July 4: The Sixth Sunday After Pentecost

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Hilda St. Patrick. The sermon for Sunday, July 4, was preached in response to 2 Corinthians 12.2-10. The sermon was preached based on the manuscript below.

Paul’s writing today,
like so often in Paul’s writing,
is about experiences that he has had
and with which we can identify.
He’s writing to the Church in Corinth,
if you’ll recall,
to re-establish his credibility.
Most of us have been there
at some point.
People from other Christian communities
have called his apostleship —
and thus his proclamation of the gospel —
into question.
He’s faced weaknesses,
insults, hardships, persecutions,
and calamities
for the sake of Jesus.
He’s seeking to make clear
probably having gotten some news while writing
that his call is real,
and his preaching is real.

Someone has suggested
that if you’re really called
you’ll have a spiritual, mystical experience.
All through the letter
Paul has pointed not to himself
but to Jesus’ cross.
So he starts to talk about himself
in the third person.
We’ve all been there, too.
Fourteen years prior
he was caught up to the third heaven,
to utter joy and ecstasy,
wrapped in the fullness of God.
This revelation he experiences,
this vision of the fullness of God
can’t even be shared with others.
After that, though,
as many of us face
after we know God’s love
a trial, a thorn,
is presented to his flesh.

This thorn,
whatever this messenger of Satan
comes to Paul
to keep him humble.
Twice Paul says in the text today,
that it comes,
“to keep me from being too elated.”
To keep him from being able to boast
about his own works,
his own ability
to achieve this visionary state.
Paul prays three times
for this to be taken away.
It’s not.
We don’t know what this thorn is,
whether physical or mental,
whether emotional or relational,
but we know it deeply troubles Paul.
We know,
because he asks for it to be taken away,
that he worries it will hinder
his proclamation
of Jesus the Christ
crucified and risen.

The world around us,
the trouble we see,
the devastating news
can distract and detract
from our same proclamation.
Not for the first time,
the ocean is on fire.
The ocean
is on fire.
Years of greed and environmental degradation
have yielded circumstances
where the ocean
is on fire.
That so many people
who’ve made decisions that set up this possibility
claim to act in Jesus’ name
can hinder our proclamation
of Jesus’ gospel.

Over the last few weeks
more and more news and updates
about Canadian residential schools’
mass deaths and mass graves
has come across our newsfeeds.
With just the tiniest bit of looking,
we can quickly learn
that The Episcopal Church
ran equally bad
residential schools.
As we ourselves work for racial justice
and racial reconciliation
we cannot forget
that our own spiritual forebears —
not just from a different church
or from a different country —
believed the racist adage
“Kill the indian,
save the man.”
Our history,
from residential schools
to slave labor
to historic investment
in slave ships,
to valuing Law and Order
over justice and true freedom
can be an impediment
to proclaiming Jesus’ gospel.

This week,
my days are running together,
attorneys for the Boy Scouts of America
settled lawsuits for 60,000 victims
of child sex abuse.
Over the last 20 years
institution after institution
many churches themselves
if not parachurch organizations
or organizations
that meet in churches
or organizations that
value a commitment to faith
have come to such settlements.
Worse yet,
some have played shell games with their assets
to avoid accountability
and continue to boast
of their own merit.
A history of rampant
sexual abuse of children
by people entrusted with their care,
is a thorn in our flesh.
It’s an impediment,
like Paul’s,
to our proclaiming
Jesus crucified and resurrected.
COVID19 continues to ravage
the Global South
and some of our country’s
poorest states
while systemic racism, sexism, and transphobia
seem to be the theme of the Olympics this year.
The sheer magnitude of heartbreak
that everyone around us is encountering
can make us wonder
how and why
there can be any good news.

Three times,
which may simply mean “many”
Paul prays for this thorn to be taken away.
It’s not.
In his weakness,
after he’s had his vision,
after he’s experienced
God’s ineffable paradise,
Paul is met with a weakness.
He hopes
that it will be taken away.
It’s not.
He hopes
that he won’t have to face it anymore.
He does.
He prays
for God to make him stronger.
God replies,
“My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect
in weakness.”
“My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect
in weakness.”

having been a disciple
for a while now
isn’t told to dig deep
and find the answer within.
“My grace is sufficient for you.”
There is no platitude
about finding the good
or looking for the silver lining.
Jesus doesn’t advise Paul
that his suffering
will add to his dignity.
“My grace is sufficient for you.”

“For power is made perfect
in weakness.”
It’s through weakness,
what appears to be foolishness,
that Jesus conquers death and the grave.
Paul’s weakness here
is what allows God to work through him.
One commentator suggests
that this weakness is like that
of a master and a student.
So long as the student,
say a 20 month old,
or 20 year old
knows it all
they cannot learn anything.

The thorn in Paul’s flesh,
the impediment to his preaching
was sent to keep him
from being too elated.
Through the grace of God, though,
he comes to see
that this thorn
is what allows God
to work through him.
“I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses” —
not having reached enlightenment,
not being able to summon an ecstatic state,
not pulling himself up by his bootstraps
or digging deep in himself
and manifesting his desires,
but weaknesses! —
“so that the power of Christ
may dwell in me.”

Like Paul knowing his weaknesses,
so knowing ours
is from where our strength in Jesus
can come.
Our history,
from residential schools
to slave labor
to historic investment
in slave ships,
to valuing Law and Order
over justice and true freedom
can be an impediment
to proclaiming Jesus’ gospel.
“My grace is sufficient for you.”
The grace Jesus offers us,
in knowing these weaknesses
about residential schools
or systemic racism
or destroying the Earth
in Jesus name
or sexual assault of children,
isn’t making it
go away.
Pray as hard as we might,
three times even!
and those histories
those atrocities
will still be in our past.
They’ll still have been claimed to be done
in our Savior’s name.
Boasting in his weakness,
Paul makes room for Jesus to work
through him.
Having his ego knocked down,
Paul is able to point to Jesus
who is making all things new.

There’s nothing we’ve done
to deserve God’s grace,
and yet it is sufficient for us.
By telling the truth about our past,
by acknowledging and bewaling
our manifold sins and wickedness
and being held accountable
and seeking new life
the impediments to our proclamation
aren’t removed.
Our history will always be there,
in our church
in our country,
in any building or community
that worships at the cross of Jesus.
When we, like Paul
acknowledge that,
we can make room for Jesus
to remind us that we are loved.
In that reminder, though
we’re expected to do better.
We’re not just expected,
but empowered to do better.
Not from deep in our souls,
not from naming and claiming it,
not from the bootstraps of our souls,
but through Jesus
who is making all things new.
If we act like
we don’t have thorns in our Christian flesh,
impediments to preaching the gospel,
we’ll just get defensive
and play shell games with our money
and wish it would all go away.
If we ask Jesus to transform our hearts,
and boast in our weaknesses,
our weaknesses that can only be aided
by Jesus’ sufficient grace
then we too
can repent
and believe in the gospel.

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