Made Strong (Pentecost 7B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Yallourn Parish Uniting Church gathered at Newborough on Sunday 8th July 2018.  It was a day upon which we shared Eucharist.

2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

Power in weakness is one of the great themes in Christian preaching, especially in Evangelical circles.  The idea that we are nothing without God, but we are enough and have more than enough with God is a great concept to return to when your key theme in preaching is salvation and the need for God in all things.  That God’s power can be overcome by human weakness is less popular an idea, but the idea that your prayers depend on your faith is well known, even if it has been exaggerated at times.  That God is enough, but your faith is not, so you must continue to live in distress is not a happy message, but it is also not uncommon.

So, God’s power triumphs over human weakness, but human weakness can inhibit God’s power from completing the work of restoration.  There, that’s not too hard to understand is it?  Who said the Bible was self-contradictory?  Hmm.

Often when I have heard the passage from 2 Corinthians 12 spoken on, or perhaps written about in books, mainly biographies or autobiographies, the context of the passage is human sickness.  Where God’s power is needed most is in human weakness, and that’s good because that it what the passage suggests, but the story goes on to suggest that the deepest need, the greatest human weakness, is human illness.  And of course, the deeper the illness the greater the story of heroism.  The great phrase “when I am weak, then I am strong” taken from 2 Corinthians 12:10 is a ready-made title for the story of a Christian undertaking Chemotherapy, or learning to walk after a double amputation, or maybe life after an acquired brain injury.  However, as someone who has lived with profound disability in the past, and who continues to live with an obvious weakness where God’s strength is a daily (hourly) necessity, I yet remain unconvinced.

In 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 we read what many scholars believe to be a first-person account of an episode in Paul’s life, and of the revelation given to him.  Paul says that he sees no sense in boasting, particularly in this instance when the truth is so amazing, even if he does share this first-person experience as a third-person story.  Paul is directly opposing the boasters, other preachers of Jesus who have come to Corinth and waved their credentials around.  Paul has credentials of his own, his testimony of what God has brought him through, but he withholds the complete truth in his correspondence and preaching lest anyone think him arrogant.  What Paul will boast in (without embellishment of the facts, just gushing praise) is his particular weakness through which God has upheld him.  This is where those Christian autobiographies come in, the story of brave women and men of God, usually girls or boys if truth be told, who have battled the ravages of cancer or pain or both.  In one translation of the Bible into English, a translation called “The Passion” the pertinent verses are rendered as when I am weak I sense more deeply the mighty power of Christ living in me or as an alternative The Power of Christ rests upon me like a tabernacle providing me with shelter, and because of my love for Christ I am made yet stronger.  For my weakness becomes a portal to God’s power. In these words, we read that Paul’s delight is not in his own strengths and achievements, but that God is at work through him, and in his discovery that the less there is of Paul in the ministry space the more there can be of God.

Jesus’ action in sending out the twelve in pairs as recorded by Mark 6:1-13 tells a similar story.  Yes, similar.  The messages of Paul and Jesus are not contradictory, even where God works wonderfully through Paul’s weakness, but the miracles of Jesus are inhibited by the weakness of the Nazarenes.  The common link is not human weakness, but human surrender.  Paul surrendered to God, got out of the way of God and let God work, whereas the unbelieving Nazarenes did not surrender to God but remained defiant in their religious zeal and sibling rivalry.  God did not work though Jesus in Nazareth because the Nazarenes refused to see anything that Jesus might have done as God’s action.  God was not inhibited by their lack of faith, God chose not to act because God is not a show-off.

As Jesus sent out the twelve he commanded them to cast out demons; not as a sign of God’s power over demons, (which is undoubtably true, but is not the main point), but as a sign of the Kingdom at hand.  The message is repentance, human surrender to the power of God.  Not that God wants to overpower humanity, as if the human race is to be defeated by a stronger force in God, but that God wants to power-up humanity with God’s fullness. But God cannot fill you with Godness unless you are empty of yourself.  If you are full of yourself then you can’t be filled with God.  Paul was empty, and God filled him.  Jesus was empty, and God filled him.  The boasting evangelists of Corinth and the know-it-all villagers of Nazareth were full of themselves, so God walked past them and went where the twelve went.  Sometime God filled the hearers of the message, sometimes there were no hearers and God walked past and the pair shook the dust off.

Jesus instructed the pairs not to dally in debate, even as he did not stick around Nazareth to argue.  The work of the gospel was to get in and preach then get out and preach elsewhere.  Don’t let the dust slow you down, shake it off and keep moving – time is short and there are no second chances for those who are petulant when the gospel arrives at their house.  The same is true for us.

