As Much As They Wanted

(sermon 7/25/21)

2 Kings 4:42-44  

A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” So he repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.

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John 6:1-14

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.

Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.

Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”

Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.

When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

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Presbyterian. Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic; it doesn’t matter the tradition; it doesn’t matter how similar or different their theologies might be; there’s one thing that virtually every single one of them and all the others say: “If there’s anything that this church does well, it’s cook. Or sometimes, they’ll say “eat,” but ultimately it makes the same point – that they enjoy the fellowship and camaraderie of preparing and sharing a common meal. There’s something wonderful, something magical, something genuinely miraculous, that happens in the coming together, the sharing of the work of your hands and hearts, of temporarily setting aside any diets, and indulging in the feast and the festivities. It doesn’t matter when someone says that Presbyterian Mrs. McNeil’s ambrosia is the best in the world, that the truth is it tastes exactly the same as Methodist Mrs. Hudson’s down the street; the added aspect of knowing and caring for the people who made all the food, and the people you’re sitting together eating it with, just makes it taste better, and everyone can say that their church makes the best food, and has the best meals, and for them, every one of them is right.

The whole idea of the goodness of food and table fellowship is an important aspect of life in general, but religious expression in particular. And arguably, nowhere is that more true than in the Christian faith. Of course, that’s rooted in the Jewish faith but we take it yet a step further than our Jewish siblings in faith. Both of our traditions start with the first shared, common meal in the Garden of Eden, and while admittedly, that got things off to a rough start, things definitely got better after that. We both have a shared tradition of God providing manna and quail for the common good and sustenance of the Hebrews as they wandered in the Wilderness, awaiting the fulfillment of the promise of being led into a land flowing with milk and honey. We share instructions from God to always share food and drink and hospitality with others, both those we know and those we don’t, sharing whatever we have whether it’s a little or a lot. We share sacred texts that describe the coming fulfilment of the kingdom of God as being like an eternal, unending banquet of the richest foods and finest of drink. In the Passover meal, Jews remember and give thanks for God’s loving faithfulness, while remembering the blessings, and tragedies, within their faith history, as well as remembering the suffering endured by others who were also caught up in that history. And of course, we Christians similarly give thanks for God’s faithfulness and our own faith history, when we participate in the Lord’s Supper; and we believe that in some inexplicable, even miraculous, way we’re united with the Spirit of Christ in the sharing of the bread and cup; in this meal as actual sacrament.

The symbolism, and the reality, of the table-sharing of food and drink – the sharing of hospitality, with God and with each other – is powerful.

We can hear both of today’s Lectionary texts, and we can savor the richness of the details provided in them while our imaginations can be inspired as we fill in the details the authors left out. One thing that we can do that’ probably counterproductive is to get too wrapped up in trying to understand or explain the miraculous multiplication of food that takes place in both of them. Neither author is concerned with explaining the mechanics, the physics, of how it worked, both of them probably considering it unknowable and in any case unimportant as they both focused on the same actual point: in the midst of human need, the resources available are shared generously, even though it seems completely inadequate to meet the need, and the result is that God will make something happen that is wonderful, beyond any human ability, or expectation, or explanation.

This is the point – the good news – that we can hear in both of these accounts: that the miracle isn’t in the mechanics, but rather, in the reality that God blesses and multiplies our faithful and loving acts of generosity and hospitality, often in ways we may never even see.

This point – this good news – doesn’t deny or sugar-coat the reality that despite our actions, some people will still go hungry or otherwise suffer. We can’t understand why sometimes, we see God at work in the world in some places, but not in other places that need help at least as much as the others. I wish that weren’t the case, but we all know that it is. These stories point out, and the fact remains, though, that God’s abundance is capable of appearing in the midst of human need. So we’re all challenged, then, to be present in the midst of that need and to extend generosity, in the same way as Elisha and his servant, and Jesus and the young boy who gave up his lunch and changed the world. Through our actions, and our resources, no matter how seemingly small, God may very well work a miracle in the life of another.

It’s in that spirit of generosity and hospitality that, in addition to our ongoing commitment to our food ministry with Portland Avenue Presbyterian Church in West Louisville and La Casita Center in downtown and South Louisville, we’re also applying to partner with Dare to Care to create a food pantry here in the east of the city, where hunger and food scarcity is also real, even if often hidden. We’re moving forward, confident of the good news embedded in these two texts, of God’s truly miraculous multiplying abundance.

