Friday, July 31, 2015

Friday Five:Taking Stock

Today's Friday Five comes from 3dogmom:
We’re midway through summer (for us northern gals and pals), a good time to pause for a moment to take a breath before the force of autumn’s gravity takes hold too fiercely, and pulls us into its grasp of programming and schedules and commitments. This might be the last chance we have to pause and check in with our inner divine compass, the soul, and reflect on our inner life.  Here are a few questions to consider as we do so.
What is one thing bringing you joy today?
The fact that school starts back on Monday. I know its early and it is robbing the kids of a whole month of summer, but this clergymama is in need of time away from the three littles!
What is a disappointment you are experiencing today?
I really want to attend a bridal shower out of town tomorrow for our church nursery worker/nanny. However, my husband has to work and cannot watch the littlest little and the biggest little has an eye appointment. It's not a huge disappointment, but I really wish I could be there for her!
When you think about the past six months, when did your soul feel most awake?
In April I went to a conference near Kansas City, Missouri with 20 people from my denomination. I talked, I laughed, I listened, I WORSHIPED, I rested. It was a very busy conference, but it was a blessing!
When did you experience a sorrow or regret?
Sorrow is a word that follows me around almost all of the time. I am struggling with depression, right now more than I have in quite a while. I feel like it is clinging to me, dripping from me and I'm just not sure where to put it or how to lift it.
For what is your soul most longing?
Rest.
Bonus: is there a word or image that succinctly summarizes how you find your soul today? Please share it with us.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

