2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Saint Paul’s self-revelation about his “thorn in the flesh” is quite mysterious. Whatever this suffering is, Saint Paul has been praying fervently that this “thorn” be extracted from him, but to no avail. There are two mysteries here. For one, we don’t know what this “thorn” is. We’re never told anything further; however, that fact has not stopped endless speculation down through the centuries what the thorn might be. Is Saint Paul’s “thorn” something related to his family of origin, to his good standing in the synagogue, to someone who is out to get him, or who won’t forgive him, or who won’t respect him? Is the “thorn” related to his physical or mental health, to his sexuality, to an addiction, to an unmet desire of his heart? We have no idea, other than that it is very painful.
Saint Paul is writing an open letter to a local church. The letter hit home. The letter was saved, copied by hand, and widely circulated for more than two hundred years, only gaining in authority as the years passed. The letter was ultimately recognized as belonging to the Canon of Holy Scripture. Why was this personal letter saved, circulated, and so revered? Because Saint Paul wrote of a truth that others can relate to. He’s not just telling his story; he’s telling our story. Everyone has their own version of a thorn or thorns in the flesh that don’t go away. Thorns are very painful.
Marina Abramovic has spent many hours of her life completely motionless, silent, and fasting. She has endured voluntary poverty and physical pain for the sake of her vocation. She is not a nun or a mountaintop hermit, but a performance artist – sometimes called the “grandmother of performance art.” Born in Yugoslavia in 1946, her childhood was shaped by the Eastern Orthodox spirituality of her grandmother and the intense, communist discipline of her distant parents. Her performance pieces, most of them ephemeral or time-based, explore the limits of the human body and the mind. All of them challenge our cherished definitions of art. In 2010, Abramovic performed a piece at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, entitled “The Artist is Present,” part of a retrospective of her forty years of work. For this, she sat motionless and silent in the center of the Museum’s atrium surrounded by four bright lights. An empty chair stood opposite the artist, in which anyone who cared to was invited to sit and engage in a silent, mutual gaze with her. Abramovic was present in this way for three months, six days a week, for 7.5 hours a day. While the curator of the museum advised her to be prepared to face a frequently empty chair, her simple offer to be unflinchingly present touched a collective nerve and awakened a widespread hunger. That chair would be occupied by a total of 1,545 people, many of whom lined up before the museum opened or slept on the pavement to get a spot in line. People smiled uncontrollably, laughed or silently wept. Each face was met with the same gentle, mysterious, steady gaze, in a physical environment that framed each encounter as a moment of art enfolding a moment of life. Of the piece, Abramovic said, “The hardest thing is to do something which is so close to nothing that it demands all of you, because there is no story anymore to tell, no object to hide behind. There’s nothing – just your own, pure presence.”
In the calendar of the church we remember today the life and witness of a seventh-century monk from Rome named Paulinus. In year 625, Paulinus was made a bishop. He was among the second generation of missionaries sent by Pope Gregory I to assist Augustine in evangelizing England. The church historian, the Venerable Bede, described Paulinus as “a tall man with a slight stoop. He had black hair, an ascetic face, a thin hooked nose, and a venerable and awe-inspiring presence.”[i] Paulinus began his work in York, where there were already a few Christians. Paulinus engaged in long private conversations about the Christian faith with King Edwin. The king sought advice from his councilors, whether he should become a Christian. One of the councilors responded by telling a parable:
So we hear, just after Jesus’ baptism, he is driven by the Spirit into the desert where he’s alone and tempted. The image of desert recurs repeatedly in the Scriptures, and I would say the desert experience recurs repeatedly in our own lives. We know the desert of barren senselessness when we have trouble seeing our way through the chaos and confusion which surrounds us… when we have a sense of being lost or abandoned or desiccated, feeling like we’re trudging on the surface of sinking sand, unable to find our own way out. In those desert times of our lives, life may seem like a vicious circle, as senseless as a dog chasing its tail. That is a sense of the desert, even if you happen to be living in or visiting New England.
