Monday, February 21, 2011

Self-Test

2 Corinthians 13:5-13
by Daniel Harrell

Well, Minnesota Public Radio finally wore me down. After six days of pleading and pushing and warning me that Congress was going to shut down my news and classical music for good—to which I know some might say “good riddance”—I caved in and became a member. I have mixed feelings about it. The same mixed feelings some might have here at the end of this 2 Corinthians sermon series. It’s likely worn some of you down too. For almost six months the apostle Paul has been pleading and pushing and warning: pleading for you to love and forgive and do rightly, pushing you to follow the true gospel, warning that if you don’t then there could be trouble, if not in this world then definitely in the next. “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ,” the apostle declared in chapter 5, “so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.”

Here in the last chapter, Paul makes one last membership push. “Examine yourselves,” he says, “to see whether you are living in the faith.” Sort of a Judgment Day pretest. This is not a bad idea. Given the short shelf life of most sermons—even I can’t remember what I said last Sunday—it might be good to examine ourselves and see what has stuck with us. Paul is emphatic that Jesus has stuck with us. That is not his concern. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?” he rhetorically asks. His concern is whether we’re sticking with Jesus; whether or not, as Paul puts it, we “meet the test.” Let’s take a test and see:

(The following is the slide show shown at Colonial Church. Elucidations on the answers follow below)


video



1.             In chapter 1, the word comfort might be better translated as encouragement or boldness. It’s a comfort not to be confused with the comfort that assuages anxiety or allays grief or heals illness. It’s not the comfort of mercy that forgives the distress we bring on ourselves or cause others due to our sin—though the Bible speaks of all of these as comfort. Here in 2 Corinthians, the kind of comfort Paul particularly has in mind is not the alleviation of suffering as much as it is its endurance. It’s the kind of cross-bearing endurance that’s part and parcel of following Jesus. How is this comfort? Given the counter-cultural nature of cross-bearing, the assumption is that austerity and pain are the mainstays. But ironically, if you’ve ever put yourself out there for the sake of Christ and the gospel and been forced to depend on Jesus, then you know how sweet that can feel. There is an undeniable comfort that comes with having to depend on the Lord—and then watching him work in your life.

2.             Paul wrote in chapter 3 that Moses’ “ministry of death” came with such lethal glory, “that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face.” The reference is to Moses coming down Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments glowing with glory. You may remember my analogy to the X-Men mutant named Cyclops who has a problem with these optic rays that blast out from his eyes blowing away everything in their path. To protect people from demolition, Cyclops puts on these special goggles of ruby quartz to block the rays. I’m not saying that Moses was a mutant X-Man, but I do imagine glory being something like those dangerous rays, threatening to demolish rebellious Israel with divine fury. To protect the people from God’s wrath, Moses deployed a veil. Moses’ veil saved the people from God’s wrath as a preview of Christ’s cross saving us.

3.             I remember a young single woman speaking with me once who was very worried about her faith. She’d been a strong Christian for so long, but now for the first time she’d started to have serious doubts. She said, “I just don’t know if I believe anymore.” I’d seen this before. So I asked, “Who are you dating?” And sure enough, she’d been going out with this guy she liked very much but who made fun of her faith to the point that she decided not to bring it up anymore. She felt torn in her devotion and it had started to take its toll.

It’s the same sort of thing that was happening in Corinth. The Christians there, strong of faith and obedient to Christ, had become enchanted by Paul’s opponents who lured them into thinking that maybe they had it all wrong. Relationships aren’t the only things that entice you away from God. Over-demanding career tracks, compromising political alliances, the possessions you crave, the status you seek, the entertainment you choose—all of these things can become unequal yokes pulling on your neck. Do you feel torn in your devotion? Do you find yourself rationalizing your behavior? Adjusting your ethics? Is your commitment to righteousness wavering in the face of social acceptance? Have you felt the need to bend your identity and pretend you’re somebody you’re not? Has endurance in adversity and love begun to feel like a hopeless waste of energy? Are you ashamed and afraid when it comes to your faith? Have you begun to question whether your beliefs are worth believing anymore? This is why Paul implores the Corinthians in chapter 6 not to be “yoked” or “mismatched” with unbelievers. Faithfulness is not something you can manage all by yourself. Christianity is more than just you and Jesus. In his membership drive to the Ephesians, Paul writes how “we are members together of one body, sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” We need each other.