2 Kings 4:42-44

2 Kings 4:42-44
42 A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” 43 But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” So he repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” 44 He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of theLord.
I did a children’s message once about tithing. Tithing, the biblical principle of giving back to God the first-fruits or first 10 %, is difficult to explain to adults let alone a rowdy group of elementary school students. I prepared 9 bags of 10 pennies and one empty bag, fairly certain that we would have ten children that morning. And we did, 10 kids, just as planned. I handed out the bags one at a time and I told the kids these coins were theirs to do whatever they wanted with, then asked them to share how many coins were in their bag. They each had ten, except for Houston whose bag was empty.
It didn’t take any time at all for the kids to start offering to share with Houston, and one very smart child realized that if they all gave Houston one then they would all have 9 pennies, the same amount. Houston stood next to me and each child gave him one coin. And when he counted them he had 13.
Everyone still had 9 nine coins in their bag, but Houston had 13! I will never know exactly where those extra coins came from, but Houston smiled and handed me the extra 4 pennies and said “Mrs. Cardelia, you can have my left overs.” God can take a little and do a lot.
Read Sermon Scripture 2 Kings 4:42-44
I confess to you this morning that while I’m sure I have read this passage before, it has never stuck in my mind. Perhaps it’s because this text is paired with the feeding of the 5,000 and by contrast feeding 100 doesn’t sound like such a big deal!
But in God’s world, the numbers don’t matter, it’s the people that are important.
Elisha is going around the community speaking the words of God and establishing himself as the successor to Elijah’s prophetic authority. This particular miracle is the 4th explained in chapter 4, all of which echo a miracle performed by his predecessor.
This is God’s way of reminding the people that while Elijah has been carried to glory, God is not done with them just yet!
The people find themselves in a time of famine, a time of scarcity. There is not enough to eat and there are those without food. It is harvest time, perhaps the time when being without food is the most keenly felt and a man, from a town named after a foreign god, brings his first fruits, his tithe to the prophet.
His first fruits, that means the very first things harvested, without knowing for sure that what will be left will be enough, but trusting that God will provide.
He sets his gift before the prophet and Elisha tells his servant to feed the people.
Twenty fist sized loaves of bread and a few handfuls of grain might feed 20 people, not 100 and the servant is quick to point this out to Elisha.
How quick we are to worry that there is not enough. How quick we are to fear running out.
In our society there are often times when panic arises over the fear of not having enough. I shudder to think haw we might handle such a thing as rationing in our day! There are those that horde all they can get to make sure they have what they want. There are riots at store when certain items go on sale or when the latest and greatest thing is released. Anyone remember the Cabbage Patch riots of the 80’s? Heck, we even buy our movie tickets online in advance not just because we are worried that the show might sell out, but because the theater might run out of the right seats and we would get stuck on the front row!
The servant sees how little there is and panics. Elisha repeats his words to the servant and adds this “thus says the Lord. They shall eat and have some left.” God can take a little and do a lot. Mighty big talk for a new prophet! But the food is given and indeed there are leftovers.
There is no explanation as to how this occurred, there is no need to debate how this happened. What is clear is that in the midst of human need a man arrives, generously offering the best of what he has. And the prophet, with the eyes of faith, offers it to the people of God. The result is beyond any reasonable human expectation, and that’s the point. God is at work beyond our expectations!
Hospitality, the act of caring for one another, either out of our abundance or out of our pittance is the life force that creates community. From these acts of stewardship and hospitality flow the abundance of God. God can take a little and do a lot!
There is a YouTube video I watched not so long ago that speaks to hospitality and community building. A man walks around a food court and asks people to share their food. He’s very polite, he just says he is hungry and would they happen to have any extra food to share. Every single person sitting there with bags full of food or heaps of food on their plates says there is not enough to share. Most are polite too, although some are not.
The man and his hidden camera men leave the mall food court and walk outside. They see a homeless man sitting on the grass and quickly decide to buy him a bag of food. Two of the three go and give the homeless man the food and a drink. Then they leave. A few moments later the man comes up to the homeless man and says “I’m really hungry. Do you have anything you could share?”
It only takes a minute for the homeless man to offer him whatever he would like out of the bag. He invites the young man to sit down with him and they talk and eat together. Generosity, hospitality, abundance.
God can take a little and do a lot.
There is an absurdity to this text that cannot be overlooked. What we have received is a message that is countercultural. Our lives are often so similar to that of the servants words “How can I set this small amount before 100 people.”
We budget our resources and our time with a careful eye to the limitations we see present. We tell ourselves “there are only so many hours in the day.” And “a penny saved is a penny earned.” When we design even our church budgets we are very careful to be prudent and make sure that we can afford to pay for every program that is proposed.[1]
We would never put Elisha in charge of the budget or even in charge of planning a church potluck! That would be reaching beyond the bounds of sanity.
Too often we focus on the need and how big and overwhelming it seems to us. We let that paralyze us, keep us from doing anything other than nodding our heads and saying, “yes, yes, that is so sad.”
But, remember, God can take a little and do a lot.
What would happen if, instead of looking at all the need, we started by looking at what God has done? If we first considered how we have been fed, would we see the abundance that allows us to feed others?
God takes our little gifts, our little efforts and blesses them beyond our understanding. God has taken this little denomination and used it to bless people in other countries with the good news of the gospel. God has taken the gifts of children and turned them into feasts. God has taken our stories and turned them into witnesses for his saving grace. God has taken this church and allowed us to reach out with love to so many through the Angel Tree, through the Pumpkin Patch, through the blessing of the animals! God is using our relationship with Church Street to show both denominations that we can work worship and serve together! God can take a little and do a lot.
So what are we willing to offer to God today? Will we offer our time? Will we offer our talents? Will we offer our tithes? Will we offer our lives? No matter how small we may feel, no matter that the world may say, it is not enough, we must be bold like Elisha and claim the truth found in the word of God. God can take a little and do a lot!



[1] Douglas T. King Feasting on the Word Year b Volume 3 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 269

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Mark 6 "Come away with me"

