September 11, 2016
2 Corinthians 12:1-10
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
Following the attacks on September 11, 2001, people helped one another. People came together. People were kind to one another. Even New Yorkers were kind to one another.
Very soon thereafter, we ramped up our need to strike back. We scapegoated all sorts of people who looked or sounded different than we do, regardless of who they were or what their background was. We passed laws allowing whatever force seemed necessary in the war on terror. We authorized surveillance of people in our own country, under the aegis of the Patriot Act, as though surrendering our rights as citizens, as people, were a patriotic thing. We wanted to hurt others because we experienced our weakness, our vulnerability, and these things are heretical to our modern view of Americans as people and America as a nation.
I remind us of this not to enter into a debate over politics, or to play the game of naming, blaming, and shaming, but to say this: when we experience weakness, whether as individuals or as a society, we want to get back to at least the illusion of strength as fast as possible.
I cannot tell you how many people have expressed their disappointment with themselves when I visit them in the hospital. It is as if a health problem were first and foremost a moral failing: either they woulda, coulda, shoulda done better and wouldn’t be in this mess, or they wonder what they did wrong that this would happen to them. (And have any of us ever won a game of Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda?)
Now we know that if you smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, chances are you will have breathing problems at the very least. Some things we can trace pretty clear lines to. But we act as though human bodies are supposed to be invincible and invulnerable. And then we wonder how we failed when we get sick or something breaks.
I believe that this kind of thinking goes along with the idolatry of worshipping youthfulness. If we just get the right skin cream, the right hair color, the right style of clothes, the right vitamins, we can hang on to youthfulness forever. Just count the number of products advertised with the words “age defying.”
But how many stories of the Bible speak of the elders, of wisdom, of generations? God did not call Abram when he was eighteen and knew he was invincible. Why did God wait until Abram was 75 years old to call him? It is worth pondering.
Despite centuries of scripture like that which we read this morning, and nearly two centuries of singing words like:
Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,
In you do we trust, nor find you to fail;
Your mercies how tender, how firm to the end,
Our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend.
We still want to do something about this human weakness problem and pretend that we are not now nor ever could be weak.
Now, I get it. I remember when getting out of bed did not involve sound effects. I remember when knees were right and left, not the one that can predict the weather and the noisy one. I remember recovering from injury much faster than I do these days. And I. Don’t. Like. It.
Bette Davis was right, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.” Now, some of you may look at me and say, “he isn’t old.” God bless you! But I have enough wisdom highlights in my beard. And I would love to live a good, vibrant life past the age of 92. But if I make it to 92, I am now middle aged – a label that has been all but dropped from our vocabulary in our attempts to remain young.
I am not saying weakness is fun. I am not saying strength is bad. But it is worth thinking about: our best friendships, our deepest relationships, our greatest connections are with others with whom we can be vulnerable. Children show us this. Holding a baby, a young child, we feel so much of life’s vulnerability, and we want to be strong for this young, precious life. But in our openness, something more happens. And I do not care who you are, you can be the most hardened criminal, the biggest, baddest, meanest person in town, when a two year old hands you a toy phone, you put it to your ear and say, “Hello? Uh huh.”
For many Christians today, Paul can seem like a blowhard. If it is fairest Lord Jesus, then Paul is the professor nobody wants. But that reading of Paul misses something in today’s reading.
Many readers agree that the one who has had all these amazing visions of the heavens and the glories and the majesties of God is probably Paul himself. And we might think that this is something worth boasting about. Paul has seen beyond the veil, into the realm of God, and oh what visions!
But when Paul comes to boasting, he does not tell those stories. He tells the stories of the thorn in his flesh, this messenger of the evil one. We do not know what it is. Is it a medical condition, a health problem, something that really feels like a thorn in his flesh? Or is the metaphor about a person, someone that Paul just cannot seem to get along it, someone who pushes all his buttons? Is it a mental or emotional problem? Does Paul suffer from depression, which we know does not care how religious, how faithful, or how educated you are.
Paul never reveals what this thorn is. Maybe his first readers, who had met him already, knew so he does not need to explain it. Or maybe, his silence is wisdom. Because we could each talk about something like unto a thorn in our flesh. Be it body or mind or spirit. Be it within ourselves or someone in our lives. Be it obvious or hidden.
And Paul prayed. Three times Paul prayed. Maybe we think, well pray a fourth time, Paul! But three times can mean “enough” in the New Testament. Paul did all the praying necessary for this to go away. And it did not leave him. Instead, an answer came from the Lord.
My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness.
As individuals, we all have weaknesses. We call them things like “growing edges.” But we still have them. It is in our weaknesses that we encounter most fully the grace of God. It is in our vulnerability that we most fully encounter God and one another. It is in our shared humanity that we most fully come to love and serve one another.
Or as a modern troubadour writes:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
— Anthem, Leonard Cohen
What we discover as we seek God is that our weaknesses, our places of lacking, our difficulties, as individuals and as a church, are where the glory of God will shine through. For this is the wisdom of the cross, where human weakness, sin, and frailty meet the ultimate grace of God.
Where are you feeling weak?
God’s grace is sufficient for you.
Where are we as a church feeling weak?
God’s grace is sufficient for us.
How in the world will we get where God wants us to be?
God’s grace is sufficient.
Thanks be to God.