4.             Why is giving so important? Because the God whom we worship is a God who gives. To be a Christian is to receive grace. To receive grace entails becoming a conduit of grace. It’s no secret that if all Christians on earth merely tithed ten percent of their after tax/after debt  income, world poverty could be obliterated and the effects of unemployment in America dissipated. Yet for Christians, generosity is not only measured monetarily, but also relationally. God gave his son Jesus to reconcile the world to himself. Giving and forgiving go hand in hand. Reconciled to God, giving to your neighbors and forgiving your enemies, living at peace without any need—this is as close as it gets to heaven on earth. Which is why Paul lays it on so thick in chapter 8, using every lever he had at his disposal: Shame. Flattery. Fear. He did whatever it took to get the Corinthians to be generous with love and money.

5.             Paul was tempted to boast about his extraordinary religious experience in chapter 12. For this reason, God gave Paul his famous “thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment [him].” As with the Old Testament story of Job, God releases Satan to keep Paul humble and weak. Why? So that no one could ever attribute Paul’s success to his own talents. Surprisingly, God also releases Satan to keep Paul faithful. Whatever religious heights you’ve experienced, it’s the valleys and deserts that tend to draw you nearest to God. God’s unleashing Satan on Jesus in the desert only succeeded in firmly grounding Christ for the impossible mission that lay before him. Jesus prayed three times for some other way to account for the sins of the world. Like Jesus, Paul too prays three times for reprieve. But Jesus answers Paul just as God answered Jesus: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Even after the resurrection, the way of the cross remains the way of following Christ.

6.             The gospel of Jesus urges Jesus-like sacrifice; Jesus-like forgiveness and Jesus-like dependency. Of course the ability to sacrifice, forgive and trust like Jesus comes from Jesus—from Christ in us. Thus it is no indication of anybody’s superior faith or spirituality—which is why you can’t brag about it. And yet Paul does brag about his weaknesses—as well as about the hardships and troubles he’s suffered for Christ. Why? Because as long as he is weak, the success he suffers is only attributable to the power of Christ. “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses,” he says in chapter 12, “so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

7.              Nothing like a little Judgment Day to ruin a perfectly fine sermon series. Paul couldn’t stand to leave well enough alone? I guess once a Pharisee always a Pharisee. Certainly as a Pharisee, Paul knew better than anybody how easy a guarantee of heavenly reward can sour into a license for earthly arrogance. Presuming upon grace is a problem throughout the Bible—which is why Paul frequently follows his doctrinal indicatives with ethical imperatives. While we can do nothing to earn God’s favor, we must still do something to show that we’ve received it. “I urge you,” Paul writes in chapter 6, “do not receive the grace of God in vain.”

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2 Corinthians is so much about integrity. It was Jesus who said, “You can tell a tree by its fruit.” And not only that, “But every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and tossed into the fire.” Paul desperately wants the Corinthians to be good wood instead of firewood, thus he directs them to “examine themselves to see whether you are living in the faith.” The language hearkens back to Jesus’ wilderness temptations. As fully human, Jesus would have liked to bypass the cross—this was his Gethsemane prayer. Satan tempted him to save the world in rock star fashion instead: turn rocks into bread, dive off high Temple towers and be caught by angels, exert world domination. And Jesus was tempted. But this would not have saved anybody. Therefore: “Not my will but thy will be done.” We read in the New Testament book of Hebrews how “we do not have a savior incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin.” I’ve always liked this verse because it makes me feel that Jesus understands whenever I mess up. “Nobody’s perfect,” and all of that. But at the same time I hate this verse. Jesus was tempted like me but always did the right thing. So what’s my problem?

The obvious answer is that I’m not Jesus. Which is true. But Paul is insistent that I have Jesus in me. I am a new creation in Christ now. The old is supposed to be gone. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “God’s grace is something more than the infinite remission of our sins. God’s grace is the gift of regeneration too—the very real possibility of new life right here on earth—complete with a new vision, new values, and new behavior.” “This is what we pray for,” Paul writes, “that you may become perfect.”

This might be a good time to make another plug for my new book: How To Be Perfect. It’s about me and a group of Christians trying to follow the Old Testament book of Leviticus. It got some positive press on the Huffington Post this past week—although the comments—500 and counting—were mostly negative. Typical was the following: “Leviticus was the first book I ever read that made me consider Atheism. A God worth worshiping would not write such nonsense. It seemed to make more sense when I realized that it was just scribbled down by fearful bronze aged goat herders instead. It reflects their bigotry and ignorance, nothing else.” Leviticus is not for the faint of faith.

