Sunday, July 26, 2020

Who We Are: Forgiveness

So I made up my mind not to make you another painful visit. For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? And I wrote as I did, so that when I came, I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice; for I am confident about all of you, that my joy would be the joy of all of you. For I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.

But if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but to some extent—not to exaggerate it—to all of you. This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; so now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. I wrote for this reason: to test you and to know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ. --2 Corinthians 2:1-10 (NRSV)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Last week we began our study in Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians. We know from our previous study in 1st Corinthians that there has been much conflict in the church in Corinth. And, as we read today’s text, it becomes apparent that, as a result of Paul’s instruction to the congregation, they have acted to discipline someone. Who this person is, we’re not entirely sure, but it appears that it is this person who, during a previous visit by Paul, has mistreated him. 

And so, instead of re-visiting them in person, Paul sends a harsh corrective - the letter we mentioned last Sunday that was delivered by Titus. The letter written in-between 1st and 2nd Corinthians, which we do not have.

In this letter, it appears that Paul has instructed the congregation to act to discipline this person - to put them to the “test” as he writes in verse 9, to see if they would obey his instruction.

Now it might seem as though Paul is on a bit of a power trip here. And, perhaps, that’s true. Or, perhaps, Paul, in issuing his instructions to the congregation, is testing the partnership - the koinonos we spoke of last week between the church and Paul, who has been as their pastoral leader called to them by Christ. Can they trust him - do they trust him to tell them the right thing to do, to guide them in dealing with this issue within the congregation? Paul writes in verse 4 that his corrective to them isn’t written to pain them or make them sad. But, that it is written out of overwhelming love for them.

What Paul knows and has written about in the first chapter is that the community’s life is bound up together in Christ. When someone in a community is allowed license to go on sinning with no restraint, the whole community is harmed. Too often, the church - at least in modern times - has been so reticent to cause sorrow, that it has backed away from confrontation and even discipline. And, certainly, at times, the church has made the mistake in the opposite direction. But, Paul’s point is that a balance must be struck. As much as we want to have peace in our community, sin must also be confronted. To do otherwise is to give a weak witness to the world - a witness that says our gospel belief doesn’t really matter. 

Yet, at the same token, discipline must not be unending. So, Paul now asks them to forgive and to forget. To welcome this person back into the congregation - to reconcile with them. The word Paul uses here for “forgive” in the Greek is charizomai, which means to “give freely.” It’s also connected to charis, the word in Greek meaning “grace.” It's the same word Paul will use later in the letter when he encourages the congregation to “give freely” to a collection for the poor. To forgive is to give freely of oneself. Paul knows that forgiveness and reconciliation must be the next step. And to do so requires moving towards the person with whom reconciliation is sought. And to give freely of oneself. Because this is the way of Christ, the great Reconciler, who gives freely of himself for the whole world. And before whom we stand as people of God. Just as Paul writes in verse 10, when he says that he and the Corinthians stand together before the “face” of Christ. 

On Friday evening, I was privileged to be invited into a sacred space. A place that, honestly, few white people are allowed into - a conversation between black activists from here and Colorado. 

What I came away with from that conversation is how many of these young people have given up on the church. Mostly, because they don’t see the church as being out there, standing alongside them in their fight for justice and an end to the systemic racism that continues to challenge our society. Instead, they see the church as complacent. Comfortable. Unwilling to confront sin.

Now, you might claim that this has nothing to do with our text today from Paul’s letter, but I think it does. Because, what I think Paul is addressing here for the church in Corinth and for us, is the veracity of our witness. If we say, as a church, that racism and systemic racism is a sin, what are we doing to confront it? Do we choose not to say or do anything because it might upset our “peaceful” lives? Do we choose not to attempt to understand it and our complicity in it because it makes us uncomfortable? I wonder if this is the witness to the world that Paul, much less Jesus, would expect of us. 

I know that, for some of you at least, a few of my positions on different issues in our world make you uncomfortable. And you may disagree with me. Yet, if we can’t take on these hard conversations - if we can’t move into the difficult conversations here within our own community of faith - a community that has Christ at its center, then where can we have them? 

This is what Paul is doing and saying in our text. He could walk away and ignore what has happened. But it is out of love that he stays. And, instead of walking away, moves in closer. And challenges. And confronts. With the hope that the Corinth community will trust him. That they will find their way, address the issue, and then be reconciled with one another. And that, in doing this, will provide the most honest and truthful witness to the world of the power of Christ’s reconciling love for each and everyone one of us.  

So my prayer on this day is that we be honest in our conversations with one another. That we move towards each other in times of conflict. But, mostly, that we be true witnesses of the love and reconciliation of Jesus to the whole world. May God grant it. Amen.

