Go with the Living God, but travel light.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 9—Year B,
II Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Psalm 48; II Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

Today, we get Paul at his most confused, egotistic, humble, split personality, mystical, visionary, ecstatic self. Just listen. Now, 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 don’t know; God knows. And I know that such a person (wink, wink)—whether in the body or out of the body I don’t know; God knows—was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mere mortal is permitted to repeat. Now, speaking on behalf of that one (wink, wink) I will boast, but on my own behalf, I won’t boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wanted to boast, I wouldn’t be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I’ll refrain from it, so that no one will think better of me than what you see or hear from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations.

So, Paul has had this ecstatic experience. It is textbook for mystical experience. Paul has had a taste of union with the Divine, and fourteen years later, he still doesn’t have the words for the experience. And, he still doesn’t know what to do with it, what to make of it. I love this side of Paul! We have these mystical experiences too, and it can take us years, or a lifetime, to make sense of them. And, Paul has enough self-awareness to know that his ego could easily run wild with this thing. This experience knocked his socks off, and beyond that, he can’t say much else.

The leap he takes next is an unfortunate one. At the very same time he lives with the knowledge of this ecstatic experience, he also lives with the knowledge of what he calls “the thorn in his flesh.” If you know yourself to be beloved by God, in union with the Divine, what do you make of your trials and tribulations? So, here’s how Paul works it out.

Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of that oppositional force, Satan, to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, three times I had a heart to heart with God, that it would leave me, but the Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” 

Then, Paul catapults right back into his ego, “So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me…for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” 

So, Paul has this incredible experience of divine union and this incredible experience divine abandonment at the same time. He knows what it is to be caught up in God, literally, and he knows what it is to hit a wall that you can’t get over and you can’t get around. But I think Paul makes a false step when he says that the one caused the other, that because God knew Paul’s ability to get puffed up in his ego, then God saw fit to take Paul down a notch or two or three. I don’t think God visits suffering on us to bring us down to size. I just don’t.

But even so, Paul’s insight into that suffering and weakness still stands. When we are in pain, when we hit the wall, when our own abilities and resources and power and insights just can’t get us out of the ditch that we find ourselves in, all we have to fall back on is grace. The power doesn’t shine through our strength; it is made perfect when we are at our weakest. It is the great paradox of Christian life. Richard Rohr says that success has nothing to teach us after the age of 30, but it is through our failures that we grow because it is in our failures that we discover the kind of grace, the kind of power that Paul discovered through his thorn in the flesh. And this grace and power gets revealed not through denying the thorn, but in the very process of how we come to live with the thorn; this grace and power comes as we integrate the thorn into our life; it comes as we fling ourselves more and more on the mercy and grace and power of God. I can’t make you believe this to be true; this is one of those central truths that can only be experienced, and once you experience it, you will know the truth of it. And when you experience, you, like Paul, will only be able to talk about it in the language of paradox. And in the midst of your divine abandonment, you may also come to know an intense experience of divine union. Maybe in the body, maybe out of the body, I don’t know, but I know that this experience of divine union in the depths is real.

And aside from the fact that this is the place where Paul articulates most clearly and beautifully the power of the cross in the nitty, gritty of our lives, the fact that he shares this at all is equally important. Paul is sharing his most intimate inner experience of God. Risky indeed. The authority he bears doesn’t come from the fact that he wrote a letter which we’re reading today; honestly, he was just writing a letter, not holy scripture. But his authority derives from the experience he has of God and Jesus. The very same place that Jesus’ authority comes from, and that the disciples’ authority comes from, and that your authority and my authority come from.

See, that’s the whole problem that Jesus has with the hometown crowd. They ask, “How can he have this wisdom? How can he do these deeds of power? He’s a carpenter. He’s Mary’s boy. We know his brothers. We remember when he threw mudpies at the camels going by. We know his sisters. What’s his source of authority?”

Jesus gets that they don’t get it. They never got the prophets either. The more people know you, the harder it is to get out of the box they put you in. The more we crave the security of tried and true sources of authority, the harder it is to spot the movement of the Spirit who refuses to be nailed down. The only deed of power he could do there was to cure some sick people who were wide open to being touched and who were way beyond arguing about sources of authority. Need will often lift the veil that blinds us to the possibilities before us.

