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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The Good and Pleasantness

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 20th August 2017.  It was a communion Sunday.

Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Matthew 15:21-28

The picture you see up there is a painting named “The Conciliation” and it was painted by Benjamin Duterrau around 1840.  The European man is George Augustus Robinson, Protector of Aborigines for Van Diemen’s Land, and the other mob are Palawa, the indigenous people of Trowenna as that island was known by its First People.  This painting is supposed to indicate the end of “the Black Wars” which ravaged Tasmania until 1831, where Robinson met with the last group of warriors and convinced them to accompany him to Hobart and meet with governor Arthur.  In one way, I like this painting: I like that is that it is entitled “The Conciliation” rather than “Reconciliation”.  This is the first time these two groups, the Palawa and the Riana (or white people), have been in harmony.  This image marks a new relationship of peace, not the restoration of an old one which was broken.  In many other ways, all dependent upon my being a sometime Tasmanian and a student of Van Demonian history, I find this painting shocking.  What you see there never happened, not like that anyway.

Today’s readings all point toward the theme of unity, and are predicated upon the idea of reconciliation.  The Psalmist speaks in Psalm 133 about “the blessedness of unity” as the NRSV translators would have it, and of the desire that all people might “live together in harmony” as my commentator Professor Toni Craven suggests.  Psalm 133:3 describes how God orders and bestows divine blessing where God finds unity expressed.  This blessing is doubly special because not only is it from God, but it is a blessing akin to ordination and consecration.  Furthermore, that blessing is the promise and strength of life for evermore.  God gives great favour on the people who live in harmony, guaranteeing them a long and fulfilling life while they maintain that state; and God derives great joy from such people.  In Hebrew, but sadly not in the English of the NIV or the NRSV this Psalm begins with the word “behold”, indicating that what was to follow would be something worth hearing.  This is one of those points in scripture where as a reader or hearer you want to take note of the message.  In this case the message is the benefits of unity.

Psalm 133 like many of the psalms we have read in the past months is a song of ascent.  Therefore, it is a prelude to collective worship: the sort of song you sing on your way to the temple as you prepare yourself to enter the worship space with a worshipping heart.  It is also a greeting which might be sung and echoed to and from fellow pilgrims you meet on your way up.  “How good it is!” you sing, “when brothers gather in unity!” comes the reply.  Stirring stuff.

The psalm also speaks of oil.  Olive oil was used for anointing, but also for healing.  Appointment to office and healing where it is needed are gifts from God, so is unity.  Where the people’s sin brought separation from God and from one another God desires to bring unity and to restore what was broken.  Continuing this thought there is no place for selfishness in unity.  Where God has called women and men together only those focussed on the task will complete the task, the selfish one looking for his or her own needs above the needs of the whole, or the one looking for fame, will destabilise the task.  The agenda of the people in unity can only be the saving work of the Church; otherwise the congregation becomes a Babel of confused messages and opinions.

Where once there was disunity and disharmony in the family of Jacob, Joseph is delighted to be reunited with his brothers.  Where hatred had led to harm and the intention to destroy God ensured that there would be life because the brothers have a second chance to live together.  Where there might have been death for Joseph as a slave where there might have been death for the brothers as the drought set in, now by the grace of God there will be abundant life.  Joseph chose not to hold on to past hurts but to use the outcome of his poor treatment to benefit his family, even the ones who hated and hurted him.  Joseph sends the brothers to live in the Nile Delta, the best irrigated and most fertile portion of Egypt.

So, let’s be clear: Joseph has chosen not to remember the pain of the past.  He had been humiliated and betrayed by his brothers while still a boy of seventeen.  He had been alone and no doubt frightened as a slave in the convoy of the Ishmaelites, and again as a prisoner of injustice after Potiphar’s wife accused him of attempted rape.  Even after he became Prime Minister of Egypt, and named his sons “God has caused me to forget my troubles” and “God has made me fruitful”, the tears he cries on Benjamin’s neck indicate a wall of emotion which has broken down in him.  It is this moment where he is finally released from the past, not the moment in which he was summoned from the gaol to speak with Pharaoh that first time.  Joseph’s suffering was broken by reconciliation, not by material wealth or unlimited power.  Indeed, the commentator I read for Genesis this week, J.M. Boice, suggests that Joseph remained fresh in his loving-kindness even after twenty-two years of exile from his family because he stayed close to God.  That is a great lesson for us: stay close to God.

Matthew and Mark both tell the story of Jesus speaking with a displaced indigenous woman, a Canaanite: today we might call her a Palestinian.  Matthew tells us in 15:23b that she’s annoying the disciples so much that they ask Jesus to send her away.  “Look,” they say, “just heal the daughter will you and then this woman can go.”   Jesus tells them that that is not going to happen because she is not an Israelite.  In other words, she is not part of the unity; where we are an “us” this woman is a “them” and “they” don’t get what God has given “us”.  So Jesus ignores her and her inappropriate claim upon his time and anointing.  When she speaks to him directly, having had no luck with the disciples, Jesus insults her.  “The Jews are the children of the master,” he says, “you are a dog and not worthy of what God has provided”.

That’s what Jesus said.

But in a quote worthy of Joseph, the one who endured imprisonment and exile by staying close to God the woman agrees with Jesus, but says that that is no reason to deprive her of her miracle.  “Yes, I am a dog,” she says, “but even dogs get leftovers in the master’s house”.  In other words, she is saying that while she does not have a set at the table, she is still within the house and a member of the household.  What a comeback, no wonder Jesus grants her her request.  Most commentators suggest that Jesus was baiting the woman to draw out this revelation.  Some scholars, a minority but a vocal minority, suggest that the human Jesus was challenged by the woman’s retort and that he learned something about the grace of God in that moment.  I can imagine Jesus turning to the disciples and saying, “you know, she’s right,” before sending her on her way with the words of Matthew 15:28.  And as we have discussed earlier in the year, she alongside only the Samaritan at the well and his own mother, is called “Woman” by Jesus.  Something profound occurred here, and even Jesus has had a shift in his understanding.  The Canaanite mother came as an outsider to the covenant of God conscious that only God could help her daughter.  Surely a God who is so generous to Israel, so generous that even the Canaanites can see it, can spare the leftovers for a mother desperate for her daughter.  Surely this is so even if the mother and her little girl are dogs?

As we move toward the high point of our service of worship and the gathering around this table as a place of unity, let us be mindful of the ones we might want to exclude in God’s name.  Ask yourself, as Jesus asked himself, to whom is God denying access to the blessings of God?  This table is open to the indigenous people of Australia, and not just because George Augustus Robinson made them put on shoes and learn to use cutlery.  But to whom is this table closed?  To whom is the promise of unity denied?

There is an answer to that question.  The table is closed to those who don’t have faith.  I’m not saying at all that the table is closed to people of different theology or none because of that theology, as if only Uniting Church members can have this feast.  But this table as a sign of God’s welcome is only accessible if you know God, and you believe yourself to be welcomed.  As we saw from Matthew’s story the Canaanite woman believed herself welcome to at least gather the leftovers, the God of Israel was not God of her because she was not an Israelite; but as Lord Almighty of the universe she had some rights as a creature.

Those who are not welcome at this table are those who exclude themselves.  If you don’t know you are welcome, why would you even come and risk the embarrassment of eviction?  Unity means that all are welcome, brothers and sisters alike, Israelite and Canaanite, Palawa and Riana, Koori and Anglo.

As we gather at this table today, let us agree that when next we gather at this table we will have invited those waiting for an invitation to participate in this act of unity.

Everything has been done.  Come, and bring a friend.

Come.

Amen.