Preached July 26, 2020, online at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
8th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: 2 Corinthians 2:1-10; Matthew 18:21-22

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Who We Are: Consolation

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

We have returned to Corinth, where we were in the spring, as we worked through portions of Acts and 1st Corinthians. Today, in the first of five weeks, we move to Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. But, before we begin, let’s check in about what we remember about Corinth and, particularly, about the church that Paul planted in Corinth. 

We know that Paul first arrived there in about the Year 51. Paul was there for about a year-and-a-half, working in both as an apostle and as a tentmaker, which was his trade. After this time, he then moved onto plant a church in Ephesus. 

Corinth was an important cosmopolitan city, located on an important isthmus. It was a strategic political and military location for the Romans, including being the governor’s seat for the entire region of Achaia. 

We know that the church in Corinth was beset with division. There were many, many issues. Most of them, if you recall, revolved around status. Some of the conflict was between believers who had been converted by different apostles and claimed superiority over others. There was also an issue around economic status - those who were wealthy refused to eat with those who were poor, including for the weekly agape meal. 

The divisions resulted in frayed and shattered relationships within the Corinthian church. So bad, in fact, that Paul made a trip back to Corinth from Ephesus, where he had been moved. And, apparently, based on evidence we find in 2nd Corinthians, during that visit harsh words had been exchanged. 

Even after that visit, things were not resolved. So, Paul sent Titus back to Corinth with a letter - one that we don’t have but that is referenced in Paul’s writing. This letter was a harsh and corrective communication from Paul. The result was that there was a deep sense of woundedness between Paul and many in the congregation. Much of this woundedness revolved, once again, around status. But, this time, it was about Paul’s own status as an apostle. His status and integrity had been challenged by other apostles arriving in Corinth from Jerusalem. Who these other apostles were, we don’t really know. However, by the time this fourth letter, which we know as 2nd Corinthians, is written, Paul is calling them “false apostles.” 

In writing his letter, Paul does not address it to these false apostles, but to the congregation at Corinth. Because it is with them that Paul seeks reconciliation - something that is important to him because he views them as co-workers - as partners - in this ministry of reconciliation, in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation.

It is here where we begin. Paul opens gently. We read from 2nd Corinthians, chapter 1.

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,

To the church of God that is in Corinth, including all the saints throughout Achaia:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation.

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again, as you also join in helping us by your prayers, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many. --2 Cor. 1:1-11 (NRSV)

I want us to take a closer look at the central portion of today’s text - verses 3 through 7. In this section is something that Paul often does as he begins a letter. He starts with a prayer or a blessing where he lays out before God the main theme he wants to get across to his readers. This is what Paul is doing in these first verses of 2nd Corinthians.

Do you notice anything interesting about this paragraph? We’ve talked before about the importance of repetition. If we take a close look at these verses, we see that Paul uses the word, consolation, or some form of it, ten times in these five verses. What’s interesting is that Paul only uses this word 25 times throughout the entire letter. But here, in just five verses, he uses the word ten times. So, what’s up with this?

If we dig deeper into the Greek, the verb that is at the root of all of these words is the word parakaleo, which means to instill someone with courage or cheer. To comfort them. Or to encourage them. Particularly, it means to come near. 

Paul’s approach at reconciliation is not to insist that he is right. Or to command the Corinthians how they should act or respond. But, instead he addresses them using the word, consolation. His desire is to overcome the strain that has taken place. The way to do this is to come near and speak words that will change the mood or the situation. This will then give courage, or a new hope, or a new direction, or new insight into what the future may look like. In using this word, Paul is intentionally meeting the Corinthians where they are. Just as God meets us where we are.

Contemporary theologian Ben Witherington writes that Cicero once suggested that “‘the ability to placate or reconcile was a sign of greatness in human character.’ If this is so, then perhaps 2nd Corinthians, more than any of Paul’s other letters, reveals his largeness of soul.” These words of encouragement, of comfort, of cheering up, of coming near are Paul’s way of affirming the Gospel message of a God - of our God - who raises up the dead. Just as human conflict led to Jesus’ resurrection, God’s own message of resurrection is a refusal to let human conflict dictate the future. 

Paul believed that failure to achieve this reconciliation would endanger the very Christian identity of the Corinthian church, since Paul was Christ’s agent - Christ’s apostle - to this church. To be alienated from Paul was to be alienated from the One who sent him. So, it is not only the heart of Paul’s ministry that is at stake, in his mind, it the very heart of the Corinthians’ faith that is at stake.

But there are a few more repeated words in this passage that we must pay attention to. We might think that the same Greek word would be used for affliction and suffering, given their similarity in meaning. However, in this passage, this is not the case. In fact, there are three different Greek words that translate in English as either affliction or suffering. Let’s look at each one separately.

