Sunday, June 17, 2012

Beside Ourselves for God

Beside Ourselves for God

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
2 Corinthians 5:6-21
Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time: June 17, 2012

The sermon has two parts, matching two themes in this reading from 2nd Corinthians. The first part has to do with craziness, the second, with reconciliation. Our job is to find out how these two go together.
Part 1: Craziness
Paul said, “For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God.” Now what do you suppose is going on there in that sentence? I know that phrase, to be beside oneself, and I think you do too. We use it in common, everyday story-telling with each other. “My daughter didn’t come in ‘till 2:30 in the morning. I was beside myself with worry!” The dictionary says that to be “beside oneself” is to be “in a state of extreme excitement.” I think I would add more than that. It can mean exceptionally worried, or exceptionally happy, or exceptionally frantic. In any case, the sense of it is to be at the top of our emotional spectrum. One notch higher and we would be in orbit. It is to be in a superlative state of our emotional lives, whether high or low.
Another way of looking at it is to say that it means to be a little crazy, a little unlike our normal selves, to be “beside” the self that we usually are. One other place where this same Greek word is used in the New Testament is in Mark 3, where the family of Jesus, worried about his newly launched ministry, “went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’”[1] Clearly, this is serious business.
Do Christians appear to the world to be a little crazy? Paul was enthusiastic for his faith. I can imagine that sometimes when he preached he got carried away, that he pounded the pulpit a bit, if he had a pulpit. And in Greek society, this would have appeared a bit out-of-control, like almost any professional basketball player when the referee calls a foul on him when he was twenty feet from the ball, minding his own business. They get a little beside themselves, don’t they? They act a little out of the normal, may storm around for a while, may have a technical foul called on them, may even be thrown out of the game. But if they were that way every day, all the time, we would say they were just plain crazy, not a little “beside themselves.”
So Paul said, “if we are beside ourselves, it is for God.”
We might say, “I am so enthusiastic for the work of the Lord, so worked up over the need to get the message about Jesus out to the world, sometimes to the outside world, it appears I am beside myself. But it is all for God.” Paul knew that it sometimes might appear just a step beyond sanity. He went on to say, “…if we are in our right mind, it is for you.”
Why did Paul get so worked up over his message? He said, “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all.” That’s it, in a nutshell. Paul saw a whole world filled with people for whom Christ had died, yet who did not know him or the good news that this represented. Sure he was a little beside himself, he had a large job getting that saving word out to an entire world!
Which brings us to…
Part 2: Reconciliation
What was Jesus up to that got Paul so excited? Paul said, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself ... and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”
God had a plan, it was brought into existence through the ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and then God entrusted “the message of reconciliation to us.” Wow! The great big God who created the world and all that is in it has entrusted the most important message the world will ever hear to us: weak, fallible, ambiguous creatures.
The late John Baillie, theologian and leader of the World Council of Churches, once quoted this portion of our passage, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself,” and then went on to ask, “Would the people who see you daily and with whom you have the most to do, be able to guess, even if you had not told them, that you believed this?”
The dictionary definition of “reconciliation” is “the bringing together of two opposing parties or points of view.” The truth of the matter, as Paul addresses it, is that since creation, God has remained the same. It is human beings who have taken up the opposing point of view. So it is we who must be brought back.[2] This effort has been entrusted to Christian believers. Do we live so that those who see us know we believe that “in Christ, God is reconciling the world to himself”?
The additional truth about God’s desire for reconciliation with us is inescapably true. We cannot be reconciled to God unless we are reconciled and at peace with those around us. We cannot paint the face of Jesus for an evil world, in either metaphor or in concrete deeds, unless we first have this spirit within us. That, more than any other reason, is why the Christian church, since its very foundation, has sent folks into mission beyond the comfort of the world they know. By our actions, we become living symbols of God’s reconciliation.
Part 3: Mission