It would appears from scripture, and other sources of history, that Jesus never again set foot in Nazareth after this episode.  He moved his home to Capernaum and returned there when in Galilee.  Maybe we need to do the same.  Now I am not saying that you need to walk out of Moe or Newborough or Yallourn North, but I am saying that if God is calling you to share the news of the Kingdom that you can’t get sentimental.  Tell who needs to know, tell them what they need to know, and then move on and tell someone else.  Let the message of the Kingdom speak for itself, don’t get into debates on the finer points – because if you do then you’ll be delayed in your mission and someone else will never get the chance to hear you preach because you never got there because you got stuck.  Do you think Jesus ever wept over Nazareth?  Did he cry for the frustration of his siblings, for Joseph and Mary’s friends, for the boys and girls he had grown up with who were now adults and hardhearted at his message?  Of course he did.  But he never returned, because he had other towns and villages to take the message to.

And this is where I get to my key point.  It is a good and Christian message to offer your weakness to God and ask God to make you strong.  I have lived experience of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Depression and Anxiety, I have been debilitated and made frail by illness, and I have prayed again and again for God to make me well.  I have prayed that God would fill my weakness with God’s strength, my sickness with God’s health,  my brokenness with God’s wholeness.  I have done this, and I shall continue to do this.  I commend you to the same activity.  But the real answer, the real prayer which has put me here in Newborough’s pulpit and not in a Tasmanian hospital bed or a South Australian cemetery is this.

Lord, take my strength and replace it with your strength.

It is easy and obvious to give our weakness to God.  A friend of mine who lived with Multiple Sclerosis once invited me to share my story of Chronic Fatigue with her because in her own words “I have been sick for a long time and I know a lot about being sick.”  Sadly, for her and for me, she did not know a lot about being healthy, and our friendship petered out.  She had made her illness her strength: she was wise in the ways of bedrest and massage and an expert in being unwell, and as I got well she lost interest in me.  And me in her to be fair.  I wasn’t a minister then and I didn’t need a friend shaming me for being well.

The Nazarenes and the Corinthians were strong.  So strong were they that they didn’t actually need God.  They did not believe that God helps those who help themselves, they believed that God gets out of the way of the strong and lets them get on with it.  Paul and Jesus held a different view.  Paul and Jesus held the view that God helps those who get out of God’s way and rely on God to be their source, even in areas in which they have skill, especially in areas where their skill is the result of a life lived in the gifts and fruit of the Spirit.

I think it might be possible for me to write a sermon without God.  I’m not sure, I haven’t tried for a while.  But I do have identifiable gifts in public speaking, in writing and composition, and in scholarship.  I know you know this because you have often remarked on it.  I speak well, and I make you think: that’s what you’ve told me anyway.  Preaching is possibly my greatest strength as a minister – but do you think I would ever try to do this without God?  No way.  Would I ever say “you know what Lord, I’ve got this preaching thing covered.  I have four university degrees, two in theology and ministry, one in teaching, and one in language.  I have preaching and teaching experience in church and in the classroom.  I’ve got this.  So, Lord, if you don’t mind I’ve got a sermon to preach now so maybe you could just wait over there until I need you for the things I’m not very good at – like listening to someone else preach or sitting in a meeting where there is tension and conflict.”  I would never say that, and I have never thought it.

My prayer, like Paul’s, is that God would fill me where I am empty.  Where I am weak may God be by strength.  Where I am full may God guide me in humility to receive God’s refreshing of whatever I am full of, and guide me in surrender to give God my fullness to partner with God’s energy for the proclamation of the Kingdom.  Where I am weak, then I am strong.  Where I am strong, then I am humble.  And may the memory of the times when I have been arrogant and missed God’s activity remain as a thorn in my flesh.

Amen.

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Hear The Word Speak (Epiphany 4B)

This is the text I prepared for a cluster service for the Yallourn and Morwell Uniting Churches for Sunday 28th January 2018.  It was the final cluster service for the summer and was held at Morwell.  Holy Communion followed the sermon.

Deuteronomy 18:15-22; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Hear The Word speak.  In days ago when the Hebrews were still across the Jordan and not yet near the land of the Canaanites Moses assured them that God was going to raise up a new prophet, one like Moses from amidst the Israelites.  This prophet would speak in the Name of the God of Israel and with all the authority of the LORD.  But, this prophet will have come from amidst the people of Israel, so he would not be terrifying like The LORD is in his presence.  This prophet would not arise, (or descend), from a Mountain Which May Not Be Touched, he would come from amongst the people, he would be one of them but with a special task.  This prophet would be identifiable by his speaking the same message that Moses spoke, which is to say the words of YHWH Godself in a form understandable by women and men who want to know God’s way.  The words and actions of this prophet will give glory to YHWH and will conform to the pattern of YHWH’s previous prophets, especially Moses.

So says Moses himself; so reads the Old Testament lectionary story for today.

The Psalm set for today is a wholehearted, public, declaration of praise for God’s work and the God who works.  God is faithful, and the faithful One’s works are majestic in that they are works of mercy, redemption and salvation.  The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding says Psalm 111:10. Henry Handel Richardson said something similar in her story of that “Wondrous Fair” Laura Tweedle-Rambotham of Melbourne’s PLC, so as Australians, nay as Victorians and somewhat-Presbyterians we know it to be true. This whole psalm is the context of Moses’ message to the listening Hebrews: praise for the wonderful acts of the covenant God must be the content of any declaration or oracle of “the prophet”, or anyone claiming to speak for God.

