Harrowing Of Hell
July 5, 2015

Grace Is Sufficient

Preacher: Holly Boone

Last summer I traveled with other pilgrims from Epiphany to England to study Anglican Church history at Cambridge. I keenly enjoyed our coursework and our outings to visit historic sites in church history—and to the local pubs. There was only one problem: More than a week after I arrived in England, I still couldn’t get my bank ATM card to work. Access denied, the bank machines kept telling me. I had never had this problem before, so I was stymied. Meanwhile I kept borrowing pounds from my obliging fellow pilgrims.

My annoyance finally exploded the weekend we traveled to Canterbury. After trying unsuccessfully to withdraw money at two different banks, I stormed back to our lodging where the Epiphany group was meeting in the library before dinner. There in the shadow of Canterbury Cathedral and in front of my astonished fellow pilgrims, I threw myself into a fit. I wanted my money and I wanted it now!

I acted the fool for several minutes before Thad Alston calmed me down and helped me call my bank on his smart phone. But because I couldn’t tell the service rep my bank-by-phone password, neither she nor the supervisor I demanded to talk to could help me. It didn’t matter that I could have told them the high school my mother attended, my maternal grandfather’s first name, or the name of my childhood pet. Nothing would do but that password.

By the end of that phone call I was really mad. I proceeded to describe my bank using a bad word. Actually, the bad word. Its gerund form. I used it several times, vehemently. My friends finally shut me up by hauling me off to dinner. Later I was able to call home using Margaret and Tim Petersen’s Skype account, and thanks be to God, my partner Pat was able to tell me the password. I was eventually able to withdraw money, reimburse creditors, and pick up my own pub tabs. (The problem, if you are curious, was really simple. Each time I tried to withdraw a reasonable round figure of British pounds, I exceeded my daily withdrawal limit in US dollars, which triggered a fraud alert and froze access to my account. Lesson to travelers: check your daily ATM limit before leaving home.)

On the long bus ride back to Cambridge, I had ample time to pout about the kerfuffle with my bank. I shouldn’t have been surprised that the rules governing online banking were so inflexible. The digital world wants its 1’s and 0’s lined up just so. Just close doesn’t get you a digital cigar. The strict requirements of digital interfaces and bank regulations seemed to me symbolic of all the demands we place on ourselves in the world of our own making.

In the world of our own making, we hear plenty of announcements—from ourselves, from others, from Madison Avenue—that in ways little or large, we (or others we could name) don’t have what it takes, miss the mark, fail to deliver, don’t measure up. We are not sufficiently smart, fit, popular, charming, or beautiful. Our teeth are not white enough and our hair is too gray or missing entirely. Our homes are not the stuff of magazines. We don’t drive the right car or wear the right clothes or pull down the right income. In the world of our own making, each of us is expected to be the master of our own universe, or at least remember a bunch of passwords. We are expected to be in control. If something is broken in our lives, we are expected to fix it. What portion of the economy, I wondered, is generated by goods and services that tell us in essence we are not good enough? Such was the stew of my thoughts all the way back to Cambridge.

Some weeks after I returned from England, I was in my backyard checking my apple trees. Now if you’ve only heard about Johnny Appleseed, you may not know that the apples you see in the farmers markets and produce aisles are not grown from seeds. If you want to grow a Honeycrisp, Roxbury Russet or Northern Spy apple tree that is just like its parent, you must take a pencil-sized shoot of the parent variety, called the scion wood, and splice onto the stem of a suitable rootstock. All the apple trees you see in an orchard are grafted in this painstaking way.

My trees were my first attempts at grafting, and though I had tried my best, I had by no means done an expert job. Some of the graft unions, the gnarly bump where the scion wood grew into the rootstock, looked a little wonky, but the trees were thriving and some were even bearing nearly perfect fruit. My poor job of grafting hadn’t mattered. At least a few essential cells of the scion wood lined up with a few corresponding cells of the rootstock, and the apples did the rest. Their God-given apple vitality was sufficient to bring them to fruition in God’s kingdom, where apples and everything else in nature naturally live all the time.

These two experiences, first with the ATM debacle and then with the apple trees, are why the phrase in Paul’s letter leapt out at me: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

That line is the kicker of today’s Epistle, which otherwise could use a little explanation. In this passage, Paul is asserting his authority as a true apostle of Christ. Paul himself had brought the gospel to Corinth, (Acts, Chapter 18), so he personally knew many of the members of the church. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he had addressed issues of doctrine, ethics and governance that were then roiling the early church, before they had vestries.

His second letter was prompted by troubling news that the church in Corinth was entertaining competing versions of the gospel spread by false apostles. Earlier in the letter, as evidence supporting his authority, Paul names the hardships and persecutions he has suffered for his devotion to the true gospel of Christ. As further evidence, he tells of a man he knows—actually Paul himself, he’s just trying to be modest here—who was caught up into the presence of God. There he received revelations that he is forbidden to tell mortals. Paul refers to Paradise as the “third heaven” to distinguish it from the first heaven, which is the air about us where the winds blow and the birds fly, and the second, the heaven of the stars and planets.

Paul then mentions the “thorn in his flesh.” We do not know the nature of this famous malady. It might have been poor vision, malaria, or even depression; it might have been the opposition he suffered from fellow Jews. Whatever it was, Paul knew that though it was intended as a torment from Satan, it served God’s purpose.

Were it not for this thorn of suffering and weakness, Paul might have been tempted to attribute his apostolic success to his own zeal and work ethic, to his fine legal education under the famous Rabbi Gamaliel, or to the connections and status he enjoyed as a Roman citizen and former Pharisee. But Paul’s affliction served to make God’s own power even more evident: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

That line resonates with me. Perhaps for similar reasons, it resonates with you, too. It resonates with me because it is such a relief.

To someone like me—a fault-finding, hot-tempered, perfectionist control-freak prone to profanity—the words “My grace is sufficient” are wonderfully consoling. I interpret God’s words to Paul to mean “My love is sufficient for you.” Perhaps “My love is sufficient” could be a mantra for all of us consumed with the need to be perfect or fixed or improved or in control of every single thing in our lives.

What if we stopped trying to master our own universe? What if we stopped trying to conform to the impossible and often screwball demands of our own kingdoms? Forget gluten, how about cutting the bread of anxious toil out of our diets?

Do we feel empty? Then we have plenty of room to invite God to dwell in our emptiness. Do we feel broken? Then let God’s love shine through the cracks and brighten the dark places in our own lives or the lives of others we don’t even know.

God doesn’t ask us to be strong and perfect and whole as the world understands strength, perfection and wholeness. God asks us only to love him and to love our neighbors. We need only to seek God and allow him to be with us in our weakness. For everything else, it is a relief to remember: “My grace is sufficient.”

And if I need a further reminder of God’s grace, I can go tend my apple trees. Care for them as I might, I know I cannot make them grow. Only the immense love of God that powers all of creation is sufficient for that. That’s why when I’m puttering around with them, I always tell them, “Thank you. Thank you for growing.”