2 Corinthians 3:17-4:2
March 3, 2019
Emmanuel Baptist Church, Albany, NY, Rev. Kathy Donley
Many of you know my story. Born on a Monday, I was in church on the following Sunday and all the Sundays after that. Before I was 2, my family moved to the country of Ghana where Sunday morning church services were conducted in grown-up English and a local language – neither of which were really aimed at me. It was always long hot, with no air conditioning, but then, the boiler never broke down either. Sunday evenings often involved going with my father to a local preaching station where people gathered under an outdoor shelter lit by kerosene lamps. Again, worship was in English translated to another local language. We returned to the States when I was 9 and from that time until I went to college, my weekly schedule included Sunday School and worship on Sunday mornings, an hour called Training Union and a second hour of worship on Sunday evening and Prayer Meeting on Wednesday night. Every single week. The church nurtured and taught me. I soaked up scripture and theology and hymns and a lot of love. When I went to college, I chose to seek out that same kind of spiritual nurture to sustain me in young adulthood. I even followed God to seminary. And then my faith world began to splinter.
The denomination which had nurtured and formed and sustained me was imploding. It turns out that not everyone understood our Southern Baptist tradition the same way, even though they had spent Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday nights in church just like me. It was a fight for doctrinal control and power to define the tradition. At one extreme were the fundamentalists. At the other end were the moderates and between them were a lot of folks who didn’t start out with a position in the fight, but they would ultimately have to pick a side and determine whether to stay or leave. Those decisions were extremely difficult, because everyone involved identified as an authentic, invested member of the Southern Baptist tribe. This was our spiritual home and we had been faithful to it. Why should we be the ones to leave? Or the ones to be kicked out, in some cases.
There is a similar splintering going on in Paul’s world. He is Jewish. He writes this letter to the Corinthians at the time of the Roman occupation of Israel. That occupation is putting a great strain on Judaism. The turning point of that strain will come in about 20 more years, when all-out war leads to the destruction of the Temple and even more scattering of Jewish people. He is writing as a Jewish person who has followed the way of a rabbi from Nazareth named Jesus. Paul is born into the faith, and well-educated and credentialed as a leader within it. He is as authentic and invested as anyone could be, but obviously there are strong points of disagreement with others who are just as zealous as he is, but who do not follow the Rabbi Jesus.
The church in Corinth is made up of both Jewish and Gentile Christians. What we have in the Bible is part of the correspondence between Paul and that church, but we only have one side of the conversation. Paul refers to events that he and the church know about, but we don’t. It appears that he has opponents within the church, people attempting to lead in ways at odds with Paul’s own leadership. We do not know whether these opponents were Jews or Gentiles; we do not know whether it was the old tradition or a newer one that was being reinterpreted. One scholar says, “further reading [in 2 Corinthians] indicates that people were choosing sides, emotions were charged, accusation and suspicions had been flying about. We should little wonder, then, that in his letter Paul is alternately vulnerable and hostile, profound and sarcastic, bold and begging.”
I have a number of friends across the country who happen to be United Methodist. This week I heard their anguish in response to a special meeting in St. Louis in which that denomination determined to continue to limit the welcome extended to LGBTQ persons. I am also on a number of mailing lists which allowed me to learn more than I needed to know about the splintering of that faith tradition. What I heard could be described as “alternately vulnerable and hostile, profound and sarcastic, bold and begging.”
I still get irritated when people who have never been Southern Baptist make sweeping generalizations about them. So, I want to be very careful about how I, as an outsider, speak about United Methodists. One well-intentioned but not-very-helpful reaction I’ve seen is people who’ve said, “Oh, if you don’t feel welcome at your church any more, just come on over to mine.” What we already know is that churches and faith communities are like kinship groups. They are not interchangeable. Facing schism, our UMC siblings are suffering loss of relationship. This is a denomination describes itself as connectional, where we call ourselves congregational. To imply that all will be well if they just pick up and change denominations is hurtful. It does not take seriously the loss of particular people and relationships. If you have UMC friends in pain right now, a better response might be the kind of care you would give to someone grieving the death of a loved one, an irreplaceable loss, because that is what this is.
Scott was a Southern Baptist seminary classmate. He and Jim and I were among the many who shook the dust off our sandals and found new spiritual homes. Twenty-five years ago, Scott made his way to the United Methodists. This week he said, “it’s déjà vu all over again.” He and I talked this week about what we went through then and what we learned from it.
