The weaker I get, the stronger I become. And there the Spirit goes again, inverting our understanding, turning everything up.side.down. Does it ever feel like we will never get it right? I go to the gym pretty frequently. I lift and I enjoy getting stronger and here Paul goes saying, my handicap is my blessing, is my gift, to keep me in touch with my deep need of God and God’s grace. I don’t want to be weak or handicapped! I want to be strong and smart and successful! That is what we are supposed to want right?
But Paul calls us out. We are not here to live and be for ourselves. Paul goes a little beyond the spirit of Ubuntu that we have been speaking about; that spirit of “I cannot be well if my brother, if my sister is not well.” Paul goes further. Glory in your weakness, because it is through this that God will speak, it is through this that God will work. Most of us have experienced that it is through sharing our stories, through acknowledging our own faults and weaknesses that we become connected to one another. A friend of mine once said that a hallmark of a healthy community is that when we acknowledge our faults, our weaknesses, our baggage, that someone present will say, “yeah, me too.” We do not connect to one another through our perfections, through our strength, which is lucky for someone like me. We connect through the fullness of our stories and in 2nd Corinthians, Paul does just that.
This community had gone off the path. They had begun to long to be the big steeple church, the one with the biggest numbers, the biggest crowd and the biggest social standing. We all know churches like that. We study them in seminary as even seminary professors sometimes long for those “glory days” of Christendom—but, is this who we are called to be?
This text is Paul playing at court jester, calling himself a fool and in the nature of a court jester he is calling out those in power; those who feel they are beyond and above the criticism because they have, in one way or another, made it. They are the big, the powerful, the moneyed. For Paul, they are the “super-apostles,” sort of sounds like a comic book story doesn’t it? The super-apostles have come to save the day! All we need do is follow them…except, that we are called to follow Christ. In our bible study over the last few weeks we have talked about the need to seek out that which points towards Christ and not confuse it with Christ. Like a finger pointing to the moon we don’t want to focus on the finger, but see and appreciate the moon. But it feels safer and more secure sometimes, to turn our conscience over to the care of those who know. There is something scary and unsettleing about having to look and see on one’s own. If there is some charismatic person to tell us the answer, to suggest which way we ought to go, well that’s easier.
Or perhaps there is some program, something that other churches are doing that is bringing in the people. One of the bigger cowboy churches began featuring bull riding recently. It seems the pastor had decided that riding a bull was just as powerful as giving a good sermon. I hope you all aren’t expecting that! Talk about your super-apostles!
The weaker I am, the stronger I become. No super-apostles here. We are called instead to a life of humility and self-giving. When Paul does brag about his strength, his accomplishments, he talks about the community of believers lowering him in a basket from the city walls. He talks about God working through ordinary people to subvert the powers that be. He talks about being in a very vulnerable and dependent situation. This is not the way of the world.
We are drawn to largess, to a certain majesty and power of position; this is the way of the world. This is the way we avoid our vulnerability. This is the way we avoid our complete and utter dependence upon God.
500 some odd years ago the poet Hafiz wrote:
Your loneliness so quickly.
Let it cut more
Let it ferment and season you
As few human
Or even divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight,
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice so tender,
My need of God
It is in seeing and knowing our brokenness that we are brought face to face with our inescapable need of God. It is in opening our hearts in true humility, in a childlike honesty, that we begin to grow, to learn, to change. How often do we pray that we might be conformed to the way of God but in our minds we already have a vision of what that ought to look like, we think we know and we aren’t really open to whatever God wants of us. We are open instead to what we have already decided God should want of us.
Outside of Eli Minnesota there is a dirt logging road that leads through the woods, a couple hundred miles to the great lakes. On the outskirts of town a sign on the road says, “Choose your rut carefully, you’re going to be in for quite a while.” How often are we set in these ruts before we are even aware of them? How often do we soak up cultural biases and prejudices, certain expectations, without even being aware that we have done this, are doing this? How often do we get a chance to step outside of ourselves and see ourselves? See how we are living, what we have accepted as normal and acceptable without any ability to think about it critically?
But along comes Paul and says, “Hey you, you think you know what you are supposed to be doing, what you are supposed to be accomplishing, but I’m here to tell you that you are wrong. I’m here to tell you that in your weakness, not in your strength, not in your accomplishments, not in your advanced degrees or fancy houses, not in your great speeches or sermons, not in your fancy cars, or good jobs, not in your fancy credentials or any other thing you can imagine, will you be made great. Only in God, only in surrender, only in humility and self-giving, only then will you be made great. This is the way of Christ. Not one of authority or power, not one of greatness as the world would see, but only through giving of oneself in all humility. Only through Christ.”
