Sunday, June 14, 2015

Ordinary 11B -- June 14, 2015

Leaving Home

Rev. Yat Michael, one of the two SSPEC pastors imprisoned in Sudan

NOTE: Sermons are aural events; they are meant to be heard, not read. The text below -- which was not delivered exactly as written -- may include errors not limited to spelling, grammar and punctuation of which the listener might be unaware and with which the preacher is unconcerned. 

2 Corinthians 5:6 - 17
So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.

Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!           

In our prayers over the past several weeks, we’ve included two pastors from the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church who are currently imprisoned in Sudan. The two men have been accused of spying in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum when they traveled there to support Presbyterian churches in the city. According to published news reports, the two men have recently been moved to a more dangerous facility and denied visits from their families and attorneys.(

But despite facing potential death sentences if convicted when their trial resumes later this month, one of the pastors asked this of all of his fellow Christians around the world in a recent interview shortly before being moved:  “We want you to pray that this test be for the glory of God in this place . . . and for us to be in peace with our people and the ones who are against us.”  He also said, “I am not afraid of anything…I am never afraid of anything because it is my love, it is my being…I’m not afraid of doing my ministry.”(

I am not so sure I believe that God is testing this pastor, and I am not sure I believe that he is not at least a little bit afraid.  One thing I do believe is this pastor earnestly hopes that something good will come out of his suffering and that God’s glory will shine through a pretty dismal situation.

I also believe if the Apostle Paul were around today, odds are that he’d be sharing a jail cell with these two incredibly brave pastors – or if not the same jail cell, he’d be in some jail, somewhere.  Paul spent a lot of time in jail, as you know, mostly because he just couldn’t keep his mouth shut about Jesus. The courage of his convictions and the depth of his faith were so over the top that it seems he simply didn’t care who he made angry. 

Some people are like that.  Some people really do seem to walk by faith and not by sight, as Paul says in our text. Walking by faith and not by sight means that people like the South Sudanese pastors and Paul ignore the flashing red danger signs that would stop the rest of us in our tracks. People like Rev. Yat Michael, Rev. David Yein and Paul don’t seem to care how many dangers, toils and snares they face. Answering God’s call is what they were born to do.  They are going to preach the Gospel, no matter the personal cost or danger.  Somehow trust in Jesus outweighs their fear of being laughed at or imprisoned or ostracized or even killed.  Like Paul says – most people look at the cross and say, “foolishness.”  But a few people look at the cross and they get it – they see promise and hope.

So Paul is entirely confident, at home with who he is, even if he often finds himself at home in a jail cell.  Although Paul longs for his ultimate home with Jesus, in the meantime, he’s not afraid to make other people mad by proclaiming the foolish Gospel of Christ crucified for all people.  In fact, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 that the only thing Christians need to fear is that we just aren’t doing enough to make the world mad at us in the name of Jesus Christ. 

Paul writes this letter to the church in Corinth, after hearing that the church is in chaos and that pretty much everyone is blaming him for the mess. Some new pastors are coming in and telling the church in Corinth that this trouble-making Paul has no credentials, isn’t really a very good preacher or organizer, and is physically unappealing, -- in short, the pastors showing up in Corinth are try to persuade the church there that their founding pastor, Paul, is not fit for ministry.  A few of these “super apostles” are even accusing Paul of being a swindler and a cheat.  Rumors and accusations about Paul are flying fast and furiously, and Paul is, of course, upset – you can sense his crankiness about the whole situation throughout 2 Corinthians.  Paul admits to being “beside himself” – a polite translation for being royally ticked off with the jagoffs hanging out in Corinth, all those shiny people who are questioning Paul’s integrity and motivation in preaching the Gospel.  Paul is so upset that he decides not to make things worse by going back to Corinth but will instead write this letter to defend his ministry against the hysterical claims against him.

It is as if Paul is standing up to his critics and saying, “Is that all you’ve got?”  “Is that all you’ve got – that I’m weak and pushy and unattractive?  You know what – you’re right. I am all of those things, and more. But you know what? You’re not the boss of me and your judgment of my ministry doesn’t really matter one bit. I’ve got one boss, one judge, one reason for doing what I do and living the way I live and loving you the way I continue to love you even though you are being incredible knuckleheads. None of what I’ve been doing in starting up all these churches is about what I think or you think.  I’m not preaching Paul gospel or Corinth’s gospel or Rome’s gospel or even the synagogue’s gospel. I’m just a weak, wounded, foolish, testy fool for Jesus.  So take another look.  I’ve got all day. I don’t mind suffering and I don’t mind bearing your burden. I love you, my dear church in Corinth with all your squabbling and nagging and complaining simply because Jesus loves me.  And Jesus loves you.”

That is Paul, in a vernacular nutshell.  For Paul, it’s all about the love of Jesus.  And Paul’s anger comes not because he’s being criticized or challenged; the anger in Paul is a product of his heartbreak in seeing his congregation split apart.

The Paul of 2 Corinthians is entirely at home in his own skin. Paul knows who he is because he knows Jesus.  Paul loves the prickly folks in Corinth because he sees them through the eyes of Jesus. Through it all, Paul loves the people of Corinth, even those shiny perfect preachers trying to take over, split the congregation, and make Paul look bad. Paul is at home with who he is in Christ Jesus, and that makes him able to get mad and become angry and write long-winded and scolding letters that may even occasionally contain language he may wish to take back. 

The love of Christ urges Paul on, to places where he is mostly unwelcome.
The sort of places with all sorts of red flashing lights
The sort of places with all sorts of red flashing lights that mean Paul most likely will get into serious trouble with somebody.
The sort of places with red flashing lights that Paul completely ignores.

