Summer Reading: Trinity 6 – Thorns in the Flesh

Trinity 6

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
Psalm 48
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

This past week I was in Poland for 5 days. I really am getting in my European travel at the moment!

One of the few things I do outside the parish is serve as a volunteer Trustee for St Katharine’s Parmoor which is a retreat house outside Marlow/High Wycombe. St Katharine’s was used as a convent during the Second World War for an order of Catholic nuns who had to leave London during the Blitz.

St Katharine’s was later given by these nuns to Sue Ryder – a name some of you may know from the hospices and charity shops around the country. Sue Ryder dedicated St Katharine’s as her ‘powerhouse of prayer’ as well as a place of rest and retreat for herself and her staff. Sue very much believed that prayer underpinned everything that she and her charity did.

Sue Ryder was born in 1923 and died in 2000. From a young age Sue was made aware of the plight of people around her – firstly by her own mother caring for the families who lived in the appalling conditions around their home in Suffolk. Sue joined the FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) in WW2 – an all-female charity that did both nursing and intelligence work during both wars. It was during this work that Sue came into contact with Poland and the Polish people. They were to become the thorn in her flesh – so to speak.

After the war ended Sue spent a lot of her time in Poland caring for POW’s and those who had survived the German concentration camps. She would drive back and forth between England and Poland, collecting supplies to take back and set up homes for them.

This is how I came to be in Poland this past week with a group of Trustees and volunteers from St Katharine’s and 2 other wings of the Sue Ryder family. We went to meet with the Board of Sue Ryder Poland who do similar things that happen here – we visited a care home, a school and a charity shop – all under the banner of Sue Ryder Poland. It was fascinating to see the work being carried on with such passion and commitment to Sue Ryder’s legacy.

The other lovely thing about being Poland was visiting many different churches and chapels – I love religious art! I am a church geek! The more bonkers – the better!

In the chapel of the Sue Ryder care home in Pierzchnica behind the altar was this picture – St Rita of Cascia. I stood in front of it for a little while as I didn’t quite understand what was going on!

St Rita was an Italian Augustinian nun who lived in the 1300’s. In this picture she is kneeling before a crucifix and the figure of Jesus looks to be piercing Rita’s head with a thorn from the crown of thorns on his own head. It looks like Jesus is zapping her with a laser beam! What a religious experience that would have been!

St Rita became a powerful intercessor along with being a very kind and caring woman. She became known as the Patroness of Impossible Causes – in the Catholic church she is the patron saint of abused wives (she was insulted and abused by her philandering husband – married when she was 12 – he was later murdered) and heartbroken women. According to the stories Rita endured this with humility, kindness and patience and apparently her husband became a better guy. Her kindness, good character and piety were obvious to all.

After seeing this picture and then realizing that the 2 Corinthians reading this morning was Paul’s recount of his thorn in the flesh – I had to put them together!

2 Corinthians 12 begins with Paul making the point that there are some people who have something to boast about – like someone who has had a mystical experience of God which Paul uses with the example of a man caught up into the heavens. It is thought that Paul is talking about himself and his own spiritual experience – maybe on the Road to Damascus. He is very reluctant to admit he might be talking about himself – but needs to in order to make his point.

Self-boasting in never okay according to Paul as it can lead to arrogance – rather than humility. Paul is boasting – this is his most dramatic boast yet. Paul is boasting from a place of weakness; a place of humility.

Paul talks about the importance of humility from his own experience – referred to as the ‘thorn’. It is not clear what the thorn actually was – could have been an illness he picked up like malaria, has been suggested it was his eyesight or kidney issues. It could have been a moral or character issue. It may also have been a person who was undermining or opposing Paul’s work.

Whatever it was – it limited his actions in his mind.

It is not what the thorn was that mattered to Paul – the point is the spiritual relevance of the thorn. The Corinthians – who Paul is writing to – were very keen on exciting experiences and they have been influenced by the visits of the ‘super-apostles’ who appear to have been pandering to their love of entertainment.

Paul is trying to counter this attitude of being dazzled by the spectacle. Paul’s calling was to witness to Christ. St Rita was a woman who was devoted to prayer and intercession for people who were hurting and abused; she publicly forgave her husband’s murderers. Sue Ryder worked tirelessly for the Polish people who had been devastated by the war as she had been so moved by the hardships they faced.