I think I misled you about the number of parts to this sermon. Perhaps I was a little beside myself. It turns out there is a third part. It has to do with missionary efforts in which Christine and I have been involved in the past, but not only with that. It also has to do with the whole Christian missionary enterprise, in which we all participate, whether financially or through prayer, or by actual travel to places to carry out mission.
I once read an account about a woman who, several years ago, came to see the pastor of a large and influential congregation in New York City, to talk with him about a rally which her group was sponsoring in regard to a particular social justice issue. I don’t recall every detail of the story, but I remember that the conversation went something like this:
The woman wanted the pastor to be at the rally to lend his influence to her cause by his presence. He looked over his calendar and realized that he had a conflict, and so, as politely as possible, he declined. Not to be deterred, the woman accosted him with the sort of guilt-inducing conversation that people think should work especially well on pastors, of all people. She said, “How can you say you are a faithful pastor when you will not set some time aside to come and march with our group for a cause which you yourself have agreed is just?”
The pastor thought this over and, perhaps appearing beside himself for a moment, said to her, “Ma’am, have you made any efforts toward starting a hospital in Nigeria?”
Somewhat put-off by the unexpected, subject-changing question, she stammered, “Well, no, but...”
He went on, “And have you taken part or helped organize volunteers for the ready-to-read program in our near-by low-income elementary school?”
“Again, no, but...”
“And how about our denomination’s extensive efforts to eliminate hunger in parts of Asia, have you been taking part in that effort?”
“No, no I haven’t, but that is beside the point!...”
“Ma’am,” the pastor said, “that is precisely the point. You did not invent good causes. We both know no one can be present to support every good cause on earth. For my part, I can only do what I can do. I must choose. The rest I leave to God. No one of us, nor any single church, will ever solve all the problems of humanity. That is a job for God’s own timing according to God’s own plan. The way this will be done is quite beyond our imagining. But long before you were born, people of the Church of Jesus Christ were hard at work eliminating poverty, fighting disease, battling illiteracy, crusading against injustice. And the Church of Jesus Christ will continue in this way long after both of us are gone. So, no, I cannot come to your rally, but I wish you well, and I will pray for you, and I trust that God will bless it if it is meant to prosper by God’s hand.”
As Christine and I have contributed our own small part in mission efforts in Mexico and in Kenya over the years, we clearly realized that our efforts would not eliminate all the problems in those places. So the effort could appear, to cynical eyes, to be doomed from the start. What is the point? There will still be plenty of poverty, malnutrition, poor health and bad housing even after short-term missionary efforts are over.
But of course, the purpose of any mission is not just housing, or healthcare, or providing food, and never was. Otherwise, people would be correct in thinking we are a bit “beside ourselves” for going anywhere to do our little bit. The point moves beyond utilitarian do-goodism to the good word from God through Christ: As Paul declared, God reconciled himself to us through Christ, and has entrusted to us that message of reconciliation. We carry the word where we go and where we build that God loves people, and will stop at nothing to get that word communicated, even to the point of sending Jesus to die for us.
So, even as we prayed over our growing Churches in Partnership garden last Sunday, or as we celebrate the small efforts we can make to be of service to others here in Vancouver, or in places we may never see, we recall, as Paul said, that we are still ambassadors, allowing God to work God’s own message through us. I remember vividly a mission in which I was involved several years ago in Mexico, when a couple of men stopped their truck outside our worksite and spoke to me in 3/4 Spanish, 1/4 English to ask what we were doing. I told them, in the best Spanglish that I could muster, that we were building a house. One of them looked at me, looked at our crew of unskilled youth and adult volunteers, our complete lack of power tools. It didn’t add up in his mind, you could tell. He probably thought, borrowing Paul’s term, that we must be “beside ourselves” to think we could accomplish anything useful with our pitiful crew. “¿Por qué? (Why?)” he asked. I said, simply, “Para el amor de Dios (for the love of God).” Then he nodded his head up and down. The reconciling word was something he understood, and they went on their way.
Beside ourselves for God. It’s a good place to be.

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder

[1] Mark 3:21
[2] Thanks to Dr. Art Sundstrom’s sermon, “Speaking the Unutterable Word,” for ideas on reconciliation.