If I were to show you a drawing of a person with a tiny angel perched on one shoulder and a tiny devil perched on the other, I’m sure would recognize immediately what the picture was trying to convey. Temptation is a universal phenomenon, isn’t it? All of us know what it is to be tempted. There isn’t a single one of us who hasn’t had the experience of being torn between the desire to do good and the desire to do evil, between the impulse to help and the impulse to harm, between the wish to speak and act kindly, and the urge to be hurtful and cruel. We know what it is to have the devil whispering in one ear and an angel whispering in the other.
The New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini had an article over the weekend about his encounter as a twelve year old with the Ballades of Chopin—actually, the first one in G Minor, and, especially, a certain three-note turn of phrase toward the beginning. He goes on to write about those musical moments that are so powerful that, in an instant, indelible impressions are made and lives are changed. Even children are susceptible to these occasions of transcendent beauty. Perhaps especially children.
While [Jesus] was speaking, a Pharisee invited him to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table. The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner. Then the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you.
Four times a day when I was at seminary in England we were called to chapel by the sound of a bell. And on that bell were inscribed, in Greek, the words “faithful is he who calls.” (1 Th 5:24) Faithful is he who calls. And our readings today on this second Sunday of Epiphany are all about being called.
In Isaiah we read, “The Lord called me before I was born. While I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” Called into being – and named. That is what God has been doing from the beginning of Genesis, where he called the creation into being and then named it. “God called the light Day and the darkness he called Night.”
Each one of us were called into being by God – and given a name to show that we have a unique and special vocation. “The Lord called me before I was born. While I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” We are not just anybody – not just a number, a statistic.
We are each unique. We are, each of us, as the Psalmist puts it, “fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Ps 139:14)
This evening we continue our series, “Breaking the Word”. We’re taking some of the great big words in church-talk and giving them a closer look. We’ve had now “conversion” and “forgiveness”. Next week we’ll have “redemption”; the following week, “passion”. This evening’s big word: “grace”.
The English word grace belongs to a large cluster: Grace, graceful,gracious, gratis, grateful, gratify, gratuitous, congratulate, ingratiate. All grounded in Latin gratus: pleasing, beloved, agreeable, favorable, thankful.
And in the hinterland of the Latin-derived words are a cluster of Greek words: chara, joy; chairo, to rejoice; charizomai, to give freely; charisma, gift; eucharistia, gratitude, thanksgiving; charis, grace. The core word in the Greek cluster is chara, joy. There’s something of joy in grace.
If I were to stand in Harvard Square and conduct a survey on the subject of “sin” – asking people, “What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘sin’”? – I would hear quite a variety of answers, from apathy and indifference to strong-held convictions. To hear the word, “sin,” a good many people would probably roll their eyes and talk about the things that you’re not supposed to do or say (things which one is perhaps prone to do or say). Some people would immediately talk about guilt, real or imagined. Some might say that the concept of sin is too over laden with psychological baggage, or with radio preachers’ histrionic rhetoric, or with naïve or impossible standards. Even among Christians there is quite a diversity of opinion on the notion of “sin”: sins of commission and omission, what they are, why they matter, how they get done and how they get undone, that is, forgiven. For a Christian, one’s convictions about “sin” is informed by their interpretation of the Scriptures. (Virtually every page of the Bible has some reference to sin, in one form or another.) In the early 1970s, the great psychologist and clinician Karl Menninger wrote a book entitled, “Whatever Became of Sin,” acknowledging that this notion of sin is as old-fashioned sounding as it is pervasive.
There is a qualifying adjective for sin in the psalm appointed for today, Psalm 19. The psalmist prays, “Keep your servant from presumptuous sins” , also translated, “keep your servant from being insolent.” The word insolent comes from the Latin, īnsolentem, meaning “arrogant,” which is an unwarranted pride or self-importance; a haughtiness. This “presumptuous” qualifier brings some clarity to this subject of sin: arrogance, unwarranted pride or self-importance, haughtiness, a “presumptuous sin.” Now I’ll mention here, as an aside, that the great Boston preacher, Phillips Brooks, said that “all sermons are autobiographical.” For the sake of full disclosure, I want you to know that I can speak with some expertise about “presumptuous sins.”