Monday, November 20, 2023
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“Thorny Mysticism”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, November 19, 2023
Reading: 2 Corinthians 12:1-10

Have you ever had a direct experience of God? I don’t mean when your kid was born or when you first fell in love or bungee jumped off that bridge. I mean you saw God face to face and heard something new, something directed just to you?

Some have and have gone on to write dubious bestsellers. They have titles like 45 Minutes in Heaven or 11 Hours with God or whatever. They sell well. People want to know: is there really anything out there? When we die, or before – anything that matters? If you’re like me, you scoff. Yeah, I’ll claim one of those experiences and call a publisher tomorrow. Some authors of books like that have recanted. Sorry, I made it all up. They don’t give the money back though.

There’s a reason I’m suspicious of such claims, that you should be too. We Protestants have a cold view of visions. Sure, they might have happened in the Bible, but we don’t trust them now. There’s a reason for that. Our Protestant forebears broke away from Catholicism. And it was their view that visions were a Catholic thing. Appearances of the Virgin Mary or from saints—not really our thing. We Protestants experience God in the sermon, in Bible study, in scripture. So, we make churches like schools with rows, a speaker up here. Or we experience God in song, hymns, music. Visions, not so much.

So, if you’re skeptical of such experiences you have some history on your side. Our Reformed forebears were skeptical too. And so was St. Paul, who we’re preaching from up until the new year. Paul had the best vision maybe in world history. He’s on his way to Damascus to wipe out Christians.  And he sees a light, till he can’t see anymore. He’s knocked off his high horse and to the ground, where he’s blinded, made helpless, and has to be led by the hand and fed like a baby. Even folks with very little knowledge of Christian faith have heard of a Damascus Road experience: being turned around, from a persecutor to an apostle in the church. This story is why we Christians are saps for any good conversion testimony. We believe God can get to anyone. Some of my best friends are murderers—they’re your friends too: Moses, David, Paul. You can see Paul’s sword is useless there by his side, no help in this sort of crisis. The man standing by the horse can’t see any of this. Paul can’t see either. Caravaggio is trying to help us see by showing us two sightless men. Here’s an Orthodox icon of the event. And in this one Paul is putting his sword down. No more weapons. Eventually Paul will be beheaded by Rome’s sword. He goes from warrior to martyr. Paul has one of the great visions in church history, so great people far outside the church have some awareness of it.

And he doesn’t mention it in our text for today at all. Not even a little.

Paul helped found the church in Corinth. It’s a little bitty place. Walking around the excavation of ancient Corinth takes about as long as walking around our church building. So, if you are singing hymns in one house you can be heard clear across town. Corinth is more like a little village than what we think of as a city. And after Paul left, other leaders came in claiming to be greater than Paul. They’ve had visions. They’ve seen things. They can perform miracles. They are closer to God. As for this Paul fellow, isn’t he kind of pitiful? I mean does he talk about visions? Do miracles? Listen to us instead. Paul calls them super-apostles. Holier-than-thou. Closer to God than any other mortal. He kind of agrees with his critics.

The great preacher at Harvard’s chapel picked up a ringing phone once, a visitor asking who was preaching Sunday. It will be the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard University, the Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes. The caller asked, “Oh, you mean that short, fat, little nerdy dude?” Gomes said “yes!” and slammed the phone down.

Now Paul could pull rank here. ‘I had a vision so great they’ll write it down in the Bible and people will read about it thousands of years from now.’ He does not.

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows [he] was caught up into paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.

‘Yeah, I’ve seen some stuff. Things that could blow away your pitiful little visions.’ Paul was converted by the risen Christ himself. And he doesn’t say it. He has the ultimate trump card, the greatest vision ever. And he won’t deploy it. ‘What did I see? Not telling. Such things can’t be told.’ Paul has titles. He won’t use them. Has visions. He won’t deploy them. So downplaying visions starts already in the Bible, in Paul. Had them. Not going to talk about them. Instead, I’ll talk about my weaknesses.

Some would call a vision like Paul had “mystical.” All that word means is an experience of God, not explainable, but palpable. All Christians are called to be mystics: to experience God in baptism, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, service. Churches that are growing fastest in Latin America, Africa, Asia, tend to emphasize direct experience of God. And some people get even a bit more than that. I got to drive a famous scholar around for four days. Someone asked me later: did he ever seem distracted? Like he was seeing something not there, hearing someone you couldn’t? Uh, no. Apparently this man has a reputation for that. But he’d read Paul. So, he didn’t go bragging about it. He knew that in Paul all legitimate mysticism is thorny. It’s not all sweetness and light. It’s sorrowful.

