A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Pentecost 2 ~ 2 Corinthians 4:13-18 (MSG)
Ok, let’s just start by getting it all out on the table. There’s a lot of stuff swirling around these days. This month we become more intentional than usual about issues concerning LGBTQ2S persons with Pride Week. We become more intentional than usual about issues concerning anti-black racism as we acknowledge Juneteenth – the official end of slavery in the United States. Canada marks a similar day on August 1st. And we become more intentional than usual about issues concerning Indigenous, First Nations, Inuit, and Metis persons as we mark June as National Aboriginal History Month. With the recent unearthing of horrors at the former Kamloops Residential School, and the chilling knowledge that such horrors were probably not limited to that one school, a month of focus on Indigenous peoples seems supremely important.
Now we pile on top of all that the fact that we’ve been languishing under a worldwide health pandemic for almost a year and a half, with our lives dramatically altered and our spirits labouring under the weight of so much separation, and fear, and anxiety, and disconnectedness, and isolation, and frustration – not to mention the physical hardship of those who’ve been infected by the virus, the financial hardship of so many businesses who’ve been eviscerated by it, and the emotional hardship of those who’ve missed out on vital gatherings for things like funerals, or significant celebrations, or life milestones. Sure, our vaccination rate is steadily improving, and yes you should feel perfectly safe to go and get yours (all of my family has now been vaccinated – so too should yours be). But even though the light at the end of tunnel appears to be getting bigger and closer, it somehow feels even further away right now because we’re all so weary, and fatigued, and wrung out by this whole incomprehensible ordeal.
Like I said, there’s a lot of stuff swirling around these days. What does scripture say to us? In today’s reading from 2 Corinthians 4:17 the apostle Paul offers this: These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us.
Small potatoes? SMALL POTATOES?
No, Paul, with all due respect. These are all big, honking potatoes.
(Yes, I had some other choice adjectives in there but I edited them out!)
It’s true that everyone encounters hardships and suffers from time to time. Some seasons feel especially soul-crushing. Maybe that’s where you are these days. Whatever your challenges may be today, or however you may be feeling the weight of the world these days, to call that ‘small potatoes’ is an inexcusable insult.
Now, to be fair to our friend Paul, he was specifically writing about himself and his own situation – which was that he was in prison for daring to preach the gospel of Jesus that said God’s ways are better than the world’s ways (and Caesar’s ways), and that love, love, love (loving God, loving neighbour, loving one another) was better than anything. That kind of subversive talk got him chucked in prison, and beaten, and in legitimate fear for his life. Now, Paul himself looked at his own situation and evaluated it as being ‘small potatoes’ in comparison to the joy of his hoped-for and expected freedom. That’s ok. You can look at your own hardships and declare them small potatoes. I wouldn’t dream of ever making that claim for anyone other than myself.
But that’s how we tend to read scripture.
Paul was in prison and said it was small potatoes so therefore all my worries are supposed to be small potatoes too, right?
Nope. Paul speaks for Paul. You speak for you.
We can look at his experience and ask questions that may help us with our own situations, but that’s as far as it goes.
Scripture is not a paint-by-numbers, step-by-step, insert-your-situation-here kind of deal. It’s a journal or diary filled with the stories of ordinary people having extraordinary experiences of God’s Presence and Love. So we can learn from Paul’s experience, and even admire it and aspire to it, but this is not an I-did-it-now-you-do-it thing.
So let’s step back and read the passage from a more global viewpoint. I’m going to paraphrase. Paul is writing that he’s in jail because of his preaching about Jesus and ‘The Way’, and that he just can’t help himself. The love of God that he feels has to be shared – so he shares it – and bears the consequences. And Paul believes in his heart that the same God who raised Jesus up will raise him up. He doesn’t mean in death; he means he believes he’s going to get out of prison. And when he does he’s going to go right back to preaching, singing out God’s love, loving out Jesus’ teaching, evangelizing!
Paul says that he believes this so deeply and strongly that for him the hope of it generates (2nd Corinthians 4:15) more and more grace, more and more people, more and more praise!
That’s why he preaches – because he experiences more and more grace.
That’s why he evangelizes – because he inculcates more and more people.
That’s why he celebrates – because he inspires more and more praise.
2 Corinthians 4:16 So we’re not giving up (says Paul). How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without God’s unfolding grace.
Even though on the outside things look pretty rough – on the inside, where Spirit is moving and God is making new life within us, shaping us, refining us, energizing us, empowering us – inside we experience grace. We experience love. We experience Presence.
When the passage started it kind of sounded like Paul wanted us to be stoic; to keep a stiff upper lip. Then we hear some more and it can sound like Paul is some kind of Pollyanna who despite trouble only acknowledges the positive stuff. That bit about the hardship being ‘small potatoes’ makes that sound even worse.
But then, if we hang in there and listen deeply to him, we hear something more. Something beautiful. Something hopeful, and helpful.
2 Corinthians 4:18 There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever.
Here it is in the NRSV translation:
We look not at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
You see, Paul isn’t saying anything specifically about our potatoes after all! He’s talking on entirely another plane of existence and perception. He started as a stoic, then looked like a Pollyanna, and in the end we realize he’s actually a mystic!
We see what cannot be seen.
It’s not that what can be seen doesn’t matter – it does – big time. It’s just that over and above that – or under and around and within that – there is…Something More. Something More and More.
I think religion gets a bad rap in part because we read it wrong.
The bible doesn’t tell us how we’re supposed to act in this or that situation. Its purpose is to help us perceive that whatever our situation there is “more than meets the eye” – there is the very Sacred, Holy, Divine, Presence of God – here, now, with us, with me, with you, within – longing to be embraced, and breathed in and out, and experienced deeply.
We focus on – we notice – NOT only what can be seen, but also what is beyond mere sight, or touch, or physical experience. We perceive, focus on, notice, embrace, immerse in, and celebrate more (and more) – Spirit, Presence, Jesus, God, use whatever words resonate. And focusing on and immersing in such things expresses itself in tangible things like compassion, care, support, friendship, and love for neighbour and one another.
And perhaps with that insight we can look back at what Paul said about our potatoes and read him a little more gently. Because it seems that he wasn’t actually telling us (like some wild southern televangelist) to “Buck up, cuz yer problems ain’t nothin’ next to Ja-eez-us-ah!”
No, he’s saying that troubles are an essential part of being human. And if we can learn to perceive God’s Presence with us and within us in every moment, then even in the midst of those troubles we can experience grace, and peace, and love.
Now, that doesn’t solve your problem – and that doesn’t shrink your potato – but it does help to remind us that we’re not alone – that God really is in this place (and in this potato) – and that in that perception and trust there is more and more grace, and more and more people sharing the load, and more and more praise, and more and more love.
Hard times are swirling all around us.
We’re in the thick of it.
We gots us some big potatoes!
It’s not easy.
But it’s also not hopeless, because we have a great gift – the gift of noticing God’s Presence, here and now, everywhere and always, in everything and everyone.
So we’re not giving up. How could we!
Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without God’s unfolding grace.
Not a day goes by without God loving us more and more.
Amen, and amen!