Yet once there, things only got worse, forcing Paul to scrap a planned return visit and send instead a rather “severe letter” of rebuke that has since been lost. Thankfully, the Corinthians responded positively to Paul’s rebuke, which led him to write 2 Corinthians 1-9. However, this positive regard was soon sabotaged by a meddling faction of apostolic pretenders who falsely accused Paul of not being a genuine apostle, insisting that he lacked the credentials—credentials such as magnetic presence, eloquent speaking skills, authoritative persuasiveness, visionary foresight, good looks; as well as the ability to pull off a few signs and wonders. The Corinthians caved in to the negative advertising. Paul responded with 2 Corinthians 10-13, countering that genuine apostolic power derives not from charismatic strength, but from evident weakness. If you’ve seen the Oscar-nominated movie, The King’s Speech, then you know what Paul means. A peculiar power exudes from the faltering, stammering words of King George that ably confronts the smooth-talking Hitler.

Having ably confronted his meddling rivals, Paul now turns his attention back to the Corinthians. How could they have been such suckers for the wacky gospel Paul’s opponents preached—a gospel that promoted wealth and success and status and influence as fruits of faith? The Corinthians’ fickleness and gullibility put Paul in the awkward position of having to defend his authenticity. “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, signs and wonders and mighty works,” Paul writes. But a better translation would read: “The signs of a true apostle are utmost patience—great perseverance—along with authenticating signs, wonders and mighty works performed among you.” In other words, fireworks are fine—and Paul did that—but the chief mark of genuine apostleship is enduring love.

Paul’s not trying to impress. Sure, he performed miracles, but never by his own might. Whatever wonders he worked were pure acts of God. Moreover, whatever sick people Paul miraculously healed went on to get sick again and die. Miraculous signs are never ends in themselves. That’s why they’re called signs. They point to greater thing. As Paul famously insisted before, “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. … Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. “This is how people will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus said. Like a mother’s ferocious love for her children, so was Paul’s enduring love for the Corinthians. He can’t sit by while his spiritual children harm their souls. He constantly hammers on them to take up crosses, to plow the hard road of obedience, to lean into that godly power available only through the surrender of human power—a surrender that looks downright foolish in the eyes of the world.

There was this heartbreaking story a few years ago about a Christian woman in Boston named Iris Weaver. She lived in a rough part of town and attended church at the Salvation Army. She had a teenaged son named Kentel whom she constantly hammered about needing to follow Jesus and live right among all the pressure on him from the neighborhood to live wrong. But it didn’t always take. A 15-year-old boy in their neighborhood lay dead and police discovered Kentel’s baseball hat near the scene. Iris Weaver demanded her son tell her everything he knew. She pounded her fist on the kitchen table. She prayed, and then she asked her son: Had he been in the neighborhood when that 15-year-old boy was killed? Did he or someone he know murder him? Kentel Weaver cried, looked at his mother and said yes, he had been on Wendover Street, the site of so many recent homicides in the city. Iris Weaver suspected the truth. She then made a decision that would change their lives forever. Her son would confess what he did.

After a tearful a prayer circle outside the police station, Kentel Weaver went in and surrendered to police. He told a detective that he pulled the trigger. His soul, his mother believed, was saved. But legally Kentel was doomed. The verdict carried a mandatory life sentence, which he is currently serving. The verdict does not sit well with Iris Weaver, but she maintains she did the right thing. And yes, for the most part, she would do it all over again. “It was,” she said, “the godly thing to do.” Her neighbors disagreed. “It was a stupid thing to do,” they said. “She’s a crazy woman.” Where’s the love? What kind of mother makes her kid take responsibility for his crime and spend the rest of his life in prison? Where’s the grace? Where’s the forgiveness? Why not embrace your kid like that father of the prodigal son? His boy blew off the family and then blew his whole inheritance, which his father advanced him, on wild parties and crazy living and his dad welcomed him back with open arms and gave him more. Vanderbilt New Testament professor Amy Jill-Levine, a Jewish mother from Massachusetts, argues that Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son should be re-titled “The Absent Mother” because as any good Jew knows, none of this would have happened had the mother been present.

Presumably had Paul been present in Corinth, none of the problems that plagued that church would have happened there either. But who knows? All we know is that the problems did happen and Paul is deeply disappointed. No, the word disappointment doesn’t show up, but all the sentiments do. “I have made a fool of myself,” he writes, “and you forced me to it.” There’s the blame and the shame. “You should have been the ones commending me.” Was I not the one who turned you on to Jesus! “I am not at all inferior to the so-called ‘super-apostles’ you’ve become so charmed by.” Here’s the sadness and the sarcasm, although Paul quickly qualifies his claim to superiority by adding, “even though I am nothing.” That’s his thorn in the flesh talking. You’ll remember the thorn from last week. Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh” was actually a gift from God to keep Paul from getting too righteous. However it doesn’t seem to keep Paul from getting sarcastic again. He goes on: “What makes you think that you’re worse off than the other churches? Because I was never a financial burden to you? Oh please forgive me for not letting you pay my way!”

