A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 5, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 and Mark 6:1-13
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“The Portrait,” by Stanley Kunitz[1]

My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
still burning.

I suspect that most of us (perhaps all of us) still feel the burn of slaps – physical or emotional – from our pasts.  I can think back on some memories and still feel the flush of embarrassments long past, and I still want to hide under the covers and not come out.  I can think back on fights and break ups long over and still feel guilt or shame for how I handled them, how I treated others.  I can think back on some past hurts and I know the wound still hasn’t healed fully for I still feel the pain.  We think the past is the past, but it is still with us.

In some ways, memory is a gift.  Without memory, we only have this moment.  Without memory, we have no story.  Have you ever woken up from a deep sleep and not known where you are, or even who you are?  Memory is that which tells us not just where we are, but who we are.  Proust once said, “Memory comes like a rope let down from heaven to draw one out of the abyss of unbeing.”[2]

And in other ways, memory is a burning slap on the cheek, a thorn in the flesh.  And often, as I just expressed, that burning remains because we hold on to it.

Sometimes the burn can come from other people’s memories.  I think that’s what happened to Jesus in our Gospel lesson today.  He’s back in his hometown, in the synagogue, teaching.  It’s powerful stuff.  The people who heard him were astounded, the story says.  But they still took offense.  Where did he get all this?  “This is Mary’s kid, the brother of James, Joses, Judas and Simon.”  (An aside here:  I wonder if Simon felt left out.  Jesus, James, Joses, Judas – his parents couldn’t think of another “J” name?)

“This is Mary’s kid, the brother of James, Joses, Judas and Simon.  We won’t bother naming his sisters, because, you know, we’re sexist, but they’re here, too.”  And notice that they don’t name Jesus’ father.  Perhaps they were impugning his parentage?  Maybe that was the thing they remembered about him that made his wisdom offensive.  Maybe it was something else from his past that they wouldn’t let go of.  A community memory that stung like a slap on Jesus’ face.  Mary’s son couldn’t be a prophet.  He’s not what they think a prophet should be.  And so rather than letting go of their memories and revising their expectations, they dismiss him.

I got a similar reaction from my parents when I told them that I was going to seminary to become a pastor.  They knew what sort of a teenager I was and I don’t think they could imagine me in the role.  Rather than revise their expectations of me …

When my childhood church had an opening (more than two decades ago, now), I thought about applying, but there were plenty of people in that church who wouldn’t be able to see me as anyone other than “Bill and Sue’s boy.”  So I didn’t bother submitting my Profile.  Maybe I shouldn’t feel so bad.  After all, if Jesus wouldn’t be taken seriously in his hometown, why would I be taken seriously in my hometown?

What I’m talking about, I suppose, is a form of prejudice – informed prejudice, but prejudice all the same.  We get a reputation in our childhoods or our adolescences and we can’t shake it.  A judgment about who we are has been made and we’re stuck with it.  Like a finger super-glued to the broken vase we were trying to put back together, that reputation isn’t going anywhere.  You’re a klutz or brainiac or cutup or the creative type or a slow learner or a troublemaker or whatever label you’re given.

A colleague writes about calling on a family that was new to the neighborhood.  “The father of the family introduced his children:  ‘This is Pete. He’s the clumsy one of the lot.’  ‘That’s Kathy coming in with mud on her shoes.  She’s the sloppy one.’  ‘As always, Mike is last.  He’ll be late for his own funeral, I promise you.’”[3]

No wonder people move away from home.

If we’re lucky, we realize we’re more than the label we’ve been given – whether by family or by neighbors and peers – and we can create and live up to our own expectations for ourselves.  If we’re lucky, we find the solvent so we aren’t super-glued to our faults.

Paul writes about having a “thorn in the flesh.”  He calls it a messenger of Satan that torments him.  He never tells us what that thorn is.  Some biblical scholars have suggested what is illustrated in this picture.  I think, more likely, it is something of his own making, a slap on the cheek he gave himself, or he keeps giving himself.

It’s been suggested that Paul might have been gay and, for whatever reason, thought that to be something he had to deny and resist.  I can understand how someone with that point of view might see being gay as a thorn in the flesh.  If he thought that being gay was sinful, then he would have seen those attractions as coming from Satan and tormenting him.  If that was the case, how sad for Paul – that he didn’t realize that being gay was just as much of a gift as being heterosexual.