While my book is about trying to follow Leviticus, the title comes from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This was Jesus’ reiteration of Leviticus, “Be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” Yet because such holiness remains impossibly hard (nobody’s perfect and all of that), the tendency is to do what I’ve called a Torah two-step, treating God’s commands as idealistic. What we do is claim the Bible sets the bar too high on purpose in order to force us to cry uncle and concede our need for Jesus. While appropriate, it is also convenient. By leaving the bar so high and labeling the hard commands idealistic, we can leave any actual obedience out of reach. That way we’re not really to blame for our failures at faith.

But I don’t think that Jesus intended “Love your neighbor as yourself” (which comes from Leviticus) and “Love your enemies” (which comes from Jesus) to be treated as idealistic. Likewise, I don’t think that God, when he told the Israelites in Leviticus not to spread slander, meant “It’s okay to slander as long as you think the slander is true or the gossip is especially juicy.” Or when God told them to leave the gleanings of their vineyards for the poor, he didn’t command it with the qualification, “Unless you’re still hungry.” The same with Jesus. He didn’t say “Love your enemies, unless you’re mad at them.” He said simply, “Love your enemies.” Loving your enemies is not idealistic. You can do that. It’s difficult, but it’s not idealistic. This is where grace comes in. The grace that forgives us our sins against God is what makes it possible for us to forgive others’ sins against us. It’s hard, but by grace we can do it. And when we fail to do it, there’s grace to prod us to try again.

I’ve been doing a lot of book promoting of late (obviously). I haven’t made it onto MPR yet, despite becoming a member. However I have made it onto a number of Christian radio stations, and somewhat to my amazement, the first question I typically get asked by Christian radio personalities is an incredulous “why would you follow Leviticus?” I usually respond with something like, well, the last time I checked, Leviticus is still in the Bible. But I guess it’s not for the formidable of faith either.

Not that I followed it well, mind you. But that still doesn’t mean that perfection is an unreachable ideal. That’s because, according to Paul, we’re already there. As we read in Colossians, “you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, are now reconciled in Christ through his death, so as to be presented as holy and blameless and perfect before God.” The Biblical idea of perfection is not so much about sinlessness as it is about fulfilling your purpose. Put another way, our purpose is simply to be the people we already are. The Levitical sacrificial animal without blemish, a student who’s completed her studies, an athlete well-trained for the race, a person equipped for his calling—these all get described in Scripture as perfect. People are deigned to be perfect if they realize the purpose for which they were made and called. So what is your purpose? To love God and your neighbor and your enemies too. “Love is how people will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus said.

And yet despite both the command and the capacity to do it, we still manage to fall miserably short. Which is why Paul prays for the Corinthians’ perfection. Yet even then, as we saw in chapter 6, the final passing grade is not a flawless life, but a faith that endures even in the face of spectacular failure. That’s because when we fail, we get to embody repentance and grace. And it is this grace that prods us to try again and again. It is by grace we are saved. It is by grace we obey.

So “put things in order” Paul concludes. Or as other translations have it, “be made perfect.” You are already new creations in Christ. Therefore “agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.”

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.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Head in the Clouds

2 Corinthians 11:30-12:10
by Daniel Harrell



Generally the closest I ever come to religious experiences—aside from the Patriots winning another Super Bowl—are those occasional Sundays during worship when the music and the congregation sync up at full throttle in their abandoned praise of God. It’s like a taste of eternity. I especially like communion Sundays since the service itself is designed to anticipate heaven. Our sins confessed and forgiven, peace made and prayers prayed, we experience an unusual unity with God and each other. Priorities reorder themselves and anxieties ease for a bit. There is a momentary sense that the worries of this world just aren’t that important. We’re reminded of how, spiritually speaking, we’re all illegal aliens living in a place that’s not supposed to be home.

Regrettably for me, I have this inbred cynicism that makes religious experiences particularly tricky for me. Even when I feel especially dialed in to God, I always wonder whether it’s really God I’m feeling or something I’m just making up. Regrettably for you, I sometimes get my cynicism on others. A old friend of mine once excitedly narrated how God made it possible for her to buy a new condo. She’d submitted her name into a housing lottery where those picked were given the chance to purchase at reduced rates as long as they agreed to live in the unit for a minimum of 5 years. As a single mother with a low paying job, she was eager to have the security of a home she could afford. So she and her church devoted themselves to fasting and prayer, confident that God would answer. To her delight she was chosen first in the lottery. In telling me this, she effused about the power of prayer and how it is true that God will give us whatever we ask as long as we ask in faith. Did I rejoice with her rejoicing? Not exactly. Instead I wondered out loud: “If God gives us whatever we ask, why did you ask for a low-rent condo you still have to finance?” This is why I should not be a minister.

