Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | June 7, 2015

2015.06.07 “Why We Don’t Despair” – 2 Corinthians 4: 16 – 18

Central United Methodist Church
 Why We Don’t Despair
 2 Corinthians 4: 16 – 18
 Pastor David L. Haley
 June 7th, 2015
 

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” – 2 Corinthians 4: 16 – 18; 5: 1, New Revised Standard Version

Ever have one of those moments of major deflation? One of those “kick in the pants” reminders regarding who you are and what you are doing with your life? It can be humbling.

I saw it coming many years ago, when I began in ministry. I was Associate Pastor of Trinity united Methodist Church in Memphis Tennessee. I went into a restaurant with the senior pastor, Rev. George Comes. There was young woman in a booth who saw him and said, “Aren’t you Rev. Comes? You married me. I’m divorced now. You also married my sister. She’s divorced now, too.” No wonder there’s a saying among pastors that we like funerals better than weddings: “Because they pay better and last longer.”

It has continued throughout my career. My 18-year old truck has been ailing lately, and I’ve been looking for a new car, dealing with used car salesman. You know there was a time in America when clergy were near the top of the list of respected professions, people, but now – given all the notoriety members of my profession have earned – did you know that now we are down there with used car salesmen? Only slighter higher than congressmen? At least now I can talk to them as equals, as members of some of the most disdained professions in America. All that has changed since I began ministry.

It’s not just clergy that have changed; lately, Christianity in America has experienced a series of deflating moments. Did you hear about the recent Pew Report detailing the unprecedented number of people who no longer call themselves Christian, an 8% decrease in 7 years?  Of course, we didn’t really need a headline to tell us this. Churches – across the board, including us – are seeing it in the decline in attendance and giving because people now have other places to be on Sunday mornings, when even active members may find their way to worship only once or twice a month, given other obligations and opportunities. In terms of numbers, we’re part of a declining institution, called church.

Of course, it’s not only in regard to church where we encounter deflating moments. Sooner or later we all experience them. We get turned down for a job. We get rejected by the college of our choice. We get spurned by a girl or a boy we’re crazy about. A task or a job we put a lot of time and energy into turns out to be a failure. Relationships, careers, finally even our body and mind begins to fail. All these are very discouraging discoveries, and we may be tempted to despair.

When such moments come – and they will for all of us – what an encouragement to hear the words we hear in Scripture today, from the most famous and influential person in Christianity after Jesus, the Apostle Paul. What he says today is this: “So we do not lose heart.”

Of course when someone says something like that, we know it is because they HAVE been tempted to “lose heart,” and say it – as we say – “whistling in the dark.” Why might Paul say something like this? And how and why might he be able to say, “So we do not lose heart.” Might we be able to say that too?

While it is not clear if Saul of Tarsus – the man we know as the Apostle Paul – even met the human Jesus; what he is clear about is that he met the Risen Christ, on a journey to Damascus to persecute Christians. From that time on, Paul was the 13th apostle, even though, as he liked to say, he was the “last and the least.”

Perhaps even more significantly, he was the first of all Jesus’ apostles – even before Peter – to understand that the Gospel was not just for Jews, but for everybody – pagans or Gentiles as well – and began – to the great consternation of Jewish Christians (which up to this point is all that there were) missionary journeys to reach to them.

On his first missionary journey throughout Asia Minor, around the year 51 or 52 AD, Paul visited Corinth, as recounted in Acts 18. At first he preached in the synagogue, staying with fellow tentmakers Priscilla and Aquila. But eventually he got kicked out of the synagogue, and founded a house church next door, in the home of a certain Titius Justus, reaching out not only to Jews but Gentiles, for a year and a half, before he went on his way.

Long distance relationships are always difficult, and Paul’s relationship with the church at Corinth grew quite frayed. It was a cosmopolitan church, with all kinds of people, and – like most churches – had its problems.

But Paul had his problems, too. Compared to other Christian leaders, perhaps some in Corinth, Paul was not terribly good looking, was not eloquent in person, and was constantly getting into trouble, often getting beaten up and thrown in jail. Why should the Corinthians listen to the harsh words of somebody whose life was so messed up and trouble?

Letters went back and forth; scholars think as many as four letters may have been written by Paul to the Corinthians; only two made the New Testament. The one we are reading today may have been the 3rd; with the missing one in between possibly the one that caused all the trouble. Indeed, the Letter we know as 2 Corinthians may contain bits and pieces of all these letters. Nobody knows for sure what was said or what happened, a “painful visit” is mentioned; let’s just say whatever happened caused hurt feelings on both sides: conflict, distrust, even hostility between Paul and the church in Corinth that he had founded.

That had to be a deflating moment for Paul, to be on the “outs” with a church he had founded, with people he loved. It’s painful enough to be a pastor, and to see people you come to love – to see a congregation you put your heart and soul into – bicker and fight and decline and sometimes even cease to exist. What then becomes of those years of ministry and service? No wonder the whole thing was painful for all involved.