Mark 6:30-34; 53-56
When’s the last time you really had the time to eat? The time to dine? It seems to be something that is slipping away from us as a culture, or has already slipped away. Did you know that between them, Huntsville and Madison have over 200 listings for fast food restaurants? Over 65 different chain restaurants have found a home here, and business is booming!
In our high activity, high productivity driven world, fast food fits right in. We don’t have, or don’t take the time to prepare meals that require more than 20 minutes to eat, except on holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.
We allow ourselves to be pushed a pulled, prodded and dragged from job to job, from task to task, not taking the time to come away and be refreshed.
Jesus and the disciples find themselves in similar situation in our text today. The disciples have just returned from a time of great productivity. They had been casting out demons, healing the sick and lame, and spreading the good news.
But when they returned they found that there was not time to enjoy their efforts, they were pressed on all sides for prayer, assistance, help, miracles. They didn’t even have time to eat!
Eating was a BIG deal in Jesus’ day. There were no Taco Bells or McDonalds handy. Meals were cooked for hours before hand. You sat at the table and literally “reclined” at the table. You stretched out, you relaxed, you processed your day and planned the next. And who you ate with was often even more important than what you were eating! You surrounded yourself with those that were important to you, and those who were important to society, and you spent time interacting with humans, not screens!
But it seems the disciples hadn’t had the chance to eat, to unwind, to process and refuel. Jesus offers to take them on a retreat of sorts. “Come away with me to a place of quiet rest.”
Jesus doesn’t say “You’ve done great boys, but lets keep up the momentum!” He doesn’t say “We need to capitalize on the work you just did and make sure that the message keeps moving!”  There is no “Let’s keep striking while the iron is hot.”
Jesus says, “Come away with me to a place of quiet rest.”
I’ve just returned from a three day retreat in Bowling Green, KY. It was a blessed event, where over 90 women gathered together from across our denomination and sang, worshiped, prayed and rested. It really was something to behold, and something I encourage you to participate in when the opportunity arrises once more.
However, there were at least six of us who did not rest. We were the leadership for the event. It was our job to make sure that the other 90 women encountered God and came away renewed.
As for the leadership team, well yesterday morning we had one limping around with a sore knee, one carrying an ice pack to calm her agrivated tooth, one running around in circles because she couldn’t find something she had set down just minutes before, and one, okay me, lying down in a pew with a killer migraine headache!
The idea of taking rest is wonderful, but you must actually rest in order to find a benefit!
The disciples enjoyed a leisurely boat ride with Jesus: a time to decompress, a time to debrief, a time to nourish their own souls. But when they reached the shore line, the crowds had followed them and it was right back to the work.
Sometimes we have to catch moments of rest and grace when we can. The disciples had the boat ride, and while it wasn’t a long retreat, it was a respite in the company of God.
I was blessed to spend three hours leading women through the labytinth experience. It was three hours of praying for these women and with these women. Three hours of standing guard as they walked the path. And it was an amazing renewal.
Even in the midst of the headache there was a chance for renewal. I led the renewal of baptism service for these women. I watched them come forward and dip their hands in the water and place the water on their foreheads to remember the claiming of God in their baptisims.
While I was doing this I got a tap on the shoulder from Nadara Jones. She whispered that her 10 year old grand niece, who was attending the conference with her, wanted to be baptized, and wanted me to do it.
A moment of grace that I will never forget. A moment of renewal that I really needed.
Alexis came to the front and stood by me as I asked her the questions from the confession of faith. She made a profession of faith and asked to receive baptism. The women in attendance covenanted to pray for her, to be mindful of her, to be a faith community for her. And she was baptized in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
Moments of renewal are not always long, but when Christ gives us the opportunity we need to take them, and when we do, we find ourselves sustained for the journey.
Our session had such a moment of renewal last Sunday.
We met with some members of the session of Church Street CPCA. We spent time getting to know one another. We learned that we are more alike than we are different. We feasted together. Took real time to eat and enjoy a meal. To dine with and converse with one another. Then we prayed for one another in small groups. Lifiting each other and our churches up.
We promised to continue to pray for one another and for God’s work as we are intentional about forming a relationship with our sister church.