Jesus has only one place to fall when those who were supposed to love and honor and support him take offense instead; he falls back into the arms of God, resting in his experience of union with God. He didn’t go the route of arguing his credentials; he just laid hands on a few sick people and cured them. He couldn’t give what those hometown people were unwilling to receive, but he didn’t stop the flow either. That’s one definition of sin that I’ve heard that makes sense to me, stopping the flow, stopping the flow of love and grace. In fact, not only did Jesus not stop the flow, Jesus expanded the channels through which this love and grace could flow. He gathered up the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and he gave them authority over the unclean spirits.

He even told them how to pack for the journey.

Now, how do we pack? Well, I am going to pull out my expandable suitcase. And I might need a jacket for the cool nights, and a tank top for the hot days. And long pants for the bugs, and shorts to stay cool. And I might need a swim suit, you never know. I need my tennis shoes, which need a certain kind of socks, and my hiking shoes, which need another kind of socks. And Jesus did mention sandals, but my Keens or Birkenstocks? And a hat. I need my hat. Well, actually, I need my sun hat and my golf hat. Oh, and a book or two or three—let’s see, Freedom of Simplicity, Simpler Living Compassionate Life, oh and Living with Contradiction—that should do it. And maybe a stuffed animal, a toy? Is this about how you pack??? Please tell me I am not alone here.

But Jesus told them to take nothing for their journey, no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; wear sandals, one pair, not even a second tunic; take nothing, except a staff, a walking stick, that’s all you got. That’s what the text records, but I imagine Jesus said a little bit more. Something like this: “You are going to have to depend upon the hospitality of those you meet. And don’t hop around too much. Sink some roots into a place. Sometimes, they will be able to receive what you have to offer, and sometimes they won’t. And if they can’t receive it, don’t sweat it, just shake the dust off your feet and move on. You have no authority but the authority I have given you, and that authority comes from one source and one source only, a living relationship with the Living God. That’s all you got. That’s all I’ve got; and it’s everything. All that I have been given, I have given to you.” (sounds like the seventeenth chapter of John) “So, go out and confront the demons, name them and cast them out. Touch the sick, anoint them, and watch them be made whole. The world will ask for your credentials; offer them the authority of your experience instead. You will have your walking stick. I know it doesn’t seem like a lot, but it is there to steady you and give you a little support when the going gets rough, just enough for you to find your equilibrium, your steadiness; mostly that stick is there to call you back to your center so that you can ground yourself in the authority that rests within you, an authority that comes from that place deep, deep inside of you that is absolutely united with, bound to, connected to, at one with God. A place inside of you where God lives and speaks in sighs too deep for words.” I think Jesus said something like that.traveler with walking stick

If the emerging church thinkers are right, people of faith are waking up in a big way. After centuries of looking to outer authorities to tell us what we should believe about God, we are coming back to the immediacy of our own experience of God and Jesus. It certainly means we are traveling a whole lot lighter. That’s often confusing to the world around us, but as we open to our experience of God, as we share that experience with courage, like Paul, as we risk looking like a babbling fool, like Paul, as we put ourselves out there with our friends and family, with our neighbors and our co-workers, even with our enemies, as we claim our inner God-given authority, we free others to claim the divine authority that is also theirs. And then we can begin to see grace and power in places we used to call godforsaken. Then, we can see grace and power made perfect in places of utter weakness. Far from blocking the flow, we begin to facilitate it, participate in it, share it, expand it, just like Jesus did. Resistance just becomes one more place for God’s glory to shine.

Paul isn’t just doing a teaching on mystical experience; he’s inviting us to own our own. Paul isn’t just espousing his theology of the cross; he’s inviting us to claim our experience of the cross and to speak of how we found God there. Jesus isn’t just revealing the weirdness of small town dynamics in the town you grew up in; he’s inviting us to understand the true source of our authority. And the mission of the twelve isn’t just an evangelism strategy for first century Palestine, but a call to all of us to trust the authority Jesus has given us and to be bold in inviting the world around us to get a whole new mind.

You have so much power. You have so much experience. You have so much wisdom. You have authority. How are you claiming these? How are you stewarding these? How are you sharing these?

So, leave your baggage behind, and trust that the walking stick and what you carry in your heart and in your soul will be enough. Witness to the love of God that knows no bounds. Speak of the grace that is always sufficient. Show the kind of power that is made perfect in weakness. Invite the world to learn the language of paradox. You won’t be able to do a deed of power everywhere, but it’s time we started trying to do the deeds of power where we can.

If you sound goofy, don’t worry, you won’t be the first, Paul already has that t-shirt. But don’t be surprised at the deeds of power you will do as you claim this authority. The disciples cast out many demons and cured the sick. Who knows what deeds of power you will do on the journey that is now yours to make. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
July 8, 2012