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.