This sermon was offered by Alison Montgomery Fischer at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church – Bakersfield, CA on July 8, 2018. The lectionary assigned was Ezekiel 2:1-5, Psalm 123, 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, Mark 6:1-13.
The Lord be with you.
Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief. May these words be more than words. Give us all the spirit of Jesus.
Thorn in my flesh…Now that is a fantastic idiom to convey the inevitable and shocking pain that humans experience in life.
I adore idioms and the creative usage of syntax and language, created by cultures, to describe a figurative or literal meaning for an experience, event, or expression. I really enjoy cheesy expressions or jokes, and before you know it, I’m barreling down the highway at breakneck speed once I get my idiom loving ball rolling.
Our scriptures and church culture are full of idioms in an attempt to most fully convey information about God. People tell you to not judge a book by its cover, and that certainly applies to our holy texts and Book of Common Prayer because these living documents offer the knowledge and enlightenment to help us weather the storms of life. Then, we have this church, St. Paul’s, and our wider body of Christ. When we practice what we preach and what our holy texts teach us, then this community has the opportunity to exist as a home away from home and be considered as the best thing since sliced bread for God’s beloved children. For others, coming to church today maybe more along the lines of any port in the storm from the troubles of the world, or perhaps it is simply the appeal of air conditioning because it may be hotter than Hades outside. Wherever you are coming from, remember that Jesus was not all hat and no cattle...He was the real McCoy.
Alright, I’ll quit horsing around and focus on the Word.
What specific thorn was Paul talking about? We don’t know the thorn, nor do we know whether the pain manifested itself through physical, emotional, or psychological inflammation, or as it often occurs, through all three. However, Paul’s usage of language with this idiom has enabled this scripture to speak wisdom and peace to people through millennia and throughout the world’s cultures sharing the common experiences of pain and thorns. Paul’s affliction may be purposely omitted to allow us, as readers, to see ourselves in Paul’s experience and have the ability to relate to his pain that disrupts his life enough for him to plead with God to remove it.
Pain is universal and experienced by every single being on this earth. Pain is a relentless beast that is capable of devouring a person during or after an exhaustive hunt.
The pain Paul is grappling with causes one to unravel, to be undone. In fact, that is how Paul is conveying this type of pain in his letter. Paul’s Greek translation in this passage is in reference to bodies. With the root sthenthat indicates a holding together or cohesion.
Our American culture teaches us that to be strong means to be self-contained and perfect, even as the world is falling apart around you. It does not allow an opportunity to come undone or experience human weakness, and this toxicity of perfection conveys failure for those in the face of despair. Where is the grace in that?
Paul’s thorn in his side unravels his very being to the point where he feels his only choice is to become dependent on Christ in order to prevail. The thorns in life are inevitable. Although each one stings and throbs, they are eventually plucked out and we recover, perhaps with a scar, but we heal.
It is imperative to remember that God does not cause our thorns, the reality of our existences in a fallen world is what enables our thorns. The thorns in life are not fair and they are inevitable. But, because of God’s Grace and our participation in Christ’s Body, that these thorns are endurable.
However, sometimes, these thorns become embedded into our being and no matter our efforts to remove or move on from them, no matter the countless prayers for God to remove them from our life, these thorns remain, and our realities are changed forever. These thorns have the potential to cause us to become “undone”, to unravel, to fall apart.
These thorns… We all experience them. I’ll take Paul’s lead in vaguely introducing some of the one’s I struggle with and perhaps you may identify with one or some…
I know I was changed forever from the thorns in the grief over deaths of loved ones who have left a void. A void where years later, continues to halt me in my tracks and cause the tears to flow when spurred by a memory.
Or the thorns of illness and chronic pain that are either going to cause or accompany me to meet our maker. It took me decades of living with chronic illness to embrace the holiness and strength in this supposed brokenness. I was struck how deeply ingrained this notion of faking strong health is in our culture when I found myself considering covering up these bruises on my arms, as if they would cheapen what the Lord has prepared today.
My life was marked by the thorns of addiction and dependence on substances and behaviors that numbed me in an attempt to avoid the hard work of navigating pain and trauma that caused a desire to escape.
