Pentecost 6: What do we say?
Sermon preparation for July 5th
If Paul were an ambitious politician, he surely would have lost the latest General Election. Politicians as we know boast of themselves and their parties. They present themselves as the best and the strongest. No politician in their right mind proclaims their weaknesses, shortcomings, and failures; that is the role of the political opponent. Politicians present a perfect picture of power, personal stability and reliability, professional capability, trustworthiness and intellectual strength.
Or do they? There were many warm tributes to the late Charles Kennedy who died aged 55 on the 1st June 2015. It was said by political leaders in the House Commons that he left a mark on British politics. The man who took his party to its electoral peak, he was the only UK party leader to warn the country of the perils of invading Iraq when Labour and the Conservatives were uniting to support it. But despite these warm and fitting acknowledgments my guess is it was his humanity, his humour and authenticity, his down to earth goodness that won the hearts of the people to this sandy-haired Highlander; and maybe it was his thorn in the flesh that attracted people to him, his demon, the alcohol that became his friend, his prop and his curse? Lines from W H Auden comes to mind “You shall love your crooked neighbour – with your crooked heart” (from “As I walked out one evening”).
Like Charles Kennedy we are all too human – politicians, ministers, professors, planners, students, shopkeepers. We have weaknesses and shortcomings. We have pains and not so perfect lives. We don’t look the best when we wake up in the morning. We get sick. We experience loss. We make mistakes. We’re not always right. The sun isn’t always shining on us. The archangels are not always serenading us. We experience thunderstorms and tornadoes that sometimes blow through our lives. We even have some thorns too.
The apostle Paul had thorns and weaknesses. He’s forthright in his pastoral campaign to the Corinthians. He tells them, “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated.” We’re not told what this thorn is, but we do know it’s painful for Paul. Many people have speculated what this thorn might be: physical or mental illness, spiritual trials, persecution, opposition, being single, being gay; but we are not told what the exact nature of this thorn is. And by not knowing what it is, we cannot distance ourselves from Paul’s pain for if we knew what it was specifically, it might not be our exact pain so we might be prone to look away and say, “that doesn’t relate to me.”
“But God knows,” at least that’s what Paul believes. God knows that Paul has a thorn in his flesh. Though God doesn’t remove Paul’s thorn, God assures him by saying, “my grace is sufficient for you, for (my) power is made perfect in weakness.” God tells Paul that strength will come right in the middle of weakness. God tells Paul that he will endure. “My grace will see you through.”
There is no one else who can make us strong in our weak moments of desperation. God is at God’s best when we are weak. The irony is that the Bible tells us a story in which repeatedly people discover they are closest to God when they are weak – often when they are in times of despair, sorrow, and privation. Nowhere do the scriptures suggest these are desirable circumstances; but the truth the Christian faith tells has been hewn not from comfort but from tragedy, not from settled wisdom but from harsh trials, not from success and quietness but from adversity and courage.
We can find strength in weakness. No one else can take the credit for this but God. And I guess that’s the point. That’s why Paul says, “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” Paul receives divine empowerment because he claims his human frailty. Of course our glamorous celebrity culture grasps for fame, prestige, and power as we climb up the ladder of success but Christianity embraces weakness. The goal of the Christian life is to become weaker, not stronger. God works with us when we are weak and needy or as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, “Where life is not rent, the God of Israel is not inclined to be present.” If we boast in our own power, we deny God’s power but if we acknowledge our weakness, we see God’s wonder-working strength.
God gives Paul strength when he is weak for “whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” This is the paradox of weakness. When we are weak, we don’t have to give in to our pain and give up, because God’s sufficient grace will strengthen us. The power of Christ dwells in you. So we pray: Lord, help us all to be strong enough to be weak.
Reading: 2 Corinthians 12: v2-10
Minister of St Andrew’s Dawson Street, Crook