Proper 9, Year B, 2012

What is on your resumé?

You list your successes, right?  You tell your future employers that you are an incredibly competent individual with a great track record of success!  You tell them you have managed projects and people, that you have delivered deliverables, and of course, that you are competent in the use of Microsoft Office and some basic HTML.

When you write your college essays, you try to horn in every sport you played and every drama production in which you performed.  You make sure to tell universities about your community service and your summer jobs.  If your SAT scores were great, you make sure that information is front and center!  And if they were lousy, you work extra hard to play up your other wonderful qualities.

And on a first date, you don’t lead with stories of how you completely ruined your last relationship.  You don’t admit that you spend most nights on your couch watching Law and Order re-runs.  No!  You make yourself sound extremely personable and interesting.  You talk about your travels, the exotic food you like to cook, what complex novel you’ve been reading.

Knowing and being confident about your strengths is part of surviving in our world.  Even in the church we do spiritual gifts inventories and think about our vocations in terms of our strengths meeting the needs of the world.

But do we rely so much on our strengths we forget to rely on God?  By having a culture in which people are valued for their contributions and accolades, where does that leave people who are unable to contribute?  Where does that leave people who have won no prizes?

The Apostle Paul is the founder of Christianity.  His writings were the first writings we had about Jesus.  His epistles were written years before the Gospels were written.  He traveled constantly, spreading the good news about Jesus.

His ministry was difficult, because he was ministering to places that were far away. He would help set up church communities and then keep up with them by letter, and in his absence, things would often fall apart.  Corinth was one of these places.

When Paul left Corinth, a group of other people claiming to be Jesus’ apostles came into town.  They tried to undermine Paul’s authority by arguing that if God was really pleased with Paul, Paul would not suffer.  But, since Paul has been beaten, arrested, even shipwrecked, God must not be in his corner.

This news gets to Paul and he writes the Corinthians this letter.  Paul is not ashamed of the things that have happened to him.  He claims each of them as part of his unique experience, and even as badges of honor.

Paul is confident in his faith.  In our reading today, he reveals this incredible spiritual experience he’s had.  However, he also reveals that he has some sort of “thorn in the flesh” that keeps him from getting too elated.  No one knows what this thorn is.  Could it be a physical ailment, sexual temptation, a disfigurement?  The ailment itself does not matter.  What matters is how Paul interprets the thorn.  Paul reveals that through prayer God has told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Paul clears up two things for the Corinthians.  First, Paul’s beatings, imprisonments, and shipwrecks are not punishments from God.  Second, the struggles that Paul has endured can be windows through which Paul and the world can see God’s power.

Paul knows that his value comes not from what he does, but from the Cross.  Paul knows that he is not the center of the universe.  Jesus’ death and resurrection are.  Paul’s thorn can be a window through which other people can experience the power of the Cross.

God is not impressed by our resumés.  If we are getting straight As and huge bonuses and are in perfect physical health and in incredibly happy relationships, we can get seduced into thinking we don’t need God, that the cross has no relevance to our lives.  We can start to believe that we earned our happiness, that our hard work and good character has brought us blessings.  And if we think we are so wonderful because of our hard work, we start to think that people who don’t share our blessings must not have worked so hard.  We perpetuate this sick theology that people who are poor, or disabled, or unintelligent have somehow displeased God.

Did you hear Michael Lewis’s speech to Princeton’s graduating class this year?  He warned Princeton students of just this phenomenon.

Lewis claims success is largely luck and that Princeton students are incredibly lucky to be born with intelligence and the schooling and the money to be able to attend the institution.  After sharing how his experience as a Princeton student got him a job at Salomon Brothers for which he was no way qualified, he stated:

“My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either. “

He went on to tell the students about an experiment performed at CalTech in which groups of three students were tasked to solve puzzles.  One student was arbitrarily appointed the leader of the group.  A plate of four cookies was brought to the students.   Inevitably, the randomly appointed leader would eat the extra cookie.

Lewis ended his speech by saying, “All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you’ll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don’t.”

While Lewis’s speech was not intended to be a theological one, it resonates with the ideas Paul is wrestling with here.

Whether we use the framework of success or blessing, we must be careful in how we think about God’s blessing and punishment.

God is not a Kindergarten teacher who rewards for good behaviors and punishes for bad behaviors.  When wonderful things happen to us, it is not because God thinks we are wonderful.  When bad things happen to us, it is not because God is mad at us.  Life is incredibly complicated and we make a hundred choices each day that ripple out and have consequences we never could have dreamed.  And often, the best and worst parts of life are completely random.  On any given day we could meet our life partner or get hit by a bus.  The thorns in our sides may be a result of some behavior on our part, but more often are just part of the chaotic soup of what it means to be human.  The one constant, the one thing we can always rely on is that God loved us so much that Jesus lived and died for us, whether we are successes or failures.

And whether our thorn is a bad hip, or dyslexia, or being chronically unlucky in love, God can show himself in powerful ways in the midst of our difficulties.  When our ego is stripped away, we can begin a spiritual life.  We can begin to acknowledge that we are not the center of the Universe, that we need help, that we need God.

Our thorns bring us up short, stop us in our tracks, make us face our biggest fears.  But our thorns also bring us face to face with the living God, with the deep knowledge that even though we are in pain and afraid, we are not alone.  God is with us.

Do you remember the story of Jacob from the book of Genesis? Jacob and a mysterious man wrestle all night and the physical struggle results in a life long limp.  At the end of the wrestling match, the opponent tells Jacob that he will be called Israel from now on, and Jacob asks the man to bless him.  Jacob knows he is encountering the living God.  For Jacob to be prepared to be the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, he must first realize his own limitations and yield to the living God.

Our thorns force us to face God.  When we face God, we learn to trust him.  When we trust God, he asks us to follow him.  When we follow him, the adventure begins.

Are you willing to be defined by God’s love for you rather than your strengths? Are you willing to share your cookies?  Are you willing to face your thorns?  Are you willing to go on a great adventure?

 

The entire Michael Lewis speech can be read here:  http://www.businessinsider.com/michael-lewis-princeton-commencement-remarks-2012-6#ixzz1zmV6nc8r

 

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