"Not Being an Obstacle" - March 6, 2019 (Ash Wednesday)

II Corinthians 5:20a-6:10

            Last week, National Public Radio interviewed Rose Torphy, who was visiting the Grand Canyon with her family in January, where she became a Junior Ranger and was given a Junior Ranger’s badge.  “I promise,” she had repeated, “to discover all I can about Grand Canyon National Park and to share my discoveries with others.”  Since then, she’s been wearing her badge proudly, and she told the radio reporter, “Just talking to people, they see my badge on my coat and ask how come I’m a Junior Ranger.”  That might have something to do with her age, which is 103.[1]

            It’s a great story in its way, but one thing the interviewer never got around to asking, or maybe it didn’t get past the editor, was what Mrs. Torphy had discovered about Grand Canyon National Park that she wanted to share.  That is, after all, the point of becoming a Junior Ranger.  Unfortunately, what got in the way was the reporter’s fascination with her age.  People can become condescending to those of advanced years, which is really too bad, and it can lead to missing out on some valuable interactions.

            Maybe that would have happened, given time, but it was only a five-minute piece and about thirty seconds of it was taken up reporting the number of Mrs. Torphy’s children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren.  So much time went into reporting about the messenger that they never really got to the message.

            The church in Corinth to whom Paul wrote seems to have been full of people who were probably really impressive and admirable.  He talks about all sorts of spiritual gifts being part of their experience.  Some people were prophesying and some people were healing and some people were getting caught up in ecstatic prayer and there were some amazing teachers and some who were so generous he said they would not only give the shirt off their backs, they would give their whole body if they had to.  You need a kidney?  How about a spleen?  That’s why he said things to help them keep these gifts in perspective.

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”  [I Corinthians 13:1-3]

Pretense can be a terrible obstacle to the gospel, the idea that you have to be some kind of Super Christian to be a follower of Jesus.  What you need is love.  Otherwise you just get in the way.

            In the section of II Corinthians that we heard this evening, Paul tells them again that if they want to let people know what God has done through Jesus and continues to do through the Holy Spirit – which is what the Church’s business is all about – they need to get over themselves.  He goes ahead and mentions his own experiences, but what he highlights are his failures and troubles.  It’s not a catalog of successes.  It’s a list of difficulties.

“We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger…” [II Corinthians 6:3-5]

What got him through were not gifts that show up easily, and take work to develop, but are some of the most valuable character traits anyone can have.  He pulled through

“by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and,”

he adds,

“the power of God…” [II Corinthians 6:6-7]

            It is the power of God that makes the rest possible.  It’s not us.  In my experience, at least, I can say it’s not me.  If I forgive, it’s not generally because I want to.  It is a lot simpler to hold a grudge.  The world is a whole lot easier to understand and to navigate when I can label everyone very clearly as a Good Guy or a Bad Guy.  It takes work for me to understand a disagreement from your perspective, and it may be a waste of time and energy, when I know that mine opinion is the right one, anyway.  Unless I have that divine nudge, the Holy Spirit, prodding my conscience, I’m not going to do that.  As for

“afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger”

and so forth, I’d really rather avoid them, thanks.  Yet when you follow Jesus closely enough, you end up walking in his footsteps, and he got into a lot of trouble.  Nobody’s life is without trouble and suffering of some sort, for that matter, but what makes it worthwhile is that if we face trouble, not to make ourselves great, but for the sake of God’s ways, then God’s grace will be there from the very beginning, and not just when we get stuck and start shouting for help.

“As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,
‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
   and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’
See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”
[II Corinthians 6:1-2] 

[1] https://www.npr.org/2019/03/01/699261929/103-year-old-becomes-grand-canyon-ranger