The world tells us we must be strong and mighty, we must be successful and grand. But Paul reminds us that God’s grace is sufficient. End. Stop. Period. Nothing else need follow. We are so given to seeking our own safety that it is hard for us to stop. This is the rut we began in. Is it the one we want to continue in? Achieve, earn, be the best student, the funniest, the prettiest, the best athlete, only be something! be something. Is this the track we are supposed to be on? The rut we are supposed to be stuck in? The word that is used in the text for perfect is teleos, as in finished, complete, mature, the end, teleology. Perhaps our maturity, our completeness is found in making peace with our weaknesses and faults, in surrendering and accepting our deep, deep need, our utter reliance on Christ? Perhaps it means learning to rely not on ourselves but increasingly on God’s grace, which we are promised, will be, is, sufficient.
These two scriptures are paired together in the lectionary and this suggests that there is a connection to be made. Both Paul and Jesus are facing rejection, are being judged as not quite good enough, too common, too ordinary. In our gospel today we see Jesus faltering a bit, missing the mark. This is a different Jesus than we are used to seeing. This one doesn’t know who just touched him, this one can’t accomplish much in a town where few people believe. Where does Mark get off showing us this portrayal of Jesus? And what does it mean for us that Jesus, early in his ministry, sometimes seems to be shaking his head, wondering “how can they not see?” What does this say to us as we struggle not really to understand Paul, because he is very clear as he defends himself against the implications that he himself is not enough but to live as if we are enough?
If Paul has been replaced by these glamorous super-apostles, the new in-crowd, Jesus is in his hometown, the place where he used to run up and down the streets like any other child. The place where he used to get in trouble for staying out too late and being too loud. How can he have any significance? And it’s not like the people of his hometown are unaware that he is healing people; they recognize the power, they just doubt the source. It is too great, too unimaginable that God would work through the common, the ordinary. They are too familiar with Jesus to actually see him. Their biases and understanding of who he is and what he might be were established long ago when he was just one more kid running the streets. Perhaps Mark shows us another Jesus in order to ask us if we too are too familiar with him. Can we see Jesus for who he really is?
Perhaps if Jesus had been a super-apostle! Then it might all have made sense, but he is too ordinary, too usual, and how can God have anything to do with that? The sheer potentiality, the possibility that Jesus is, is caught up with fierce trust, fierce faith, with our participation. Isn’t that incredible? Jesus isn’t able to do much without their faith, without their belief, and what about our faith, our belief? How often do our expectations keep us from seeing the miracle that is there for us, the gift in the ordinary blessings? When we name the blessing around us, recognize and name that which is sacred we make our whole lives holy. We invite others into the sacred by our recognition of the holy. Today’s text reminds us that when we limit our expectations to the everyday and ordinary we limit our ability to receive grace, to receive the blessing that is all around us.
We have a God who does not force himself upon us. A God who stands at the door and knocks, who does not impose himself upon us. We have a God who participates in our hopes, dreams, fears, and loneliness. We have a God who does not hold himself separate or apart from us, but one who weeps with us, one who sings, dances, laughs with us too!
What does all this say to us and our craving for safety and social standing, for achievement and success? What does this mean for churches that long for their glory days, to sustain themselves in all their worldly influence, and what does it mean for churches that long to be a part of change in the world, even at the cost of sustainability, glory and influence? What would it mean for us to be humble and assume the servant role? What would it mean for us to participate in the hopes, fears and dreams of the people around us, how are we doing this? This is an invitation to participate that involves the manifestation of the kingdom.
We are given a word, but this word is not just for us, but for all people. We have been blessed that we might be a blessing to all people, to all nations. This blessing is not just for us but for the whole world. We have this gift, this incredible gift, but we can only keep it by participating in it. Like love itself, it only survives when it is given away.
It is in weakness, not strength, that we are blessed. It is in vulnerability and a tender, compassionate heart, that we draw closer to God, and are a blessing to others. May our hearts and our minds be open today, that we might see the prophets and the blessings all around us, that they might call us into being the people of God we were created to be, that we might be a blessing to all people and live fully into our identity as children of God.