Sunday, March 29, 2020

Hooray for Thorny Issues!

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent being Passion Sunday

What do you find most irritating? Your son's solitary sock lying in front of the washing machine just after you've set it going? The new set of scratches on the table leg made by the cat? The man in your workplace who has bad breath and literally uses the word "literally" every five minutes?

The phrase "thorn in the side" has long been in use. We use it when we speak of a recurring irritation that prevents us from doing what we want to do or at least making a pleasant task unpleasant. It is that constant distraction, the background noise, the pain in the foot, the way that someone speaks to us, or will not leave us alone.

St Paul says that, even when he is so blessed by God, God will not take away the thorn in his flesh. Can God love us and not relieve us even from little pains?


During times of isolation and confinement, we become more acutely aware of things that truly bother us, especially in the people whom we love most. If we're doing Lent well, we will also be aware of things that irritate us about ourselves. We become aware of our own habits and how we react to the shortcomings of others. Do we ask God to take them away?

Of course we don't!


It is a fact that pearls are formed in oysters by a grain of sand in their shells. That grain is a source of constant irritation, and so the oyster encases that grain in a substance that becomes a pearl. It helps the oyster deal with that irritation.

What the Christian has is worth more than pearls, it is Love.

What irritates us most about the people we love are precisely  the things  that make them different from who we are. Our son's robust joy of living results in him not putting his sock in the washing pile. Our cat's useful ability to catch mice necessitates sharp claws. Our colleague might be irritating, but that's because he is who he is and that makes him the neighbour we need to love because God loves him.

The things that irritate us most are the things that ground us in reality. Einstein says that it is because he possesses a stomach that he has to worry about money. The people of Corinth are philosophers and thinkers. If they had their way, they would be free of the body and just sail through existence as disembodied minds.

That's not what God wants. St Paul, too, could spend his whole day in prayer and ecstasy, but he would not do what he needs to do. The thorn in his flesh is there to ground him, to remind him that he is still earthly, and that he must be humble before God. 

So St Paul turns his irritations around. They become something to rejoice in because they remind him who he is and Who God is. His irritations become a thing of glory: when he is weak, God is strong. In enduring the pain of his thorn, St Paul is venerating the cross he has to bear, and God gives him the grace to endure and to rejoice in enduring.


We Christians know that we have bodies and spirits and that we need both to be truly human. The thorns in our flesh keep us together and make us really human.

Only when Christ comes again will we be rid of the things that irritate us because we shall be complete. Until then, we must live with those things that niggle us most and praise God for allowing them to keep us truly human.

Irritating, isn't it?

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