Doormats and Bolt-cutters
Ordinary Sunday 14: 8th July, 2018
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Ez 2:2-5; Ps 123; 2 Cor 12:7-10; Mark 6:1-6
What do you think of St Paul, I wonder? There is a folksy theological rule-of-thumb that St Paul is for the evangelicals, and we catholics should stick mostly to the Gospels where the last word on the really important theological matters is to be found. Take women's ordination, for example; as all the Sydney Anglican complimentarians know, Paul makes things very clear on that matter: "women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says" (1 Cor 14:34). Whereas the progressive catholics amongst us might instead focus on the 20th chapter of John's Gospel, where the Apostle to the Apostles, Mary Magdalene, is the symbolically first to preach the resurrection of Christ: "I have seen the Lord" (Jn 20:18).
The Franciscan friar and theologican, Richard Rohr, is more forgiving of Paul's annoying throw-away lines. He describes Paul as the Misunderstood Mystic: "Paul is perhaps the most important and yet misunderstood teacher of the Gospel. His letters continue to challenge lay readers and scholars alike. Unfortunately, many interpretations of Paul's writings give us the impression of a misogynistic, moralistic man. Yet if we read Paul contemplatively, with the non-dual mind, we find rich and mystical meaning woven throughout his compassionate approach to real-world challenges."
Paul's visionary experience is foundational to his Christianity. His Road-to-Damascus experience, quite literally in a flash, turned a zealous Jewish fundamentalist, complicit in the execution of St Stephen for being a follower of Christ, into one of the most progressive proponents of first-century Christianity. Paul was almost single-handedly responsible for the radical full-inclusion of gentile believers in the fledgling Christian Church.
In today's epistle he tells of this vision: "I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up into the third heaven ... and heard things that are not to be told" (2 Cor 12:2,4). The vision did not set him apart in some mystical bubble of joy and spiritual authority; rather it brought him famously a thorn in the flesh, "a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated" (v.7) as well as "weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ" (v.10).
The risen Christ speaks to Paul, in his struggles: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness" (v.9) and Paul adds: "whenever I am weak, then I am strong" (v.10). Far from dualistic, Paul's teaching here has a profound integrity. He speaks from experience of the Risen Christ, and speaks into the truth and reality of the human condition.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran minister in Colorado, and is the author of the New York Times bestseller Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People (Convergent, 2015). The Washington Post describes her as: "a tatted-up, foul-mouthed champion to people sick of being belittled as not Christian enough for the right or too Jesus-y for the left." For me there is a twentyfirst-century version of Paul's spirit in Nadia. In a mini-sermon on forgiveness she says: "when someone does us harm, we are connected to that mistreatment like a chain" (www.makers.com).
A common perception in today's secular world is that forgiving someone is weakness; we are being a doormat when we forgive a wrong that has been done to us. Politicians rarely apologise. There are so many revenge movies out there on Stan and Netflicks, teaching us that vengence is probably the best, and certainly the most rewarding response to being wronged. But let's look at that through Paul's eyes; strength in weakness. Forgiveness is an incredibly courageous act, even more so I would argue in a world that doesn't forgive.
Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it like this: "forgiveness is nothing less than an act of fidelity to an evil-combatting campaign; so it's not an act of niceness, it's not being a doormat ... maybe retalliation or holding on to anger about the harm done to me doesn't actually combat evil; maybe it feeds it. Because in the end, if we are not careful, we can actually absorb the worst of our enemies, and on some level even start to become them. So what if forgiveness, rather than being a pansy way of saying 'it's OK' is actually a way of weilding bolt-cutters and snapping the chain that links us. It is saying ‘what you did was so not OK that I refuse to be connected to it any more.' Forgiveness is about being a freedom fighter. And free people are dangerous people. Free people aren't controlled by the past. Free people laugh more than others. Free people see beauty where others do not. Free people are not easily offended. Free people are unfraid to speak truth to stupid. Free people are not chained to resentment. That's worth fighting for. There really is a light that shines in the darkeness; and the darkness cannot overcome it." That is strength in weakness to me.
And here's another one: kindness. Lots of people see kindness as weakness. There was an inspiring article in this week's New York Times entitled "Fred Rogers and the loveliness of the Little Good" (July 5). It tells of a new documentary about the American TV personality Fred Rogers. The commentator writes: "There's nothing obviously moving here, and yet the audience is moved: sniffling, wiping the moisture from their cheeks. The power is in Roger's radical kindness at a time when public kindness is scarce. It's as if the pressure of living in a time such as ours gets released in that theatre as we're reminded, oh yes, that's how people can be." Strength in weakness.
I wonder what sort of church we are; what sort of catholic Christian you are? Do we have the courage to be strong in our weakness: to be forgiving — let's just start with one another on that one — to be kind, to be good, not for what we get out of it, but just for the sake of goodness?
"My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.