H ow can I help?
“Simple, Sinful Servants” is the name of our sermon today. The message comes from the 2 Corinthians scripture that Greg read for us. I’m going to start by telling you about a character in a TV series that Philip and I have been watching. The setting for the show is a hospital, and the lead character is a doctor who is the new, less-than-traditional medical director of the facility. There’s more to the story line, but I want to tell you about one line that is repeated throughout the series.
The circumstances taking place in the hospital, much like any medical facility, are often chaotic and sometimes life-threatening. Whenever a staff member or patient approaches the medical director, he almost always says the same thing. Whenever he becomes aware of a difficult situation, he almost always says the same thing. Whenever a situation comes up in his personal life, again, the same thing. He says:
“How can I help?”
Here is the highest position in this large hospital, and his first response to most every situation is, “How can I help?” I’ve noticed he doesn’t say, “How can I help you?” He thinks bigger picture — how can I help with this situation. How can I help the staff, the patient, the hospital? He doesn’t assume someone else can or should or will respond. He doesn’t rattle off a quick, trite solution. He doesn’t worry that he might not have the skills or knowledge necessary.
With simple, quiet humbleness, he says, “How can I help?”
We are about to look at the part of scripture where Paul writes about having a thorn in his side.
Our character from the TV series has his share of thorns in his side. Spoiler alert: Mute your TV or laptop for about 45 seconds if you’re only beginning to watch this series!
A few of what we might call thorns are that our character comes up against the hospital board of trustees several times with disagreements between them, loses his wife in a car wreck and he undergoes cancer treatments.
Prior to these things happening in the series, and throughout these circumstances, sometimes while enduring excruciating pain himself, he continues to say, “How can I help?”
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Our character in the Bible, Paul, is a man who sincerely desires to help the people of Corinth. In his letters and ministry and actions, I can hear him saying, “How can I help? I want to help, by pointing you to Jesus Christ.” Through his ministry, he learns that the Corinthians have been visited by what Paul call false apostles, or “super-apostles.”
As we hear today’s scripture from chapter 12, it is helpful to know that it was Paul’s desire to let the people of Corinth know about these false teachers, and to prove to them that he was called by God to minister to them.
The super-apostles were bringing false messages. They claimed to have seen visions, boasted that they were “better” than others on their own merit, and they were pointing people to themselves, not to Christ. (See 2 Corinthians, chapter 11.)
They were bragging, and Paul states that he won’t brag. But he does. He does his share of bragging when sharing the vision that happened to “a man he knows.” It is widely accepted that Paul is the man. The biblical basis for this comes a few verses later, verse 7, when he refers to the thorn in his side as a result of “surpassing great revelations.” So, it seems he also goes on to boast.
But Paul sought to use his account of his vision and the thorn in his side to point others to Christ, not to himself.
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Over the years, I have read several commentaries, sermons and essays about Paul’s thorn. Some were written over 50 years ago, others this current year.
Scripture does not tell us what the thorn in Paul’s side was. Scholars nearly unanimously agree, we don’t know. Yet those same scholars are quick to offer possibilities.
It could have been poor eyesight, temptation for inappropriate relationships, maybe the weight of having persecuted Christians before he himself was a Christian.
He prayed to have these removed. Scripture says he prayed three times, which may represent many, many times, but the thorn was not removed. He says the thorn was given to him by a messenger from Satan. Notice that it wasn’t something that God did to him, or sent to him, or caused to happen.
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Zoom Bible study
In our Thursday morning Zoom Bible study, we had a discussion a few weeks ago about whether we think that God causes us to have ailments, or sends hurricanes to punish us, or sent the Coronavirus to teach us something.
Does God send hurricanes, COVID, cancer? The prayerful opinion of the group was no. The group felt that we have been given free will, and that God walks with us through things. One of the scripture references that supports that understanding is in the gospel of John, chapter 9. The disciples see a blind man, and they ask Jesus, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind.