He’d been out of work for many months now. He’d had a decent job, but that was one of the non-human casualties of the pandemic. Since then, he’d burned through his life’s savings just to survive, and now he’d found some work but it only paid a fraction of his old job, making it just barely possible to keep his head above water most days, and too many days, not. Often skipping meals just to cut corners to the bare minimum, while the calls from the collection agencies made his life a round-the-clock, nonstop living hell. His life had been turned upside-down, going backwards in what was supposed to be the prime earning years of his life, filled with fear and stress and no small amount of embarrassment and shame, as he tried to put on a good face around his friends, and not let anyone see his deep suffering and need.

But one of his neighbors did see it, though. And one day on a whim, the neighbor invited him to a dinner they were having at the neighbor’s church, figuring that at least that night, he’d be able to enjoy a decent hot meal. And on a whim, and with the same thought in his mind, he accepted the invitation. When they arrived at the church, the neighbor said to him, “Oh, let me give you the nickel tour of the place before we go in to eat,” and they walked around the building, peeking into the sanctuary and the various rooms and spaces.

“And this,” the neighbor said as they stepped into one room, “is what we call Leo’s Little Store. It’s a food pantry that we run, getting free and healthy food into the hands of individuals and families who need a little help getting through rough patches in their lives.” The two stood there for a moment, until the neighbor broke the silence by asking, “Hey, didn’t you tell me once that you had a family member who was having trouble making ends meet? I’d bet they could use a bag of two of free groceries; we could pack some up and you could put them in your car for them. Do you think they’d like that?” It was an obvious lie, they both knew; a plausible fiction that might enable him to accept some help while saving face and without hurting his pride.

He felt his face getting red, fully aware of what his neighbor was asking without asking. He felt simultaneously embarrassed and grateful, as he heard himself saying, “You know, yes, I think they’d really appreciate something like that.”

Once the groceries were stowed away in his car, he and the neighbor went into the dinner, where there was more food than that number of people were ever going to be able to finish; there was going to be plenty left over afterward. He filled his plate to overflowing with all the standard dishes common to pretty much all church potlucks; nothing elaborate but everything warm and delicious, prepared and shared with love. He sat there enjoying the friendship of his neighbor and the conversation and warmth of those sitting at the table along with him. It truly was something miraculous, he thought, how this made him feel so much better to know that people cared for him and were there to help. He momentarily excused himself from the table and went back through the line to get a small second slice of Mrs. Klinger’s cherry pie, and as he did, he thought to himself that this was the best meal ever. And he was right.

Thanks be to God.  

One Thing

(sermon 7/18/21)

2 Samuel 7-14a

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”

Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies.

Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.”

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I’m going to guess that at some point or another, most of us have seen the 1991 movie “City Slickers.” If you have, you’ll likely remember that in the movie, Billy Crystal plays Mitch Robbins, a stressed out, angst-ridden guy who’s going through a mid-life crisis who ends up going on vacation with a couple of his equally angst-ridden buddies to a dude ranch out west, to work as cowpokes on the ranch’s annual cattle drive. Pretty quickly, Mitch gets on the wrong side of Curly, the head cowboy, played by Jack Palance. And if you’ve seen the movie, you also probably remember the scene where the two of them are riding along on their horses and having a heart-to-heart conversation, where Curly tells Mitch that the whole secret to life, the whole secret to having a good, fulfilling, contended life, is for a person to just stay focused on one thing, and that, even though he used more flowery language, nothing else mattered. When Mitch asks him what the one thing is, Curly answers “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.”

That’s more or less the same message that God is reminding David of through the prophet Nathan in today’s first Lectionary text from the Second Book of Samuel. We heard that once David had gotten settled in as the ruler of the united kingdom of Israel, he then turns his attention to making a permanent, sacred space – a temple – to house the Ark of the Covenant and to be a dwelling for God, of sorts, on earth. Maybe David’s motivation was a matter of faith, of devotion and a desire to please God; or maybe it was a concern out of bad optics – that people might take a dim view of his concentrating on his own physical comfort, building a palace for himself without making a space for God and the Ark. In all likelihood his motivation was a bit of both, but ultimately, whatever his motivations, God reminds David that God had never actually asked him to build a temple – that since the time of the Hebrews wandering through the Wilderness with Moses, God had been getting along just fine without any permanent structure, thank you very much, and in essence, God tells David to just stay in his lane – to keep focused on, if not literally one thing, at least, the particular one group of things, that God actually had entrusted to him.