My mentor in ministry was in town last week, James Howell visited the Bible study on Tuesday. I often teach that you haven’t read a scripture passage deeply enough until you find what’s funny in it. The one who rules the cosmos is born from an unmarried Jewish teenager from the sticks. That’s uproariously funny. James heard me. And then added something. He said yeah, and you haven’t read a passage deeply enough if it hasn’t broken your heart yet. Both are true. Laughter—not at anyone’s expense, but with great joy. And sorrow, thorns, hearts cracked in two.

We have great visions in the history of the church. Most before the Reformation in the 1500s, our Protestant branch. Some tip over into legend. There’s the story of St. Christopher, a ferryman, who would walk people across a river on his broad shoulders. One day he’s walking someone across, and the man gets heavier and heavier, and Christopher asks who are you? I’m Christ, and I have the sins of the world on my shoulders. Christopher means Christ-bearer. I like that one. Another is from St. Francis, who sees a leper one day, feels repulsed. And remembers, wait, that must be Christ. Here, take my clothes. My money. He leaves, turns back, and the leper is gone. A vision. Those are good stories. Others claim visions and we should run very far away very fast. David Koresh claimed to be Cyrus from the book of Isaiah (Koresh/Cyrus) and led his followers to a fiery death. As Christians we submit our visions to other Christians, and if they say no, you need help, we don’t keep telling the story. If they say wow, that’s a blessing, well, keep telling it. A new friend here in Toronto, Arthur Boers, tells of a woman working retail who sees a rough looking man come in. Watch out, she’s told, he steals. So, she watches him, as instructed and she sees a shaft of light break over his head. And she thinks, hmm, actually, I think that guy might be Jesus. And she finds herself treating other houseless people differently, better. That’s a good vision.

But Paul won’t talk about his vision. What he wants to talk about instead is his weakness.

“…to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. 8 Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9 but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

You super apostles get visions. I had some. But what I really want to talk about is my pain. My sorrow. My thorn in the flesh. Another phrase that still permeates our language.  Thorn in the flesh. This is what makes Christianity Christian. Not our greatness. Our offer of closeness to God or heaven. It’s our lowliness. Sorrow. Pain. Sure, we got visions. You know what we got more of? Thorns. Want one?

Heard an interview with the great Madeleine L’Engle, author of children’s stories, one of you sent it to me. She was asked how to grow spiritually. And she said the only way she’d found to grow spiritually was to suffer. No way around it. The questioner paused. And then said, well, let’s pray then that something terrible happens to you as soon as possible. Barbara Brown Taylor tells of a woman who went on a spiritual retreat at a monastery. A nun asked her why she was there. ‘Well, my mother just died, I think my father may be an alcoholic. My marriage is falling apart, and I feel like I’m going crazy.’ The nun replied, wow, dear, God must love you very much. The nun padded off. Uh, what? Doesn’t feel like love to me just now.

Paul calls his difficulty a thorn in the flesh. Says he prayed for it to be removed three times, no luck. Here’s my vision, he says. No horse, no light, no dramatic conversion mentioned. Instead, God says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” All kinds of speculation about what Paul’s thorn might have been. Folks often assume it’s something sexual. Paul has a lot to say about sex elsewhere but not here, so I’m not inclined to agree. A Paul scholar I admire thinks it’s an eye condition. Paul’s eyes are always running, he looks ridiculous. Maybe. Isn’t it interesting Paul doesn’t say? He leaves it blank. So, we can also see our own weakness, our own thorns in the flesh. Pray for God to remove them by all means. But then hear his voice: my grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness. Not very comforting in one way. Not very spiritually triumphant, Paul’s opponents might say. But it is the true mark of a Christian blessing. Does it have a thorn in it? Is it not just joyful, but does it also break your heart?