And when we came to a time to end, we didn’t want to leave. People continued to chat. We entered the room as strangers and left as friends.
We witnessed God working through us and in us during those three hours spent together. And we set a time and place to meet again. We have been invited to their place in October for another time of feasting, fellowship, and prayer.
Who knows what God will do through this interaction? Who knows what wonderful things the Lord has in store for our two congregations?
After their time of rest the disciples faced a shoreline full of waiting people. People who needed to be loved on. People who needed healing. People who were searching for peace. They were witness to the feeding of the five thousand, the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
In seeking retreat the disciples were met by the same people in the same places they sought to get away from. The rest they sought never happened. Yet it is still important that one is intentional in seeking to get away, even if one does not get the chance every now and then to get away. Jesus saw their needs and taught them many things. It is virtually impossible to be always ready to please people, but it is possible to do the things that are pleasing to God.
People are in our lives for a moment, but God is with us eternally. As Augustine of Hippo said, "Our souls are restless until they find their rest in God."
Getting things straight with God is a way of putting people in perspective. They are to be loved as we love ourselves. How can we love ourselves when we are always going and doing and not pausing for rest? For if we are not rested and well, how can we be the spouse we are needed to be? Or the parent our children need?  Or the disciple God is calling us to be?  No one will ask us to rest, but we must pause and rest in order that we might better be able to serve those who we are called to serve.  Otherwise, not getting away can cause us to become annoyed by the needs of those who will need us.
Do we take time to renew and reflect? This is not a call to avoid our responsibilities, but it is a call to take a break so that we won’t become overwhelmed caregivers. Output requires input and intake. Work calls for rest. Caregivers ought to be the first to seek care. How can we serve when we're worn to the bone-without rest? The disciples take Jesus' advice to get away, but cannot manage to do this unnoticed.
As followers of Christ we are to live in God’s time.  Our text this morning is a perfect example.  The disciples thought they were escaping to a "deserted place" with Jesus. Instead, they had a short, restful boat trip and then witnessed the miracles of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, feeding the 5,000 and the divine Christ walking on water.   God was present both in their time of rest and in their time of revival. 
There are other God’s time moments.  Have you ever just settled down with a cup of coffee, a favorite snack and a magazine, all ready to enjoy a little quiet time -- only to have a small visitor show up who has both the munchies and a favorite story he or she wants read? Which leaves you feeling more rested and refreshed: a half-hour with Newsweek or a half-hour with a snuggly child perched on your lap?
For Christians who live always fully immersed in "God's time," moments of rest and relaxation don't constitute "downtime." Rather this is "uptime," the time we take to refresh our spirits and breathe in more deeply the presence of the Divine.
Jesus said to his disciples come away with me to a quiet place and rest awhile.  He taught his disciples about the importance of rest.   Disciples of Jesus today should recognize the need for the quiet place to rest.  That quiet place is a place where we can get away and rest, recharge, and refocus.    
As we are in that quiet place we shouldn’t worry: The demands of life will always be waiting, as they were for Jesus. It doesn't take long for people to find you and cry out to you and place assignments before you and expect you to work miracles ... in real time, right now! But returning from the quiet place, you'll find yourself full of serenity, strangely stronger and ready to roll up your sleeves ready to go to work.    
Right now, in this sacred moment, let’s go away and take a moment and stop, clear our minds and listen to God’s wondrous silence and rest in God’s unending grace.
Let’s imagine our way into this story. Picture yourself as one of the disciples, exhausted, but excitedly telling Jesus what’s been happening with you. Hear Jesus tell you that it’s time for you to take a break. What does that word mean to you? 
Picture yourself sitting on the shore listening to Jesus. What do you see?  Look at the faces around you. Can you hear the water lapping on the shore?  Are there children playing in the distance?  Can you smell the grass?   Is the ground beneath you hard?
Is the wind blowing off the lake?  Slow down and listen to Jesus speaking to you alone. Hear Jesus ask, “What would you like to tell me?  What frustrations and hopes do you want me to know about?”
Jesus knew just how stressed we can become. He knew that we would get all of our priorities upside down. He was well aware that our frenzied lives would take their toll on not only our health but also our closeness to our heavenly Father.