Maybe what I need is a religious experience as powerful as Paul’s here in 2 Corinthians 12. As far as we can tell, Paul was basically minding his own business when he got caught up, snatched up into Paradise. Whether this was an in-the-body or an out-of-body experience, Paul does not know. All he knows is that he was transported to what ancient Jewish cosmology labeled the third heaven: the place God Almighty inhabits. While there, Paul heard things too sacred to put into words, things no mortal is permitted to repeat. All he can say is that he’s not allowed to say. I know the passage has Paul referring to another man making this fantastic voyage; but practically everybody acknowledges that Paul is really describing himself. He’s gone to heaven and back, he just doesn’t want it to go to his head.

Throughout 2 Corinthians, Paul has fought a rival group of apostolic pretenders, sheep-stealers who’ve been discrediting Paul by slinging all manner of mud in his direction. They’ve accused him of throwing his weight around and overreaching his authority while at the same time calling him a cowardly two-faced flip-flopper, ugly to look at and a bad preacher to boot. They’ve pointed at his ongoing hardships and persistent troubles as signs of deficient faith. In response, Paul counts his hardship and troubles as assets; his suffering for Christ and for the Corinthians as demonstrations of love. It’s the kind of love demonstrated by a circle of Coptic Christians in Cairo last week. They surrounded a group of Muslims to protect them as they prayed during Egypt’s ongoing political uprising. These are same Coptic Christians whose church was bombed by a fanatical band of Islamic militants on New Year’s Eve killing 21 worshippers.
 
The gospel of Jesus urges Jesus-like sacrifice; Jesus-like forgiveness and Jesus-like dependency. We’re told to trust the Lord to supply our needs in order to be the Lord’s supply for others’. Paul makes it a point to refuse monetary support from the Corinthians on the grounds that to receive money for his message would have obscured its very meaning. Grace is always free gift. And yet his rivals criticize this too, claiming that to preach the gospel for free is a farce since everybody knows any message worth anything costs something to hear. These pretenders flashed their own self-serving piety and personal net worth as evidence of genuine faith. Now, it seems, they’ve resorted to boasting about their dramatic religious experiences in order to boost their image even further. And the Corinthians ate it up.

People are suckers for a show. Here in America, there’s a self-proclaimed exorcist, named Bob Larson of Bob Larson Ministries (of course), who holds what he calls “spiritual freedom conferences” all around the world. (You can view one of his exciting exorcisms online!) Larson claims to cast out demons responsible for every sort of evil in your life, from the physical to the financial. He especially likes to cast out financial demons. He likes to cast them right out of your wallet and into his own bank account. At the beginning of his meetings, Larson warms up the crowd by exorcising a few easy devils, ostensibly to inspire confidence in his craft. One woman started off several conferences in a row with the same demon in tow each time. She’d moan and groan and flail all over the room while Larson yelled at her and beat the demon out of her with a Bible. It was all very dramatic. A reporter asked why this same evil spirit kept coming back. Larson had to admit that sometimes people do get—repossessed. Turns out that chick was faking it. Larson used her as a plant.

Because religious experience is by definition personal, alternately awesome and ambiguous, and sometimes deceptively bogus, Paul makes it clear that boasting about such experience does no good. He mentions his own incredible encounter with God from fourteen years prior, but only in the third person and only to demonstrate how his rivals have nothing on him. “You’ve exorcised a demon? So what, I’ve been to heaven!” But the way Paul talks about it displays his obvious discomfort. “I sound like a madman bragging like this,” he said. Any divine encounter is never our own doing. It is always an act of God. It’s no indication of anybody’s superior faith or spirituality—which is why you can’t brag about it. Recall that when Paul first encountered Jesus, Paul was a murderous, sanctimonious Pharisee Hardly a badge of Christian maturity. His former successful self at the time of his Damascus Road experience came to horrify him so much that Paul referred to it as nothing but excrement in comparison to knowing Christ.

Even so, some of that Pharisaic crap apparently still clung to his soul. The old self is tough to exterminate no matter how powerful the conversion. Paul may not want to brag about it, but he is tempted. He admits that having people view you as tight with God can actually pull you away from God by making you feel important and righteous. My wife likes to tell the story of meeting with our wedding photographer. As we went over the details of what we wanted done, the photographer noted how there was a minister over at Park Street Church in Boston also named Daniel Harrell. Dawn replied that, yes, this was the same guy. Now usually when somebody on the outside learns that I’m a minister, the reaction is something akin to finding out I have bird flu. Yet every now and then there is a different reaction. The photographer, for whatever reason, looked at me and said, “You’re the Daniel Harrell?” Talking about getting all righteous, I’ve milked that one for years (obviously), which is probably why God has never allowed me a religious experience as powerful as Paul’s.

