2014 Lent 11

I Corinthians 4:8-20(21)

This is today’s lectionary listing.  Yeah, just like I’ve written it, with parentheses around verse 21.  So–I don’t know about you, but–right away I want to jump to verse 21 and see what it says.  Why is it optional?  Why did those who put together the Prayer Book lectionary think that this verse could be left out of the public reading of scripture if one so chose?

It says: “What would you prefer?  Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?”

Perhaps the verse is optional because of the allusion to corporal punishment.  God is a loving God, we rightly say in our modern American sensibilities.  But does that mean that an allegory of a spanking ought to be left out of our readings?  We, today, have a big problem with the God of the Old Testament, who drives out nations from their homeland so that the promised people can have a home.  It’s a tricky question, to be sure; and one for which I have no ready answer.  But don’t you think we go too far in the other direction when we portray a god who merely admonishes us in a spirit of gentleness?

There are a couple problems with this view of God, as I see it.  First, words of gentleness are subjective.  We are left to discern which words, exactly, God uses to admonish us.  If we say the words of the Holy Spirit speaking through other people, the end result rests entirely on us.  A friend says one thing, a spiritual director offers varying counsel, and a loved one says a third thing.  To whom should we listen?  Or, maybe the right thing to do is something altogether different still.

If your answer is to turn to the scriptures, the authoritative word of God in both the Old and New Testaments, the results are similar.  For the truths and doctrines of passages and even individual verses of the scriptures have long been debated.

(A favorite illustration along these lines is of a guy who was praying with a Bible on his lap.  “Lord,” he prayed, “show me what to do.”  So, with eyes still closed, he opened the Bible and put his finger on a random page.  Then he opened his eyes and read the verse where his finger had landed: “Judas hanged himself.”  Thinking, “No, no, that’s a fluke,” he closed the Bible and repeated the routine.  This time his finger landed on the verse, “Go thou and do likewise.”)

In other words, discerning truth through words is a highly subjective and unreliable art.

Discerning the Holy Spirit’s movement through circumstances, by the way, is similarly subjective.

The second problem I see with all this is that as a dad I know that using words only doesn’t work.  “Clean your room,” I tell one of my kids (any one of the five–it doesn’t matter).  Five minutes later–no, two hours later!–I peek in and a finger hasn’t been lifted.  Words spoken with love in a spirit of gentleness aren’t effective on their own.  But when I say, “I’m taking your iTouch until your room is clean,” five minutes later a lot of progress has been made.

Coming to a son or daughter with love in a spirit of gentleness–or, in Paul’s case, an entire congregation–is the first course of action.  Yes!  But what about when it doesn’t work?  Where does a leader go then?  Paul suggests a stick.  We can understand it as a figurative stick, sure.  But why leave it out of the reading altogether?

Now this opens a Pandora’s box regarding authority.  I’m fully aware that bad leaders exist–all too prominently!–bosses who place unrealistic demands on employees, pastors on parishioners, or parents on children.  This is another mess for another day.  (But, just saying, bad leaders are usually under authority themselves and subject to appeal processes, mediation, and so on.)  The issue before us today is a congregation that had become unruly and divisive, that clearly needed some mediation from Pastor Paul.

So then: the sting of discipline–whether in corporal punishment or taking an iTouch away–in no way negates or denies love.  Really, do we want to leave this facet of God’s love out?

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