I think of the thorns within the mind, that have caused me to question my identity, my worth, my purpose, and most importantly, lose sight of my preciousness as a beloved child of God made in God’s image.
Or the brutal thorns of doubt, fear, perfectionism, and anxiety that prevent us from embracing and engaging in the lives that we are created and called to experience. The nagging pain or pressure of “what is purpose”, "am I worthy of serving?", and “how does God want me to serve” that can be so debilitating to our walk with Christ.
I think of the reality of changing seasons and recognizing that it may be time to hand over the reins of what our lives have been devoted to.
These thorns also spur from relationships. They swell rom the stinging reality of loss, or perhaps guilt, over a wronged relationship and lack of amends. We experience empty places at our tables because we allow egos to have priority over grace, humility, and forgiveness.
St. Paul’s is experiencing our own thorn at the moment in the search for a new Priest. How do we respond productively? This is time we band together in prayer and trust that God, with her abounding grace, already has the perfect candidate for our community.
What are the thorns in your flesh?
What are the issues that you are seeking relief and refuge from?
Are you at the point of being able to seek refuge and realize that you do not have to navigate your pain alone?
Shame and isolation are held with thorns that we all experience. These secrets, shame, and isolation are sin that create distance between us and God. Our secrets that we hide out of fear for judgement, when in reality, there are most likely people in our communities who get it and have experienced that very thorn themselves. This isolation is when we get into trouble. It is when we try to embark on this healing by ourselves, without others and without God, that the thorns can become deadly. The body of Christ is an intentional community because we are not meant to go through this life alone. We certainly are not alone with our thorns. Paul cried out to God for relief and God responded, “My Grace is sufficient, it is enough, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Anger, shame, trauma, and hurt lead away from God. My personal experience with this felt like I was entrenched underneath a thorny cluster that kept me trapped in the underground darkness. At that time, when it was all about me, this scripture was not therapeutic nor offered wisdom to me until I got over myself and put Christ and God’s Kingdom before me and my desires.
There is a choice in how to respond. We have a choice to acknowledge God’s presence and open ourselves to how the Holy Spirit is responding to us rather than the answer we desire.
Just as Paul boasts, our thorns, our weaknesses, have the opportunity to be life giving to ourselves and others when we allow Christ to carry us through our struggles. Paul states that, “for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Our response is a testimony of our relationship with Christ.
It is with the Grace that is offered through Christ’s crown of thorns that we are given perfect power in our weakness. It is through our weaknesses, not prideful power, that enables the opportunity for authentic ministry and relationship as disciples and as the Body of Christ.
The thorns in the flesh lead us to Christ’s crown of thorns and ultimately to the resurrection. This resurrection is what we remember, time and again, when we come to Christ’s table for the bread of life and cup of salvation. Christianity is about resurrection by grace and love after life’s crucifixions, over and over again. Our Christian faith and our community empowers us to rise up, again and again, when the thorns continue to pierce our flesh.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Paul’s usage of the word "perfect" translates into “full maturity”. We mature as we recognize our weaknesses, our limits, and learn to rely more deeply on the power of Christ dwelling within us. When we acknowledge the Divinity within us, then we have the capacity to utilize our thorny experiences to help others recover from their own.
Shame loses its power when we speak and embrace our truths. The answer to shame is resilience and embracing vulnerability. When we lose our shame and release our pain and isolation, when we accept God’s abounding grace; then the healing begins. The more whole and healed you become, the more empowered you are to help unshackle others.
It is here in Christ’s body, here at Christ’s table, here with each other that, through God’s abounding grace, our chains and our thorns are removed, they are forgiven if needed, the wounds are treated, and the healing occurs.
It is here that we have the opportunity to not only support each other in our weaknesses but lift each other up and hold each other accountable with making the necessary changes to improve our lives.
The Body of Christ is heaven here on earth when we allow it.
Now, as we journey out, and your thorns start to distract you from Christ. Consider how you choose to react to your thorn. Allow your thorns of the flesh to lead to Christ’s crown of thorns and be confident in God’s presence and resurrection. Because God’s grace and the opportunity for resurrection in Christ is guaranteed, we simply have to go all in.