Let this word from God today be a catalyst to get each one of us thinking about where our lives are taking us. Let’s take time out rest in God, seeking that refreshment that only our heavenly creator and savior can give.   

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Saving face:a sermon on Mark 6:14-29

Mark 6:14-29
*DISCLAIMER* Today’s text is not a pleasant one. It is the death of John the Baptist and it deals with some gruesome topics and while I have tried to be sensitive to them I am allowing everyone this opportunity to decide for themselves or their children whether they want to hear these words today.
Read Scripture
Today’s scripture seems prepackaged for a Hollywood movie. In fact it has been turned into movies, into operas, into gruesome works of religious art, into a cultural reference. There is something about it that sparks the imagination, for better or worse. It’s almost like watching a particularly twisted reality show that no matter how hard you try you can’t bear to turn the station.
First it is important to note that this king Herod is not the same king Herod that was ruling when Jesus was born. This is the son of that man, who no longer really holds the official title of king but is called that none the less.
The scripture begins when Herod hears news of Jesus’ disciples traveling around casting out demons and healing the sick. He is reminded of another man who had caused quite a stir in his world, John the Baptizer. Herod is convinced that the person holding these powers must be none other than the reincarnated John the Baptist.
For most of us here that would be quite a leap to take. But none of us have on our conscience what Herod holds on his.
Mark enters into a flashback wherein Herod recalls the time he spent with John and the events that led to John’s death. The drama enters the story here: the birthday banquet, the dancing of his daughter, the promise of up to half his non-existent kingdom, and the request for John’s death.
Mark has this unbelievable ability to tell a story in a compelling and yet stark way. There are very few actual details, but the story is rich and captures the imagination. Throughout this Gospel “extreme and even grotesque characters will suddenly appear out of nowhere, revealing a reality that is mysteriously cloaked yet very real. Hidden in plain sight is a world that is demon infested, and evil coexists with normal day-to-day existence, inflicting pain and chaos. No one is immune from this power.”[1]
In this story we are given two extreme characters, Herod and John, evil and good, powerful and outcast. We are forced to deal with the realities of the power of the world and its challenge to the righteous. We are forced to see the very real struggle between the word of God and the way of the world.
That power struggle is something we are well aware of in our current society. There are so many stories of the weak being trodden on by those with power. There are accounts of abuse, harm and hatred so often now that it seems to take extreme cases to even catch our attention. Or worse, sensationalized stories that keep us from looking at the real injustices and issues facing our world.
When we focus exclusively on these things we for get to look for the moments where God is at work in this world, where grace is offered, where hope is shown. We can get caught up to the point where we miss the good news.
So what is the good news in this passage? Where is it that grace is shown, where is it that God is glorified?
The quote on the front of your bulletin is from Flannery O’Connor’s book Mystery and Manners. “There is a moment in every story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected even though the reader may not recognize this moment.”
I’ll tell you friends that I have read this account of the beheading of John the Baptist many many times and not recognized any moment of grace. I have seen it as nothing more than a sign that those in power have the opportunity to crush those under their control; that absolute power corrupts absolutely; that saving face means more than saving lives.
But there is a moment of grace offered here, buried in the sensationalism. It lies in the relationship between John and Herod.
Yes, Herod had John arrested for daring to speak publicly about the ill-advised marriage to his brother’s wife Herodias. That preaching had driven a wedge in Herod’s personal life, Herodias wanted John dead, but Herod couldn’t bring himself to kill him. 
Verses 20 and 21 tell us that Herod feared John, knowing him to be righteous and holy and so he protected him. When he heard John, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.
The king and the prophet had developed a strange relationship, similar to the one between Joseph and those who kept him enslaved in Egypt. There was something there that kept Herod interested in keeping him alive. Herod, even though he was a total Hellenist, was intrigued by John’s words, perhaps even to a point of believing them himself.
The truth of God was worming its way into his heart one word at a time. And there is nothing that threatens evil more than the truth of God.
Here Herod stood, building a relationship with a prisoner that might have the power to change the course of history and those around him could not wait to put that potential fire out before it spread to the rest of the world. The birthday party was an opportunity Mark says, a chance to make sure that the prophet John was no longer whispering in Herod’s ear.
Herod was on display as a man of great wealth and power, even if it was only “borrowed” from Rome. He was trying to navigate his way through the relationships he held with his family, with those in his court. In this attempt to pacify everyone, he fails to uphold his own personal standards.
He is grieved verse 26 tells us yet, out of respect for the guests, read in order to save face, he follows his wife’s request voiced by her daughter.
It’s easy to pass judgement on this man who rejected the opportunity to share and experience grace. But isn’t it normal for us to want to please those around us, even if doing so keeps us from following the grace we know and have accepted as real?
“For a harried mother of a toddler, there is the question of how best to love and parent a child in the face of a defiant “No!” and a full-fledged temper tantrum in isle 6 of the grocery store at the end of a long day.
For the father of three there is the struggle to explain the importance of rearranging travel plans for a work trip so he can attend a Little League playoff game.
A corporate executive wonders how her announcement of a long-awaited pregnancy will affect her employees’ perceptions of her as an effective boss.
A stay-at-home Dad wrestles with the whispers of former colleges that he just couldn’t handle the pressures of work.
Teenagers experience the angst of competing for acceptance in desirable social cliques, of serial broken hearts in the complex world of adolescent dating, of family tensions over privileges and responsibilities.”
[2] Adults struggling with end of life issues wonder how to live authentic lives while keeping a legacy for those that come behind them.
It’s easier for us to see Herod’s choice as a bad one. After all, we know the rest of the story. We know about Jesus who has come into the world to overcome the powers and oppression Herod seeks to maintain. We know the freedom that comes only from Christ’s own arrest, persecution, death and resurrection.
Our challenge is to look at our own decisions in light of that same reality, and ask ourselves whether the choices we make are self-protective or a part of God’s redemption of the world.
Our challenge is to accept the grace offered to us in these moments, and to share that grace with others in need.
Our challenge is to live lives that reflect the reality of the resurrection, of all things being made new by Christ Jesus our Lord.
Our challenge is to say no to saving face and say yes to saving lives.