Jesus responds, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so the work of God might be displayed in his life.” It’s being used for a reason. It hasn’t been done to him. Jesus told the disciples that the man’s blindness was used to glorify God.
And God told Paul, even after Paul pleaded three times to have his thorn removed, that “God’s grace was sufficient for him.” God’s grace is sufficient for you.
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Let me tell you about some of the people in your church family.
■ Betty, 8 a.m. service, has several health limitations, and an outstanding, generous personality. Betty was asked to serve as a deacon, and she declined because she felt she could not serve as a deacon because she is not able to get around to visit people or to visit somebody in the hospital. I assured her that I felt that God was calling her to be a deacon, and she did agree to serve. I find it ironic, though sad, that three months into her service as a deacon that there came a time when none of us could go and visit anyone, at home or in the hospital. And yet Betty continues as she always did before she had the deacon title to send notes to people, to make calls, and to encourage other people.
■ I want to talk about Ed, 10 a.m. service, who used to have his wife, Pat, sitting beside him during church services. When she passed, it was very hard for him to come to worship and to sit in this sanctuary without Pat sitting at his side. The first time that he came back for worship, he sat where he and Pat always sat. I watched as one, and then two, and then four people sat alongside him in the pew that he sits in. And someone came and sat behind him and rested their hand on his shoulder. Someone else sat in front of him. You may know that Presbyterians have their spot in their pew and where they sit and ‘that’s where I sit all the time!’ Each of these people were moved by Ed coming to worship to minister to him in the silence of presence; being with him. Ed had a thorn in his side, and Ed ministered to those who were around him who knew and loved Pat.
■ I want to tell you about Tina. Tina was called home. When she was in a rehab facility at one point, she said she made a bargain with God. She said to God, if I can walk again, I will do anything you ever ask me to do again. Tina went on to serve as a deacon in her illness, to become the director of the food pantry, organizing it with new systems that have increased the number of people we can serve while decreasing the cost, and she was the wheels behind the Potholders for Potholes project — one that is still in process and I will always associate with Tina. Tina had a thorn in her side, her illnesses. It’s not about the thorns, and if we are angry about them and they aren’t going away. It’s about what we do with the thorns that we have. I spoke recently to Al, Tina’s husband. I told Al that I no longer believe that Tina bargained with God. I believe that Tina promised God. Tina was a devout Bible reader, Bible study attendee, devotional reader, sharer of faith. She made a promise to God and she kept that promise. God’s grace was sufficient for her.
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Moses stuttered. David committed adultery and murder. The woman at the well was married five times.
God paired Moses with Aaron to lead the Israelites. David served as king and is in the lineage of Jesus. The woman at the well ran into town and shared about living water.
We struggle, but God’s grace gets us through.
We worry, but God gives us a peace beyond all understanding.
We face challenges, yet we can do all things through Christ, who strengthens us.
All we have come through, all we are going through, all that we will face in the future, we get through not on our own strength but through God’s grace.
Whether we know and admit it or not, we are sinful people. God created us exactly as we are, and he knows that we are all sinners. He doesn’t call us to be super-heroes or super-apostles. He doesn’t condemn us and turn away from us when we sin.
He knows we are simple sinners. Whether the thorn in our side is something that we brought on ourselves, or something that has simply happened in our lives.
God uses us despite, and perhaps even because of, our imperfections.
I heard it said recently, no one is too weak to be used by God, but some are too strong. We need to be ready. To be ready to be used by God. With whatever our thorns are, knowing that God’s grace is sufficient for us. We need to:
■ Accept ourselves as we are.
■ Accept God’s forgiveness for our sinfulness.
■ Accept that yes, it’s you, it’s me, that God is calling to serve him in all we do.
We need to ask God, and ask others, and ask ourselves: “How can I help?”
We are simple, sinful servants. But when we are weak, we are strong.
So, let me know: How can I help?