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.
I Corinthians 1:18-25
Eighteen months ago, during my sabbatical, I spent a week in southwest France at Lourdes. I’d wanted to go to Lourdes for many years, to see what it is like and to try to understand why so many people have found it a place of healing and hope. I could talk for hours about my experiences there, but there was one thing that moved me more than anything else. It was the sight of hundreds of men and women in wheelchairs, being pushed with such respect, kindness and tenderness by mostly young men and women, some students, from all around the world. What was so clear, and really wonderful, was that here at Lourdes, those who were weak, sick, broken, disabled, were honored and really given pride of place. In most places in our society today, where power and wealth and success are trumpeted, the sick, the broken, the weak, the disabled, are so often marginalized and even hidden away. But not at Lourdes.
It made me think back to my late teens when I was considering Christianity. What most attracted me to the Christian faith was that it could embrace and make sense of suffering, sickness, failure and weakness. Humanism really couldn’t explain it at all – they rather got in the way.
Worshipping with men and women in wheelchairs, laughing and joking with them over a glass of Guiness, listening to their stories of faith and trust, and frankly getting in touch with my own weakness and need for healing was, I think, at the heart of the extraordinarily Suffering sense of holiness I felt there. It was unforgettable.
There is a reason why we celebrate Christmas at the end of December, when the weather has turned cold, the days are short and the nights are long and dark. There is a reason we celebrate Christmas at the darkest, coldest time of the year. There is a reason why we come out into the dark, cold night and make our way to churches and chapels, cathedrals and monasteries all over the world, on this night of all nights.
Our ancestors in the faith knew why, because they knew something about night and about darkness. They who lived in a world lit only by fire, knew that the world, at least at this time of the year, was indeed a dark, cold place. They knew something about the dark. They knew, as we probably don’t, how easy it is to get lost in the dark. They knew, as we probably don’t, that there are indeed things to be afraid of in the dark. They knew, as we probably don’t, that danger lurked in the darkness of the night.
Feast of St. John Chrysostom
In 1940, Fr. Gregory Petrov, a Russian Orthodox priest, died in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia. Among his possessions was found a copy of a hymn entitled “Glory to God for All Things.” It is uncertain whether Petrov composed the hymn, but it is clear that it was written during the period of intense, coordinated persecution of the Church in Russia begun under Lenin. The systematic attempt to annihilate religious identity in Russia continued in waves of varying intensity until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The hymn so cherished by Petrov was copied and distributed secretly, sung and recited in clandestine gatherings of the faithful during those years, as Christians in the millions were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, sent to mental hospitals, barred from worshipping, praying, training new clergy or building churches. The hymn is now easy to find in English translation. I discovered it a few years ago, and my gratitude to God is always kindled anew when I return to its litanies of undaunted thanksgiving:
For several years after college I worked for an international development and relief organization. We provided medical supplies and expatriate staff for hospitals in 80 or so of the economically-poorest countries of the world. My work was in personnel, which included preparing and orienting our medical workers for what they would encounter in their host culture. We always told them in great detail the worst they would likely experience: the extremes of the weather, the meager diet, the primitive sanitary conditions, the political tensions with the host government, the competition among various religious and political groups in their area, the lack of privacy, the prospect of their becoming sick, the homesickness and loneliness they would feel, the possible strains on their family, the desperate need for their work… and the haunting guilt they would probably feel being such privileged people in the face of such great poverty.
In this three-part sermon series we are pondering themes commonly associated with the season of Advent. Last week, Br. Curtis spoke about judgment and salvation. Next week, Br. Mark will speak on desire and longing. Tonight, our focus is hope.
It is impossible to live without hope. We can live without many things, but we cannot live without hope. Martin Luther, the great 16th century Reformer, boldly stated that “Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.” Hope inspires us and sustains us; it gets us out of bed in the morning and consoles us in the evening. It enables us to persevere in hardship, to rejoice in suffering, to carry on in the face of overwhelming odds. It enlivens us, cheers us, and brings meaning and focus to our lives. We cannot live without it.
Where do people of faith find hope in times of trouble? Where do they turn in times of duress, when their world has been turned upside-down, when their expectations have been shattered, when their beliefs and assumptions have been called into question? Today’s lessons may give us a clue.
Scripture scholars tell us that Luke was writing to a group of predominantly Gentile believers near the end of the first century. Some ten or twenty years earlier, in the year 70, they had witnessed the destruction of the Temple and of the city of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans. It’s difficult for us to imagine how devastating these events were for the Jews and for these early Christians.
For several years prior to my coming to the Monastery I was a parish priest. A number of us pastors in the area took a monthly rotation as a night chaplain in the local community hospital. During these night shifts, we chaplains would spend most of our time on-call in the intensive care unit and in the emergency room, helping care for very sick, sometimes traumatized patients, family members, and the medical staff. On more than a few occasions I recall standing beside a hospital gurney that was weighted down by a tragedy-in-the-making, and my having little or nothing to say to the patient or loved ones or to the staff. What we often shared in those moments were tears, but I had few, if any, words. What’s to be said? Less rather than more, and for several reasons.
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
There’s a rich, very dense, chewy cake called pan forte that is an Italian specialty, especially in Tuscany. The version from Siena requires 17 different ingredients, one for each of the 17 contrade, or sections of the city. Honey, sugar, spices, fruits, nuts, flour. The pleasure is in the sheer complexity of this very dense confection, usually served with coffee for dessert, or even for breakfast. Pan forte.
Today we have the pan forte, the “strong bread”, of Gospel stories: the wedding feast at Cana. We have Jesus, the mother of Jesus, the disciples, the wedding guests, the servants, the steward of the feast, the happy couple, the parents and family of the newlyweds. It’s the beginning of a life together; and, indeed, new life could be conceived in the womb of a young mother this very night. And we have water, wine, water turned into wine, plenty of food, music and dancing, surely. It’s the “third day”. There’s the hint of some difficult mother/son dynamics. His hour has not yet come. “It most certainly has,” she might have said. “Do what he tells you.” The glory of Jesus is revealed; the disciples believe. It’s his first “sign”, as John puts it. Do have a look at the wonderful Coptic icon here with Jesus in the claret-red garment and his very pleased mother beside him.