It can go to your head. So much so that God had to make sure that after Paul checked out heaven he stayed grounded on earth. His religious experience inspired courage and faith, of which Paul would need plenty given all that he suffered. But still, just in case he got cocky, verse 7, “there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” Now the nature of this metaphorical thorn has kept scholars busy for centuries. Conjecture has run the gamut from the physical to the psychological. Some have thought it a reference to Paul’s opponents whom Paul labeled servants of Satan. They were certainly a pain in the neck. But Paul fought against them. This servant of Satan Paul accepts. It’s a demon that goes un-exorcised.

Why? Because it was a messenger of Satan given by God. Like in the Old Testament story of Job, God unleashes Satan to keep Paul humble and weak. Why? So that no one could ever attribute any of Paul’s achievements—be it spreading the gospel or writing much of the New Testament—to Paul’s own talents. No one could ever call it a farce or a fake or something Paul made up either. That’s because nobody deciding to launch a world religion would ever get it off the ground using Paul’s methods. Setting yourself up for imprisonment and floggings, putting yourself in constant danger and controversy; all with meager financial backing and no power or popularity, throw in an ugly face and poor communication skills: it’s a recipe for human disaster—making it the surefire recipe for divine success.

The 4th century church father John Chrysostom went so far as to say we all need the devil.  “Say that there are two athletes pitted against a single adversary,” he wrote. “One athlete is consumed with gluttony, he is unprepared, void of strength, nerveless. But the other is diligent, of good habit, passing his time in the wrestling school, in many gymnastic exercises, and exhibiting all the practice that bears upon the contest. Now if you take away the one adversary, which of the two athletes is injured? The slothful and unprepared, or the earnest one who has toiled so much? It is quite clear that it is the earnest one. The slothful was destined to fall anyway, due to his slothfulness. The earnest, however, with no one against whom to wield his training, deteriorates into a good-for-nothing thraniopatata (which is Greek for couch potato).” Chrysostom asserted that if all you ever do is scrimmage in life, your faith gets fat. You need an opponent; you need trouble and hardship to keep spiritually sharp.

Whatever religious heights you’ve experienced, you know that it’s the valleys that always draw you nearest to God. Christian faith emerges out of the depths of failure and suffering, out of those desperate moments when “God, if you are there…” gets spoken by even by the most cynical skeptic. By unleashing Satan on Paul, Paul gets the Jesus treatment. God’s unleashing Satan to haunt Jesus in the desert grounded Christ for the unfathomable task that lay before him. Satan would show up throughout Jesus’ sojourn, in the tempting words of Peter, in that tempting moment at Gethsemane where Jesus prayed three times for some other way to pay for the sins of the world.

Like Jesus in that garden, Paul prayed three times too: “I pleaded with the Lord to take this thorn away from me,” he says. But as God answered Christ then so Christ answered Paul now: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” The way of the cross is the way of life. The temptation is always to bypass the cross and rely instead on the religious laurels of good behavior or spiritual experience or doctrinal allegiance; to rely on popularity, wealth, charisma and power as better ways save the world.  These are the temptations of Satan.

And yet these very temptations can draw us closer to God. It is the Jesus treatment. To trust the Lord and follow Christ exposes you to all kinds of trouble. The more serious you get about being salt and light in the world, the more devoted you become to mission and to justice and to doing right, the more concerned you get for the least and the lost; the more stubborn you get about forgiving those who don’t want your forgiveness and loving those who’ve hurt you, the more determined you get about shining light into darkness, the more you will suffer for it.

Yet if you have ever suffered for these things; if you’ve ever put yourself out there for the sake of Christ and the gospel, then you know that power of weakness, that spiritual force, that joy of obedience that energizes you to put yourself out there even further. Which is why Paul can incredibly declare: “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

I wonder if we’ll ever really get this? I spent some time recently with some pastors of larger churches nearby at one of the local country clubs. It was good to meet other ministers and be reminded about how we’re all on the same team, and helpful to hear how others are struggling with similar concerns we struggle with here at Colonial. Concerns such as attracting new members, building community amidst crowds, recruiting volunteers and running effective programs—problems we’d all figure out in one way or another. However I must admit (here comes the cynicism), it all sounded so much like managing a religious Mall of America, designing products and services for personal spiritual improvement—the kind of consumerist Christianity I was so cynical about last Sunday.