[1] Cheryl Bridges Johns, Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 3 (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2009), 237
[2] Karen Marie Yust, Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 3 (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2009), 238

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Power made perfect in weakness

2 Corinthians 12:2-10
At first glance today’s scripture is a daunting one.  It offers up many more questions than answers. What is all of this talk about a third heaven? Why does Paul mention it and then not tell the whole story? What was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” anyway? I’ll admit that after struggling with this text for nearly a week there are still aspects that I don’t understand, so perhaps this morning we can wrestle with it together.
The scripture lesson begins with a cryptic telling of an “out of this world” experience. Paul tells the Corinthians that he knows a man who three years ago was caught up in the third heaven. Paul writes about an experience he himself had in the third person. This is about the same as your child coming home and saying “I have a friend who has this problem. . .” Quite often your child and their “friend” are one and the same. Paul does this so that his audience will know that while he had this amazing spiritual experience, he has not let himself get caught up in his own hype. 
During this time period Jewish mysticism was on the rise. People everywhere were having visions and moments of great revelations. In fact many people were beginning to cash in on these kinds of experiences. People would stand in the synagogues and court yards telling the story of their special revelations to attract followers. 
I imagine they might have sounded a little bit like those late-night infomercials for psychics like “Ms. Chloe.” “Just give me a call and for $.99 per minute I will tell you everything about the future.” These scam artists were quickly gaining popularity in Corinth. So Paul says “Hey, I can play that game.” Paul too had had visions and dreamed dreams. Anyone remember the Damascas road experience where Paul actually talked to God and was converted? He can defiantly say that he’s had visions and known things that “cannot be repeated.” But he elevates himself even more in the next few sentences.
Paul says that he could and would boast about such experiences, in verse 6, but he won’t because he wants people to trust him and his message based on their own experiences of him. You see if you trust in visions and dreams that only the dreamer can tell you about, what do you really know? But if you trust the actions of a person, things they have shown you about themselves, then you know that person and their faith. Paul wants his work to be judged, not by how great a visionary he is, but rather on what he has revealed in his character that points toward God.
I’m sure there are many of us here today that have had wonderful spiritual experiences with God that we would struggle to put into words. Just this week I heard from a friend who said when God called her to the ministry she looked around to see who was speaking to her; she actually heard a voice. But she went on to say that she could tell that story 1,000 times, and it would not show anyone else that she had a calling. Rather, she had to go about the work and care for the sick, pray for the oppressed, and love the unlovable. By doing these things she shows God’s calling and presence in her life.
Paul emphasizes the importance of not buying into your own hype. He continues in verse 7 saying, “just in case I ever thought of getting high and mighty about my many visions, a thorn was given to me in my very flesh. A messenger of the devil sent to torment me and keep me from getting too elated.”
Paul talks about his thorn in the flesh. The Greek word he uses is skolops which means thorn or stake. A Schoinos was a trap used to harm their enemies. It was sometimes a pit dug in the ground filled with skolops, or sharpened stakes. They covered the pit and waited for their enemies to walk across it and be impaled on the stakes. Schoinos were also often used to defend crops and agriculture. People put them up around and in vines to harm the enemy and keep their crops from being easily ravaged[1]. The skolops were used to deliberately change the plans of the enemy.  Ancient armies, by changing the enemies direction, controlled the path their enemies took.  If there was a skolops in the way you had to move your entire troops to avoid that area. 
 Paul tells us that this thorn has been given to him by Satan. God did not afflict Paul with this problem, Satan did. God did not allow such a thing to occur to Paul. Rather Satan planned this as an attack on God. Satan was trying to thwart God’s plans by harming one of God’s more ardent supporters. Satan, the great pretender thought this skolops or thorn would keep Paul from doing God’s work.