Meanwhile, Paul himself had had some painful, even threatening experiences: in chapter 1 he talks about something so bad that he had despaired of life itself; something he was delivered from only by God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1: 8 – 11)

Then, there was also the constant criticism that goes with churches and the rejection that goes with being a missionary, sometimes by his own Jewish Christian colleagues. You could see how the man might be tempted by despair.

And of course the counter-tendency then becomes to do the flamboyant or even the fraudulent, to pump up yourself and found a megachurch with a jazzy band and a TV channel and decide you need a private jet because you are so important.  And so I love how Paul opens chapter 4:

“Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.” (4: 1 – 2)

And I have always loved how Paul describes the paradox of the Christian life and ministry, never expressed better than in the J. B. Phillips Translation (1962):

“This priceless treasure we hold, so to speak, in a common earthenware jar — to show that the splendid power of it belongs to God and not to us. We are handicapped on all sides, but we are never frustrated; we are puzzled, but never in despair. We are persecuted, but we never have to stand it alone: we may be knocked down but we are never knocked out!”

And then, in a final series of contrasts, Paul knocks the ball out of the park:

“So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”

Looking back over two millennia, we have our problems with Paul, for different reasons than the Corinthians did. We differ with his views about women, expressed in 1st Corinthians. We wonder if Paul distorted Jesus’ message, making the message OF Jesus (about the kingdom of God) into a message ABOUT Jesus. And we may even wonder if Paul had too Platonic view of the world; that this world is but the shadow of some real and ideal heavenly world. But I think Paul got this right: the power of the Gospel lies not in the life of Jesus – as revelatory as it is – but in the death and resurrection of Jesus. For – like Jesus – it is in our weakness and vulnerability that God’s power is made strong.

So even in our moments of major deflation, even at the times of our most humbling experiences, even when we fail and are tempted to despair, we do not lose heart. Because what we believe about God and about life is this: finally, it’s not about us; it’s about God, and the power of God at work in us.

If Paul were writing today, he wouldn’t have to write letters, he could just post it on Facebook, where he and the Corinthians could be have their dialogue, and – where if we “like” Paul – we could read it.

Anne LamottOne of those I follow on Facebook is one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, who like Paul, is real and down to earth, and willing to put her weakness on display. Except I’m not sure Anne would like to be compared to the Apostle Paul in any way, given his views about women.

Just last week Anne was saying:

You know how sometimes you go to church or temple or mosque, or to those little meetings for people like you, who perhaps have tiny control issues, or used to drink until you ended up face down, or married; and you sit there desperately hoping someone will say the exact right thing, to help break the toxic trance you’re in, and help you find your way back home?  Well, what would that exact thing be?

She then goes through all the trite things we don’t want to hear, like “One day at a time,’ or “God never gives us more than we can handle,” or “Let go and let God,” throwing in – as a long time attender of “meetings” – a little profanity in response.

And then she says this:

“The truth is, everyone worth his or her salt – all your very best people – feel broken, stunned, overwhelmed and defection some of the time. When people don’t, when they feel very pleased with their personal upbeat selves and their all encompassing worldview, like say, the nice Duggar family, we want to run screaming for our cute little lives. And we absolutely don’t want to sit near them at dinner.”

So what do I want to hear at a gathering, like church, say, or a random group of alkies?

I want to hear, “Me, too. I have that, too. I know what that feels like” . . .

I want to hear, “Wow, thank you for trusting me with that . . .

I want someone to say that against all odds, there is a solution. There really absolutely is. And that it’s not out there – it’s not in circumstance . . . The solution is always spiritual, and it almost never has anything to do with the problem.

I want to hear someone remind me that if I want to have loving feelings, I need to do loving things . . .

I want someone to make me laugh about our shared humanity and cuckooness . . .

I want someone to remind me that laughter is carbonated holiness.

I want someone to make me promise them that I’ll get outside . . .

I want someone to remind me of what Ram Dass said, that we’re all just walking each other home . . .

I just want to hear that I’m loved and chosen and welcome, no matter what a mess I’ve made of things, or how defective I still feel sometimes.

I just want to hear that it will get better, although maybe not tomorrow right after lunch.

I want to hear that you and God will never leave me alone. That I’m not nuts for finding life a totally mixed grille, unlike the nice bumper stickers-that it can be hard, magical, brutal, gorgeous, unfair, hilarious, sweet, wild and mysterious, all at once. Or that if I am nuts, you’re nuts too; and we are so lucky to be together in this jar; and so delicious.

That is what I need to hear today, and that is what I am going to say today, in spite of it all. So there; and thank you thank you thank you.” (Anne Lamott, Facebook posting, May 30, 2015)

That’s it, Anne. That’s it, Paul. God’s power is made perfect in weakness, whether Anne’s, or Paul’s, or ours.  And this is why we don’t despair.

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