text : 2 Corinthians 12:2-10
theme : “To keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh...” (2 Cor. 12:7)
Any time a sales advertisement says, “As Is,” we get a little leery. “What’s wrong with it?” we wonder. We know we’re dealing with something less than perfect; maybe even less than ideal. What about us? Our lives are compiled of what we might see as something less than perfection. What does it mean that God accepts us ‘as is’? And how, then, do we celebrate God’s desire to claim us just the way we are? Paul suggests that our weaknesses and imperfections are the very things that lead us to cling most tightly to God. Maybe ‘as is’ is just the way we are designed to be.
special music : 'Empires' (HillsongUnited) :: The Rising Band; Isaac Herbert, leader
reader : Chad Roberson
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
anthem : 'Amazing Grace' (arr. ) :: Chancel Choir; Kelly Ford, director
offertory : 'He Looked Beyond My Faults (Amazing Grace)' (D.Rambo) :: Todd Maxwell, tenor; Susie Monger-Daugherty, piano
Fact: at some point in every child’s life, he or she is going to draw on a surface they are definitely not supposed to. We recently had a little incident at our house – the lineup of suspects is short and we think we have enough evidence to prosecute. I saw a news story the other night about a similar sort of child drawing violation. Eric Massicotte was the reporting parent. He entered their home that evening at approximately 1900 hours. He discovered a new piece of art on a wall in his home that his son had worked hard to create. The boy’s masterpiece, a minimalist sketch of a house, was an unwelcome surprise for his mom, parent on duty at the time of violation. Her son took marker directly to a lovely dining room wall. Rather than panic and scrub the dickens out of the drawing in hopes of removing evidence before dad got home, mom decided to leave her son’s work, “as is.” In fact, she found a deeply creative way to enhance the piece of impromptu art that was drawn on the wall about 18 inches above the floor level. Mom turned it into a prized gallery piece, equipped with a beautiful frame and a card detailing the work’s title, medium and artist.
Title: Interrupted House, 2017
Medium: Marker on Latex Paint
Artist: R.C. Massicote (b. 2011)
Notation: Gifted to his parents, by surprise, November 13th
This creative effort thwarted what could have been an otherwise frustrating discovery. The artist’s father, in response to the new framed work, said, “Your kids are going to do things they shouldn’t. It helps if you married someone with a sense of humor.” The reporter sharing this delightful little quip ended the brief article saying, “Parenting perfection right there.”
Whether you buy ‘perfection’ or not, certainly a clever maneuver they will treasure moving forward. Sometimes, leaving something “as is”, when even less than ideal, is the way something finds its deepest beauty, its ultimate authenticity, its relief that grace can be more freeing than self-righteous perfection. I know any “as is” label comes with some suspicion. Any time a sales advertisement says, “As Is,” we get a little leery. “What’s wrong with it?” we wonder. We know we’re dealing with something that may be a marble short or has a perpetual squeaky wheel. But what about us? What about humanity? We’re quick to shout in times of coming up short, “I’m not perfect!” but we often live by a measuring stick that says we should be. As kids, we may have that ongoing angst about being too short to ride the roller coaster… every ride, same story. The carnie sticks you under the measuring stick and, “Yep,” you’re out again kid. We tend to hold measuring sticks for each other as adults too – no matter the situation (work, neighborhood lawn contests, parent/teacher conferences) we size each other up and, without a physical measuring stick in hand, we ask others to step over to that roller coaster measuring stick to see if we measure up enough to ride with them. Not a lot of grace in our day-to-day for one another. And this can make us greedy, selfish and bitter.
Anne Lamott, wrote in her most recent book mercy, “Hallelujah Anyway” which inspired the title of this sermon series, something to this effect. “Some days,” she said, “the only thing that can cheer me up is something bad happening to someone I hate, preferably if [that bad thing] went viral and the photo of the person showed hair loss and perhaps the lifelong under-use of sunscreen. My heart still leaps to see this.” She recalled the New Yorker cartoon of one dog saying to the other: ‘It’s not enough that we succeed. Cats must also fail,’ saying that “This is the human condition, that in the face of death, cats must lose.” This is the way of our culture right now. It’s almost as if we celebrate terrible news of misbehavior or abuse as long as the latest predator exposed comes from the opposing party of our own views. Now, an important note. We can never accept injustice “as is.” We cannot allow abusive behavior to be excused. It is repulsive and unacceptable. I am not advocating that we somehow just have to accept any of that about ourselves or about society. I am also not suggesting today that we cannot improve or that God doesn’t long for us to press through perceived limitations to grow in important ways. And yet, what does it mean that God celebrates us just the way we are? What does it mean that in our brokenness, our sense of inadequacy, our cracked vulnerabilities, that such are the places the Light of Christ most shines through our lives to the world? Paul suggests that our weaknesses and imperfections are the very things that lead us to cling most tightly to God. It’s as if, in his experience, he is saying, “Come to God in Christ just as you are… and trust that even our inequities, our pain, our wounds, our lack of skill… can be transformed and redeemed in grace.” We come ‘as is’ before God and say, “Hallelujah anyway.” Now doesn’t that just sound all nice and churchy?