While in this particular story, I don’t think David felt as conflicted or angst-ridden as Mitch in the movie, but what about you? Have you ever felt overstressed because you’ve spread yourself too thin, chasing too many commitments in too many directions, not able to see your real priorities? Henry David Thoreau famously encouraged us all to simplify our lives in order to find peace, contentment, happiness. He certainly wasn’t the first or the last to do so. This text brings home to us that this act of simplification, staying focused, staying in our own lane, isn’t just common sense, or just a good idea, or a bit of Dr. Phil pop psychology, but it’s an important aspect of our faith; it’s an important spiritual discipline – to try to discern where God wants us to focus – either for ourselves, in our own personal lives, or as the church – and then to stay focused, to stick with it, and not get distracted by other directions, no matter how good those other directions might seem. Finding our “one thing,” or probably more accurately, our “one path” of particular things.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll never need to adjust our focus, or, to use the earlier analogy, that from time to time God won’t want us to change from one lane into another. Times change; situations change; God’s will for us will change. So we can’t confuse discernment of focus with just sticking with tradition or “that’s just what we’ve always done.”

Practically every individual, every pastor, and every congregation, is recognizing that we’re currently living in a special time; one where it seems that God may be calling on us to change lanes. For us here, a part of that is discernment about how our focus might change after the closing of our preschool; what new avenues of mission and community connection God may be leading us into. Even as we’re planning for the official recognition and celebration next month of the preschool and the immense impact it’s had in the lives of people for decades, there are other really intriguing and exciting potential new ways for us to engage our faith with the community, and to be even more strongly a Matthew 25 congregation – ways that have seemed almost to arise out of the blue, but I believe it isn’t at all coincidental.

And all that leads to a critical question: how do you know if, or when, or how, God is calling us toward a particular different focus; to a new “one thing” or one path? How can we weigh potential options to determine whether they’re God’s will, or our own? How do we do that in the life of the congregation? How do we do that in our own personal lives?

Well, in the movie, Curly didn’t offer Mitch any specific answers, and in today’s text God leaves it a bit ambiguous with David too, not explaining specifically what he should be focusing on, but only what he shouldn’t. Still, the text points toward a principle that I think can be helpful.

By referring to all the years that the Ark had no permanent home, God was emphasizing that God’s primary presence, and primary focus, was within human lives, human bodies, human concerns. *That* was God’s focus, and God’s home.

So as we go through our discernment process of what our ministry and outreach should look like, maybe our yardstick should be to ask: Is this thing being considered consistent with our goal – as people of the kingdom of God – to glorify God by showing God’s love to others, and making that love real in their lives in clear, concrete ways? Does this thing we’re considering make effective and proper use of the resources God has made available to us? And at the same time, are we avoiding trying to bite off more than we can chew? Are we not trying to take on a job God has in mind for some other person, some other day?

As we think about those questions, it’s possible that we might occasionally get something wrong – I mean, even Nathan originally told David that building the temple was the right thing to do, before having to backtrack after his vision. But the totality of David’s story in the scriptures shows us that even when he got things wrong – and he got a lot wrong; a lot worse than what he got wrong in this particular part of his life’s story – God never abandoned him. God’s love for David remained, his entire life. God made good on the promise to make David a “house”, an eternal dynasty, through Christ. A big part of the good news we can take home from this story, and a big part of what we give thanks for as we share in the Lord’s Supper this morning, is that even when David got things wrong, even in his imperfections, God never abandoned him. And as we continue our process of discernment, as we get some things right and some things wrong, God will never abandon you, or me, or us in our life together. In fact, maybe that promise, that assurance, as far as we’re concerned is God’s own “one thing.”

Thanks be to God.

Two Cousins

(sermon 7/11/21)

Mark 6:7-30  

Jesus called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.

But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.

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I had a cousin named John. Actually, he was my mother’s cousin, which I guess technically made him my first cousin once removed, even though we always just called each other cousins. But whatever ancestry.com might consider us, it didn’t really matter because John was only about a year and a half older than me, and we grew up together, went to school together, played on the same Little League team together, and lived in the same small town never more than a mile or so apart, and actually just two doors away on the same street for a while when we were really small; so for all practical purposes we grew up together as if we were brothers.

As adults, we both settled down in central Ohio, built careers, raised families. We stayed pretty close, even though we lived almost an hour apart, but still, family and work obligations and all the other realities of adulthood kept us from seeing as much of each other as I’d have wanted.

At way too young an age, John died from the affects of cancer, diabetes, and ultimately, kidney failure, while I ached to have been able to be an organ donor and wishing I could have spent more time with him in his last days. Still, while had been different than when we were kids, there was, and always will be, a special bond between the two of us.

The gospels tell us that Jesus and John the Baptizer were relatives; traditionally, they’ve been called cousins of some kind. I’ve always been intrigued by the details of their relationship that the gospels don’t give us. Were they close? Or were they cousins like the ones you like, or maybe not, but you only see once or twice a year at weddings and funerals?  We’ll really just never know, but it’s interesting to think about.

The lives of these two cousins intersect in this section of Mark’s gospel. Mark starts to tell a story about Jesus sending out the disciples, two by two, out into the towns and villages to proclaim the gospel, the good news of the coming of the kingdom of God and of God’s goodwill and favor for humankind. Then, right in the middle of the story, while the disciples are out in those towns that we never hear any details of, and before they return to tell Jesus about their experiences, Mark pauses the main action to drop in a secondary story. In this case, as you heard, it’s a story detailing hos John met his end. It’s an open question why Mark did this here. Was it to make a connection in the minds of his readers between John’s proclamation about the coming kingdom, and that of the disciples? That in John’s absence, the disciples now have the primary charge from God to take the message of the gospel outward, even further than John could have himself, and in an enhanced manner? Maybe it was some of that, and maybe even all of that, but maybe it was something else, too.

The whole sordid story of how John was killed is told as a kind of a flashback-within-a-flashback, starting with King Herod and his buddies talking about Jesus, wondering where his authority and power came from, and Herod remembering back to John the Baptizer. The Herod in this story is Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great, who was king when Jesus was born. Now that Jesus is an adult, that Herod is long gone. But before he died, he realized that none of his sons were competent enough to handle the entire kingdom after him, so he divided it into three smaller kingdoms, each of them still under the authority of Rome. In this story, Herod Antipas was trying to be a big shot, impressing his friends with a big, lavish party, and he tries to impress them even further after Salome, his wife’s daughter, dances for him and his drunken buddies, which is actually pretty creepy if you give even a moment’s thought to it, by promising her whatever she asks for, even up to half of the kingdom, which actually wasn’t even his to give away. In the story, Herod gets manipulated by Herodias, his wife, and he doesn’t have the strength to avoid going along with John’s execution. He doesn’t want to lose face with his guests. It’s a story of a very weak ruler, in both power and character. What makes it even worse is Herod’s own apparent love-hate relationship with John – his conscience being pricked by John’s preaching, but still being intrigued and drawn to it. All in all, the flashback paints a picture of a sometimes evil, but always weak and pathetic person.

As I mentioned, Mark starts this inserted story with Herod thinking back to this memory. Now, he and his cronies were talking about Jesus, when Herod offers his opinion that Jesus is the return of John, whom he’d killed. Herod is being haunted, if not literally, at least figuratively – mentally, emotionally, spiritually, by what he’d done in his past.

Maybe that’s why Mark drops this story right here. The disciples are out proclaiming the good news of God’s favor to all people. Proclaiming liberation, redemption, a release from captivity and suffering and sorrow and guilt, a soothing of regrets, because of God’s proactive, unilateral choice to pursue humanity and bring us into covenant and relationship. By putting the Herod story here, is Mark making the case that the gospel could be good news even for someone as tormented and selfish and sniveling and conflicted as Herod Antipas?

In our own way, I believe that each one of us is being haunted by something in our past. It might be something relatively small that’s stuck with us, or it might be something really serious. You uttered a poorly chosen word or offered a careless, hurtful comment. You weren’t attentive enough to your children, your parents, grandparents, siblings, your dying cousin. You exploited someone who trusted you, causing them harm for your own personal benefit, maybe they never even knew it, and then again, maybe they did. You cheated on your taxes; you cheated on your business partner; you cheated on your spouse. You were too afraid to do the courageous thing that you could have done to help someone, but you were more concerned for your own skin or your own image, your standing in other people’s eye, not wanting to upset the status quo your other relationships. Whatever the actual details, all of us – all of us – carry something that haunts us.

And it isn’t just you and me as individuals, either. Our society is haunted by all of its past wrongs, too. Our abuses of power, our concern for our image over integrity. Our cowardly turning our backs on people in order to save face or retain power or preserve economic interests. Our wrongful treatment of so many different minority groups of people here and abroad, and all of these having a very real and negative affect on our present. Many voices haunt us, and sometimes, it can be exhausting.