On the other hand, I’ve had the chance to meet with other ministers from much smaller churches, little nickel and dime operations with meager attendance on Sundays which can barely support a pastor. But rather than talking about fixing their facilities or putting together a smoother operation for Jesus, all these poor little churches could talk about was how they were going to usher in citywide revival and turn the world upside down for Christ. OK, so I’m cynical about that too, but I have to admit, it did sound more genuinely Christian. And I know for sure that if God ever shows up in the ways they expect, then we’ll know it’s God because no way those weak little churches will ever pull that off by their own power.

The bread and wine of communion provides a tasteful reminder of power made perfect in weakness. The bread is store-bought from Jerry’s and the wine is diluted grape juice, but for us they are the very body and blood of Christ shed for the world. May this be your religious experience—assuring you that whatever success you suffer in life, everybody will know that it is God who did it, because no way could you have ever pulled it off yourself.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Believe What You Want

2 Corinthians 1:1-15
by Daniel Harrell



I’m not one to brag, but, I was on Good Morning America last week. If you didn’t see me, that was because I wasn’t actually on the show, but I was on their webpage, writing about this new book of mine, How To Be Perfect. They wanted an expert opinion. OK, my piece really wasn’t on their webpage, but more like on their blog. More like on one of their blogs. Their spirituality blog, located under health and leisure activities, which falls under lifestyles—near the Daisy Sour Cream ad. My publicist arranged for me to write the piece. Turns out that the keeper of the spirituality page is a friend of hers. Owed her a favor. But still, I was on their blog. And yes people read what I had to say, as of yesterday there were 21 comments. Two were from the publicist. OK, two were from me. One was from Dawn. And then there was one from my mother. The rest came from me begging Facebook friends (so feel free to add comments loyal blog readers!), and yes, I am starting to sound pretty foolish now. Which is Paul’s point here in 2 Corinthians 11.

Paul picks up from last Sunday, where in chapter 10, citing Jeremiah, he wrote “let anyone who boasts, boast in the Lord.” Paul considers it foolish to brag about one’s successes. But the problem here is that because he refuses to proudly promote himself, his opponents in Corinth have attacked him as weak and self-deprecating and lacking confidence in the gospel he preaches. As a result the Corinthians, listening to these negative ads, have started voting for a different gospel. Frustrated, Paul agrees to boast. He brags about his hard labors for the sake of Christ, his being imprisoned, flogged, and exposed to death over and over again. Paul labels his hardships for the sake of the gospel as his accomplishments—the fruit of taking up a cross to follow Jesus. Which was why so few of the Corinthians were sincerely following Jesus.

Ever since the resurrection, there’s been high demand for a less demanding gospel; one that won’t require quite so much cross carrying. This remains the case. Journalist Jeff MacDonald, in a book entitled, Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul, writes how: “American society has never before known such a competitive religious marketplace—it’s a race to offer grace at the lowest possible price. Americans find options galore on a religious landscape that’s grown exponentially more diverse over recent decades. Church hopping is now so commonplace that congregations vie to attract and retain fickle attendees. Can churches that are aiming to please still mold people of high moral caliber? The answer to that question will have implications for every part of American society, from the Little League field to the courthouse. Americans expect and need their Christian neighbors to be people who do what’s right, even when it’s difficult.”

In a review of MacDonald’s book, a pastor named Lillian Daniel related her own frustrations with customer-pleasing religion. In her church, the expectation is that she perform weddings and infant baptisms for anyone who asks, regardless of whether they have any connection to the congregation or to Jesus for that matter. The rationale is based on the assumption that offering hospitality to couples and parents might later return them to church as a result of that hospitality. But none of these couples ever returned. None of these families kept their baptismal promises. Treating her like the rent-a-reverend she was, they would order her around like any other service provider they had contracted. They would bore her with rants about their disdain for organized religion. And why couldn’t the videographer stand in the pulpit in front of the cross to get a better angle of the adorable little ring bearer walking down the aisle? Can’t you see how cute this kid is? You think Jesus can compete with that?

In addition to rent-a-reverends, MacDonald’s book takes on short-term missionaries whom he describes as “vacationaries.” Apparently there’s a neighborhood in Tijuana where children pretend they’ve never heard the gospel so that whenever a new short term missions team shows up, they can convert to Jesus and get showered with treats and attention all over again. From vacationaries, MacDonald moves on to prosperity preachers, guys like Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar, both pastors of two of the largest and fastest growing churches in the world.