But lean in because I’m going to tell you a secret. Maybe one you already know. That secret is this: none of us want life to work this way. When we think of blessings we’re not thinking of hardships and heartbreaks and sufferings and being twenty-pounds over our prescribed ideal weight for our height and age. We want hallelujah to come on our own terms because we’ve got it all together. We want God to do things a certain way. Given the choice between best and worst-case scenarios and everything in between, I’m not to shy to tell God, “All matters being equal, let me tell you my preferred options.” That being said, I don’t think God drinks coffee every morning and plays with voodoo cushions of our lives saying, “What suffering can I impose today: Bald spot! Stomach ulcer! Job cut! Divorce! Chrone’s disease!” We’re not here to worship a God who dishes out tragedy for sport. We worship a God who is beside us in the pain… and we find a way to create faith-filled meaning of our lives – even in the cracks and valleys.
Paul writes this second letter to the church at Corinth as a response to word he gets from his protégé Timothy that the church is jacked up since he first planted it a while back. It seems some Jewish-Christian missionaries had arrived at Corinth and were saying that Paul was mixed up on a lot of things and they were there to save the day and correct his errors. They were “super apostles” as Paul called them – probably slick and savvy and seemingly very put together. They had something spiritual that the rest of the church, Paul included, did not seem to have – stories of “visions and revelations” of the secret mysteries of God. They said that if you didn’t have them too then you weren’t much of a Christian. You may know some Christians like this. They’ve seen something you have not or have had a dramatic experience you’ve never had, or found a vision of the Virgin Mary on their burrito at Chipotle. This is not to make light of such things. Please don’t hear me saying that. There are days I long for such an encounter and I’ve met many people who are waiting for their burning bush or the chance to escape a lion’s den unscathed. Paul wasn’t opposed to this either but taught that such was not the only thing to hang your spiritual hat on. In truth, some describe such encounters and hang on to them as justification every time they need to turn an argument or discussion that isn’t going their way. I had a divorced man once tell me that his marriage had been doomed to fail – not because his wife had an affair which she did – but because he said he forgave her only to subsequently shut down every argument afterward by saying, “Yeah, well you cheated.” He had a trump card and he played it every time until the marriage could no longer stand. Sometimes we use our unique revelations of God or our perceived self-righteousness to downplay the work of God in another person’s life – as if to stay a rung ahead of them on the ladder to heaven. Flannery O’Connor offered a similar commentary on faith when she said, “Anyone with a good “religious” experience never really seems to need the grace of Christ.”
At least one of the super-Christians that popped into the Corinthian church said that Paul was a no-good and not worth following because he never talked much about big revelations and visions. I’m not really sure how it was shared but we know it hurt Paul deeply when he got word of it. Maybe what was said about Paul was that he was an embarrassment to the movement. Maybe what was said suggested that Paul’s exploits – his rubbing people the wrong way, his public beatings and persecutions and jail time were a disgrace. Somebody said, “Yeah, Paul did look a lot like Dennis the Menace with a Bible.” Trouble seemed to follow him and Paul never was one to hide that. He was very human and vulnerable. Whatever accusations were being made, Paul wrote this second letter to the people he had started that church with and said, “Listen – if I can get you refocused on what is important, I suppose I could boast about the revelations I’ve had.” In the strangest way, Paul sort of steps outside of himself to write about this encounter. “I know a man,” he says (it’s him!) who fourteen years ago who was caught up into the third heaven.” Moving the story along in first person, Paul essentially writes, “I saw the mysteries of God – amazing things – but its classified stuff between me and God – I can’t talk about it.” Of course in a world of investigative reporting, this doesn’t make for a great story so folks are like, “Hey – if you can’t share details, we’re not buying it. How do we know you’re blessed by God if you can’t even tell us what happened?”
