Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Cultivating Weakness

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was 2 Corinthians 12:2-10:

A church was in the process of looking for a new minister, when they received a most intriguing letter of application, which one of the board members read to the congregation. It said, “Dear church members. I understand that your pulpit is vacant and I am writing to apply for the position as your pastor. Although I was not raised as a Christian, and in fact actively opposed Christians for many years, I am now devoted to my faith. I have never received any training, and in fact don’t have any degrees on my wall, or in fact any walls to call my own. My preaching generally receives positive results, although someone did once fall asleep during a sermon and then fell out the window where he was sitting to his death. I am also responsible for the death of at least one other person. A little timid in person, I am a prolific writer and have been said to be very bold in my pronouncements. Although I have had health issues, I am praying to God for help, and these have not stopped me from accomplishing a great deal. Most of the churches I have served have been very small by contemporary standards, and I have never stayed in any one place for longer than three years. In addition, I haven’t really gotten along well with other religious leaders in those communities. In fact some have threatened me, and even attacked me physically, and sometimes I have been forced to flee after my work has caused riots and other disturbances. Although I am well regarded as an organizer, I am not a good record keeper and have even been known to forget who I have baptized. Most of the churches I have been involved with think well of me, and have been willing to support me during my several imprisonments. But I have had several people convert to Christianity during my ministry, and am also responsible for a few healings as well. In addition, when the church has been unable to pay my salary I have been able to support myself, and my travels, through a trade. I thank you for considering my application, and if you can use me I promise to do my best for you.”

After the letter was read, the congregation was appalled, and someone even asked, “Why would we even consider hiring a sickly, trouble-making, absent-minded, ex-con?” But one of the board members said, perhaps you should consider who the applicant is, “the letter is signed the Apostle Paul.”

I’m sure we have all met someone who thought that they were, in the vernacular, “all that.” Who thought themselves superior, or better than everyone else. Who wanted to brag about who they were, or what they had done, what school they might have gone to, what car they drove, or how big their vacation home was. We are sometimes surrounded by people like this, even in the church. It wouldn’t take us very long in watching TV, or even doing a Google search, to find someone who claims special knowledge or a special relationship with God, and of course because of that also want to say, “I am great. I am important. Pay attention to me. Listen to me.” Something similar to that seems to have been happening in the Corinthian community. A group that Paul calls “super-apostles” have come into Corinth, proclaiming special knowledge and special revelations from God and are saying not to listen to Paul because he has been teaching them wrong, after all we just heard in that letter what Paul is like, so instead the Corinthians should be paying attention to them.

But Paul counters his attackers in a very unique way and probably not the way that most of us would undertake a defense of ourselves. First he tries to make himself their equal. “Are they Hebrews?” Paul asks, “So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I.” These are the bonafides of Paul’s background. One of the problems in reading these letters, as we already discussed, is the fact that we are only hearing one side of the conversation, and so we have to make guesses about what the super-apostles may have been saying about Paul based on what Paul says to the Corinthians in response. So it is guessed that they were saying that they were more Jewish than Paul was, probably because Paul was telling them that they no longer had to follow Jewish law, but the super-apostles were saying he was wrong. So Paul wants to establish again, assuming the Corinthians already knew his story, that he is, or at least was, as Jewish as they come. At their base, they are the same.

But then Paul does his interesting twist and begins boasting, but not about any of the things we would boast about. Instead of talking about his importance, of all the great things he has done, of his encounters with Jesus and with God, he instead boasts about his weakness or boasts in ways that are really boastful, but without taking the claim, which is what we just heard in today’s passage. “I know a person in Christ,” Paul says, “who was caught up to the third heaven… and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.” There is near universal agreement, including by me, that Paul is not talking about just some random “person” that he knows but that he is instead talking about himself.

Again it is suspected that these super-apostles are making proclamations that they have had a private spiritual event in their lives that make them better than others because they have received special knowledge that they want to pass on. But rather than bragging about his own experience in which he was carried up into heaven and also received special knowledge. Paul instead says it someone else, and says he will boast on their behalf, but of himself he will only boast of his weakness. Now it could be argued, and maybe rightly, that even if Paul doesn’t say his name he is still boasting since we can make the guess that it is him. But notice that he does not say what he encountered or what he learned, in opposition to what the super-apostles are doing, and then says that in order to keep him from being “too elated” in his words, or in giving him something to boast about and too make more of it than he should, he was giving a thorn in his side.

There has been lots and lots and lots of speculation about what this thorn might have been, and I am not going to add to it, except to emphasize what Paul learns from this. “I appealed to the Lord about this,” Paul says and the response, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” This is actually the lesson given to him directly by God that Paul is relaying on to the Corinthians here, but he discusses it, or really disguises it, in such a way that you might actually miss what he is saying. He discusses going up into the heavens, but he can’t say what he saw, found or was taught there, but instead his teaching relayed to him, directly by God is that “power is made perfect in weakness” but it is really the first part that is most important. Why is power made perfect in weakness? Because God’s grace is sufficient, and that is really what Paul wants us to understand, and I know this is going to be hard to hear, but God’s grace is sufficient because it’s not about us. Let me say that again. God’s grace is sufficient because it’s not about us.
I know in our culture in which we worship power, money and most importantly individualism that this is hard to take, but what Paul is saying is that it is not about us. We achieve power not because of ourselves, but because of God and when we stop worrying about ourselves, and what people think of us, and instead simply rely on God and God’s grace then we receive what? Power, which is made perfect in weakness.

