Fruit in the Thorny Thickets
A sermon based on 2 Corinthians 12:2-10
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on August 12, 2018
by Rev. Scott Elliott
From Oregon up through the rest of the great Northwest blackberries grow like weeds in the western regions. Nancy and I used to joke that we were blackberry farmers because our three acres were inundated with huge overgrowth of that fruity plant. Plants taller than me and as wide as a two lane road were common, and out there they take over empty lots with hard to clear very thorny and prickly bush.
Blackberries on the western slope of the cascades are as common as dandy lions, but grown into a much, much larger bush – plus, of course, they grow a delicious seasonal fruit. In Oregon for about three weeks at this very time of year we would go out in our yard and pick fresh berries by the bowlful for breakfast, and go out again in the evening for desert. In fact most of August our hands often had purple stains and our little ones’ mouths would be purple too – and not just at breakfast and in the evening . . . see we showed them how to graze in the hours between as well.
As long as we could keep the bushes trimmed back blackberries were a perfect plant to have around. But those thorns had to be endured to get to the fruit. So in addition to the royal purple stains very often in blackberry season we’d also have bits of red from scratches. We learned early on that in order to enjoy the perfect fruit of the blackberry those thorns had to be endured. They were a part of the bargain. And when we accepted that deal we got all the delicious fruit we could eat without paying a cent.
The Creator knew what she was doing when she made blackberries. You’d be hard pressed to show me anything more perfect than a blackberry. They have nourishing vitamins, good calories and the taste is divine. Their little seeds are carried far and wide by many animals that eat them. This helps the plant to be fruitful and multiply. The thorns make it hard to hurt the plant and nearly impossible to take away all the seeds consequently the chance of more plants growing where the present one thrives is pretty high.
From a berry picking standpoint, though, those protective thorns can range from being a nuisance to being very harmful, but they are a part of the experience.
I am discussing blackberries because our reading from Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians has his very famous reference to “a thorn given to me in the flesh . . .” Anyone on the northern part of the west coast probably thinks of blackberries when they think of thorns because they are a very part of outdoor life out there.
As far as Paul goes there are many guesses as to what type of “thorn in the flesh” he suffered from. While I have never encountered anyone suggesting it had something to do with blackberry thorns (or a literal thorn of any kind for that matter) there are all sorts of guesses at what the “thorn” that troubled Paul actually was. I have heard everything from a disease to sexuality to misfortune to mistreatment by opponents to even remorse for his past mistreatment of others.
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan lay out compelling evidence that the thorn was lifelong suffering from malaria. 1 And if I had to pick I probably go with that, but we really do not know. Which may be just as well because our not knowing allows Paul’s thorn to serve as a metaphor for all types of thorns that cause pain.
Paul had a remarkable and worthy life and in 2 Corinthians Paul discusses some of the extraordinary parts– especially in our text this morning. But ironically Paul does so to expressly NOT boast about it. Which is why Paul used a third person description of his incredible spiritual connections with heaven and God and Jesus. He lifts them up as modestly as he can to show that he has these awesome things others lift up and boast about to prove God’s favor for them. But instead of vainly focusing on glories and blessings, Paul remarkably points to an embedded “thorn,” a terrible thing in his life that he has to live with.
Paul’s theological point does not require knowledge of the specifics of his thorn only that a thorn persists and he can and does find God’s favor with it. Why is that important? Because life for every human is full of thorns, a lot of them. So Paul is telling Jesus’ followers how to find God, not in the extreme glories, but in the thorns. Paul is teaching that we can find the fruit of God’s favor in the thorny briars of life!
It is important to note that Paul in no way argues that God causes the thorns and briars to be put in our lives, rather he asserts that God is graciously present in them. Paul’s theological point is this: In amongst our troubles God is present, not as the cause but as a caring salve and source of healing and fruit-full life. As the Feasting on the Word commentary puts it:
God did not cause [Paul’s] affliction any more than God causes a child to develop leukemia. But God is present even in the difficult things God does not cause, and the grace of God can be made manifest even through the afflictions that bring God– and us– grief and sorrow. 2. ( p. 210)
The commentary goes on to note that “For Paul, God’s grace is as much a ‘given’ as the air about him, a grace that prevails over sin, weakness, and hardship.’” Then the commentary quotes Paul quoting God in vs 9 which we heard Kris read. Paul reports that God says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul is not pointing to God in the great things, that’s easy. Paul is – like the Book of Job and much of the Bible – showing how God is in the trials and tribulations . . . in the thorns. This can be hard to grasp. How is God in the thorny briars of life?
You can tell by my introduction that I like to think that God’s grace is like those blackberries back in Oregon perfect and right there in the midst of the thorns. Everyone in this room knows life has thorns intertwined it. Paul wants us to remember that the fruit of God’s perfect presence can always be found in those thorns. ALWAYS! For some reason most of us think that there are lives lived without thorns, or a lot less thorns than ours. But nobody gets through life without thorns. Most lives are like those Northwest blackberry bushes full of thorns. Disease, disabilities, ailments, misfortune, mistreatment, others’ bad choices and our own bad choices all of them hurt and scar us. Life includes a lot of rough and tough experiences.