Paul imagined this response as they were reading his letter – maybe as they read it out loud at a prayer breakfast over muffins and an egg casserole. So Paul writes, “You wanna talk about blessings? Let me tell you about real blessings… about life-as-is blessings… about grace and God’s strength shining through.” And he proceeds to talk about this thorn in his side that has really given him fits. In the Greek, the word skolops used here can mean thorn but more likely was used to mean stake. We’re talking deep pain. One of my staff teammates said in staff meeting this past week, “What could that thorn have been to cause Paul such pain. I mean, he’s been flogged, and shipwrecked and snake bit and none of that seems to make him flinch. This thorn really must have been something terrible.” Tons of speculations for centuries have been made about what this thorn may have been for Paul. Some say a physical ailment, others say a speech impediment, epilepsy, migraines or partial blindness. Some say it was somebody in his life that was just a pain in his neck (not to mix metaphors or anything). I like that we don’t really know – it lets us plug in the issues we may experience ourselves – “a sour relationship, a child who won’t go along with the family program, a job you do not like or a job you do not have, a tumor, depression, bankruptcy. Maybe you can’t walk, can’t talk, can’t eat. What Paul said, however, is something so crazy that it has to be true. Paul said, “These are the real signs of God’s presence and power in my life.”
Can that be true? Somehow it must. The thorn that’s there day after day. It’s there when you wake up and reminds you of its presence when you get to the office, when you shop, when you serve on that Board or when you’re trying to teach your kids what it means to be faithful. It’s like a string tied around your finger – “Forget me not.” Why? Because remembering every day that we are reliant on the grace of God makes us palatable humans in the world. Our thorns say, “You can’t do this alone. You aren’t meant to do this alone.” God somehow strengthens us to press forward. I don’t know if this really makes any sense especially when that thorn, that skolops, that stake is digging in deep and you’re hurting while it seems everyone else is living in the third level of heaven. But the one who “counts it all joy”, who says they are blessed even in the pain (and means it), is somehow the most believable kind of Christian I know. Paul tried to pray away his thorn – on at least three occasions – such is natural of course. But he learned to say Hallelujah anyway – even though he didn’t ask for it or choose it. He did choose his response to it. He was determined to transform that thorn into a reminder of God’s goodness; God’s ever sufficient grace. Our weakness, our most authentic ‘as is’ part of our existence, is the holy stuff that God uses to help make us stronger from within. Saint Augustine wrote, “You were within me, God, but I was outside.” We try to get outside of ourselves to avoid dealing with the thorns but God has stayed in there as if to say, “I’ve got this with you… and through this thorn we can change the world. Let me love you through it. Let me meet you “as is.”
Anne Lamott’s friend Sue Schuler was dying of cancer. They went on a ski trip together – in some ways a bucket list experience. It was Holy Week and on Good Friday, they decided to celebrate communion together in their hotel room. Anne later wrote about that day saying, “It’s such a sad day, all loss and cruelty, and all you have to go on is faith that the light shines in the darkness, and nothing, not death, not disease, not even the government, can overcome it. I hate that you can’t prove it. If I were God, I’d have the answers at the end of the workbook, so you could check to see if you’re on the right track as you went. But noooooo. Darkness is our context, and Easter’s context: Without it, you couldn’t see the light. Hope is not about proving anything. It’s choosing to believe this one thing that love is bigger than any grim bleak stuff anyone can throw at us. After the Good Friday service, Sue wanted to show me her legs, the effects of all that skin grafting. The skin was sort of shocking, wounded and alien as snakeskin. “Wow.” She let me study it awhile. “I have trouble with my cellulite,” I said. “Yeah,” she answered, “but this is what me being alive looks like now.”
What’s your thorn? What’s your “as is” reality? What does being alive look like for you right now? Can you find the grace in it? Like I said, I don’t understand all of this and I’m not asking for God to test me on this in some new dramatic way. But I know I’ve got thorns and maybe you do too. And if we’ve got them, I’m glad God doesn’t drop us because of them. And… if we’ve got them, I’d sure rather find a way for them to be a redemptive part of my life and not solely a nuisance or a bitter pill that never allows me to find my way to hallelujah. I’m not saying it’s necessarily God’s design but if there’s a thorn that’s got you bug-a-booed; something you’ve maybe even prayed to be freed of… consider looking at it like an unexpected work of art drawn on the wall of your home by a child. Don’t try to scrub it away. Claim it. Frame it. …and give it a title… perhaps something like, “Sufficient Grace.”
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 Anne Lamott. “Hallelujah Anyway.” Random House. 2017.
 Exegetical support from this sermon primarily comes from William Barclay’s commentary: “The Letters to the Corinthians.” Westminster Press. Philadelphia. 1975.
 Anne Lamott, “Falling Better.” Article found at www.salon.com. I discovered this particular passage in Mark Feldmeir’s work, “Stirred Not Shaken.” Pg. 60. Chalice Press. 2005. His work, “Blessed Thorns” influenced this message.