I hesitate being too critical of these guys since their best-selling books are published by the same publisher who published mine. Talking negatively about their theology falls under the category of biting the hand that feeds me. But it is some curious theology. Rev. Dollar (that’s his real name) argues how too many believers settle for less than God’s best. “God knows where the money is, and He knows how to get the money to you.” Dollar says, “It’s amazing the number of people who say they read the Bible, and I think, ‘What are you reading?’ The Bible makes it so very clear: Preach the Gospel to the poor. What’s the Gospel to the poor? You don’t have to be poor anymore! The Bible says in Psalms 35 and 37 that God takes pleasure in the prosperity of his servants. … One of the things that I want to do is make sure that I am practicing what I preach. My church gave me a Rolls-Royce. I would never spend that much money on a Rolls-Royce. But when your congregation comes to you and says, ‘Pastor, we want you to drive the best,’ I’m not going to turn that down.” (Do I hear an “amen”?)

This particular theology is called word of faith or simply, word. It’s sort of like “ask and you shall receive” on steroids. It’s not just about money. Word teaches that all material realities respond positively to positive attitude and positive language in prayer. Some years ago I caught a ride home late one night from a fellow Christian who lived near me in Boston. Street parking at night in the city is hard to come by, so as we drove into the neighborhood, my friend let out a positive prayer for a parking space. Now while I do think that prayer applies to all parts of life, I was always intrigued by the number of urban Christians for whom answered street parking prayers provide the incontrovertible validation of their faith. Easy for me to say, I know, since now I have a two-car garage. But, in this instance it wasn’t so much my friend’s parking prayer that intrigued me as the fact that he prayed it while running a red light. I brought up this apparent incongruity, but then as we rounded the corner, lo and behold a large pick-up was pulling out of a space.

“See,” my friend said.

We pulled ahead of the truck to let him get out so we could back in, but instead of pulling out and around us, the truck driver, not seeing our compact car, plowed right into us, compacting the car even further to the tune of $1500 in damages.

“See?” I said.

I did criticize Rev. Dollar in a sermon once, after which a woman from the congregation chastised me for calling him out. “He has the anointing, you know” she said. Why? I thought. Because he’s a persuasive speaker? Because he’s got a mammoth following? Because he’s tremendously wealthy and successful and on TV and his books sell millions? Because he preaches what you want to hear? “You happily put up with whatever anyone tells you,” Paul warns, “even if they preach a different Jesus than the one we preach, or a different kind of Spirit than the one you received, or a different kind of gospel than the one you believed.”

Rev. Dollar is right that Psalms 35 and 37 both mention God taking pleasure in the prosperity of his servants. But the word translated prosperity is the familiar Hebrew word shalom (which in your pew Bible is ironically translated as welfare). Shalom has never had much to do with your income, the kind of car you drive or the availability of street parking. Psalm 35 is actually a lament in the face of severe enemy persecution—the kind of persecution which Paul himself suffered. In Psalm 35 the Psalmist wonders why God is so seemingly silent and dormant. And then there’s this from Psalm 37: “Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of the wicked.”

Paul denounces false Christianity, but the real danger is partial Christianity. The gospel does preach an abundance of riches in Christ, but those riches are never construed in monetary terms. For Paul his riches took the paradoxical shape of poverty and persecution. He lists lashings and beatings and hunger and imprisonment among his assets; rejoicing in them all because he had been counted worthy to suffer for his faith. Yet Paul suffers humiliation and poverty not so that he might be humble and poor—suffering for the gospel is not some ascetic badge of honor. No, Paul’s suffering for the gospel is for the sake of the Corinthians, whom he loves. The gospel of Jesus urges sacrifice like Jesus, self-forgetting, trusting in God to supply your needs—all so that you may be freed to supply the needs of others. Paul makes it a point to refuse monetary support from the Corinthians on the grounds that to receive money for his message would have obscured its very meaning. He allows the Macedonians to support his ministry so that he can offer grace to the Corinthians free of charge. Salvation cannot be purchased. By contrast, the gospel of Paul’s rivals promoted self-enrichment, self-determination, worldly success and personal power, which to Paul only exposed their fraudulence.

The late Catholic mystic Henri Nouwen once wrote, “It is easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life. … Ever since the snake said, ‘The day you eat this tree your eyes will open and you will be like gods…’, we have been tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross,” profit over sacrifice.

Paul cites the snake too. He writes, “I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough.” Paul goes on to call his opponents snakes too, disguised “angels of light,” just like Satan himself. They flash their self-serving righteousness and worldly success as rewards for proper faith. Paul worries for the Corinthians with the worry of a concerned father-of-the-bride. Throughout the Old Testament, God is depicted as betrothed to his people. Paul applies this Old Testament imagery to the church, depicting himself as the jealous father, ferociously protective of the Corinthians’ purity so that they might be suitable for Christ, their husband. Their dalliances with cuter, less demanding and customer-friendly Jesuses put their whole relationship with God at risk.