But this thorn in the flesh could just as easily be something else, anything else, really, that he was ashamed of, some guilt that he was carrying around.  Or it could be some disability that made him feel less than whole – which, again, would be sad, for living with a disability doesn’t make one un-whole.

My friend Jim’s father died when Jim was a little boy.  His father was an institutional chaplain and then started working for the national settings of his denomination, touring around the country to connect with chaplains and to assist ministry students discern if they were called to chaplaincy.  On one of his trips to the western United States he found a camper van for sale.  He wrote home to his wife back east, telling her about the camper van and suggesting that it would be a good purchase for the family.  His wife, Jim mother’s, wrote back saying, “I’m quite sure you have already purchased the van.  We’ll talk about it when you get home.”

Jim’s father started back east but never made it home.  Twenty or so miles from their home, he drove the van off an embankment, crashed, and died.

Jim’s mother is now in her nineties.  She lives in a retirement community and, aside from doctor’s appointments, doesn’t really leave ever.  When Jim was visiting recently, she asked him to go to the bank to get some rings out of the safe deposit box.  Why keep them locked away, she figured.  Why not wear them and enjoy them.  As Jim looked through the safe deposit box, he found the bill of sale from the van.  Five decades later, she still had the bill of sale for the van.  Locked away with important documents and valuables.

Locked away.

Jim asked his mother about it.  She said that she always regretted that her last words to her husband offered in that last letter to him where short, even angry.  A thorn in her flesh for five decades.

Why carry that burden for five decades?

There’s a fable about a man who was riding his donkey into town.  As he rode, he carried a 100-pound sack of wheat across his shoulders.  Someone asked him why he didn’t take the weight off his shoulders and strap it to the donkey.  “Oh, I couldn’t do that,” the man said.  “I couldn’t ask the donkey to carry that weight.”

Far too many of us carry burdens that we really don’t have to carry.  Shame typically keeps our burdens on our shoulders, when we could lay them down.  Shame typically keeps the thorn in our flesh.  Shame for the terse words we uttered to a loved one.  Shame for some distorted sense of our unwholeness.  Shame for something we did or for something we failed to do in the past.  Even shame for something that was done to us.

Jim’s mother locked away the bill of sale and she locked away the shame and the guilt in her heart.  But once the box is unlocked, once the wound is revealed, once the guilt is shared, healing can happen.  She will never be able to undo the final letter she sent her husband.  She will never be able to change the anger in her final words to the man she loved.  But in sharing her burden, by telling her story – and discovering that she is still loved – healing has begun.

If this sermon has brought to mind some thorn in your flesh, some shame you are carrying, please accept this invitation:  share it.  Find someone to share your burden with.  You don’t have to carry it alone.  Let the fresh air of honesty bring healing to your wounds.  And, who knows, God may work a second miracle, too.

You see, sometime of the wounds we carry can actually be vehicles for healing of others.  Sometimes it is in our weakness that God’s glory is revealed.  Three times, Paul writes, he asked God to relieve him of the torment he suffered.  God’s response:  “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  God loves to use our imperfections, our woundedness, our powerlessness for the healing of the world.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus sends the disciples out into the world to bring healing.  He “gave them authority over the unclean spirits,” Mark says.  In other words, Jesus gave them the authority to heal the sickness of the world.  He sent them out without provision – no bread, no bag, no money.  They were powerless – and in their powerlessness, they found the power over unclean spirits.

These past couple weeks, I’ve been thinking about the sin of racism.  I suspect many of you have, too.  I believe that it is only by journeying into weakness that white folk like me can have power over this unclean spirit.  Only by recognizing and releasing white privilege, by embracing powerlessness, can white people bring healing.

The same tactic is true for our burning cheeks, the burdens we carry, the thorns in our flesh.  When we let them invite us into powerlessness, God power is revealed and healing comes.  Dare we journey into weakness?  Dare we step into powerlessness?

[1] Stanley Kunitz, “The Portrait,” poets.org, http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/portrait (accessed 2 July 2015). My thanks to Pastor Brenda for pointing me to this poem.

[2] Quoted on “Memory and Forgetting,” on Radio Lab (about 46 minutes into the show).  https://www.wnyc.org/radio/#/ondemand/515238

[3] Attributed to James S. Hewett in an email from sermons.com dated 30 June 2015.