July 8th – 6th Sunday after Pentecost

One of the things I talked about last week was time – chronos time, in which we try to live, and kairos time, God’s time, which is the one which really controls us. All things happen in God’s time, no matter how much we want to make them happen when it suits us. In the reading from the Book of Samuel, we heard about this, when David – already anointed by Samuel – had to wait until the drama that was Saul’s life played itself out. Saul was already dead by the time this book began, and there was a bloody war between the house of Saul and the house of David, which you can read about in the chapters immediately preceding today’s reading. After the wars were finally over, the tribes of Israel came to David, and acknowledged him as their rightful ruler, and, we are told that, at the age of thirty, he became king, and he reigned for forty years. For the most part, he was a good king. There were some rather serious glitches, but today is not the day to talk about them. What we need to know today is that David had to wait to become king. He had to serve, faithfully and patiently for days, weeks, months, and years, before the time was right. And during all that time, he was preparing to be king. He was getting ready for God’s plan for him. That is what we all do, throughout our lives. We get ready. We don’t know what God’s plan is for us, so we spend our lives getting ready. And while we are getting ready, we serve, in any way that we can. It is all preparation, a matter of being ready when God’s call for service comes. And without preparation, we will never be ready.
Paul’s getting ready was rather different from anything we would imagine. In this letter to the Corinthians, he talked about his suffering, saying, among other things: I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. You will remember that, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, one of the things I say is: Come, not because you are strong, but because you are weak. We are all weak. We have human bodies, and, as such, we are subject to all of the ills which can afflict human bodies. We have human minds, and, as such, we are subject to all of the doubts and wayward thoughts which can come upon us unawares. But, unlike Paul, I think that most of us would find it difficult to thank God for our weaknesses, our suffering.
Actually, as I may have told you, I have always had difficulty with Paul. As a woman, in the time before I went to seminary, I would avoid reading his letters most of the time – for a whole host of reasons. First of all, there was his attitude towards women, which seemed to me to be condescending, at best. And there seemed to be many ways when he delighted in telling people what to do – and I don’t mean what they had to do to be saved. I mean, just ordering them around. But I think that the worst thing was his attitude. So many times, he would say something like: I would never brag about myself. And then he would open his mouth, and self-praise is all that would come out.
Today’s reading really shows this. Paul starts by talking about some unknown person who had died fourteen years ago, and he says: I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. And that’s not too bad. But then, he goes on to say: Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say. Now, correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t that also boasting, albeit in a convoluted way?
But he doesn’t leave it at that. He says that, to keep him from becoming conceited, he was given a thorn in his flesh to torment him. And he goes on to say that he delights in his weaknesses, because it is through these weaknesses that Christ’s power rests in him. I often wonder how many of us would be able to say the same thing. How many of us would be able to look at our hardships, our sufferings, and say that we delight in them? Very few, would be my guess. But Paul, well, he has that ability. We don’t know, today, exactly what Paul’s so-called “thorn in the flesh” is. He never says outright. It may be an illness he struggles with, or something of a more spiritual or emotional nature. We’ll never know. But we know how it made Paul feel – a thorn in the flesh, a constant pain in his life, one that he asks repeatedly for God to take away from him. And when he doesn’t get the answer he wants – he turns it into strength. And that is what we need to do – to turn our weaknesses into strengths. But, in order to do that, we need to admit that we have weaknesses. We need to identify them. We need to figure out in what way they can be strengths.
And we need to understand the thorns which we have. Not only understand them, we need to be able to work with them. Some people turn them into what I call deal-breakers. They will say to God, for instance: If you take care of this (whatever THIS may be), then I will follow you; then I will believe in you; then I will do what you want me to. It seems to me that people who say this are saying that they know better than God, that their plan for their lives is better than the one God already has in place for them. We will admit that God is all-powerful, but still. . . If only I could win the lottery, my life would be so much better. If only I could have a loving relationship with a significant other, then I would be able to worship God better. If only I could have some time for myself, then I would be able to help others better. But that’s not the way God works.
And our thorns are there for a reason. Just think about your thorns for a minute. What is the thorn, the obstacle in YOUR life that keeps you from doing what you know you should be doing? What excuses do you give to God for not following where and when he calls? Maybe your thorn is a physical one. Today, there seem to be even more illnesses than in bygone times. Part of this, of course, is due to the fact that antibiotics result in ever stronger germs. It is rare for any family to be untouched by serious illness. Maybe your thorn is an emotional one. Many people deal with depression, anxiety, or some other form of mental illness. People on the outside of mental illness find it difficult to help, simply because they don’t know what to do or to say. People on the inside suffer, and pray for relief. A thorn could even be intellectual, which I see as a kind of inner debate, an argument with oneself. But whatever the thorn is, it can interfere with OR enhance our relationship with God. The choice is ours to make.
