Sermon Archives

Sunday, July 8, 2018
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9
The Reverend Canon Ronald Spann
My Power is Made Perfect in Weakness

Is there anyone here today who enjoys the experience of feeling weak? Wouldn't we all much prefer the experience of feeling strong? I don't know about you, but being in a position of weakness is something I would much prefer to avoid. So what are some of the moments when we experience weakness?

So, one kind of weakness is physical weakness. I can identify with that.

At the end of last August I fell off a ladder while working in our garden at home and broke my left wrist. Five months later, having been warned to stay off of ladders I tried something new: shoveling a February snowfall in my dress shoes with smooth leather soles. The result? I slipped and fell again, and this time I broke my right wrist. Both are still healing, and every day I am confronted with unpleasant reminders of my lost strength in either arm. It means a daily run-in with weakness, and often as not, just when I least expect it. It is definitely not flattering to the self-image of a guy who will turn 75 this year.

The apostle Paul’s insights into the experience of weakness, some of which we heard in our reading before the gospel, are in large part the fruit of his reflection on his own journey through the painful work of living out his calling as an apostle. We are talking about a man who suffered at the hand of mobs, was flogged by religious and imperial authorities, who survived the calamity of shipwrecks, and apparently lived with some chronic physical distress - just for starters. Surely Paul would have been glad to trade places with me and my wrist fractures. Speak of hardships that can reduce you from strength to weakness…

Furthermore, in Paul’s top-10 list, fractured relationships between members of the churches he cared for like the church in Corinth were right up there with the external hardships as forces that ate away at his confidence in his validity as an apostolic leader. This made him all too aware of his limitations and weaknesses. Because he had not been one of the Twelve to walk with Jesus Paul's credentials as an apostle were open to question in the eyes of some-both in Corinth and back in Jerusalem, despite the unmistakable fruit of his ministry. His detractors were more than happy to insinuate untruths and to distort his presentation of the Good News of Jesus Christ as ways to undermine hIs standing.

This kind of treatment in public and behind the scenes was so damaging and provoking. Clearly it was taking a toll on Paul himself. It pushed him to respond very much on the defensive, just as I know how easily I can go on the defensive when I feel attacked or insulted or unfairly treated in some other way.

And when we go on the defensive, what do we want to do? Do we not want to argue for our own rightness in order to justify ourselves, and to justify pulling away from the other or others, by tapping into the energy of anger in an effort to feel strong and not weak? Because, you know, if you are wrong you are really weak, and who wants to feel weak? We feel an overwhelming temptation to boast about our record of being in the right, to recall our proven strengths. Hello, spouses and partners, parents and teenagers, feuding neighbors, political rivals. Hello, am I just talking to myself?

So it was for Paul. And yet he was so transparent about this area of struggle in his life and ministry. Thank God for that, because it has become a saving touchstone for the people of God to a godly wisdom concerning weakness, strength, and power.

First, however, we have to understand some of what led Paul to this wisdom. His career as an apostle began and ended in controversy. Both of his letters to the Corinthians churn with the strife that dogged his ministry, but also shine with the light from his genius for turning a crisis into a teachable moment. In today’s reading Paul seems finally to have been pushed over the edge into pulling rank on this contentious community about the validity of his apostolic credentials in calling them to task.

He lets them in on a moment of personal mystical experience that defied human description other than to say it had taken him into the highest heavens. You can tell the constraint he’s feeling about even going there: he talks about himself in the third person, he makes disclaimers about knowing just what the experience was all about. But the bottom line is that in spite of himself, Paul’s boasting, doing the exact opposite of what he’s at pains to model any other time. It’s code for saying, “Would an unauthentic apostle be able to point to this kind of experience?”

Very quickly, therefore, Paul counter-balances his lofty mysticism by disclosing a humbling, persistent struggle that he describes in vivid, first-person detail. He reveals his human limitations, saying In effect, “Where I went you can’t touch that! But to keep me from getting full of my apostolic self, God put a thorn in my side. I begged time and again to be rid of it.” The speculation about exactly what Paul’s thorn was is endless. “Thorn in the side” was a known metaphor in Aramaic, the semitic language of Paul’s day, and it characteristically referred to a person.

So let’s just proceed on the conjecture that this had to do with another person so perversely mean that Paul spoke of them as Satan’s own messenger. They so got on his every last nerve as to seem unbearable. This harassment Paul suffered provoked him to want to lash out, to defend and justify himself. But he found himself inwardly constrained, simultaneously praying, “I don’t want to go there! I don’t need this constant, defensive feeling of wanting to crush my antagonists. This thorn pushes me up against my weakness - including my fear of being found weak.”