The first word is thlipsis. This word, like consolation, is mentioned more often by Paul than any other New Testament writer and more so in 2nd Corinthians. It can refer to either external suffering or internal suffering. Specifically, it refers to suffering that has been experienced.

The second word used for suffering or affliction is pathema. This word generally refers to the suffering that Jesus experienced. His tribulation here on earth.

The third, and final word, is pascho. Notice that this word is only used once. It’s a word that Paul uses rarely and in different ways. In 1st Corinthians he uses it to describe the general sense of suffering that any Christian might know. In Galatians he uses it to describe a general experience of suffering. In 1st Thessalonians it refers to persecution. But here, as in Romans and Philemon, pascho is used by Paul to refer to the suffering that we share with Christ. Yet, this is different from how the word is used in other parts of the New Testament, where it is never used to refer to the suffering of believers, but only of the suffering of Jesus himself.  So, what is Paul doing here?

In connecting his suffering with that of Christ, Paul is connecting the Corinthian church to that same suffering. He’s emphasizing to them that there is a partnership or koinonos in both the suffering and consolation that is experienced by members of the body of Christ. He is bound to the congregation just as he is bound to Christ. 

When Christ suffers, we, as the body of Christ, suffer. When one of us suffers, the whole body of Christ suffers. Through our baptisms into the body of Christ, we are all interconnected - brought together in our suffering and our consolation.

This is important to Paul, and to us, because what is not promised is immediate relief from our afflictions or our suffering. But what is promised is that they can be endured. Specifically, they can be endured when they are understood as the sufferings of Christ, and the same sufferings that the apostles have known. And through which the gospel has been proclaimed. These are the same sufferings shared by the whole body of Christ. As members of this body, the Corinthians - and we - are called to be conformed to Christ’s own life-giving death. And to live obediently in expectation of the final glory that is to come. 

Paul’s hope for the church in Corinth, as with us, is that we will be members of the body of Christ who live out that partnership. Who understand that in sharing in the suffering and consolation of Christ as with one another, we also share in the final glory of Christ.

What hope this gives us in this time in which we are living! Knowing that as we suffer, whether it is from division, or physical illness or disease, or anxiety, or whatever affliction we experience, we are not alone. But we are partners with Christ, claimed by him, and brought into community with one another. So that we might be comforted. And that, together, we might endure. And find hope in the overwhelming power of God to bring life out of death. 

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Preached July 19, 2020, online at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
7th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: 2 Corinthians 1:1-11; John 14:25-27

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Out of the Whirlwind: Finding Life

Last week, you heard Pastor Ron preach on the creation story of Job.  For four chapters, God responds to Job with this story of creation and the way in which God has ordered creation. Out of the whirlwind, God has finally responded to Job. Not with an answer to his question about why he is suffering. But about how God is a creator God. Who loves and nourishes creation each and every day. In the first part of our lesson today, God’s speech continues. 

Last week you were introduced to one particularly dangerous and wild creature. In this portion of today’s reading, you will meet a second. Leviathan - that huge sea-being created by God.

God speaks out of the whirlwind. 
“Can you pull in the sea beast, Leviathan, with a hook and tie his tongue with a rope? 
Can you put a cord through his nose or snap his jaw with an anchor? 
Will he beg you over and over for mercy, or flatter you with flowery speech? 
Will he make a pact with you to run errands and serve you the rest of your life? 
Will you play with him like a bird, or put a leash on him for your children? 
Will you display him in the marketplace so that shoppers can haggle over his price? 
Can you shoot him full of arrows or drive a fishing spear into his head? 
Should you lay your hand on him, you would never remember the battle - won’t live to tell the story. 
Any hope of controlling him would be delusional. 
The sight of him makes one stumble. 
If you can’t hold your own against this fierce creature, how can you stand before me? 
Who can confront me and get away with it? 
I am in charge of this - everything under heaven is mine. I run this universe!” --Job 41:1-8

If Job hasn’t been brought to his knees by the earlier part of God’s response, he can only fall to them now. “Who are you?” God asks him. “Who are you that you think you are in control of this world? The universe? The cosmos? Who are you?”

There is an ancient myth that this Leviathan represents chaos. Perhaps that’s an appropriate thought for the times we are in. But I wonder if, here, Leviathan isn’t better characterized by the Leviathan written about by Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century British philosopher. Hobbes challenges us to consider that the Leviathan - this great monster of chaos - is actually within us all. That when we begin to believe that we are in control of this universe, we have succumbed to it and to the chaos it brings with it. Perhaps, this is God’s purpose with these words. Not to condemn Job for his self-centeredness and his focus on his own suffering. Because isn’t that what suffering brings us to do - to curl in upon ourselves? To focus only on ourselves and our own pain? Perhaps God’s purpose with Job (and with us) is to break open his vision. To reframe his perspective. To say to him, “You think you know about the world and about my justice, but you don’t! You don’t!”