Paul returns to the money dispute that he addressed in chapter 11. He refused financial support from the Corinthian church because he wanted to preach a gospel free of charge; unencumbered by the strings money can attach. I remember during my early years as a minister preaching a particularly offensive sermon from the gospels. A longtime church member chastised me for being so impertinent. I told him to take it up with Jesus—my words were his fault. No preacher ever mounts a pulpit because he or she likes mouthing off to a crowd. This member told me to remember who was writing my paycheck. But seriously, who can pay you enough to preach this stuff? Did the Corinthians somehow think that by paying Paul they’d make him preach only what they wanted to hear?

I don’t want your money,” Paul writes, “I want you.” The gospel is not for sale and neither is Paul’s love. “Children don’t provide for their parents,” he says, “parents provide for their children.”

Of course grown children do in fact provide for their parents, so it may be that Paul’s mention of paying for his kids carries a double meaning; both an expression of his devotion as well as another expression of his disappointment. If the Corinthians would just grow up then Paul would be happy to receive their financial help. Yet as it is, like that prodigal father, “I most gladly spend myself and all I have for you,” he says. But then he adds: “the more I love you, the less you love me.”

Boy, doesn’t that sound just like your mother? Then again, nobody likes having their love taken for granted. But isn’t that what Christianity entails? You give expecting nothing in return. “If you only love those who love you,” Jesus said, “why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them!” And Paul plainly agrees, which is why he “gladly spends himself and all he has” for the Corinthians. But at the same time, Jesus’ words are about loving your enemies, not loving your fellow Christians. You expect your enemies to spurn your love, but not your friends. Not your children. Paul could have said the heck with it. He could have wiped the dust off his feet and gone back to hang out with the Philippians. They never gave him a hard time. But then that wouldn’t be love that hopes and bears and endures all things. And Paul does love the Corinthians. So what does he do? He does what disappointed love always does.

He gets angry. He furiously writes, “What is this I hear about how my refusing to be a burden was actually some sort of trick on my part? About how I’m some crafty fellow who’s taken you in by deceit? Where’s the proof of that? Did I cheat or trick you through anyone I sent? I asked Titus to visit, and sent some brothers along. Did they swindle you out of anything? And haven’t we always been just as aboveboard, just as honest?” We’re not sure exactly what Paul is referring to here. It may be that another reason he refused financial support was so the Corinthians would be freed up to give to the financially strapped church in Jerusalem. Back in chapter 8 he talked about generosity as a test of sincere faith. Perhaps his opponents spread a rumor about Paul guilting his congregation into emptying their pockets into offering plates at the back of the church. Oh he said it was for the poor, but he probably skimmed some off the top for himself. That’s the gossip that the Corinthians swallowed.

So after the blame and the shame, after the sarcasm and the sadness and the anger, finally the disappointment displays its self-reproach. “Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves before you? Trying to build ourselves up? No, with God as our witness, we only write like this to build you up. Everything we do, beloved, is for the sake of building you up. Yet I am afraid that when I come I won’t like what I find. And thus you may not find me as you want me to be. I fear I’ll find quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder… I fear that I may have to mourn over many who previously sinned and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness that they have practiced.” The main point of 2 Corinthians is that in Christ we are new creations. We are new people—the old is gone and the new is now. Our futures guaranteed, we live as resurrected already, bearing the fruits the God’s spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control. You can tell a tree by its fruit, Jesus said Which is why Paul is so worried. He’s afraid to find rotten fruit. He’s afraid that all his hard work and prayer and self-sacrifice will have been for nothing. “I am afraid,” he writes, “that my God will humiliate me in your presence.” I’m afraid I’ll be exposed for the poor parent I am.

Don’t you hate when parents do that? “I must be a bad mother.” My mom used to say that, but I don’t think she believed it for a minute. It was just her circling way of telling me that I was a bad son. She’d never say that directly because I’d only deny it and never realize it for myself. She knew that only by realizing it for myself would I ever do anything about it. Like with that prodigal son. Jesus says that after the boy wantonly blew his inheritance on the wild life, he ended up on his knees at a pig trough, hungry enough to eat their slop. That’s where he came to his senses. That’s where he realized what an idiot he’d been. He determines to get up and go back to his father, to confess his wrongs and plead to be treated as a hired hand—which is all that he now deserves. And what does the disappointed father do? “While the son was still far off,” Jesus said, “his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said, “bring out the best robe and kill the fatted calf. Let us eat and celebrate.” Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things—even disappointment. Which may be why the word, disappointment, never shows up in the Bible.

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