We are not told what Paul’s or thorn in the flesh was. It apparently would have been well known to the Corinthians because Paul sees no need to talk about it in any sort of detail. There have been countless pages written wondering and pondering upon what this thorn might have been. Was it eye sight related? Was it leprosy? Was it malaria or some other disease? Was it physical at all? Could it have been depression? Could it have been spiritual temptations? Maybe it was stuttering? Who knows? By focusing on what Paul’s ailment might have been we lose the point of what he is saying.
There is something he fights, day in day out, and he has begged God to take it away from him. Three specific times he has asked to be relieved of this stake. And yet it remains.
This hardly matches up with my image of Paul. After all Paul is the great father of the church. He was a fervent church planter. He was an amazing missionary. He worked well with men and women. It would naturally occur then that this wonderful holy man would find favor with God and never have any problems at all. After all that’s the good news most of us are taught isn’t it? That if we believe in God and follow God’s plans everything will be hunky dory? That’s the kind of good news we will gladly sign on to proclaim.
But I am reminded of another man who prayed to have his afflictions removed. I’m sure you’ve heard of him. Down on his knees one night, all alone he asked that his afflictions go away. This man, Jesus sat in the garden and begged that “this cup should pass.” He too begged that his suffering would be avoided and set aside. But in the end he prayed “not my will but thine be done.” Jesus, wearing a crown of thorns, was crucified. The cup did not pass. Angels did not swoop down from heaven to save his feet from dashing against the rocks. He suffered, bled, and died.  
But what is it God told Paul in verse 9? “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” In ultimate weakness Christ gave himself up to death on a cross. But through grace he was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven and sitith on the right hand of God the father almighty!
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul heard those words and realized that he could boast in his shortcomings and weakness because through them God’s grace was shown. God did not let Satan’s attack on Paul stop God’s work from being done. In fact God was glorified all the more because of Paul’s weakness.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Think about those words. What do they mean to you? I know what they mean to me. I remember growing up thinking that I was just a dumb girl. I had a great vocabulary and could talk the ear off of a fence post. But I had the hardest time writing, and when it came to math I felt as if I had missed a whole years’ worth of classes and was fighting to get caught up. My teacher continually sent home reports saying “intelligent but does not apply herself” or “lacks motivation.”  I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I prayed to be delivered from these problems. I can’t count the nights I cried over the pain and frustration they caused me. I was fifteen before I was tested for learning disabilities and it was discovered that I had dyslexia and Attention Deficit disorder.
For some a naming or diagnoses of a disorder is a traumatic experience. For me it was like a weight had been lifted. I felt God’s grace in that moment. I wasn’t stupid, I had a problem. And with God’s help, hard work and dedication I could work through it and learn to live with it. I struggled, but God sent me great teachers and godly mentors to help me along the path. I finished high school and college with honors and graduated from the seminary with my master’s degree. Thanks to God’s grace and power I have been able to get through these difficulties, often one number or letter at a time.
I have not been cured of dyslexia, it’s still as bad as ever, but I know that its there and I am more cautious and purposeful in my actions. “My grace is sufficient, says the Lord, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Each of us here has a weakness. For some it is a physical ailment such as cancer, arthritis, poor hearing or failing eyesight. For some of us our thorn is emotional. We’ve lost loved ones, we’ve been abused, we’ve suffered with the burden of a bad child hood or even worse marriages. For some of us this weakness is psychological and manifests in depression, or manic episodes, perhaps even in crippling fears or deep isolation.
Whatever our weaknesses, all we need to remember is that God did not abandon us to them. There is always hope, for God is always with us.
So let us leave this place boasting not in our own works, not in our own good fortune, not in our perfection. Let us leave here full of our weakness, knowing that God’s “power is made perfect in weakness and that God’s grace is sufficient for us all.”


[1] Warfare in Agriculture in Classical Greece by Victor Davis Hanson