I mentioned Arther Boers before, author of a great new book called Shattered, about his relationship with his father, who beat him, abused him. In retrospect, Arthur realizes his father was working out his PTSD as a refugee from Nazi-occupied Holland. Arthur was praying once for help from God, confessing his sins, mostly teenage sins of lust, begging God for help. And he saw the ceiling open and two figures looking down at him. God the Father and God the Son. And they’re smiling at him. Regarding him with kindness, not abuse. Inviting him into a relationship. Arthur got up, thanked God, and tried to live without sin again. Didn’t work. But as an adult, he realizes God was offering him a better notion of fatherhood than the one he had. A healing kind of parenting.

And, finally, so what. Not many of us claim to have such visions. Or even want to. Some few do but not most. Well, good, like I say, Paul is skeptical too—the one with the best vision won’t deploy it, when it would’ve helped him to do so. His super-apostle opponents say Paul is weak and pitiful. And Paul says, ‘yeah, you know I’m actually more weak and pitiful even than you think!’ Most of us puff up our accomplishments. They did this in the ancient world too. Paul reads his resume to the Corinthians.

11:24 Five times I have received the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.

Uh, that’s your resume? And you want us to follow this faith? St. Teresa of Avila was praying on a bumpy chariot once. The horse startled and threw her, and she landed in the mud in a ditch. Without hesitating she continued her prayers: ‘now, God, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!’ Christian faith isn’t there to make things easier. It’s there to make us like Jesus on his cross, like Paul with his thorn.

Paul continues to make his case for why folks should believe. What act of greatness gives you spiritual authority? Paul says this right before our passage.

30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness…. In Damascus, the governor under King Aretas guarded the city of Damascus in order to seize me, 33 but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped from his hands.

Not an overly impressive story. Paul could have talked about the blinding light. Instead, he talks about his basket escape. Not exactly brave or valiant, is it? But there’s a pedigree for this modest escape. Noah was set adrift in an ark with his family. Moses was pushed out in a basket on the Nile. Paul is in his own basket. Not on a war horse conquering his enemies. But in an ark lowered to safety, a basket set adrift with no guidance but God. God’s power is made perfect in weakness. In this image Paul is teaching. Sure, I’m in a basket. Humiliated. I follow a guy on a cross. Why are you surprised?

What’s your power, made perfect in weakness? The thorn in your side? I know you have one. It comes with being human. Maybe God’s answer to your prayer is that it not be removed. Paul begged to have his removed and God said no. Instead learn this hard lesson: “My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness.” Think of all the things Paul says here that remind us of Jesus. What’s in his side? A thorn. Like the crown of thorns around Jesus’ head. Paul gets one. Jesus gets all thorns. Paul asks God to take it away three times. Like Jesus asks for the cup to pass from him three times. God refuses. Paul is left with his thorn, and his Lord, and nothing more. And they are enough.

We’ve got a lunch after church today honouring volunteers. Anyone who’s done anything around here, this lunch is for you. And I’m struck—no church could exist without lay leaders offering time, wisdom, creativity. It’s heroic. But it’s quietly heroic. Let me explain. Folks who work here for no pay do very undramatic things. Y’all knit gifts for people. You read scripture in service. You visit our sick. You sing or play an instrument. You lead committees and plan our future. I realized as a pastor at some point lots of my most committed people don’t hear me preach, like, ever. They’re too busy watching someone else’s kids, looking after the needs of a guest who can’t find the wheelchair ramp. They’re serving, bless them. When I preached in Brazil recently a woman told me after “sorry I didn’t get to hear you. I can listen later online. But I can’t change diapers later online.” Volunteering is undramatic work, often un-thanked. So today we say thanks. But why do y’all do it? Not for me. Not even for your friends, though you like being around them here. You do it for God. Now in a way that’s mystical. But it’s not exactly the third heaven. It’s more like a thorn. A glimpse of God with a cross in it. Thank you all. If more of you would like a thorny glimpse of God like this, we can always use more volunteers.

Here’s the secret. Not just to Christian faith, but to all of life. If we have anything to offer others, it’s from our woundedness. Our sorrow. Our pain. Not our resume, our accomplishments, the empire we’ve built. But our brokenness. Our neediness. Our lack and our sorrow. The great Leonard Cohen said there’s a crack in everything. That’s where the light gets through. So, God takes us, cracked and shattered, and makes brilliance through us. I wish there were another way. A shortcut that doesn’t include the cross, the thorn. But there isn’t. Christ’s thorny way is the one that leads to heaven. Amen.