Like Job before him, Paul experienced such things . . . we have too. Everyone does. And it is not because God intentionally causes them, it is because life unfolds in thorny thickets. The thing Paul is trying to tell the Jesus Followers in Corinth is that God’s presence is not necessarily most appreciated and sweetest to find in the green pastures of life like in the good things Paul or we could boast about. Rather some of most appreciated and sweetest experiences of God are found in the thorny thickets. “Power is made “perfect in weakness” is how our lesson puts it.
Why would Paul write that? Why would it matter to know God’s in the thicket? Interestingly we tend to look for God the hardest and most often in times of trouble. When the going gets tough we get going to God. Because God’s presence matters, giving us care, comfort, hope and healing. So like Paul, when the thorns of the flesh are hurting, we pray and pray and pray. We reach out to God.
I have visited a lot of people in a lot of hospitals over the years. I often stop in the hospital chapels to sit and pray. In many I have found Bibles open on the altar, and when I look at them they are almost always opened to Psalm 23. It is always a page that is thumb worn because many who come into that chapel are in a thorny thicket and they are looking for, and reaching out to, the sweet presence of God–a presence pointed out so well in Psalm 23 that most people sense it vibrating in the words.
There is much hope is the truth that even in the valley of the shadow of death we don’t need to fear evil because God’s arms are around us. God’s there. God’s here. While life is thorny and hard and even dark at times. God’s presence is perfect, not in the sense that it can remove the thorns and hardness, but in that it can light up darkness . . . grace-fully guide and comfort us in the shadows . When we stop and experience God’s presence it brings into perspective the reality that whatever thorn there is, wherever it came from, and however big it is there is nothing from anywhere of any size that can overshadow or outshine God. Indeed the thorniest thorn and the darkest dark drives us to focus and find God. So, see, “Power is made “perfect in weakness” because when we are out of the green pastures of life and in the briars of life . . . God’s presence is what we need. It’s what we hone in on. It’s what we find.
In the valley of the shadow of death we do not have to fear evil because God’s there. The valley does not always go away, the presence of God has never gone away, rather scales fall from our eyes and God comes into view– GOD IS ALWAYS THERE. ALWAYS HERE. ALWAYS WITH US! We can reach through any thorn and have the fruit of God’s love. NO STRINGS ATTACHED! That’s the grace Paul focuses on. “Grace” means merit-less favor. We do not have to do or believe a thing to earn God’s grace. In the dark we have light, amongst the thorns we have fruit.
Grace being grace it is not forced upon us or anyone. But is there always. When we reach for it – like for a blackberry through thorns– we can experience it.And it is when life’s thorny briars encumber our lives we are instinctively drawn to look for it, to reach through the thorns for it. The popular saying that “There are no atheist in foxholes” acknowledges this phenomena. When darkness looms we look for light and we believe in it, because we need light and hope helps us find it. This is Paul’s point. We do not need great glories and good things to experience God. God’s in the thicket!
Here in this room we have all been through thorny thickets or are presently in them. We tend to think others around us have not been in them much, but all of us encounter painful life altering thorns. Thorns that deeply hurt like addiction, abuse, rejection, sexism, heterosexism, racism, bullying, injury, poverty, loss, disease, death, despair and disappointment.
Some of us first came to church because of one or more thorn. We come hoping to have it cared for, and the wound healed and maybe the thorn removed. Like Paul we have prayed and prayed and prayed. God of course always cares and sometimes the thorns can be removed, sometimes there can be complete healing. But life is such that some thorns cannot be removed, and sometimes healing takes time and sometimes there are scars or pains that do not fully go away. Yet even if, like with Paul, the thorns remain, we can find light in the darkness, fruit in the thorns. God in the valley of any shadows. Perfect grace is always near.
One of Paul and the Gospels themes is that Jesus’ story and Way– what we now call Christianity– actually points to God in the worse thickets imaginable. Throughout the Bible there are stories of God being presence with people stuck in wars and fights, people wounded and enslaved, people oppressed and forgotten, people sick and dying. And right smack in the center of Christianity is the thorniest story of all. A person as good as could ever be, Jesus experiences as bad as could ever be thorns, the worse type of thorny thicket, a place where men abandoned God and brutally treated him. The humans who captured and killed Jesus surely had forsaken God’s presence. Those Romans showed no grace on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. But God was there all the same. So much so God’s work in Jesus did not die. His way, His presence goes on and on and on. Indeed Jesus presented Grace himself in forgiving those who brutalized him. “God forgive them.” he said. We too are to be like Jesus full of grace for others in the thorns they find or create.
If God’s grace was in what Jesus went through – and in Jesus himself in the midst of thorns on his crown and cross, and in his captures– God is with us in whatever thorny briar of life we are in, and can be in us too in our actions for others.
God does not purposefully put thorns in our lives that deeply hurt us. But God has put God’s very self there in the every thorny patch of existence . . . and can be in us too. God’s grace, God’s favor, God’s love, God’s never ending desire for our well being is present for us in every single kind of trouble. In every thorny way. God was there with Jesus and his crown of thorns and on the cross. God was there with Paul and his thorn of the flesh. God is here with us and in all our thorns. That, THAT is the good news!
May our day, and our week, and our lives, be experienced as Grace-full . . . because they are.
1. Borg. Marcus, Crossan, John Dominic, The First Paul, p. 62
2. Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol 3, p. 270
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2018 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED