Saturday, November 18, 2017

What can we say come July 8? 7th after Pentecost

     Some amazing texts from 2 Samuel are coming our way in the lectionary – but not this week. In 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10, we learn how David solidifies his reign, and builds his capital on the crest of the hill in Jerusalem (near the water supplied by the spring Gihon). The reference to “Millo” is fascinating, as archaeologists have studied this complex sloping stone structure visible today, ramping its way up to what must have become David’s palace. This week’s Psalm (48) praises God for the city’s towers, walls, ramparts, etc. – from a period long after David.

     Our Epistle offers a word our people need to hear – although probably not as much as we the clergy need to hear it. In 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, Paul weirdly boasts of his profounder-than-yours spiritual experience (as he had also boasted of his zealous adherence to the Torah). The latest on Paul is N.T. Wright’s odd and yet lovely new biography. He places this dramatic moment during the “decade of silence” between Paul’s earliest conversion and then his hyper-activity in missionary journeys and epistle-writing. Paul was “snatched up to the third heaven” (and you have to love Wright’s aside: “Since heaven was subdivided into seven, this itself might have seemed a bit of a letdown”). Paul’s pathetically attempted modesty is laughable: in the way people say “I’m asking for a friend,” Paul refers to “someone” who had this experience.

   But to any who place much value at all on having some supreme spiritual moment, Paul immediately plunges back to earth to speak of his “thorn in the flesh.” What was it? Wright speculates: a bodily ailment? A recurring temptation? A recurring nightmare of the stoning of Stephen? The continuing resistance to the gospel on the part of people he loved dearly – not just Jews in general, but his own parents, siblings and closest friends?

   Paul’s credentials to be an apostle have nothing to do with scintillating experiences or personal holiness. It’s simply that Jesus told him to be an apostle. His qualification? Just one on that resume: weakness – which Paul had in spades, as do we all. “My power is perfected in weakness” – which Wright calls “exactly what Paul needed to hear, and exactly what the Corinthians did not want to hear.” People in our world, including those to whom you preach, do not want to hear this either. We turn to “strengths-finders,” and you’d best be strong too. We want skills, jammed resumes, dazzling productivity. But Paul’s message is the antithesis of all this: "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.”

     Paul’s rhetoric about the hope in weakness, that God’s weakness is stronger than our strength (by light years, not an inch, and not by a last-second basket), shows us that weakness might be the key to a great many things for us, including leadership – which is what I tried to explicate in my newest book, Weak Enough to Lead.  Weakness isn’t something you grudgingly acknowledge. Weakness isn’t something to be overcome, or you do well despite inevitable weaknesses.  Weakness is who you are, what you are. God is there, not fixing it but using it, the shattered opening to the flourishing life of God who is met not in the stalwart, tall, good-looking or capable, but in the broken, the wobbly, the unable, even the disabled. 

    Before turning to the Gospel, I think it is worth passing along a word of encouragement to preachers that I cite at the end of Weak Enough to Lead; it is from Michael Knowles, and reminds me that we preachers need encouragement more than we need material: “The vast majority of preachers throughout the entire history of the Christian church have conducted their ministries in either relative or absolute obscurity.  And they, by virtue of such obscurity, best exemplify cruciform preaching as Paul intends it.  Wherever preachers stand before their congregations conscious of the folly of the Christian message, the weakness of their efforts, and the apparent impossibility of the entire exercise… there, Paul’s homiletic of cross and resurrection is at work.  The one resource that genuinely faithful preachers of the gospel have in abundance is a parade of daily reminders as to their own inadequacy, unworthiness and – dare we admit it? – lack of faithfulness.  Yet these are the preconditions for grace, the foundations for preaching that relies on God ‘who raises the dead.’”

     Mark 6:1-13 is rich with preaching possibilities. The existence of Jesus’ siblings: at this point in the story, they are cause for doubt (like hey, we’ve seen him with his brothers and sisters, he’s just a guy!); later they will be (for me at least) a ringing endorsement of Jesus as Christ (I mean, if James, his brother, who’d played, slept and certainly fought with him as a boy, became a leader of the church that worshipped him? – Who better to say He was just a guy if he was just a guy?).

     Jesus sent his disciples out two by two – with next to nothing.  They weren’t paupers when he met them!  The fishing business was semi-lucrative; tax collectors were prosperous.  The disciples were downwardly mobile. What intrigues is this: after sending them out nearly penniless, we hear that “They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” According to the Bible’s logic, there is an inextricable connection between them divesting themselves of comforts, and success in ministry. In Acts 2 and 4 we hear that the first Christians shared possessions – and not coincidentally “Wonders and signs were done… and the Lord added to their number.”

     St. Francis of Assisi took Mark 6 literally. He and his friars took nothing for their journeys, no gold, no silver. They begged. I’m struck by what Ulrich Luz (in his great little book, Matthew in History) had to say about Matthew 10 (the parallel to Mark 6): “Almost never in its history has the church resembled what is here described.… The church has not consisted of itinerant radicals; quite the contrary, the radicals, whenever they existed, were considered suspect… The idea of itinerant radicalism disappeared almost entirely. The churches were extremely successful in ignoring it. No wonder: a church that constructs cathedrals and that offers not only food but both houses and cars to its workers cannot appreciate this kind of tradition.”

     Want another illustration? St. Francis’s contemporary, St. Dominic, lived a life of humility, holiness, and service, taking our Mark 6 text seriously – and literally. On pilgrimage to Rome, he visited the Pope, who took him on a personal tour of the gilded, opulent papal palace and the sumptuous, glittering Lateran basilica. Alluding to what Peter and John had said to the lame man in Acts 3, the pope boasted, “No longer need we say ‘Silver and gold have I none.’” But the humble Dominic answered, “Yes, and at the same time the church can no longer say ‘Rise up and walk.’”


************
 My new book, Worshipful, now has an online study guide with video clips.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.