Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Happy Dependence Day!

Sometimes, I complain about the seeming lack of logic on the part of the lectionary editors. Far too often they seem to have skipped over pertinent pericopes (I recognize it is really difficult to cover the entirety of Scripture in three years), but every now and again their editing and God’s timing aligns perfectly. We often talk about the counter-cultural message of the Gospel, but nowhere is that message any more opposed to our American culture than in our readings from Corinthians this week. Yesterday, July 4, we celebrated our independence. Many of us watched fireworks, grilled out, and (as we are all faithful Episcopalians) drank a bit more than normal. If we paid any attentions to newspapers and television, we may have noticed tea parties happening around the country (protesting our taxes), and we may have read or listened to some political speeches talking about the preeminence of our land and just how fortunate we are to live in this country. It all may be true, but our lesson this week runs counter to those claims. The day after we celebrate our independence, God reminds us of our total dependence upon Him.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul received these words in answer to a specific prayer request that he made three times to God. Paul had a particular sin or physical ailment, a thorn in the flesh, that was bothering him. This man, who had met the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus and was, by all accounts, the greatest evangelist in the early church, asked God to remove the thorn. Given all the work he was doing on behalf of God, you and I might say it was not an unreasonable request. Paul was faithful. Paul was hard working. Paul had something that distracted him from his purpose. And so he asked God to remove the thorn.

You and I and the rest of the world might expect a loving God to remove that thorn from so devoted a disciple. You and I and the world might even feel that God owed it to Paul to remove the thorn out of a sense of justice or compassion. And for those reasons and others, God’s answer to Paul seems a bit harsh to our ears. What kind of God makes His best followers suffer? What kind of loving God ignores the pleas of his inner circle of disciples?

Often, when first begin our journey with God, we expect Him to eliminate all the difficulties and temptations in our lives. We want to serve Him; we want to love Him. He must know this; He must want this. And so, when the world throws its best at us as new Christians, we are sorely disappointed in God. We wonder why He allows us to continue to experience life’s vicissitudes and temptations. We wonder if He really cares about us.

What may strike us as a bit stranger is Paul’s response. Rather than whine or complain about God’s response, Paul seems to accept God’s answer (though, admittedly, he did ask three times for the thorn to be removed). Paul accepts that God knows best and that he is better off for the thorn. How can this be?

Sometimes, we delude ourselves into thinking that we are captains of our own ships, masters of our own domains, and basically in charge of all that we do. The world encourages us to think that, and it is often this aspect of the Gospel that we find most challenging. What do you mean I need only to have faith? What must I do to earn salvation? What must I do to merit salvation? Certainly, the Corinthians would have related to us in that way. The city of Corinth was fabulously wealthy by ANE standards. Small businesses thrived. And many citizens were even citizens of Rome. And now this God expects us to trust Him in everything? He expects us to believe that we are not in charge of our lives?

Yet that is precisely what God demands of us. He wants us to see that our efforts are futile. Our efforts end in failure and death. We are so impotent that we cannot save ourselves, no matter our standing, no matter our power, no matter our wealth. And, as Paul would likely share with us, God’s grace is most obvious when we are at our weakest in life. When we know we cannot fix our situation, when we cannot possibly redeem our sins--that is precisely when we can see God’s sovereign hand at work in our lives! Paul understood this; Paul tried to teach the church at Corinth and us all this.

And, lest you think that God did not know best, think of the benefit of the thorn which He allowed to continue to plague Paul. How many times do we see God’s leaders quit focusing on God’s grace and begin to think it is them that is responsible for their current standing? There may be a televangelist untouched by scandal, but they sure seem to be in the minority. How many church leaders do we know that breached the trust of their of their congregation and stole funds, abused their power, slept with congregants? By leaving the thorn, God reminded Paul each and every day of the importance of His grace in Paul’s life. Would that we always remembered the importance of His grace!

Perhaps you have a thorn or two in your life. Perhaps there is a "no" from God that you wish He'd change to a "yes." I know I sometimes feel I have an entire bramble. But the truth is that each of our thorns, each of our bramble bushes, can serve as those daily reminders to us of our utter and complete dependence upon His grace in our lives. Like Paul, we can be reminded of our weaknesses so that we glory all the more in His strength.

Yesterday, we celebrated our independence and birth. Rightly we celebrated that our Founding Fathers and Mothers threw off the yoke of tyranny and created a land that is the goal of so many in our world today. Today, however, we celebrate the grace of our Lord, who calls us always to remember that we are totally, entirely, and without exception dependent upon His grace in our life. As you celebrate your independence this weekend, celebrate the fact that He call calls you to a dependent relationship which lasts eternity. "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”


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