Paul’s reason for not wanting to go there was simple. His deepest desire was to achieve not his own but God’s purpose, which is what brings us to look at the meaning of God’s power. Power is not about gaining superiority or conquest over someone. Power is the ability to achieve purpose. Again, power is the ability to achieve purpose.

Power is a necessary part of being human; it’s vital to the healthiness of our personalities. We have a lot of suspicions about power. We say that power corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. We need to remember, however, that as humans we must have meaning in our lives, and purposes that we need to be able to achieve. That is simply what power is about. God delights in empowering us because God wants to invite us, you and me, into achieving the Divine purpose, to be coworkers with God in bringing into the world a quality of life, the possibilities of divine grace that come forth from God, the source of all power and majesty.

Once we get our minds around this understanding of power other situations take on a new meaning. Look at Jesus in today's Gospel. Even Jesus is having to prove his own credentials as he runs into a wall of unbelief. It leaves him dumbfounded and unable to impart the help and the good news of God's kingdom. So in launching a leadership experiment by sending his apostles out in pairs, not only does he require that they go defenseless, penniless and without extra food, but he also counsels them about the experience of being rebuffed. They are not to react resentfully but only to let go of their need to be accepted by dusting off their sandals with a reminder that the kingdom of God has come close to those others.

The unstated message in Jesus’ instructions is this:"I want you to go in weakness, dependent on the grace of God and then wait to see God's faithfulness." In other words, God has a paradoxical strategy for demonstrating power. It’s a spiritual truth that Paul received as Gods answer to his struggle over the thorn in his side:"My grace is sufficient for you. My power becomes fully expressed through [your] weakness.”

Indeed, Paul had visited this in his first letter to the Corinthians. That's where he speaks of the foolishness of God over and against the wisdom of the world, how the weakness of God is greater than human strength, how God chose what was weak in the world to shame what was strong. [Cor. 1:25ff].

All that leads to the Apostle’s closing punchline. I can imagine him saying," Ron, thanks for the offer, but I couldn't think of trading what I've been through for your broken wrist. In fact, I'm going to boast in my weaknesses, in my hardships, in my injuries, in my insults. Because I now know that ‘when I am weak, then I am strong.’

That spiritual truth was recently put before the world in a way that absolutely staggered me when I heard it. On June 20 President Donald Trump went before the world to drop the executive order by which the infants and children of undocumented immigrants crossing our borders were taken from their parents’ custody. You all know me well enough to know I live in a different political space than Donald Trump. In that moment, however, he spoke from a shared space of human vulnerability in which we all struggle, and struggle he did in a remarkably transparent way. I want to read to you what he said that day:

Donald Trump, on June 20, 2018: The dilemma is that if you're weak, if you're weak, which some people would like you to be, if you're really, really pathetically weak, the country's going to be overrun with millions of people, and if you're strong, then you don't have any heart. That's a tough dilemma. Perhaps I would rather be strong, but that's a tough dilemma.

It would be so easy to deride or trash that, but that would be to miss a profoundly teachable moment in our common destiny. When I heard those words my first thought was,"Oh my God! Is the Christian church listening, because this is 2 Corinthians 12:2-10! Are we going to let this moment get away from us or are we going to seize the chance to say," Mr. President, boy do we share your dilemma. We know where you're coming from, and yes it's tough. And yes, you're right to say that some people want you to be weak, but for a reason that is anything but pathetic. As followers of Jesus we want you to know the secret of true strength pouring out of your admission to feeling weakness by changing your Executive Order. That's God’s solution to the dilemma.”

And then I get an email from the rector assigning me to preach on July 8 when the readings include 2Corinthians 12:2-10, so I guess the job fell to me!

Church, I submit to you all today that God truly wants us as the body of Christ to go forth in power, but that will mean embracing the paradox that the full manifestation of God's power must unfold in our acceptance of weakness. In the chapter that follows today's reading Paul exclaims,"Christ was crucified in weakness and raised in power!” That’s the divine strategy, without which our gospel will mean nothing, attracting no one. Indeed, no one will want to touch it because the world is weary of a church in love with worldly power.

May the power of God be poured out upon us through the Pentecostal Spirit, that we may know the things that make for peace and walk in its way, daring to believe that when we are weak then we will be strong in the strength of God. Amen.