Too many of us let our thorns interfere with our making the right choice. But, you know, Scripture is full of people whose thorns didn’t interfere with their serving God. Moses was unable to speak in public, and yet he led the Israelites from Egypt through the wilderness to the Promised Land. David, the little shepherd boy, became, as we have heard, one of Israel’s greatest leaders, and his dynasty eventually resulted in Solomon and even the Messiah. Mary, as an unwed mother, could have been ostracized and even stoned by the society of her time, and yet her pregnancy produced Jesus Christ. And what about Thomas? His thorn of doubt haunts us today, and yet it also frees us. In our own Living Faith, doubt in acknowledged, for it is through doubt that our faith can grow ever stronger. Peter, the rock on which Jesus built his church, probably had more thorns than most of us, but he was the one who was chosen. Proof positive that God doesn`t call the equipped, but equips the called. Now, if God can use all of these people despite their thorns, then surely God has a place for us too. And if all of these people can follow God despite their thorns, then surely, we can too.
In following Jesus, we need to know that we are not alone, even though we may often feel just like that. We have a company of saints with us, and, even more importantly, we have Jesus Christ himself, who will be with us on our journey, whether we realize it or not. But you know, there were times when even Jesus felt alone. Take today`s Gospel reading. Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry, returned to his hometown, where you would think that he would have been welcomed with opened arms. If we were to move this to more modern times, you could think of a revivalist preacher who has had an amazing successful circuit. The first five chapters of Mark`s Gospel are filled with stories of Jesus going from place to place, healing people, casting our demons, and even – almost as a climactic act – raising Jairus` daughter from the dead. So he heads home to Nazareth, to show his friends what a success he has become. And what happens? In modern terms, he falls flat on his face. He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, as had been his custom, and began to teach there. But the people said: Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son, and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon? Aren’t his sisters with him? And they took offense at him. They took offense at him. But I am not the only one who is shocked by this. In verse six, we read that Jesus himself was amazed by their lack of faith. Maybe it was due to their lack of faith that Jesus could not do any miracles there in Nazareth, other than a few healings. But he learned something that day, something which we all should learn. He learned while you can control what you say, you cannot control what people hear. He learned while you can control what you do, you cannot control how people respond. He learned while you can control how you show your love, you cannot control how people receive it.
Reading that Jesus’ power was somehow limited by the people’s unbelief may raise questions in our minds. Barbara Brown Taylor uses a wonderful metaphor in her sermon on this text to explain why Jesus couldn’t work the same miracles in his hometown, where the people refused to respond to him. Jesus was still Jesus, she says, but the people – then and now – have to be open to him and his transformative power. In other words, if they – and we – are not open to receive him, then he cannot work in us. She compares it to the experience of trying to light a match to a pile of wet sticks: “So call this an ‘un-miracle’ story, in which Jesus held the match until it burned out in his hand, while his family and friends sat shaking their heads a safe distance away.” Instead of working great wonders, Jesus had to walk away from his own hometown that day, and went on “to go shine his light somewhere else.” Taylor then compares us to those people in the synagogue, and to Jesus’ own family – after all, we are the church and claim Jesus as our own, but how faithful, how open, are we to his transformative power in our lives? Taylor’s sermon challenges us to consider our discomfort with being challenged, especially by the unexpected, unlikely people sent by God to do just that. I believe that God is still speaking, even though we may not recognize his voice. “God is all around us, speaking to us through the most unlikely people.” Sure it might be the stranger or even the enemy who preoccupies our thoughts, but sometimes – surprise! – it’s the people who are right around us, every day. Who’s to say that Jesus can’t and won’t work through those most everyday people?
So he left Nazareth, with his followers. But the time had come to expand his work, so he sent his followers out to preach the good news of repentance. Not only that. He gave them the power to drive out demons and to heal the sick. A prime example of equipping the called. He instructed his followers not to take anything with them – no bread, no bag, no money, not even an extra tunic. They were to depend on the charity of others for everything. But the part that struck me in this was Jesus didn’t send them alone. He sent them out two by two, which shows the importance of community. Remember we have been told that where two or three are gathered together in his name, there he is also. I think that Jesus told his followers not to take anything with them because he knew that, too often, we are hampered by THINGS. Too often, our relationship with THINGS interferes with our relationship with others and with him. f we focus too much of our time and energy and resources on the physical plant of our church, for example, then we might grow dependent upon it, a material resource, a possession, in a sense, a security blanket, perhaps. An expression that I have often heard is: Married to the building, and that is so true in many cases. It’s what we humans do when we feel insecure, after all: depend on things instead of God. Our intentions are good, but we depend on the medium more than the message, on the physical rather than the spiritual. Jesus knows, and we SHOULD know, that the message – the gospel itself – is more important than anything else in the church. We think of ourselves as heirs of the church – the building, the congregation, the endowment, the history. In actual fact, we are heirs of the Gospel. We are stewards of the Gospel, and we need to share the good news with others. And when we do this, we can trust that we will be given everything we will need along the way. Thanks be to God.

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August 2012

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