Each of these people have gone to great lengths to serve Christ, be a witness to Him.

I don’t think you can preach on this passage and not acknowledge that God did not grant Paul the healing he prayed for. God said no to Paul three times. Don’t let the significance of three pass you by. Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gesthemane three times and he was not delivered from his suffering either.
Paul was given the grace to endure the suffering; and that is better than deliverance. God is not a magic genie in a bottle or some holy fruity machine.

The ‘No of God’ taught Paul to rely on the ‘Grace of God’ rather than his own strength. How much energy is wasted by thinking we can do it ourselves. Sue Ryder knew she couldn’t do it herself – so she recruited her friends and neighbours – 2 of the people on the trip to Poland had gone to school with Sue’s children, now in their late 50’s and are still involved with her work. Sue Ryder set up shops to sell second hand goods to raise money.

Paul also learned that his own weakness was more than compensated for by the strength of God. Paul takes on this suffering on the human level so that he may find Christ’s grace and power more fully.

No is not always the bad or wrong answer. No is a hard answer to hear – especially from God. Paul found this very difficult to live with – he may have thought his thorn was limiting his effectiveness or lowering the opinion of the people he was trying to reach.

However, God is not concerned about this in the same way that Paul is and we can be. God is not dependent on the world’s good opinion of him.

This is why the thorn is a gift – it reminds Paul that God is God and he is not. Paul is dependent on God – not the other way around. The relevance of the thorn is not lost or irrelevant – it is central to Paul’s mission and ministry. He needs to be reminded of that daily.

I hope you picked up the theme of prayer running through this morning. Sue Ryder and her powerhouse of prayer, St Rita and her intercessions for others, Paul and his three prayer requests. This is how we live with the thorns in our own flesh. God may tell us no too but that is not the end of the story. He hears our prayers, wants us to be dependent on him in everything.

It is how we use the thorn to tell the story of God’s grace in our lives – not for the entertainment value – but for the lived-out experience of complete dependence on Christ in us.

Summer Reading: Trinity 1

I have left things a bit fallow recently with no solid reason. Things have just been full recently – full schedule and some travel. As Ordinary Times begins again today as all the good festivals and celebrations are done until Advent(!) – this is a good time to start again.

The Lectionary follows 1 Samuel, 2 Corinthians and Mark until well into July. So I decided to try to convince the congregations why these books need to be on their summer readings lists…

3/6/18 – Trinity 1

1 Samuel 3:1-20
Psalm 139:1-5; 12-18
2 Corinthians 4:5-12
Mark 2:23-3:6

This morning we settle into Ordinary Time – the green season – once again. The big festivals of the church year are over until Advent; in the Lectionary we settle into readings from 1 Samuel, 2 Corinthians and the Gospel of Mark until the end of July. This has made me want to encourage you in your summer reading!

In preparation for this morning I went very high tech – I got a notebook and my Bible and had a slow read – starting in chapter 1, verse 1 in each book until I got to the readings this morning. It was rather enjoyable – paying attention to the people named, what they are doing, where they are, the challenges they are facing. Some people feel daunted by the Bible – especially the OT. But you need to start somewhere!

I thought I would give you a brief synopsis on each book to hopefully entice you to read too!

1 Samuel – set in 10th Century BC. Describes the rise of the prophet Samuel and the reigns of Israel’s first two kings – Saul and David. In the Old Testament is it placed in the history section.

The first few chapters are quite well known – beginning before the birth of Samuel with his parents Hannah and Elkanah and the awful yet fertile Peninnah who torments the childless Hannah. God answers Hannah’s prayer and Samuel arrives. In due season Samuel is taken to Eli the priest to minister to the Lord. Eli’s scoundrel sons also feature in the early chapters – they are naughty! Samuel carries on growing in stature and favour with the Lord. But he doesn’t yet know God.

Ch 3 – the calling of Samuel. Preachers preach on this when they want you to do something in the church! Just kidding – sort of. God calls Samuel and he gives the exemplary response of Here I am!

The Books of Samuel tell about God’s involvement in Israel’s history – he hears the requests of the people – especially the request for a king. Samuel highlights the importance of human choices – people get what they ask for, even if the result it that judgement falls on them of God’s purposes are temporarily thwarted

Why should Samuel go on your summer reading list: if you think God has forgotten you or doesn’t hear your prayers. Be encouraged by the story of Hannah.