But eventually, Mark does tell us in his gospel, just after this flashback scene, that the disciples who had been sent out by Jesus returned, and they reported back about what had happened as they proclaimed that good news.

Hear that same good news today. The news that despite whatever you’ve done in your past, or left undone, small, medium, or large, there is nothing you could have done to place yourself out of reach of God’s love and embrace. There’s nothing in our life that’s too much for God to forgive, to remove from your shoulders and your mind. Nothing.

It’s true that God’s love and acceptance doesn’t take away the harm that we’ve caused. It doesn’t remove the hurt, the scars. You can’t fix everything; you can’t bring John back from the dead. And this love and acceptance definitely comes with the expectation that we’ll do everything in our abilities to right the wrongs we’ve caused, to mend the tears, to restore and make reparation for our wrongs. But even with that, remember, dear precious child of God, you are considered forgiven, and precious, and beloved, and worthy by God. Today and always, you are held in the loving, protective, eternal hand of God, and there’s nothing that can snatch you out of that hand, and there’s nothing that will cause God to let go of your hand.

I did let go of John’s hand the last time I saw him, after a long, silent final hug. Yes, the silence spoke the regret for allowing petty busyness to keep us apart, and for lost opportunities to be together as much as we’ wanted. But it also silently spoke of a lifetime of joy, and gratitude, and love. As much sadness as there was in our goodbye, there was peace in it, too, knowing that some day, we’d be reunited again as cousins, or brothers, or whatever we really were, without any nonsense getting in between. And that peace comes out of the assurance, the good news, that those disciples proclaimed in those towns and villages, and by extension to Herodias, and to Salome, and Herod, and to you, and to me.

Thanks be to God.

Three Times

(sermon 7/4/21)

2 Corinthians 12:2-10  

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

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Last Sunday I mentioned a few television shows and movies. Not to get in a rut, but as I was studying this particular text from 2 Corinthians, considering its backstory and trying to understand what Paul is getting at, another movie came to mind. The movie “Office Space” is a goofy comedy movie from 1999 about a poor guy with no real ambition, going nowhere, stuck in a dead-end job in the mind-numbing bureaucracy of some big corporation. Part of the overall plot of the movie is that the big corporation has brought in a couple of outside consultants to study their operations and come up with ways to make the corporation more efficient, and ultimately improve the corporate bottom line. It just so happened that both of the consultants were named Robert, so in the movie they just get referred to as “The Bobs.” Now anyone who’s ever worked in the business world knows the dread that comes when you hear the company has hired consultants to come in and streamline things and tell the company how it should really be operating, because this process almost always ends up eliminating some jobs, and adding workload and causing other difficulties for the employees who remain, and while they might get some things right, they can also get a number of things wrong – sometimes really wrong – and in fact, that’s what happens in the movie.

Consultants in the business world are an interesting bunch, and having been an architect, I was generally considered a kind of a consultant, so I feel I can talk about them. They usually have some kind of specialized competence, and they try to apply that competence to benefit their clients. But as outsiders, the fist thing they have to do is to learn their client’s actual business model, their operations, their corporate culture, and then, after they’ve got a handle on things, they’ll make recommendations to the client regarding the way they should really be doing things. Many years ago, a business associate of mine said that “A consultant is someone who asks to borrow your watch, and then charges you to tell you what time it is;” and while he meant it to be funny, there’s at least a bit of truth to that. But before they can charge you for anything, they need to get hired, and they do that like any other business – by gaining a client’s confidence thro8ugh touting their qualifications, their expertise, their past successes, and making a case for why they’re the best one for the job.

There’s something very similar to that going on as the backstory to this text we heard today, to what Paul is saying in this passage. Paul takes pride in the fact that he’s the one who got the church in Corinth started. He went to the city, proclaimed the gospel there, made some converts, and got them organized and structured as a church; and then, consistent with the way he understood his call, he moved on to do the same thing in other cities.

But apparently sometime after he left, some others showed up on the scene in Corinth; people who claimed to be able to help them even more than Paul. But these were people who Paul said were in some way, we’re not sure the details, skewing the real message of the gospel. They were apparently touting their credentials to the small church; earlier in this letter he sarcastically refers to them as so-called “super apostles”. Based on what Paul writes in this passage, these newcomers were trying to sell themselves, similar to the Bobs, as having more credibility, more qualifications, more authority than Paul, so the Corinthians should listen to them. You could imagine their arguments: Paul wasn’t one of the Twelve; he wasn’t directly taught by them; he actually used to persecute Christians. What’s so special about Paul? Why should anyone listen to him? It seems that these would-be super apostles were trying to build themselves up by tearing Paul down.  

