2 Corinthians 12:2-10 Mark 6:1-13
The last few weeks in the US have been charged with political energy and excited by social change. News outlets and social media have exploded with those expressing a resistance to change, and with those who plan to make even greater changes. It seems to me that flags are more central to these expressions than usual. Flags of differing stripes have been waived, burned, and even used to advocate competing agendas. Yet above it all there is a flag for our nation. No matter what you call it, no matter what you do to it, our Nation’s flag still symbolizes the values that many in this room and many of our loved ones have fought and died for.
I’m sure you know about the significance of the stars and bars, but have you ever wondered why the colors red, white, and blue were chosen? When Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, explained the significance of the colors in the Great Seal of our nation he said, “The colors are those used in the flag of the United States of America. White signifies purity and innocence. Red [signifies] hardiness & valor, and Blue signifies vigilance, perseverance, & justice.”
I believe these values still lie at the bedrock of our culture. With all of our corruption and arrogance, with all of our generosity and good intentions, we are a nation that longs for the good to prevail. You can certainly argue that our history does not always reflect an ethic of purity, valor, and justice, but an equal argument can be made that we have held those goals and expressed them in ways we believed good and right as a society. In other words – we haven’t always gotten it right, but we’re always working toward that end.
Along these lines, many like to argue the point of whether or not we were founded as a Christian nation. In that argument, we Presbyterians love to lay claim to the fact that the only clergy to sign the Declaration of Independence was a Presbyterian. In fact, the English were said to have called the American Revolution a “Presbyterian Rebellion.”
Often, when I find myself explaining to someone that Presbyterians actually are Christians, I can’t resist telling them that Presbyterian means ‘elder’, that we govern ourselves by representatives, and that they can blame us for the representative system that governs our nation today! Of course, our influence did not just come from some innate desire to organize. It came from a belief that God alone is Lord and that power must be shared by those who would naturally place themselves above others. It came from a belief that governance is a gift from God that all should benefit from equally.
Now, in truth there were others involved in that process, and many were Deists that believed in a God that was somewhat like a watchmaker. Creation was set in motion and governed by natural laws that we can figure out and live with. But regardless of our credit or blame in the politics of the past or present, I think scripture asks the same question of us. It’s the same question that I ask when I see manifestos of offense or shame made by those who would be better served to work toward a solution rather than deepen our complaints. It’s a question I’ve been asked when I stick my neck out too far. That question is, “Just who do you think you are?”
Paul seems to be answering that question in his letter to the church in Corinth. Throughout the chapter he is calling himself a fool by comparison to others. He begins with an amazing account of someone who really has something to boast about. “I know a man,” says Paul, “who was taken up into the third heaven.” It doesn’t really matter who this is. It doesn’t matter if there are separate realms of heaven as once was thought. The point is that the things worth boasting about are the things of God.
And the best Paul can do is to tell you that he is being specifically limited by God so that he doesn’t forget who brought him to the dance. We don’t know what the “thorn” was for Paul. It might have been a physical thing – he was certainly beaten enough. It might have been a person that he just couldn’t get along with. It might have been a bad habit. We don’t know. We know he viewed it as something from the devil – something that was apart from God’s will. Even so –whatever it was – it was blessed by God as a way to keep Paul in check and remind him that all he needed was found in God’s love. “Well. That’s rich, God. If you love me then, why don’t you take care of me?” How many times have I said that? And how many times has God’s love been proved through something or someone that I never expected? Every. Single. Time. And in the end I think, “Well, who did I think I was to ask what God was up to?”
“Just who do you think you are?” is the question that they even asked Jesus in his home town. And because they could not see him as anything other than who they wanted him to be, even the power of God was limited. We could argue whether or not God could have still done works of power, but it kind of reminds me of the age old conundrum, “Can an all powerful God make an object that that same God cannot move?”
I believe the answer to that question is, “Yes.” And I believe the unmovable object is the human heart. Yet the heart is moved only in and through the grace and mercy of God. That’s why Jesus sent his disciples from that place with nothing. “Take only your shoes, a staff, and an extra tunic.” Sound advice – as long as you have a clean tunic you’ll be OK.
But there’s more. Jesus gave them his authority and told them to expect hospitality. For those that rejected the disciples were also rejecting God, and those that welcomed them welcomed God. And they proclaimed the Good News. And the news Jesus has been sharing since the beginning of Mark’s gospel is this, “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom has come near. Repent and believe the good news.” Repent. Turn from self-centeredness. Turn toward God-centeredness. The Kingdom is near.
And just who do we think we are in this day and age? We are the descendants of that Presbyterian rebellion. We are a part of a culture that is becoming both fractured and more complex. We are members of a society that is asking questions that it has not asked in generations. People are in dialog about things we have just assumed that we agreed on, and we are finding that sometimes our assumptions are wrong. We are finding that sometimes our beliefs can be strengthened through conversation, and we are finding that we still have a way to go to live up to the ideals of truth, justice, and liberty that formed our nation.
The good news is that we are also, like the disciples, sent into the world with the authority of God. We are sent with the good news of Jesus Christ and we can say with the confidence of Paul that God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness are enough. Everything else flows from the reality of God’s active presence. Even our weaknesses – especially our weaknesses – become like a billboard advertising what money can’t buy, and that is the transformative love of Jesus Christ.
There’s a young woman named JoAnn who taught me this lesson in a profound way this summer. She volunteers at Camp Agape and helps with Arts and Crafts. She has a birth defect that has shortened her arms, and while she is bright eyed, she is often discounted as someone less capable than she is. Toward the end of Camp she gave me a rock with “Psalm 139:14 – I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” decoupaged on one side and a dove on the other. In that one simple act an entire week of preaching on the idea of power made perfect in weakness collapsed on top of me. JoAnn gave me a rock that reminded me of my own worth and made hers undeniable.
In her simple act, and through the challenge of scripture, we became equally limited. We also became equally unlimited. We became equally able to boast all the more in the power of Christ to heal, to cast out the things that separate us from God and one another and able to demonstrate the kingdom that has drawn near! And who are we, that we can do any less today? As we gather around the table of Christ, we are saints with complex pasts. We are sinners with brilliant futures. We carry our thorns with thanksgiving in our hearts for the one whose grace is sufficient. We lay down our flags, and we know who we are. We are God’s people. We are sent into the world to challenge, redeem, and heal in the name of the one who does the same for us – over and over again. Amen.