Got problems with your adult children? Eli’s inability to lead his children costs them all – more of a cautionary tale. I suspect that Hannah’s prayers for Samuel help to protect him from the influence of Eli’s sons but also helped him to grow in favour and stature.

Got an obedience problem: example of Samuel – Here I am!

Not sure what God is calling you to do – are you listening for his voice? It took Eli the Priest a few tries to get it right.

This is a fascinating read – read it slowly – maybe a chapter a day. Note the names, what they are doing, what happens to them. Where is God?

2 Corinthians – written as part two of a letter from Paul to the church in Corinth. Paul is writing the letter from Macedonia, so he is away from them. The mood is sombre as Paul is aware that things have not improved much at Corinth since his first letter – written about 6 months before this one. In fact there are new problems.

Paul starts the letter with offering the consolation which God offers to his believers. Paul wants them to know the deep peace which believers are able to experience through knowing God’s consoling presence in the midst of suffering. Paul has just been through a hard time himself and has had to cancel his trip to Corinth.

Good read if things are tough right now – God can deal with that. We can know his deep peace in the midst of our suffering – we don’t have to pretend!

Feeling a bit boxed in? Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom. We are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. It is in Jesus that we are changed.
Paul talks about treasures in jars of clay – the Gospel. The gospel is the treasure and we are jars of clay – us weak and frail human beings.

The big picture of 2 Corinthians is Paul wanting us to know the sufficiency of God’s grace to compensate for our human weakness. Christ’s ministry comes through ordinary people. So if you are feeling a little weak or ordinary – this book is for you! You are exactly who God uses. God is wanting to shine in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus.

Some of the greatest encouragement comes in this book – we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.

2 Corinthians is a good read if we need a boost as and when we feel defeated about life or the church. It is inevitable. We don’t have to fake it or pretend that all is well when it’s not. Despite circumstances the grace of God will always be sufficient.

The Gospel of Mark – jumps right in – gets to the point very quickly. You would be right if you assumed Mark is my favourite of the Gospels. He pulls us into the story of Jesus really quickly. No Christmas – no mention of Baby Jesus, shepherds and angels but a lot of Easter in Mark. The in-between bits are all about Jesus’ ministry. It is thought that Mark is the earliest Gospel written.

Apparently, it is the most widely translated book in the world – into more than 800 languages and dialects. Many Bible translators start with Mark’s Gospel once they codify a new language.

Mark begins by introducing the ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus about the same time; John has begun his ministry of water baptism and proclamation. Jesus meets John and gets baptized, then he gathered a few disciples who follow him around Galilee and his home is now Capernaum.

Jesus makes an entrance in the synagogue there – preaching and teaching. This is core to Jesus’ ministry. It was the first thing he did in Capernaum – before any healings. Mark is saying something about what Jesus came to do!

There have of course been healings – men, women, the guy that comes through the roof on this mat, various illnesses, shrunken hands, and demons. Some very public healings to make a point about his authority, the rules of the Sabbath, what can and can’t be done in a synagogue.

The Pharisees are on to Jesus and are already looking for ways to destroy him too. All of this and we are only at the beginning of Ch 3.

Mark wants his readers to know Jesus as he focuses on his acts and sayings. Mark does not discuss the physical attributes of Jesus nor talks about what influenced Jesus to do what he said and did. Rather Mark presents Jesus as a hero whose life is worthy of reflection and emulation.

Mark is a great read if you want to know more about Jesus and what he did while on earth. It is fast – Jesus was busy. However, Jesus taught about sabbath rest. Got problems resting? Jesus didn’t have a problem with it – neither should you!

The end of Mark leaves us with the question of what will one do with what God has done for Jesus and what this Jesus asks of those who hear about him? It is one of those books that keep you thinking long after you have finished it.

So there we go – a beginning to the summer reading! Each of these books – 1 Samuel, 2 Corinthians & Mark have something to teach us about God and how he operates in his world and the lives of individual believers.

We live in a world that can be complicated and confusing – so can or lives as we face changes and challenges. We need to know what the word of God has to say – otherwise we are standing on the opinion and advice of humans. However well intentioned that advice might be – it may not hold up in the end.

As we spend time in these books over the next several weeks – I encourage you to have a closer look too. It isn’t a race and there is no exam at the end. Take a fresh look at what God might be saying to you and His church.