July 8, 2012
Mission Grounded in Pain
I am sure you have heard about experiments physicians and scientists have done in which a sample of participants are given an actual medication to treat a symptom—everything from sleeplessness to cancer—and another sample of participants takes a placebo, a sugar pill with no medicinal value. Participants are not told whether the pill they are swallowing is an actual drug or a sugar pill. When researchers assess the progress—or lack thereof—that each patient is making, they have to take into consideration the possibility that some improvement might show up even among the people who are taking the placebo, because of what is known as “the faith factor”—that is, sometimes a participant taking a placebo improves even without medical help because the patient BELIEVES that he or she is receiving a powerful prescription.
Who can explain it? Positive images and hopefulness and faith in God sometimes awaken movements in our cells and spirits that lead toward well-being in ways that simply do not occur among indifferent or pessimistic people and communities. By the same token, negativity can diminish the vitality of our cells as well as our souls. We could call this superstition or magical thinking, or we could simply recognize that faith is one of the factors that determine a person or a community’s health or illness. Faith opens us up. It makes space for new energies that can become the tipping point toward healing and growth.
Surely that was the case in last week’s Gospel stories about Jairus’ daughter and the woman suffering from hemorrahges. For them, physical, mental, and spiritual transformation came through the interplay of Jesus’ healing power and the hopeful energy of people who trusted in it. As I’m sure you recall, neither of these healings was expected or encouraged by the crowd. Jesus had to cross over a lot of social and religious boundaries to release his divine power.
After last week’s two healings, Jesus returns to his hometown, presumably to continue his work. Surely they would have heard about what he had been doing in the suburbs! But there, among those who’d watched him grow up, people are unable to believe that Jesus is anything more than Mary’s kid, an unsophisticated, blue-collar, boy next door. They cannot imagine that he is divine, or that he could bring change to or among them. This crowd can’t be open to Jesus as a Healer, theologian Matthew Skinner says, because “they barricade themselves from the fullness of blessings that God might have poured out in Nazareth.” In the end, Mark says, Jesus could do no great work of power in his hometown—oh except for healing a few folk, here and there. I love how he throws that in, as if it’s no big deal! Just a few healings!
Instead of working great wonders, Jesus had to walk away from his own hometown that day, to go shine his light somewhere else. It would be easy to mock those people, except that we, the Church, call ourselves the family of God. We claim Jesus as our own. But how faithful, how open, are we to his transformative power in our lives? Are we able to receive healing from Jesus, or does our lack of faith get in the way?
You might be wondering now how to reconcile all of this with what you heard last week. Last week you heard that God’s deepest desire is to cross over every obstacle between the people God loves and whatever it is that keeps them from living full, rich, abundant lives. But today it sounds like if we don’t have faith that God can heal us, it can’t take place. As if our healing depends as much on our attitude as it does on God’s. You may start to worry that if you are not getting well—or the situation you are praying about is not improving—it is because you are not believing hard enough, not praying fervently enough.
To address those concerns, I think we should turn to today’s excerpt from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. This reading begins with a description of a mystical experience – presumably Paul’s own encounter with God – followed by his account of a mysterious illness, an illness he describes as a “thorn in his flesh.” All kinds of writers have speculated about what the “thorn in his flesh” could be—ranging from his eyesight was failing to suggestions that he had a nagging wife! I am not sure it matters what ailed Paul. Whatever it was, this thorn came to stay, no matter how often Paul prayed that God would take it away. As far as we know, Paul never received a cure, but it surely doesn’t mean he lacked faith.
What Paul does receive—and what I believe God longs to give to all of us, whatever thorns afflict us—is consolation in the midst of pain, grace to live every season of life. God doesn’t tell Paul to lie down passively and let whatever ails him take over, nor does God tell Paul to come back when he has more faith. Instead, Paul hears God’s voice assuring him, “My grace is sufficient for you. My strength is made perfect in weakness.” In other words, it’s OK. Get up and get going. There is work for you to do, and I’ll help you do it, in spite of the thorn.
What Paul means, what I hope you’ll hear, is that God is at work within every facet of the universe, all the time. This text is not to be used as an argument against seeking professional medical help or to keep anyone from leaving a dangerous situation. It is a reminder that no matter how bleak things look to us, God is ceaselessly working to bring some kind of good out of every life condition—whether that’s illness or unbelief or failure or whatever. God wants us to have agency for our lives, and works through surgeons and counselors and prescriptions drugs, so do take action. But sometimes, in spite of all we do, the thorn remains in our side. We should not see that as a sign that God has abandoned us, has not heard our prayers, or does not choose to help us. It just means God is at work in our circumstances in ways we do not control or understand.
