On Thorns and Courage

Sermon Preached at the Lakefront
St. Mark's Episcopal Church
2 Corinthians 12:2-10

What is courage?
-         strength in adversity
-         tough self-reliance
-         the stuff of superheroes who use their own strength and power to overcome adversity
but this is not the courage of the faithful. The courage of the faithful, according to Calvin College philosophy professor, Rebecca DeYoung, is to be found “whenever vulnerability is greatest and our strength is exhausted.”[1]
This courage – a far cry from the guns-blazing courage of Hollywood – is not the courage of superheroes but instead of many heroes of our faith.  It is the courage of the apostle Paul who writes to the Corinthians of the thorn “given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.”[2]
Many scholars have tried to discern the nature of Paul’s “thorn” - was it a physical malady of some sort? a spiritual, moral, emotional or mental ailment?  But the reality is, Scripture is silent on this point. We never learn the nature of Paul’s thorn and perhaps this is the greatest gift today’s lesson gives because it allows us to identify with Paul’s thorn as we acknowledge the thorns that plague our lives.
For those of you who remember the movie “The Matrix,” you may recall Morpheus talking about “a splinter in your mind” – a nagging question that won’t let you go, that drives you mad.[3]  Perhaps you are plagued by the knowledge of your own sin – a past wrong that cannot be undone, that you feel is too dark or too deep even to utter.  Such weaknesses, such thorns, we fear need to be hidden – their only outward and visible sign, the scars of shame or fear which they leave in their wake.  Or, perhaps you are so gripped by your thorn that rather than hide it, you choose to indulge it joining with others who share the same thorn of alcohol, drug abuse, addiction to porn or shopping or computer games; thereby finding some small comfort in knowing you are not alone. 
Scripture invites us not to hide the thorns in our lives and not to indulge the thorns in our lives, but instead to use them to be transformed, to be reminded of our complete and utter reliance on the power of God in the face of our vulnerability.  Paul writes, “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this [thorn] that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’”[4]  By confessing the thorn in his life, Paul experiences the comfort of God. But even more than comfort, Paul is fed, upheld and refreshed by God’s power which works through him, giving him the strength to endure this ongoing suffering for the love of Christ and the world.  This is the courage of the faithful.  Courage that is “necessary precisely because we are weak and vulnerable to harm.”[5]
Many of you may be familiar with the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.[6]  These steps – if we substitute “thorn” for the word “alcohol” offer a summary of God’s invitation to each of us.  
1.                  We admitted we were powerless over the thorns in our lives – that our lives had become unmanageable. 
2.                  Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3.                  Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4.                  Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5.                  Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6.                  Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7.                  Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

These steps are about identifying the thorns in our lives and the many ways in which they impact us.  Nowhere do we have a promise that God will remove these shortcomings.

8.                  Steps 8 and 9 are about the importance of making amends to others when the thorns in our lives have crossed over the line of our relationships and begin poking other people.

10.              Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11.              Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12.              Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others experiencing thorns in their lives, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Here, in these final three steps is the acknowledgement that this is not a once and done act, but rather an ongoing process of discernment and journeying with God.

It used to surprise me when a fellow alcoholic would give thanks for their addiction.  I couldn’t understand how such an awful and debilitating disease could be a cause for thanksgiving.  But, as I have walked the path of recovery and as I read Paul’s words again today, I am reminded that the thorns in our lives can be precisely what we need to recognize our vulnerability and to acknowledge our reliance on God – more than cause enough to give thanks for the thorns. 
This ability to recognize our dependence on God is particularly important in our superhero culture that invites us to recognize and celebrate our own power, our own success, and our own popularity - none of which we would have without the love and grace of God.[7]
The courage of the faithful is “the strength to resist” the temptation of hiding or of indulging the thorns with which Satan torments us.  The courage of the faithful is “to own up to the limits of our control.”[8] The courage of the faithful is to place our confidence in a God who promises – through the outward signs of our faith (through the waters of Baptism, through the bread and the wine of our communion, through the fellowship and the prayers of community), to provide us with an inward and spiritual grace, to transform our lives and mediate strength to us.[9]
God’s promise to Paul and to each of us:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”[10]

[1] Rebecca Konynkyk DeYoung, “Power Made Perfect in Weakness,” Center for Christian Ethics, Baylor University (2005), 12.
[2] 2 Corinthians 12:7.
[3] This reference was provided by Jeffrey A. Oschwald in his reflection for the “Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 – July 23, 2006” which appears in Concordia Journal (April 2006), 234.
[4] 2 Corinthians 12:8-9.
[5] DeYoung, 15.
[6] Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (1981).
[7] This triad of power, success and popularity were inspired by Henri Nouwen: “Let’s not forget the preciousness and vulnerability of lire during the times we are powerful, successful and popular.” (Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith, 3).
[8] DeYoung, 18.
[9] “Power Made Perfect in Weakness: Lesson Plans,” Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics, Center for Christian Ethics, Baylor University (2005), 16.
[10] 2 Corinthians 12:9.