Of what should Paul boast? How about the times he was whipped and beaten and stoned for the gospel; of the weakness in his body and his speech. Of the times he was imprisoned, or shipwrecked, or in danger from bandits, or from false accusations made by brothers and sisters. Of what should Paul boast? How about the times in which he was “hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.” Or the time in Damascus when King Aretas sought to have him arrested, and so to escape he “was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.”

Are you beginning to get the idea? These are the things about which Paul wants to boast, these are the things which he is proud of, these are the things which not only make him the equal of the super-apostles, but indeed better than them because Paul wants us to understand that it is not Paul who makes his ministry successful, it is not Paul who causes word of Christ strike into people’s hearts, it is not Paul who has the redeems people, it is not Paul who saves the world, it is God who does all those things. It is the power of God’s grace, it is the power perfected in weakness, it is the power that God gives to us not because we are great, but because we are weak.

“We have this treasure in clay jars,” Paul says, “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” That is an image that Paul uses several times. We like to sometimes ooh and ahh about clay jars, and since we live in an area of the country in which people still make incredible pieces of pottery for which people pay lots of money perhaps we understand this even more, but really the importance of the jar, the importance of pottery, the importance of any container is not about the thing itself, but instead what can be held inside of it. We might admire the outside, but in reality it’s not about the outside, it’s the inside that is most important for it to be truly useful. Even the most beautiful pot ever created that cannot hold anything is worthless. We are clay jars so that we might understand that our extraordinary power, does not come from us, does not belong to us, does not originate with us, but instead belongs to, comes from and originates with God. It is God who gives us power, and that power is perfected in weakness.

At the end of the movie Patton, there is a voiceover in which George C. Scott, who plays the title role, says, “For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph – a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters and musicians and strange animals from the conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot, or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”

God makes us powerful not through strength, but through weakness. Before Paul encountered the risen Christ he probably did not believe that, and maybe couldn’t even believe it, but it was because of the cross, because of what Jesus did for us that Paul came to this radical conclusion. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” This is the scandal of the cross. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul says, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” 

Besides for Jesus, Paul is the most important person in the history of Christianity. He was the great apostle who spread the word throughout the Roman world, maybe to the ends of the known world which we will look at in two weeks, but does anyone want to make a guess as to what Paul might have looked like? In a work known as the Acts of Paul and Thecla which comes from the middle of the second century and which really has nothing to do with Paul but instead with Thecla, who is actually one of the saints of the church, we are told the following: “A man named Onaseferus who had heard that Paul had come to Iconium went with his children and his wife to meet Paul. Titus had told him what Paul looked like and he saw Paul coming. A man small of stature with a bald head and crooked legs, in a good state of body with eyebrows meeting in between and a hooked nose, but he was full of friendliness for now he appeared like a man and now he had the face of an angel.”

That is an image that is not likely to appear on a bulletin cover, or in a painting on the wall of a church, but may have in fact been what Paul, the second most important person in the history of the church, looked like. It should give us all a little hope about God perfecting our weakness, especially those of us who are a little bow legged and with a lot less hair than we used to have.

Of what shall we boast? We shall boast of Jesus Christ who though God and finding himself in human form humbled himself to the point of death – even death on a cross. Of course I say all these things like it’s easy to be humble, like it’s easy to lower ourselves or not to brag. Sometimes there are things we want to brag about, and maybe even should brag about, but what is it that keeps us grounded, what is it that keeps us humble, what is it that brings us back to earth so we don’t begin thinking too much of ourselves and begin to think it’s about us rather than God?

One day in May, two years ago, in the morning I graduated from Harvard University. That is my bragging, and something I am proud of, and maybe even too proud of. But you know what I did that afternoon? I spent two hours mowing the acre lawn with had, with our push mower. You want to be humbled, mowing your lawn in the heat of the day is something that will put you right back in your place.

But here’s an even easier solution, we all have access to the vaccination, and some of us have even used it, and it’s readily available to all of us right here and right now, because one of the best ways to inoculate yourself from the power of pride, which remember is one of the deadly sins, is to join in worship, because ultimately worship is not about us. Last week when talking about spiritual formation, which is to a large degree about us, but about us working with others, I said that I did not want to downplay the importance of worship because worship is important. What we do when we worship is to gather together to give praise and glory to God. Its purpose is not to fill us or refresh us or renew us, although hopefully all those things also happen, but the purpose is to honor God. To give thanks to God and to give praise to God, and when we do those things then we have to move outside of ourselves and recognize that it is not about us, that it not us who gives us power, but that it is God who gives us power. We are merely clay vessels, who are filled with God’s grace, God’s love and God’s power, power perfected in weakness.

There are no first class or second class Christians; we are all equal in god’s eyes. We are all sinners in need of redemption, and we find it through the foolishness of the cross. Of what should we boast? Let us boast of our weaknesses, not out of a sense of false humility, but instead in recognition that our power comes from God, our being comes from God. “Whenever I am weak, I am strong” Paul says, because our weaknesses are perfected and made powerful in God and by God. “MY grace is sufficient for you,” God says. My grace is sufficient. Of what should we boast? Let us boast about the only thing we can boast about, let us boast of Christ who though God humbled himself to the point of death – even death on a cross. May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.

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