SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: God of the covenant, in our baptism you call us to proclaim the coming of your kingdom. Give us the courage you gave the apostles, that we may faithfully witness to your love and peace in every circumstance of life, in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 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.” II Corinthians 12:7-10.
Much ink has been spilt in speculation over what Saint Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was. I don’t believe there is any way of knowing precisely what the apostle is talking about. Whatever it was, Saint Paul felt that his “thorn” was getting in the way, hampering his ministry and making him less effective than he might have been. Though he prayed for its removal, God let it be known to him that the thorn was there to stay. God’s grace is sufficient to sustain the apostle’s ministry, notwithstanding the apostle’s shortcomings. The effectiveness of the Word and the Spirit, not the apostle’s, must be the basis of the apostle’s confidence.
I am not sure that I have anything comparable to Paul’s “thorn.” But over the years I have discerned many things about myself that hampered the effectiveness of my ministry. Some of them I was able to change. Others, not so much. For example, I wish my preaching voice were a little more like James Earl Jones and less like Woody Allen. I wish I could rid myself of my blinking habit. I wish my teeth were straighter. All of these things would make me a stronger presence in the pulpit and in every aspect of public ministry. But God in God’s wisdom called me with a set of flaws without fixing them. As a result, I have often prayed, “God, I’m not up to this task. But it looks like I’m the only preacher this congregation has. So you will have to make due with me.” Somehow, God always did.
Perhaps that is how it is supposed to be. God knows we have seen more than a few mega church pastors, bishops and high profile church leaders succumb to financial improprieties, sexual misconduct and even predatory behavior. Even small steeple preachers like me have been guilty of such behavior. I don’t pretend to understand any individual case of such deplorable conduct, but I do know that power, even such power as the pastor of a small church holds, is seductive. Having people place their trust and confidence in you, come each week to hear what you have to say and invite you into the most significant times in their lives-it’s a rush. It is easy, so very easy, to forget that it’s not about you. It is easy to forget that you are a flawed and broken human being called to be a servant to other flawed and broken human beings and that you are, as Saint Paul points out, merely a “clay jar” carrying the healing balm of the gospel you need no less than everyone else. II Corinthians 4:7. So it is that Saint Paul and I have our “thorns” constantly getting in our way and tripping us up so that we can’t let our egos get in the way of what God is trying to accomplish through us. We need to be “weak” in order for God to be strong.
Paul needed his thorn in order to be a faithful minister of Jesus Christ. Any man who has the hutspah to tell people to immitate him has got to have one hell of an ego. So, too, I suppose my tenorous voice, blinking eyes and imperfect smile helped remind me that my ministry was not about me. My flaws made it harder for me to forget that such success as I saw in my ministry came from the faithful support of many devoted parishoners, the partnership of lay leaders who stood behind me when I needed them most and who were not afraid to tell me when they felt I was on the wrong track and, most importantly, the Spirit of God at work among us. Thanks to my many imperfetions, I can look back on over thirty-five years of ministry accomplished by the Holy Spirit in which I was privileged to take part. And thanks to my flaws, my ego didn’t mess things up too much.
Here is a poem by Edward Rowland Sill illustrating that it sometimes takes fools, clowns and those deemed laughing stocks to speak truth to power in all its purity.
The Fool’s Prayer
The royal feast was done; the King
Sought some new sport to banish care,
And to his jester cried: “Sir Fool,
Kneel now, and make for us a prayer!”
The jester doffed his cap and bells,
And stood the mocking court before;
They could not see the bitter smile
Behind the painted grin he wore.
He bowed his head, and bent his knee
Upon the Monarch’s silken stool;
His pleading voice arose: “O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!
“No pity, Lord, could change the heart
From red with wrong to white as wool;
The rod must heal the sin: but Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!
“‘T is not by guilt the onward sweep
Of truth and right, O Lord, we stay;
‘T is by our follies that so long
We hold the earth from heaven away.
“These clumsy feet, still in the mire,
Go crushing blossoms without end;
These hard, well-meaning hands we thrust
Among the heart-strings of a friend.
“The ill-timed truth we might have kept–
Who knows how sharp it pierced and stung?
The word we had not sense to say–
Who knows how grandly it had rung!
“Our faults no tenderness should ask.
The chastening stripes must cleanse them all;
But for our blunders — oh, in shame
Before the eyes of heaven we fall.
“Earth bears no balsam for mistakes;
Men crown the knave, and scourge the tool
That did his will; but Thou, O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!”
The room was hushed; in silence rose
The King, and sought his gardens cool,
And walked apart, and murmured low,
“Be merciful to me, a fool!
Source: This poem is in the public domain. Edward Rowland Sill (1841-1847) was an American poet and educator. He was born in Windsor, Connecticut and graduated from Yale in 1861. There he was chosen as Class Poet. He engaged in business in California for about six years before entering Harvard Divinity School. He left his studies there to accept a position on the staff of the New York Evening Mail. Sill taught at Wadsworth and Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio from1868 until 1871, after which he became principal of Oakland High School in Oakland, California. From 1874 to 1882 Sill taught English literature at the University of California, but resigned in 1883 due to failing health and returned to Cuyahoga Falls. He devoted the rest of his life to literary work until his death in 1887. You can read more about Edward Rowland Sill at PoemHunter.com.