The Connection Between Weakness and Power

Here is the sermon I would have preached on this past Sunday if I hadn’t contracted Covid after my Camino trip. I had thought of using it this weekend, but the connection to the lectionary text from 2 Corinthians was too great really. So this is the one that didn’t happen. There might be some typos or grammatical things as I didn’t have it go through my usually editing process, but here you go.

And so here we are. Three weeks from tomorrow, I’ll be hopping into a car with Noah and Charlie Brown to begin a road trip on I-90. We’ll be heading west on the MassPike and taking it all the way to the Pacific where it ends in Seattle some 3000 miles later—the longest highway in America. And I can’t believe it. I cannot fully comprehend that I’ll be leaving this place where we’ve lived among you and loved you and raised our kids and done so much good work together for the kingdom. I’ve been able to push it out of my mind until now, staying busy with tasks and graduations and walking a 175 mile Camino in Portugal and Spain. But now there’s no denying it. Our time together is drawing to a close. I’ve got 4 sermons left, and a lot of books to pack.

A sermon on 2 Corinthians 12.

The focus is on leadership in our lessons for today. We heard about David becoming king over all of Israel. We read about St. Paul and his learning that impressive credentials can only lead to a big ego, and so God decided to teach him the importance of humility. And we heard how Jesus was rejected by his hometown because they remembered him when he was a teenager and they can’t let that image go, so he cannot do any healing work among them, and needs to move on, which includes sending out his disciples two by two.

It’s hard not to think about all of this in relation to my new role as a bishop in the Church. And one of the things I learned in seminary is that I’ve got to preach to myself first if I want to be authentic in my preaching and then let you in on that conversation. In other words, if I’m not receiving what I’m trying to offer to you, then I should just hang it up now. Yet I also don’t want to make this all about me, because that’s a recipe for disaster and against everything I’ve hope to instill in you the last 13 years. Because it’s not about me, but about Jesus and his good news. It’s about the way Christ will remain working in and among you long after I’m gone.

So a few notes about this theme of leadership today, something I think we all are called to no matter our age or the way our gifts are in use by God. The most prevalent theme today is humility. St. Paul really homes in on this as he describes this mystical experience of his, and make no doubt this is about Paul himself and not some friend of his in spite of his “I know  a person in Christ” business. While he’s unclear if this experience was actually physical or more mystical, God knows, this happened to him.

And part of why he’s reluctant to make this about himself is because of all that follows. This thorn in his flesh that God has given him to humble him. I won’t even begin to try to guess what it is that was humbling for old Paul; many preachers have attempted this in the past which only ends up saying more about them than Paul, including a sexual temptation of some type, eye trouble, malaria, a bothersome person, epilepsy, and—my personal favorite—baldness. Whatever it was, it brought him down a peg or five so that he would know that it wasn’t about him. 

And, not only that, when Paul asked God to take this thorn out his life, God said no, and told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Now friends, you and I both know that power and weakness rarely go in the same sentence in our culture. Weakness is indicative of feebleness, inaction, a flaw, and they are to be tamped down and denied and rejected as much as possible, especially in our leaders. The image—and let’s be blunt, this is primarily a male dominant image—is for leaders to exude power and control and to not make it seem that anything is ever wrong or that they are vulnerable. Doing so invites disaster, our culture says.

But not God. Because God sees all that bluster for what it really is: an outsized ego. So when Paul asks God for this to be taken away, God tells him that it would be better for Paul to remain humble in order to recognize that he needed to depend fully on God rather than on his own merits. “My grace is sufficient,” God declares. All that other stuff about being taken up to the the third heaven, it’s insignificant. Because it’s not about you. It’s about God. Which leads Paul to write to the Corinthian Church, “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” 

I’ve made it no secret that I adore Louise Penny’s Three Pines/Chief Inspector Armand Gamache mystery series which is set in the Canadian Province of Quebec. Early on we meet Inspector Gamache as he comes to investigate a murder in the small English speaking village of Three Pines, a place that is hard to find but often leads to healing for those who are lost. Gamache teaches all of his new recruits—many of them discarded by other departments—four phrases that can lead to wisdom if you say them and mean them. “I don’t know.” “I’m sorry.” “I was wrong.” And “I need help.” Ellen Kirschman, a psychologist that often works with police offers, wrote in a article in Psychology Today a few years ago, “The four things that led Gamache to be a wise leader apply just as much to his being a wise husband. And … , in my many years as a police psychologist, these four things are often sadly missing in the personal lives of police officers everywhere.” She talks about the penchant many officers have to know it all, to make it on their own, to not be wrong, and to hold onto grudges rather than offering a genuine apology. I suspect that it’s not just those in law enforcement. Paul would argue that it’s most—if not all—of us. Because we don’t like to appear weak.

“Whenever I am weak, then am I strong.”

Noted author, educator and justice worker Parker Palmer describes the importance of letting your life speak when it comes to your vocation and callings. However, he notes, you cannot focus only on the good parts of your life, you must listen to all of it, both the good and the not so good. He likens it to the ancient spiritual practice of pilgrimage, of making your way to a place that holds significant spiritual importance, a “transformative journey to a sacred center.” He writes, “In the tradition of pilgrimage… hardships are seen not as accidental but as integral to the journey itself…. Before we come to the center, full of light, we must travel in the dark. Darkness is not the whole of the story—every pilgrimage has passages of loveliness and joy—but it is the part of the story most often left untold. When we finally escape the darkness and stumble into the light, it is tempting to tell others that our hope never flagged, to deny those long nights we spent cowering in fear.” 

“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” 

Dear siblings in Christ, embrace those points that are less than perfect in your life as opportunities to embrace God. Recognize that when you admit a mistake, or the need for help, or that you don’t know something, or that you were wrong in your thinking, it’s not merely a sign of a hardship but of your utter reliance on God. That you are okay with being humble. And in the long run that can indeed lead you to new growth and opportunities in your faith life. It becomes a change for you to be used by God in powerful ways, not in how our culture might see power, but in the way that God does, whose only Son died upon the cross so that we might have life. For when we are weak, it is then that we are strong.

Image by Goran Horvat from Pixabay.

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