July 5, 2015
2 Corinthians 12:2–10
What a difference a week makes! In last week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus was like superman! He healed a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years and brought a little girl back to life! In today’s passage from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus returns to his hometown, presumably to continue his work there. But back among those who’d watched him grow up, Jesus was not heralded. People couldn’t wrap their minds around the possibility that Jesus could be anything more than Mary’s kid–an unsophisticated, blue-collar, boy-next-door. They couldn’t imagine his being divine, could not conceive that he’d come to bring change to or among them. 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! You know, just a few healings!) Instead of working great wonders, Jesus walks away from his own hometown that day to shine his light somewhere else.
How do we reconcile all of this with what we heard last week? Last week we witnessed God’s deepest desire revealed in Jesus crossing over every obstacle between the people God loves and whatever kept them from living full, rich, abundant lives. He healed a woman with hemmoraghes and raised a young girl from the dead. But today it sounds like if we don’t receive Jesus with the faith that God can heal us, then healing can’t take place. As if our healing depends as much on our attitude as it does on God’s. This may make some people start to worry that if they are not getting well—or the situation they are praying about is not improving—it is because they are not believing hard enough, not praying fervently enough. Is that what is intended here?
Let’s turn for a moment to today’s 2nd lesson, this 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 ailment that 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 failing eyesight to having a nagging wife! Maybe his hip hurt–then he’d fit right in here at Trinity where it seems like everyone is getting a new hip or a new knee!
In the end, I am not sure it matters what afflicted Paul. Whatever it was, a painful ailment came to stay. No matter how often or how hard Paul prayed that God would take it away, the thorn still caused him distress. As far as we know, Paul never received a cure. But does that mean he lacked faith?
On this 4th of July weekend, I can’t help thinking about the thorn in our country’s side. While there are surely many things causing us collective pain, one of our sore spots has got to be the sin of racism. It’s been around since white people landed on the shores and mistreated the Native Americans already living here. As Congress debated the original Declaration of Independence, there was a lengthy squabble about whether or not to include a passage proclaiming all slaves to be as free as the white people who owned them. Eventually, to ensure that the Southern delegation would vote in favor of the Declaration, the slavery clause was removed. Though it announces “liberty and justice for all,” that never was and still is not true.
Racism continues to wreak destruction to this day. We see it overtly in the recent blaze of African American churches burned by arson across the South, but racism more dangerous presence is less obvious. It has been steadily incorporated into our national systems and structures, bending the powers to benefit people who are white, middle class, and educated–like me.
Though you and I may temper our own individual prejudices, and though we may wish no one of any color any ill will, the thorn of injustice is stuck in our national skin. What can we do? Abolitionists prayed for its demolition. Civil Rights activists struck out against it with all the force of love they could muster. But it’s still here, causing profound pain to many, and keeping us from being truly one nation.
What Paul received instead of being cured—and what I believe God longs to give to the United States, and to all of us, individually, whatever thorns afflict us is consolation in the midst of pain, grace to live every season of life. God never suggested Paul lie down passively and let whatever ailed him take over, nor does God give us that option. Instead, God’s voice comes to Paul again and again, assuring him, “My grace is sufficient for you. My strength is made perfect in weakness.” In other words, you’re OK, Paul. There is work that I need you to do, and you can do it in spite of the thorn. Keep going. I’ll help you.
God is at work within every facet of the universe, all the time. God’s grace is sufficient for us too. We may not have everything figured out for ourselves or our families or congregation or country. But no matter how bleak things look to us, God is ceaselessly working to bring some kind of good out of everything—whether it’s illness or doubt or failure or messy relationships. God doesn’t leave us alone to work out our healing. Instead, God works through every possible medium to bring us refreshment and renewal: surgeons, music, counselors, prescriptions drugs, poetry, pets, and friends. We are not to sit still in our suffering, but to take action, knowing that the thorn may remain in our side, but it does not incapacitate us.
When our thorns plague us, let’s remember that our weakness doesn’t mean 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 subtle ways we do not control or understand. That’s what Paul means by saying, “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.” He doesn’t 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.” Instead, he finds his own unique way to minister within the limitations of his affliction, in the middle of sometimes antagonistic communities. He explores ways to remain faithful, active, and creative, in spite of his weakness.
Both Paul and Jesus found that when they couldn’t minister exactly as they wished, God’s work could still happen with an ingenious Plan B. Both sent others to places they couldn’t or wouldn’t minister. Neither Jesus or Paul gave up believing in and working for God’s vision of wholeness and healing, but they acknowledged that sometimes another voice might get through when their own could not.
In situations where Paul’s thorn created an obstacle to his work, God found another way. Sometimes it meant that Paul’s friends Silas and Barnabus and Timothy went where he couldn’t minister. And Jesus sends his followers out, too, saying, “Go. 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–imperfect and unprepared, each with a thorn of some kind in his flesh, not by their own power or authority, but by the authority and power Jesus 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.
And Jesus also sends us out to proclaim to Good News. Though many of us have been taught that our job is to bring people from out there INTO church so they can hear the Gospel on our turf, that is not at all what our text shows Jesus doing. Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples to fill up the pews so he can preach to all the people. In fact, after today’s dust-up with the people of Nazareth, according to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus never again enters a synagogue. Instead, Jesus sends his followers out into the world to do ministry OUT THERE, where people live and work and dream with thorns in their sides. Jesus equips the disciples with the Good News and very little else—just each other and maybe a stick—perhaps for support, perhaps for safety. This is what it means to be the Church.
And so, beloved Church, let us embrace each other, thorns and all, and go out to share the Good News. God can use our individual and collective weaknesses as channels of grace. Let us throw ourselves onto the mercy of God, trusting that Jesus brings healing, regardless of our faith of its lack. Let us 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