It’s a privilege to preach today, as we gather in prayer and thanksgiving for our friend and colleague the Rev’d Canon Fred Dettwiller. The wide range of people gathered here today (family, friends, co-workers, community leaders, church members) is a sign of Canon Fred’s impact for good on our community, and his great capacity for friendship. I knew him as a friend in priestly ministry, as he served over many years as a senior counselor and colleague to the last two Episcopal bishops of Tennessee.
Fred combined a couple of attributes that don’t always go together: a capacity for strategic vision, for seeing the whole field or board in play; but also, the gift of insight into the human heart. This made him a wise and discerning counselor when it came to character: of what we might call the intangible, personal element. Canon Fred put both these gifts to good use, the strategic vision and the discerning heart: not only in service to the Diocese of Tennessee, but also in his many other endeavors.
St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, our reading this morning, points to Christian confidence in the face of adversity. Paul is writing at a time of challenge in his ministry. From a distance, he saw that the good work he had done in Corinth, within that church, was being undone in his absence. Paul had opened his heart to the Corinthians, as he says elsewhere, but they had rebuffed him (2 Cor. 6:11-12). At the same time, he contended with many afflictions and persecutions in his ministry. He writes, at the beginning of the letter, “We were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself” (2 Cor. 1:8).
In spite of this, Paul’s confidence shines through. He tells the Corinthians, in the fourth chapter, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies” (2 Cor. 4:8-10). Paul is confident, even bold, in the face of adversity.
It’s a paradox of Christian life that God’s power is made perfect in human weakness, as Paul says elsewhere in the letter (2 Cor. 12:9). “Therefore,” he writes, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). It’s when we are in the most desperate straits, in other words, when the chance of resolution seems least likely, when we are beset and beside ourselves, that God’s power shines forth most clearly. Our lack, our inability to save ourselves, demonstrates God’s capacity to heal and save, and unleashes (if we will) new life and possibility.
Christian confidence is rooted in Christ Jesus, and in the power of his resurrection. “We know,” Paul writes, again in the fourth chapter, “that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:14). As he says in our reading, “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure” (2 Cor. 4:17). In the midst of our grief, we who are gathered here know the meaning of affliction, but we also know the promise of the Gospel. St. Paul had faith that, in the midst of challenge, in the face of hardship, when push comes to shove, God’s power will be demonstrated and God’s people vindicated, by the power of Jesus’ cross and resurrection.
“So,” the apostle writes, “we do not lose heart” (2 Cor. 4:16). I think that it’s here, in the church work that Canon Fred and I did together, that I came to know him as a man of confidence and hope. In the midst of whatever challenge God placed before us, he never flagged in enthusiasm for the work, and the belief that God would work through it for good. There was no situation that could not be made better, with patience and prayer and sheer staying power: what the Holy Scriptures call elsewhere “the endurance of saints” (Rev. 14:12).
This confidence and hope on Fred’s part were rooted in years of experience of how God actually works in life: in your life and my life and his life as well. Fred knew how God turns our momentary affliction into an eternal weight of glory. Now our dear friend rejoices in an even greater vision and a deeper insight, in the nearer presence of God.