Friday, June 29, 2012

Life Letters: Show Me the Money

Our texts for this week as we continue our journey with the apostle Paul are 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 and Mark 5:21-43.  You can read these here, and I would really encourage you to read all of 2 Corinthians 8-9 to get a bigger picture of what Paul is doing in this section of the letter.

I have very mixed feelings about this week's reading from 2 Corinthians, because in it Paul does something that pastors and churches often get criticized for doing too much of: asking for money.

It's a touchy subject, isn't it? When someone asks us for money, be it a telemarketer, the brownie selling Girl Scout cookies outside of the grocery store, or, yes, the people bearing the offering plates on Sunday mornings, we can quickly grow uneasy at best, defensive and hostile at worst. I think this is at least in part because we have so often felt shamed, manipulated, guilted, brow-beaten, and pressured by those seeking money--or have watched this happen to others, typically the most financially vulnerable among us--that now, even when someone asks us to support a cause we deeply believe in, we hesitate.  We wonder what the catch is, why this person is so interested in money.  Are they truly passionate about the thing they are fundraising for, or is there something in it for them?

This question must have been asked of Paul. One of the major goals of his mission among the Gentiles (other, of course, than helping them realize they have been embraced by Christ as full members of God's family) was to take up a collection to help the struggling church back in Jerusalem--that original community of Christ-following Jews who had come together after Pentecost and committed themselves to holding all things in common.  Now, due to a famine and persecution and perhaps even the strain of their radical economic practices, they had fallen on hard times. When Paul made his peace with the Jerusalem apostles, getting their blessing to continue his work ministering among non-Jews, they had “asked only that we would remember the poor, which was certainly something I was willing to do" (Galatians 2:9, 10 CEB).

Paul was more than willing; in fact, discussion of the collection for the Jerusalem poor occupies two whole chapters of real estate in this letter to the Corinthians. Paul tries all sorts of angles to help the people fulfill their commitment to support their Jewish Christian brothers and sisters, even as those Jerusalem churches had not always supported them. In these few verses alone, Paul appeals to flattery, competition with other churches, love, Christ's example, a reminder that they may need this kind of support in the future, and to God's provision. Paul is digging deep into his bag of tricks here, and my question is...why?  Why would Paul pull out all the stops like this for Christians who had not treated him all that well and who his Gentile churches likely never meet, nor be welcome among? What is so important about this collection for a distant church when undoubtedly there were many in need in their midst?

Why is this particular collection so central to Paul's teaching and mission? Read 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 and see what you think...and consider why, even if the subject makes us squirm, this might be a passage we still need to read today.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Kingdom Coming Among Bruised Reeds and Smoldering Wicks

It is such a pleasure to be able to preach at Broadneck this week. I'm grateful to Abby for inviting me to fill the pulpit while she is on vacation.

Picking up on the themes that Abby has been following in 2 Corinthians has been an interesting challenge. Abby has pushed my thinking a lot as I listened to last week's sermon. She challenged me to think about how not only is the "person who is in Christ" a "new creation"; but to look at the truth that in our being made "new creations" by our being in Christ Jesus, ALL creation is made new as well. We become the "yeast" (from one of Jesus' short metaphors) that makes the 'bread of the world' totally different...."new"....than it was before it was present. That difference is that we have been reconciled to God. The broken 'relational bridge' between God and ourselves has been rebuilt. And now that it has, we are to take that reconciliation and tell everyone that it is available to them as well. And here's the kicker...the big suprise in Paul's letter....the one that if we could only grasp in our attempts to share our faith would make such a world of difference: Paul says, "We are putting no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may found with our ministry..." Let me say it again to make sure we (that means me too) get it: We are putting no obstacle in anyone's way. What does this reconciliation look like? It is intensely compassionate. When we look at our Gospel passage from Matthew 12, we find Matthew quoting Isaiah's description of God's servant. This servant, we're told, "will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick."

Think about that. These are images of fragility. And we're told that Jesus, God's servant, has a deep compassion for all that is fragile-in us and in those we're trying to share God's message with. And just to demonstrate how that works, Matthew next tells the story of Jesus' healing of a man who is not only blind, but mute as well. He can (we assume) hear. But his ability to communicate or experience his world is so incredibly limited that we wonder how he got by. And it is about this healing that Jesus says, "if I do this by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God has come among you."

How often do you and I put obstacles in the way of the "bruised reeds and smoldering wicks" in our world?  How often do we (so often indirectly) say to them, "you can come to Christ, you can be part of our community of faith if you will just......(pick your requirement)." It's a sin we've committed to the theological left and to the right. What would happen if we just shared Jesus' love...and let them sort out what that meant they needed to do about that? What if, instead of making change a requirement of faith, we trusted that God would guide them to the responses of faith that they needed to make? What great freedom would be opened to them, and to us, to celebrate the fact that the Kingdom of God has truly come upon us.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Life Letters: When it Comes to Paul, We Need it All...