That’s why Paul says, “I will boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses, so the power of Christ may dwell in me … for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul did not say, “Because I am not well, I cannot (or will not) participate in the call God has issued to me to love God’s world.” Or “Because I am not damaged, I cannot witness to the Gospel.” Instead, he finds his own unique way to minister within the limitations of his affliction, in the middle of sometimes antagonistic communities. He found ways to remain faithful, and active, and creative, in spite of his weakness.
Just as Jesus was limited by the people of Nazareth, Paul sometimes encountered people and places where he could not do ministry. Did Paul or Jesus throw up their hands and say, “Let’s call the whole thing off”? They did not. Both employed an obvious, simple, but kind of ingenious Plan B. They sent others to places that couldn’t or wouldn’t receive them. I don’t mean Jesus or Paul gave up believing in and working for God’s vision of wholeness and healing. They just knew that sometimes another voice might get through when their own could not. Honestly, aren’t there times when your family would listen to someone else make the same argument you wanted to make, and maybe even AGREE, even when they’d never respond favorably to your saying the exact same thing?
Paul sent his friends Silas and Barnabus and Timothy to places he would not or could not go himself. In situations where Paul’s thorn created an obstacle to his work, God found another way. That is a word of comfort to all of us. By God’s grace, we are all in this together. All kinds of people are called to be God’s agents, and sometimes what appears to us a hopeless case is simply a ripe opportunity for the next person to be effective.
Jesus sends his followers out, saying, “You don’t need a lot of equipment. You are the equipment. Depend on God to provide all you need.” And they went out like delegates, or envoys, each with a thorn or some kind in his flesh, not by their own power or authority, but by the authority and power Jesus has placed in them. Through the power of Jesus, they were able to do amazing things—to call for change; to attack demons; to heal people’s illnesses.
Yeah, but those were Jesus’ disciples. They were saints; they were well-spoken. People believed them because they were first-hand friends of the Most High. That is not what God has in mind for us to do. NO? What is God asking us to do? What does it mean to follow Jesus?
I know many of us have been taught that our ministry is to bring people from out there INTO church in here, but that is not at all what our text shows Jesus requiring of his disciples. Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples to fill up the pews so he can minister to all the people. In fact, after today’s dust-up with the people of Nazareth, according to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus never enters a synagogue again.
No, today’s lesson shows Jesus sending his followers out into the world to do ministry OUT THERE, where people live and work and dream and hurt. He equips them with the Good News and very little else—just each other and maybe a stick—perhaps for support, perhaps for safety. This is a perfect example of how our Mission Discovery Team has been urging us to re-imagine what it means to be the Church. We cannot focus too much time and energy on the physical plant of our Church building or we are in danger of growing dependent upon it—we might start to see it as a security blanket, perhaps. It’s what we humans do when we feel insecure, after all: start to depend on things instead of God. Our intentions are good, but we have to be careful. If we lose the urgent message of the Gospel, if our message doesn’t match our deeds, if we seem more interested saving our churches from closing than saving souls, we are no longer being Jesus’ disciples. We have to ask ourselves, “Is the gospel such good news in our own lives that we can’t help sharing it, even with people who will never fill our pews or our offering plates?”
Is that, perhaps, the thorn that sticks in our collective side, the affliction that keeps us from living every day like a mission trip? Is it our lack of openness to God’s love for the whole world—or at least our refusal to be part of sharing that love? Is the blockade that keeps God’s healing power from effecting change in our world lack of trust that God can and desires to work through us? Sometimes, I guess, the answer to those questions is yes.
And so, beloved Church, let us embrace that thorn. Let us trust that that God can use that weakness to be a channel of grace. Let us throw ourselves onto the mercy of God, trusting that God can work for forgiveness and healing, regardless of our faith. Let us trust that we will have companions for the journey, and that God’s will will be done with us, without us, and sometimes even in spite of us. Let us hear again God’s promise: “My grace is sufficient for you, and my strength is made perfect in weakness.”
Thanks be to God!
~Pastor Susan Schneider