God is re-orienting Job to a new vision, a non-human centered vision of the world. Teaching him humility. To give him a new vision, a new perspective. To invite him to look around. To breathe. And to live.

How will Job respond? We hear his answer in chapter 42.

“I’m convinced. I know you can do anything; no plan of yours can be opposed successfully. You asked, “Who is this muddying the water, confusing the issue, second-guessing my purposes?’ I admit it. It was me. I have spoken about things I didn’t understand, wonders beyond my own comprehension. You said, ‘Listen and I will speak; Let me ask the questions and you give the answers.” I admit, my ears had heard about you, rumors of you. But now, my own eyes have seen you. Firsthand. Therefore, I relent. And find comfort on dust and ashes - in my own humanity.” --Job 42:1-6

At the beginning of the book of Job, Satan argued with God that God had created the world in such a way that the righteous were kept from all harm - that God had placed a fence around them to protect them. This was the same worldview that Job and his friends also held - that the world was ordered in such a way that the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished. It’s the picture we had of Job at the beginning - a “blameless and upright man who feared God and turned away from evil.” A man who made sacrifices for his children preemptively - just in case. His was a very ordered world, where one’s righteousness produced prosperity.

But that world was shattered and collapsed around him in ashes. And, eventually, Job reached a second and different conclusion about the order of the cosmos, accusing God of fencing him in. Of creating a protective hedge so tightly that it feels as though he is being suffocated. 

These two conclusions - these two worldviews - are spoken by Satan and Job in the earlier chapters of the book. But, when God speaks, beginning in chapter 38 and continuing to this morning, both perspectives are called into question. The created order is not what any of them thought or imagined. The world is not a perfectly safe place for humanity. But, it is an ordered place and it is a place of profound beauty and freedom. And, within it, there is a place for humanity. Not for dominion, but for humility and wonder. God invites Job into this world and into God’s vision, to see the world in a new way. To reorient himself. To understand that he is not the center of the cosmos. To see the world from God’s point of view and to understand in a new way his place in that world. 

Our reading continues in chapter 42.

After God had finished speaking to Job, he turned to Eliphaz the Temanite and said, “I’m angry at you and your two friends because you haven’t spoken about me correctly as did my servant Job. So now, take seven bulls and seven rams, go to my servant Job, and prepare an entirely burned offering for yourselves. Job my servant will pray for you, and I will act favorably by not making fools of you because you didn’t speak correctly, as did my servant Job.”

Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad from Shuah, and Zophar from naamah did what the Lord told them; and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.

After Job had interceded for his friends, God restored his fortune. And then doubled it! All his brothers and sisters and friends came to him and ate food with him in his house. They comforted and consoled him for all the trouble God had brought him. Each one of gave him a qesitah and a gold ring. Then the Lord blessed Job’s latter days more than his former ones. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, one thousand yoke of oxen, and one thousand female donkeys. He also had seven sons and three daughters. He named one Jemimah (or Dove); a second, Keziah (or Cinnamon); and the third Keren-Happuch (or Darkeyes). No women in all the land were as beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave an inheritance to them along with their brothers. After this, Job lived 140 years and saw four generations of his children. Then Job died, old and satisfied. --Job 42:7-17

Job gets it. And responds by praying for his friends. And by having more children, including three beautiful daughters to whom he gives names that reflect their beauty. And, then, in an act unheard of in ancient Israel, Job gives them an inheritance along with their brothers. We see a transformed Job. Transformed by his own suffering and led by God to open his eyes to the beauty and grace of the world around him. To have hope in it and in God’s ordering of it. To breathe. To live. And to give his children the same freedom that God gives all creation - freedom to be fully who they have been created to be. 

At the beginning of our lectionary year, I wondered if Job was right for us this summer. Who could have known then what we know now? We are witness to the truth that the world is not perfectly safe for humanity. 

Yet, we, like Job, are called to a new vision of our world. To open our eyes to the beauty and grace of the world that God has created. To view it and all that God has made from a place of humility and wonder. And to have hope in it and in God’s ordering of it. And, then, like Job to breathe. And to live into our humanity and the freedom given to us by God, won for us by Christ’s act on the cross. So that we might fully be the whole and gracious and loving people God has created us to be. And that we might live in a world that, even though sometimes doesn’t feel safe, trust that God orders it and is in control.

May this be our lesson and learning in this time from the book of Job. Amen.

Preached July 12, 2020, online at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 6
Readings: Psalm 150; Job 41:1-8; 42:1-17