Based on 2Samuel 5:1-10, 2Corinthians 12:2-10, Mark 6:1-13
It is the 245th anniversary of Independence Day today. Almost two and a half centuries ago the men who founded this nation came together to “form a more perfect union” than the one under which they were living. It was the first time in recorded history that the people of a nation declared that they had the right to choose how they were to be governed. The impetus for this break from England was a thorn that went by the name of King George. In the text of the “Declaration of Independence”, Thomas Jefferson wrote 26 grievances against the King of England – labeling them “absolute Tyranny”. Thorny issues which proved unresolvable moved the colonists forward towards a militant break with the British Empire.
Thorny issues have vexed and perplexed humans since we started living together tens of thousands of years ago. How best to live in community with others who might not share your view of the world has always been in the top five questions of all civilizations. Thorny issues of differing political views and personal ideologies, religion versus spirituality, views on sexuality, marriage and home-life, views on economics, ideas about ecology and climate change, ideologies on the size and role of government, issues of individual versus communal needs/wants/desires, to highlight just a few. Thorny issues do not lend themselves to easy answers. Thorny issues tend to be polarizing and divisive and will require us to put away our reactionary behaviors and seek common ground. Michael Gerson reminds us, in an opinion piece this week in the Washington Post that, “…No form of loving your country involves despising half its citizens….”
Thorny issues abound in our scripture readings for this week. From Paul’s description of his thorn as “a messenger of Satan to torment me” to keep him humble, to Jesus’ inability to do any deeds of power in Nazareth due to the people’s amazing unbelief, to the killing of innocents by King David as he defeated the Jebusites at Jerusalem. These are scriptures that we will struggle to understand and to incorporate into our spiritual journeys. Before we go farther, let us go to God, thanking God for our thorny issues and their ability to remind us that God’s grace is sufficient….
David was anointed King over Israel at age 30. He marches his combined army to Jerusalem to battle the Jebusites who occupy that area. The Jebusites believed they were stronger and taunted David and his army. David, the “model” King of Israel proceeded to not only destroy the Jebusite army, but to kill the disabled – those who were blind or lame. For all the good that David did, he had that of Satan in him as well. He would struggle with thorny issues for his whole 40-year reign.
Jesus has just raised Jairus’ daughter and healed a woman suffering from hemorrhages for 12 years. He arrives back in Nazareth – possibly for a visit with family and friends. He teaches in the synagogue – and people are astounded that one of their own has such power and authority. They do not believe that a person from such a lowly background could do the things He was doing – or teach with such wisdom. They were offended that Jesus was “putting on airs” and they became a thorn in His side. Because of their amazing amount of disbelief, Jesus could do no powerful deeds, only lay hands on a few to heal them.
Paul is battling some Jewish believers who are spreading lies about him, his ministry, and his teachings. One of the false prophets has talked about ascending all the way into the highest level of heaven where God resides. Paul recounts a tale of his knowledge of another “person in Christ” who ascends to highest heaven. Most scholars are certain that Paul is talking about himself in this story. Learning from Jesus’ experience in Nazareth, Paul refrains from boasting, “…so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me…”. Paul says that he has been given a thorn in his flesh – a messenger of Satan, to keep him humble and free from boasting. He appealed to God to remove the thorn, but God replied, “…My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness…”.
Father Richard Rohr, in his terrific book entitled, “Falling Upward”, writes the following: “…The human ego prefers anything, just about anything, to falling or changing or dying. The ego is that part of you that loves the status quo, even when it is not working. It attaches to past and present and fears the future….” Father Richard states the obvious – none of us wants to change after a certain point in our development. No matter how many thorny issues are bedeviling us, we will not give up our pet ideologies, opinions and/or lifestyles. We will not admit that all humans (including ourselves) are a mixture of darkness and light – and thus, those institutions that humans create (like the United States) are also a mixture of good and evil. We will not admit that the thorns in our flesh are calling us to do something different – to follow the creative and transformative power of God’s grace into something new and better.
We can see this in the latest fracture of The United Methodist Church. The thorny issues of human sexuality and how that keeps God’s power from being used by person’s called and gifted to lead the denomination – or to even just get married in their own church, echo those thorny issues of owning slaves in the 1850’s that split the denomination into North and South. Michael Gerson sees our thorny issues in this way, “…Our civic crisis of vicious polarization can yield only to efforts at civic healing. Our social crisis of fragmentation and declining social trust can be confronted only by efforts to reknit social ties. Our spiritual crisis of rising depression, addiction and suicide can be opposed only by community institutions that are in the business of meaning….”
Members of the Body of Christ, we are the institution and the people who are in the business of helping folks find meaning and purpose in their lives through faith and trust in the transformative power of a perfectly loving God. We are the folks who know how blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in love. We are the folks that know that no matter how difficult the thorny issues of the day, we do not face them alone. We are children of a God whose grace is sufficient for all of our Satanic messengers – for all our weaknesses.
Yet we who profess to follow and believe in the power of Jesus, often neither follow nor believe – just like those ancestors in Nazareth. We speak of God’s grace, but we do not live like it is a reality capable of solving the thorny issues of today. In order to overcome our ongoing thorny issues, we have to begin to live what Paul wrote, “…Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong….” Thorny issues always require the grace of God the Holy Spirit to transform them. Therefore, I have a question for you as you wrestle with thorny issues…will you open yourself to God’s transformative grace, or will you continue to trust only in your ego and live in the past and present, fearing the future? May the grace of God guide you! Amen.