One of the things that I learned was how easy it can be to put your faith in something without realizing you’re doing it. You only become aware how much you have invested when it falls apart. I did not believe that Southern Baptists were the sole possessors of the one true faith. I knew that people in other denominations followed Jesus as intentionally and also as imperfectly as I did. But it was only when my spiritual home turned toxic, that I saw how much faith I had rested in it. This week I have heard UMC friends say things like “this isn’t over. We aren’t giving up.” That is true. It isn’t over. But sometimes the fervor is so pitched that it seems like leaving the denomination is equal to abandoning the Kingdom of God.
Some have said that the denomination cannot divide because God intends the Church to be united, which completely overlooks the fact that Christians splintered long ago into Catholic and Orthodox and a Heinz 57 of Protestants. When the fight for the survival of the denomination seems more important than the struggle to share the gospel, I start to wonder whether faith has been misplaced.
Unless you think that I am just picking on Methodists, let us remember that our own denomination has come perilously close to dividing along the same fault lines. What seems to have stopped us is simply that we have quit talking about it. We abandoned conversations about broad inclusion at the national level because they became too acrimonious and hostile. That might actually be the wisest course of action at this time. Providing an opportunity for education and attitudes about sexual orientation to change in the wider culture may help us come to better consensus in the long term. But let’s not fool ourselves. Our denomination is no more united or Christ-like than any other.
Some folks among us are not such church nerds. They would never dream of relying on a church or denominational structure. Some, who trusted in a social compact with liberty and justice for all, have been truly dismayed by the detention of asylum-seekers and the rise of racist fear-mongering and violence in recent years. Some have trusted too much, without realizing it, in democracy, particularly in the democratic system of this nation. And, as supposedly reliable checks and balances have failed to work, as government by the people moves increasingly toward government by a powerful few, they discover that their faith has been misplaced.
Many of us have lost or are losing faith in institutions we had come to depend on. We look in many directions and see a disheartening reality. Although the specifics were different in Asia Minor in the first century, Paul also faced a disheartening reality. The message he shared then can still speak to us.
From Verse 18 “And all of us . . . seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another;”
We are being transformed, Paul says. The Greek word there is metamorphosis. The best image I know of metamorphosis is that of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. The caterpillar/butterfly spends a significant percentage of its life time inside the chrysalis. Transformation takes a long time.
My friend Scott reminded me about what it felt like when our spiritual home imploded. He said, “You’ll recall those death pangs/birth pangs of the late 80’s and early 90’s and know the challenge of being in the middle of it and not knowing what is next.” Yes, I remember. Death pangs/birth pangs. . . something dying, something being born. We might call that metamorphosis. Or resurrection. But both involve death and loss and uncertainty. Paul was in the midst of those death pangs/birth pangs. The faith for which he was so zealous was being transformed. And so it is for us. The Spirit is once again transforming the Church, transforming us. The veil of ignorance and bondage and self-sabotage and wounding of those we are called to love is being lifted, but this is a long process. As we witness the dissolution of denominations and institutions and connections which we hold dear, we may lose our faith in them, but we might also choose to re-locate our faith in God and trust that this is a transformational time.
And then Paul says in chapter four, “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.
We have this ministry, this calling, the possibility to be part of the transformation God is accomplishing. As we are being transformed, we get occasional glimpses of Christ’s glory, we see it reflected in each other and we do not lose heart.
I see the glory of Christ reflected here in our relationships with each other. Today our newly formed Executive Team will meet to dream together. For over 40 years, we have depended on a certain structure to govern this church, but now we are shedding that skin. Some of us are impatient to move on. And some of us are a bit anxious in the absence of a clearly defined set of rules and expectations, but we are trying to lean into this transformation together. By God’s mercy, we are engaged in this ministry and we do not lose heart.
Last month, I glimpsed this glory in our children. I shared the stories of Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges, and learned that they already know them. They were completely confident that God loves everyone, no matter what. They grasp, as much as a child can grasp which is sometimes more than adults do, that courageous love is costly. We have this ministry and we do not lose heart.
The glory of Christ was there when United Methodist pastors and others opened their homes and their sanctuaries to LGBTQ persons who were angry and anguished this week. Already-welcoming churches became bolder in their welcome and others got off the fence to stop the harm being done by debates over people’s humanity and worth. They refused to let the church’s oppression of queer Christians be normal. We have this ministry and we do not lose heart.
As the poet Mary Oliver observes, “How shall there be redemption and resurrection unless there has been a great sorrow? And isn’t struggle and rising the real work of our lives?”
For, as Paul says, we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, and him crucified.
“How shall there be redemption and resurrection unless there has been a great sorrow? And isn’t struggle and rising the real work of our lives?”
By God’s mercy, we have this ministry and we do not lose heart. Amen.
 Mitzi L. Minor, 2 Corinthians: Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary, (Macon: Smyth and Helwys, 2009), p. 1.
 Mary Oliver,Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems and Poems (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,1999), p. 106