July 8, 2018

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Preached by Canon Sue Wallace using 2 Corinthians 12.2-10 and Mark 6.1-13 at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 8th July 2018, the Sixth Sunday after Trinity.

There are many stories told of the Celtic saint, Saint Aidan, who lived in the seventh Century in the North of England. Aidan was a monk and a missionary, one of the ones who brought Christianity to our nation from his monastery on the holy Island of Iona. One story in particular, recounted by St Bede, concerns a horse.

It was Aidan’s habit to travel around Northumbria on foot, visiting and talking to everyone he encountered on the road, and as a monk he had no possessions, so he wasn’t worried about being robbed on the road, feeling completely at ease amongst the people.  However, King Oswin was concerned about Aidan traveling such long distances on foot, and so presented him with a horse to help him travel faster.  Aidan did not use this horse all the time, only for those journeys where speed was necessary, and it was a fine, royal horse (more of a Lamborghini than a Skoda).  However, one day Aidan gave away this precious horse to a beggar in desperate need.  The king was very cross, particularly as the horse had been such an expensive one.  The bishop replied that surely the son of a mare was not more dear to the king than that son of God whose needs he had relieved! At such a rebuke the king begged Aidan’s forgiveness.

You may wonder what the connection is between today’s readings and the story of a horse. Well… I think they all speak of vulnerability and the Christian call to speak from a place of vulnerability rather than a place of power in order to connect and build trust with others.

In our Epistle this morning we heard of St Paul’s struggles with a thorn in the flesh, who may have been a person such as Alexander the Coppersmith who, he says “Did me great harm” or it may have been a physical disability.  Some say that Paul had chronic eye problems, and there is a reference in Galatians chapter 4 to an illness of Paul’s which seems to be an illness of the eyes.  The only reason we know of these struggles of Paul is because he himself has written about them.  He has not written apologetically or ashamedly about them.  He has proudly boasted about them.  What a contrast to the powerful personas that society encourages us to present before others and the selfie-stick perfection that is promoted by some on social media. We do not need to airbrush out our imperfections in order to be accepted by others.  In fact if we allow ourselves to be honest about ourselves, we can release others into the liberation of being honest too.

In todays letter Paul is happy to share his vulnerability with us and in doing so we feel trusted and valued, drawn in to his struggles because we can relate them to our own struggles.  It seems to me that it is a good thing that Paul does not tell us what his thorn in the flesh actually was.  Because in this way, in a similar fashion to the “Tomb of the unknown solider” being potentially the tomb of any mother’s lost son, so Paul’s thorn in the flesh could be any of our thorns, our struggles, our illnesses, our vulnerabilities too.

In our gospel reading today, from Mark chapter 6, Jesus is asking the disciples to deliberately put themselves in a position of powerlessness, where they are forced to rely upon the hospitality and care of others.  The disciples will travel with no food and so must find those who will share their food with them, they have no money to buy accommodation, and must therefore stay in someone else’s home sharing their table and giving opportunity for deep conversations.  The disciples’ powerlessness forges connections with others.  If they had marched into town wearing fine shoes instead of cheap sandals with money jangling from their purses they would have put themselves in danger from thieves and swindlers, but they would also have created a barrier between themselves and those they were preaching to, particularly those who were poor, ill, or in trouble, who so desperately needed to hear the gospel message.

So let’s get back to the horse.  It is that same willingness to demolish the barriers between himself and those in need of hearing good news that ultimately was a factor in St Aidan giving away his horse.  A monk riding an expensive status-symbol of a horse gives entirely the wrong impression to those he meets on the road.  He instils respect but it is the wrong kind of respect; it is the kind of respect which is also fear of what a powerful bishop can do to hurt a humble peasant.  This fear creates barriers to the very concept of liberation embodied in the words of the gospel-message.  Furthermore the speed of travel on horseback also means that many opportunities to connect with others in conversation are lost.

A monk who is not on horseback can talk to those he meets along the road.  As they walk they can share stories of Jesus of Nazareth, his healing power, his death, his resurrection, and his promise of salvation and new life to all who trust in him.  This monk can share his vulnerability but also the power of the Christ whose strength is made perfect in weakness.

And so this leads me to wonder.  What kind of vulnerability and openness can we show that will help to make the gospel less threatening to those friends we know who have been wooed by the fake-news of a powerful and rich church, unwilling to show compassion?

I think the answer to this question will be different for each one of us, but perhaps it could start with vulnerability in prayer.  God can only ever interact with our real selves, not the fake avatar or personality we might like to present before others and before our creator.  We need to bare our true selves, fears and failures before him which will allow him to pour his strength into our weakness.  I think then, as we honestly share our weakness in prayer, God will show us the opportunities to use that very weakness to be a catalyst to help those in the same situation and those people who our stories particularly connect with.

Therefore, as we ponder these three very different stories, may we never be ashamed of our weaknesses, even when they are mocked by others, but may we truly know that these are the very means by which God’s power will be made perfect in us.  Amen.