In response to this, to reestablish his own qualifications and credentials, Paul writes what we heard this morning. He wants to reassert his own authority, but he doesn’t want to sound arrogant or boastful himself, so he engages in this little bit of wordplay where he talks about himself in the third person – “I know someone who was taken up into the third heaven, into the very dwelling place of God, and who heard deep, divine revelations that mortals are forbidden to hear or repeat…” It’s an age-old tactic of saying something without actually saying it or taking ownership of it, while still making the point, and in this case, the point is made. Paul has credibility due to the amazing revelations that he’s received directly from God, he tells them – in fact, it’s enough to make him want to boast about it. IN the English translation, Paul says he needs to be cautious so he doesn’t get “too elated” about the fact that he’s has these special visions or experiences. That translation, “too elated,” is probably a little too polite; the Greek here actually means to be conceited, arrogant, cocky. So Paul tells the people in Corinth that in fact, his credentials are such that he *could* be boastful, but he’d never want to do that; it just wouldn’t be right.

At the same time, we hear Paul say that it’s what he describes as a “thorn in the flesh” –  we don’t really know what that means, exactly, but it’s some kind of problem or distraction – that keeps him preoccupied and unable to be boastful. In fact, he says, it was such a problem that “three times” he prayed to God that this “thorn” would be taken away from him, but to no avail – it’s kind of a parallel, whether he intended it or not, to the three times that Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that God would remove this cup from him, that he wouldn’t be crucified. Paul says that God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Don’t struggle and strive for glory or greatness, or to assert your authority, which doesn’t come from you anyway. There’s no need to be boastful or arrogant; there’s no need to feel cocky or lord it over others because of your standing and place of authority in the kingdom of God.

Arrogance, conceit; they always cloud a person’s vision and ultimately lead to self-righteousness instead of God’s righteousness. Don’t get too full of yourself, Paul, Christ tells him. My grace is sufficient for you.

It’s a good reminder for all of us. We can all, at one time or another, get a little full of ourselves. From time to time, we can all feel like people aren’t respecting our authority or our dignity, and we deserve a bit more deference than we’re getting in the moment. But the message Paul got is the same message Christ gives us, too. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t get too boastful; that just ends up leading you in the wrong direction. Instead, try to remember all the goodness and blessings that God has given you, and remember that it wasn’t through any of your own doing; it was a gift, so rather than boasting, be humble and grateful.

Paul offers a good reminder for us as individuals and as people of the kingdom of God, and given that it’s also Independence Day, it’s a good reminder for us as a nation, too. There are so many great and wonderful things about our country that we can and should be rightly proud of. From our seemingly endless natural beauty, to the beautiful concepts in our founding documents. To the spirit of opportunity, progress, and advancement. To our scientific, cultural, educational, and social advances that have led the world. To the overarching goodwill and good-naturedness of the people.

But it’s no big secret that just as we have greatness, we also have great failures. And if you really think about those failures, almost every single one of them arises out of having slid into an attitude of self-righteousness, conceit, arrogance; forcing our own attitudes, trying to assert our strength and power over others. Other countries, other people, even other people within our own country. Our global successes have been great, but those successes have often planted those seeds of boastfulness, exceptionalism, and have led us into paths very different than the ways of the kingdom of God.

We do fail in this regard sometimes. Honestly, it’s inescapable. But that’s why what Paul says here is so important, such good news – that even when we do slide down that wrong path, God is still with us, reminding us that it isn’t all about us. That God has bestowed grace upon us in sufficient measure for all that we need – maybe not all that we want, but all that we need, and as a gift, not through our earning any of it through our actions. So our mindset can be one of gratitude and not boastfulness, and our actions toward others can be actions of grace.

So this weekend, let’s all give thanks to God for all the good that God has blessed us with. Let’s be proud of the real good in this country. Let’s be aware of and repentant for the bad; for the harm that we’ve caused. Let’s recognize that the harm almost always comes out of a boastful attitude that leads us to think that we’re somehow more special, more right, more beloved in God’s eyes than others. Let’s always be thankful for the wonderful news that first and foremost, we’re citizens of the kingdom of God, and that Christ tells us, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Now, if the Bobs offered advice as good as that, they’d be worth their weight in gold.

Thanks be to God.