Humble Extremists

What a wonderful morning in worship! I baptized two beautiful two-month old baby girls, Sarah was was still in town and our friends from Atlanta, George and Corey, were in the area and drove in for church!

If I see the baptism shots pop up on Facebook, I’ll share them. The girls were precious!

Here’s today’s sermon … enjoy!

2 Corinthians 6:1-13

Humble Extremists

Bruce stopped in to see me on Tuesday morning after bible study.

“How was bible study?” he asked me.

“It was good,” I said. “Paul got flogged.”

“Lovely.”

This spring, the Tuesday morning bible study group and I have been reading through the Book of Acts. To be quite honest, I was not sure whether or not I would enjoy this particular study. I have always thought that Paul was something of an arrogant narcissistic chauvinist, so I was not really looking forward to reading about his journeys for ten weeks.

However – something bizarre happened to me throughout the course of the bible study. I actually started to feel sorry for Paul. And not only that, I think I started to (ugh) empathize with him! It is not easy to be in ministry; it is not easy to be in the middle of conflict and not be able to fix it; and it is not easy to speak and feel like no one is listening (not that I know any of this from experience or anything). Paul was not traveling an easy journey.

Paul’s ministry, in particular, was challenging. One of the reasons that I – along with some of the members of the bible study – started to feel sorry for him was because he endured physical hardships. He was entering these communities that were living in extreme dysfunction and trying to share with them the gospel message and, in response, he was being beaten, jailed, stoned, flogged and threatened with death. I started to think that maybe he came off so arrogant because he was trying to protect himself from the pain of being in ministry.

I read a commentary on this passage this week, written by a UCC pastor named of John McFadden. Rev. McFadden serves at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Appleton, Wisconsin. This is what he had to say about what it must have been like for Paul to endure such a challenging journey through ministry:

A text from an unknown sage that every pastor has occasion to cite somewhere in the course of parish ministry is this: “The reason that fights in churches get so vicious is that the stakes are so low.” Trivial issues peripheral to the mission of the church—the color of the new carpeting in the fellowship hall, dress codes for junior high dances—consume a disproportionate share of time and energy and sometimes lead to outright conflict.

While the Christian community in Corinth likely did not struggle with decorating issues, they appear to have bickered over almost everything else. A colleague who serves a large, affluent suburban parish once confessed that she finds Paul’s letters to the Corinthians disturbing precisely because they are so relevant to her setting, portraying as they do a congregation whose members were far more interested in the pursuit of personal spiritual “knowledge” than the greater good of the community. Paul may have defused a crisis in the Corinthian church through his “severe letter,” but it remains a community that is divided, distracted, and self-preoccupied, reconciled with neither God nor one another.

So apparently I am not the only one who feels conflicted about Paul. McFadden points out that Paul, like many ministers throughout the years and today, was doing the best that he could to minister in the midst of divisive and dire conflict. Perhaps he had to take extreme measures in order to survive.

McFadden goes on to say:

In the midst of this narcissism, competition, and conflict, Paul proclaims that far more is at stake than the “spirituality of the week.” The radical new way of life offered in the gospel of Christ, he insists, demands total allegiance, even if the cost of that allegiance is the kind of suffering he himself has willingly endured: “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments” (vv.4-5).

“I have endured all of these things,” Paul was essentially saying. “Look at all that I have been through!” “I have suffered!” “I have suffered for a cause greater than myself!” “You cannot find any fault in my ministry because I have let nothing get in the way, not even the pain and aggravation that you people are causing me.”

Okay, so perhaps this is where Paul takes it one step too far. He all but said, “YOU PEOPLE ARE DRIVING ME CRAZY!” McFadden’s commentary continues:

The list goes on, and it makes us squirm for several reasons. We squirm for several reasons. We squirm first because it strikes us as unseemly for Paul to draw so much attention to his own sufferings. As pastors, we are taught to make reference to our own lives only in the form of humorous anecdotes or the occasional humble confession of personal failings and foibles. To lift one’s own life up as an example for others to follow or to speak of the costs we have paid for our discipleship is perceived as bragging; place ourselves above or apart from our congregations. In challenging the narcissism of the Corinthian community, Paul’s recitation of personal hardships strikes us as narcissistic in itself.

McFadden is right. No one in the church wants to hear me whine about my life or my job. Yes, sometimes I do feel like I have too much to do and not have enough time to do it; yes, sometimes when I am working I get aggravated or frustrated; yes, sometimes there are long days and sleepless nights. But isn’t that true for all of you? I do not think that ministry is somehow different from any other profession. The difficulties I face, I am sure, look very similar to the difficulties that you all face.

This is where I kind of want to say, “Paul – a little bit humility would be extremely helpful right about now.”

McFadden also points out that Paul’s martyr-like attitude could cause people to wonder how far, exactly, he was willing to go for his “cause”. He writes:

We squirm also because, in an era when fundamentalist extremism threatens the integrity of all faith traditions, we have lost our ability to distinguish between “passion” and “fanaticism.” What sort of Christians will willingly, even gladly, endure beatings and imprisonments for the sake of their faith? Extremists. Fanatics. People who fly planes into buildings or bomb abortion clinics. We have become frightened of passionate faith, faith that commands total loyalty and obedience. We maintain a safe distance from Kierkegaard’s precipice, embracing instead a gospel around moderation. {Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, Page 158}

“Embracing instead a gospel around moderation.”

What does a “gospel around moderation” look like? Is it possible to have faith in moderation? Are you really serious about your faith if you are not over the top? What does it mean to be passionate, yet not extreme? Is it possible to be confident and humble? Can we be committed to our ideas and still open to the ideas of others?

I have said it before and I am sure that I will say it again – I think, in this case, Paul got it wrong. We should not think of ourselves as martyrs suffering for a cause. The Christian faith is not some game that we should be trying to win. Church and faith and ministry should not turn into a comparative bickering match, with everyone trying to “one up” each other’s hardships. We are all simply individuals trying to live out our lives and our faith and exist in our chuch communities the best way that we know how.

I think that it is absolutely possible to be an extreme Christian without going over the top. I think that it is doable to be completely devout in your faith and not turn someone off in the way that you talk about it. I think that a little bit of humility does go a long way.

The Christian journey is not an easy one to take. It is not easy to outwardly express your faith in a day and age when extremists make headlines. I think that we all struggle in our lives and in our faith and in our leadership. But I am also starting to think that rather than constantly pointing out the challenges we face along our journeys to the people around us, perhaps we should start being grateful that those people are there to take the journey with us. I think that we should be confident in the choices that we are making, optimistic about the lives that we are living and grateful that God has put us all together in this community.

I think it is time to break the mold of what the rest of the world “thinks” and say with confidence and without the fear of being stereotyped, “I am a Christian and my faith is very important to me.” It is possible to be a humble extremist. I would argue that it is happening right here in this community. It is happening when we welcome children into our arms and make vows to them in baptism. It is happening throughout our mission and outreach projects. It is happening through our prayer shawl ministry, through our hospitality and through our involvement in the wider community. It is happening when we pray for and with one another. It is happening when dream visions about what the future will hold. And it is happening when we say with joy in our hearts and humble pride in our voices, “I am a member of the Rehoboth Congregational Church.”

Thank you all for taking this journey with me. I cannot wait to see what the future holds. Thanks be to God!

Amen.

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