Our primary text for this week as we continue our series on Paul's second letter to the Corinthians is 2 Corinthians 5:6-20.  We will also be reading from the Gospel of Mark 4:26-32.  You may read both of these here

Every once in a while, while working on a sermon, I come to a realization that should have been totally obvious but that never really occurred to me.  Here's is this week's "Well, duh, Abby!" realization:

When it comes to Paul, we need it All.

Here's what I mean:

I got frustrated reading about this passage from 2 Corinthians in one of my favorite commentaries, the New Interpreter's Bible, this week.  It felt like all this commentary did to explicate this chapter was refer you constantly to other passages in other letters of Paul's.  Rather than saying "here is what this means," the commentary kept me flipping back and forth between the epistles looking at how Paul phrased it differently to another church, outlined an idea differently in another place and time, or actually seems to have changed his mind or contradicted himself on certain points.  It was a cross-referencing fiesta.  How am I supposed to sift through all of this to come to some coherent conclusion?

The decision I came to is, maybe I can't.  Like we are all on a journey of faith, Paul was on one too--and his ideas developed with different fullness and different edges in his communication with different communities whose issues caused him to wrestle in different ways.  We can't look at one verse of Paul's and say, "Here's what's right" definitively without putting it in the context of all of his writings--and he wrote a boatload.  I think this is why Paul has been so often maligned and abused--because we love to memorize one verse of a letter and think we have his theology under control.  Really, however, Paul weaves a complex picture through his writings.

As people living in a 24 hour news cycle of headlines and Twitter feeds, getting a sense of a wider picture is not one of our cultural strengths.  But it's a skill we need to develop, I think, to read Paul well.  So, in advance of Sunday, here is one of the key verses from our readings, and a few things Paul says in other letters that connect with this verse.  How does what Paul says elsewhere give you deeper insight into what Paul might be trying to say here?

2 Corinthians 5:17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
  • Galatians 3:26-28   For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 
  • Galatians 6:15 For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!  
  • Romans 6:4  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
  • Romans 8:19-21 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  
Just a little "Paul from elsewhere" to get those wheels turning!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Life Letters: Our Upcoming Journey with Paul and the Corinthians

Our primary text for this week is 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1, which can be read here.  I would recommend, however, starting at the beginning of 2 Corinthians and reading the first four chapters, just to read our text in context.  The Message, a contemporary paraphrase of scripture, is a translation I find really accessible when dealing with Paul; so I would commend reading that version here

Speaking of dealing with Paul, I wrote on this blog last summer about my own personal struggles with Paul--particularly my reluctance to preach on his letters, for a variety of reasons.  Out of the four suggested lectionary readings each week, the Epistle reading is usually the first one I eliminate from consideration.

For the next five weeks, however, the second Epistle (that's just a fancy word for "Letter") to the church at Corinth is going to be the focus of our reflection in worship.  Help me, Jesus.  I will explain some of my reasons for making this choice in worship this Sunday; but here I will just say that I figured this was as good time a time as any to undertake this series (which I am called "Life Letters") because, of all of Paul's letters, 2 Corinthians is one of my favorites. 

This week, I think I discovered one of the reasons why:  because, as J. Paul Sampley put it in his intro to 2 Corinthians in The New Interpreters Bible, "Nowhere else in Paul's letters can we observe his enduring relationship with a particular church. In the documents called 1 and 2 Corinthians, Paul relates to the Corinthian believers across a number of years. In those two works scholars have found references to five—and text of at least three—letters Paul wrote to the believers at Corinth and one they wrote to him. When the letters or letter fragments are arranged in a sequence, they portray Paul's relations to the Corinthians as ranging from good times to times not so good" (NIB Vol 11 p. 3).  I love that the Corinthian correspondence shows a relationship developed over time, making an ongoing dialogue about what the life of faith means in the earliest years of Christian development.

I also love that Paul's theology in 2 Corinthians particularly is intensely practical.  Sampley said it well again: "Throughout 2 Corinthians, and indeed across all his correspondence, he has no interest in theological notions for their own sake, but only as they engage life, as they bear on the way people comport themselves. His theologizing, therefore, is never abstract or abstruse; instead it is always engaged, always linked to life as real people—he and his hearers—are experiencing it." Paul's desire to engage life in Christ--and to help those reading his letters do the same--makes his second letter to the Corinthians worthy of our attention in the coming weeks.  In what ways do these ancient letters shape our modern faith in practical ways?  How do they call us to engage our world and God in this day and age? 

Join us on Sunday as we begin this journey together, and are given a unique opportunity courtesy of our Spiritual Formation Ministry Group to engage our faith formation as well.