I don’t know how those pastors being held in Sudan could take the risk they did to go and preach the gospel in a place run by a government openly hostile to their faith. I don’t know how Paul did what he did. I don’t know how Paul managed to be who he was.  I don’t know why Paul didn’t at some point decide that, all things considered, life was a whole lot better when he was a respectable Pharisee instead of a much maligned church planter. 

Maybe Paul knew there was no going back because the man he once was had been blown away like so much dust by the power of the Holy Spirit. Maybe he realized that the only person he could truly be was a new creation in Christ. Maybe Paul was so lost in love with Jesus that the red flashing lights no longer had any power over him. Maybe he knew that the only way to get out of the crazy, difficult situations God had placed him in was to go more deeply into them and trust that God would lead him out. 

At the Rothenberg house, we’ve spent much of the past two weeks helping Rachel prepare for her summer of study in India. We’ve been washing and sorting clothes, visiting with friends and family, watching Bollywood movies, all the while keeping an eye on India’s long range weather forecast which, unfortunately, hasn’t changed one bit for the better – highs in the 100’s, lows in the 80’s for the foreseeable future.

Rachel has traveled on her own before, but this summer feels different, probably because there are so many other changes happening in our family – job changes, selling a house, think about a new house, dealing with a parent’s decline.  I think it’s safe to say that not one of us feels anything like grounded.  Over the last couple days, as I’ve watched Rachel goof off with her brother, talk with her grandmother, reconnect with her Pittsburgh friends, pull out her sari’s and recheck her passport, I realize that our family’s definition of “home” is changing quickly.  Our family is changing quickly.  Rachel is our heart, but she is also a citizen of the world, and called to all she can discover and learn and contribute. David will soon follow her, in his own way, but as his own man who will move as God calls him into a life that is his own. 

And I probably do not need to point out that all of you are also undergoing change that you didn’t ask for, wouldn’t have asked for, didn’t want, but here it is anyway. Losing a pastor.  Losing key leaders. Wondering what can possibly be next.  And for those of you suffering from the pains of aging and other physical challenges, you probably share Paul’s longing for a body that wouldn’t make it so difficult to do the things that please God.

Because I believe God is in all of this change and challenge, I can say it is all good.  But it is all loss.  And loss hurts.  Loss of strength. Loss of certainty. Loss of seeing clearly where it is we are headed.

And yet, we can view faith, not as matter of adding more things to believe or to have, but a stripping away of everything until all that is left is the restless heart’s true home – which is God.  The 14th century mystic, Meister Eckhart once observed, “The spiritual life is not a process of addition, but subtraction.”[1] We slowly but surely lose the earthly tent, the stuff we can count and hold and see. Loss can make us more fearful than grateful. Loss can make us angry, cranky, and use words we do not mean to use.

 But as we move through loss and longing, we just might find the place where we belonged all along, in the light of God’s new creation in Jesus. If we walk by sight, distracted by fearsome flashing lights that warn of the highway’s ending or the canyons edge, we’ll get stuck in place for fear we’ll misstep or get in trouble, or fall off the edge of the world altogether. If we walk by sight, we’ll miss the new thing God is doing. If we walk by faith, God’s newness is as plain as the nose on your face.

Paul knew how to walk by faith better than anyone. He was always on the move, finding new expressions of faith, new people to love, and new opportunities to proclaim the gospel. Every church Paul founded was new and different – the churches in Corinth and Galatia and Philippi and Thessalonians and all the others faced particular challenges, disappointments, failures, and all sorts of crazy people acting in all sorts of crazy ways that threatened to bring whole gospel business to an end.

All the while, Paul had to leave things behind.  He left everything safe and familiar.  He left behind congregations he deeply loved.  He’d have one small taste of success and then find himself in prison again.  And he did all of it without any assurance whatsoever that the church of Jesus was going to make it out of the first century.  In fact, Paul had to leave behind everything he’d ever been taught about what success looks like and what power looks like.  He had to leave his certainty of what religion looks like.  Worst of all, he had to look at himself every day and feel that thorn in his side and deal with being a very broken, flawed, ordinary man.  And knowing full well his weakness, Paul had to leave behind any certainty that he was up to the task of doing what God was calling him to do.  All he could hold onto is grace, and the deep desire of his heart to please God, not human beings.  And somehow he had to keep loving human beings who quite often could not bring themselves to love him.

And that is the messy, difficult, fantastic faith in Jesus we have inherited from our brother Paul and our brothers and sister in Corinth, and all the saints in every time and place who have been where we are and know something about leaving home. We’ve already taken the faithful first step in our baptism and in professing our faith. We are saved by grace that we have not earned, but that pleases God to give to us anyway. [2]

But that’s just the first step. Like a 23 year old getting ready to step into a long flight to Delhi, we have left the comfort of home and gotten ourselves on the plane.  We have buckled up and been lifted high into the air.  The first step is completed.

But now.  The second step.

In this life of faith, there is always a second step.  When we can no longer trust anything but God to walk beside us in a strange new place with strange new people, though peaks and valleys.  The stuff of real life, new life, redeemed life.

This is where the journey of subtraction ends. When we lean in to God, who is as near to us as our breath.  Listen.

When everything is gone, when you are far from home, where you do not know where you will land or what you will find when you get there. God’s grace is sufficient.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Mark Barger Elliott, Feasting on the Word, Volume 3 Year B, 135.
[2] Ibid, 139.

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