In Jeffrey MacDonald’s book, he traces the same problem in America to the deeply-rooted values of individualism and free enterprise. He writes how “The meteoric rise of customer-driven religion in recent decades explains why American churches increasingly look, sound and act like American corporations. They’ve adapted their forms and systems to be maximally efficient and responsive to shifts in the marketplace. Prominent churches in the twenty-first century function as religious businesses… producing a spiritual crisis in America.”

The good news is that there are signs of hope. MacDonald saves a few pages in the end to offer redeeming examples of church, all of which as it turns out, are in Minnesota. This was the main reason I bought his book. I wanted to see if Colonial made the list. We didn’t. CPC, Wooddale and Mt. Olivet didn’t make it either—just in case anybody was worried about that.

McDonald describes religion in the Twin Cities as a highly competitive industry. Scores of Lutheran churches compete with hungry, up-and-coming evangelical ones while still other denominations vie for the loyalists of transient churchgoers. Christians who opt for more challenging forms of discipleship do so despite an abundance of cushier alternatives. Among the more challenging forms of discipleship are those found at Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul. Members of Woodland Hills are not expected to provide unconditional moral support for each other. Instead, leaders encourage members to weigh in on each others’ big decisions—especially the discretionary consumer choices—before they’re a done deal. In one small group a guy was thinking of buying a $50K car (not as expensive as Rev. Dollar’s but still…). Group members challenged him on that, encouraging the purchase of a $20K car instead, with the balance going to help provide clean water in Haiti. As pastor Greg Boyd puts it, “We want to give people shopping for a church less and less of what they’re looking for.” As a result, Woodland Hills has watched its attendance drop by almost half.

At Eagle Brook Church, with 11,000 people spread across numerous campuses around Spring Lake, there’s been a public acknowledgment of the hollowness of consumer Christianity, despite its numerical success. Eagle Brook is emphasizing new opportunities for genuine spiritual growth through disciplines such as solitude and mentoring—though not too uncomfortably, admits one pastor. “Otherwise people will go to another church that makes it more comfortable for them.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Abbey Way Covenant Church, sixty people strong and meeting in northeast Minneapolis. Borrowing from the disciplines of ancient Christianity, this church operates according to three core principles: stability (the willingness to be still), transformation (the willingness to change), and obedience (the willingness to listen). Abbey Way sets expectations high by looking to monks and nuns and role models. Because members must commit for a year at a time and revisit their commitments annually, quitting the community after a conflict is not an option. To become a member is to forfeit the freedom to run away. MacDonald writes that “churchgoers need to muster the maturity, courage and humility to work out their differences and remain on intimate terms.”

At Augsburg College, as some of you probably know, every student must pass a two-semester course on meaning and vocation where the intent is to help students figure out how their life choices, understood as a divine calling whatever the work, can address the deeper needs of the world. MacDonald concludes that people “who reached new heights in these congregations were those willing to take personal risks in order to be transformed by the gospel. They were willing to let themselves be changed by the unlikely relationships that flow from following Jesus, relationships such as those that occur when you decide to help the neediest, live among the loneliest, or reach out in forgiveness to love your enemy.”

Surely we want this for our own church, and for every church. If the gospel we preach only makes us feel good about the choices we were going to make anyway, it’s not much of a gospel. We should just set up an Edina Wedding Chapel and be done with it. Having performed plenty of rent-a-reverend weddings myself, I empathize with the frustration of feeling like just another service provider. In Boston, I got so tired of feeling like a hood ornament, that I stopped writing new wedding homilies. For 12 years I said the same thing over and over again. And just to see if anybody was listening, I talked about marriage as synonymous with death. “Marriage will kill you,” I’d grouse, as the bride obliviously grinned her pasted-on smile, “Jesus was clear that following him meant denying yourself and taking up a cross. Marriage provides a God-ordained crash course in both. Marriage will teach you sacrifice, it will teach you to die to your selfishness for the sake of another person, even when that person is driving you absolutely crazy. It will teach you what real love looks like.” Grrr.

Of course I said these things fully expecting none of those couples to ever come back. And most of them didn’t. But on a few occasions, one I specifically remember, a couple did return, remarking how my hardnosed homily really hit home. I still don’t like rent-a-reverend weddings. But thankfully, the Holy Spirit has lower standards than I do.