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:1, and sadly many of us Victorians and somewhat-Presbyterians know this also to be true.  The cure for being a clever-bottom according to Paul, (but not so much according to the somewhat self-important “Tweedle-Dum-Ram’s-Bum” as her nemesis calls her), is to be known by God.  Those who are known by God, who know God and who follow in God’s ways, do their things the way God does things.  Jesus knew a lot of things and he said a lot of things, but he always taught those desiring his wisdom with love and patience.  Jesus was never a clever-bottom and he never came across as a know-it-all.  In Mark 1:22 we read how Jesus spoke with authority, but more than that he told the truth.  Jesus did not only speak with love, but also with depth and profound patience.  To say that he taught “but not as the scribes” doesn’t mean that he was a liberal theologian, (or that they were), but that he wasn’t arrogant about his ability to exegete and hermeneut with academic insight.

In the first part of 1 Corinthians 8 Paul begins to address an issue in the Christian community at Corinth, but that issue is not the issue food offered to idols.  Paul is aware of the need to guard one’s shopping choices in the market, and the reasons why one might refuse a dish when out for dinner; but what he is addressing is the attitude behind the behaviour of Christians toward other Christians, Christians who are conscientiously working through their theology regarding these sorts of meals.  “I know and some of you know”, he says, “that the only god is God, and so food offered to idols is nothing.  Eat it, nothing has defiled this food and there are no Greek-germs upon it since the Greek gods are non-existent.”  Of course, you and I might say.  However, Paul goes on, “but if people new to faith are struggling over this and they see a problem with Greek-germs in their food because they haven’t yet heard the full message of liberty, don’t you be mocking them for it.”  Supposedly leading Christians engaging in idolatry, sin, and defiantly public disloyalty to the God of Israel by engaging in the worship of the Olympians or the Roman deities, can be a real moral distraction to new converts.  So don’t do it, says Paul: don’t flaunt your freedom in such a way as to distract a new Christian from his or her growth.  And if you are asked by a young believer the reason for your behaviour, don’t be a clever-bottom about it.  In view of the sermon of Moses and the model of the Psalm, what do you think Jesus would do?  Jesus knows that idols have no power over meat, but Jesus also knows that a bad example has power over new believers.  So, says Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:13: in this instance be a good brother-sister and go vegetarian in company because this is a good example of love.

For another example of clever-bottom discussion we can go back to the gospel reading for this one and see how Jesus himself handled it.  In Mark 1:23-26 we read about Jesus’ first healing miracle as recorded by Mark, and it’s an exorcism.  In Mark 1:24 the unclean spirit calls Jesus by name, correctly identifies his home town, and calls out Jesus on his hidden identity.  In other words he shows off what a smarty he is in the company of the none-the-wiser natives of Capernaum.  Jesus answers the spirit directly in Mark 1:25 saying “shut up windbag, nick off”.  (It probably sounds better in Aramaic.)  In Mark 1:26 the unclean spirit spits the dummy, and then goes, embarrassed and sooking back to wherever it is unclean spirits come from.

The unclean spirit had tried to outmanoeuvre Jesus, trying to trick him into showing his hand and acting Messianically before he was ready.  The spirit called Jesus by name, trying to show its power by demonstrating something supernatural.  “Ooh look at me, I have insight because I am a spirit, I know you’re really the messiah and these dopey peasants do not.  La-li-la-lala-pthth!”  Notice how Jesus doesn’t get into the game: Jesus doesn’t name the spirit, and Jesus doesn’t try to out-power it with a declaration of divine will such as “you’re just an unclean spirit, whereas I, I AM!”  No, Jesus just says “shut up and nick off”, and up the chastened spirit shuts, and off the humiliated spirit nicks.

One of the more recent manifestations of the Kingdom of God in Australia has come about through a group called Common Grace.  One of its leaders, a pastor named Jarrod McKenna, says that the intent of the group is to be “more like Jesus, less like jerks.”  This is the intent of a group striving for humility, if that isn’t an oxymoron, (and it isn’t).  Common Grace are a public group in that they appear on television news, often in custody, occasionally in their underwear, (and occasionally in their underwear in custody, but not actually in custody because they are in their underwear if you follow).  They are not hidden, they do not intend to be.  But then, Jesus wasn’t hidden either; he was a public figure, but he never big-noted himself like the unclean spirit wanted to do and wanted Jesus to do.  Like Jesus, Common Grace stands up publicly for grace foremost and for God’s preference for salvation and homecoming rather than piety and prejudice and elitism disguised under religious activity.  God will be glorified, and the captives will be freed, if Common Grace gets their way.

This then is the message of reconciliation to which we are called as Christians.  This is what the table of grace is about.  Make no mistake, you are welcome at this table whether you are or are not a clever-bottom.  However, we do hope you won’t be one as you leave.

Amen.