Proper 9, Year B, 2015

Almost anyone who has worked for a white collar American company or educational institution has, at some point in their career had to take some kind of strengths inventory. We love to focus on our talents, our natural aptitudes and then strengthen them even further. In the 80s my parents talked a lot about whether people were Abstract Random or Concrete Sequential. Clearly their school had done some kind of training in Anthony Gregorc’s learning styles. (By the way, all of us Kinneys are Concrete Sequential. No question about it. ) By the 90s my parents were talking about Myers-Briggs testing and I made all my high school buddies take the test. When I became involved in churches I learned about Spiritual Gifts inventory and by the time I was a priest the book Living your Strengths was very popular for people discerning their role in the church. Focusing on our strengths makes us feel like we have a place in the world, like we matter.

And we aren’t alone. As you may remember from when we’ve discussed the church in Corinth previously, the Corinthians loved focusing on their strengths. Some Corinthians truly believed they were better than others because of their spiritual experiences, authentic or not. So, in our snippet from 2nd Corinthians today Paul toys with them a little bit.

Paul references a spiritual experience he had. He tells them “someone he knows” was once caught up in the third heaven. Now, there is not a single Biblical commentator that knows that Paul means by that. We know from Acts that Paul had a serious spiritual experience when God confronts him on his way to Damascus. But, I like to think Paul is also messing around with the Corinthians a bit. “Oh, you’ve had spiritual experiences? Well, I’ve been to third heaven.” You can just imagine them going. “Oh, yeah, third heaven? I’ve totally heard of that.”

After Paul earns that credibility with the Corinthians, he turns his whole argument on its head. He tells them that instead of boasting in these profound spiritual experiences, he boasts in his weakness. He tells them he has been given a thorn in his side. We don’t know what that thorn is, either. But whatever the thorn is, it humbles Paul. The thorn limits Paul in some way. And Paul rejoices in those limitations.

Paul is not interested in his own glorification. Paul is interested in God’s glorification. And Paul believes that God uses Paul’s weaknesses to reveal God’s own strength.

This is such great news to us ordinary Christians, who haven’t seen the first heaven, much less the third one! Whether the thorn in our side is a bad hip, a speech impediment, chronic anxiety, God can use those weaknesses as a platform for his own glory.

One of the most striking experiences I’ve ever had as a priest was being with a beloved parishioner while she was experiencing congestive heart failure. I was sure she was dying as she literally clawed the air as if she was drowning. Under the care of her excellent physicians, she did not die and a few weeks after the incident I paid her a visit. When we are in pain, it is so difficult to focus on anything else than relieving our own discomfort. I expected my parishioner to talk about her awful medical experience. But this woman, a faithful Christian of eight decades, wanted to talk about her prayer life. Her own suffering had made her think about all the suffering in the world and she was a little overwhelmed about how to pray for it all.

Talk about strength in weakness. She had been so faithful to God for so long, that when she was at her literal weakest, he used her to pray for the suffering of the world.

When you read great Christian thinkers, there is often a point in their lives where things just completely fall apart. Augustine abandons a lover of more than a decade and their child. Thomas Aquinas is literally kidnapped by his family when they find out he’s joined a Dominican monastery. Martin Luther’s vow to become a monk happens in the middle of a terrifying thunderstorm.

Cranmer loses a fellowship at Jesus College to marry a woman named Joan, and then Joan dies. Our modern thinkers are no different. Buechner’s father commits suicide. Anne LaMotte and Glennon Melton face addiction. There is something about brokenness that God finds helpful to do his work.

When we are broken, we are vulnerable. We are open to change. We are open to re-imagining the world.

And those are the kind of people God needs to do his work. We have a new presiding Bishop-elect, as you might know. His name is Michael Curry and he is the Bishop of North Carolina. He fits into the profile of Christian thinkers who have suffered in that his mother died when he was very young. When he described the work of the church in the press conference after his election, he describes it as making the world “more like God’s dream and less like our nightmare”.

And God’s dream is so different from our nightmare. Bishop Curry describes God’s dream as Christians figuring out how to live as the beloved community, the human family of God.

We are so much more likely to treat each other with compassion if we have known suffering or weakness. We are so much more likely to be honest about our own lives, to let people unlike us into our lives. There is something about suffering that makes us more deeply human. After we suffer, we look at the world differently. We re-evaluate how we spend our time and where we put our energy. We remember that we have a family, and friends, and that work maybe is taking too much of our mental space. We have more compassion for others, realizing that their lives probably contain suffering, too.   We may appear weaker to the world, but suddenly we are open to God showing his strength to us.

I do not wish suffering or weakness on any of you. But I also know that your weaknesses, your wounds are beautiful. Most of those of you I know well have suffered mightily at some point in your life and that suffering is part of what formed you into the people you are now. You are people who are generous with your time and resources, who are quick to listen or bring a meal, who volunteer countless hours to make your community better. Your suffering is not wasted. Your suffering is redeemed by God and transformed into his Dream.

May God continue to shine through our weakness as we seek to become his beloved community.

Amen.

Epiphany 7, Year A, 2011

I have a confession.

I have a big problem with our Gospel lesson today.  Rather, I have a problem with the way this text has been used in the Church.  This gospel lesson has been used as a justification for people staying in abusive relationships and I have to address that before I can move on and preach the text.

Domestic violence is a huge problem in the world and in our community.  Domestic abuse—whether verbal or physical—is not limited to other classes or races.  Some of the worst domestic violence cases I’ve encountered were situations in which both partners had multiple degrees and extremely high incomes.

There is almost certainly at least one couple in an abusive relationship here today.

Historically, the Christian church has not done a great job of helping victims of abuse leave their partners.  Passages like the one today have been quoted to victims—often women—and these women for generations have been told to turn the other cheek and to stay faithful to their vows.

I want to be very clear that I, with great confidence, do not believe Jesus was addressing people in abusive domestic situations here.  Remember, last week we read verses 21-22 of this same chapter,

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

What is domestic abuse if not a violent combination of anger and condescension as described here? Jesus unequivocally condemns abusive behavior.

If you are currently in an abusive relationship, or you are not sure but you think you may be in one, please contact Father Paul or me. Our conversation will be confidential and we will try to get you the help that you need.  You can also contact the organization Woman Space, who are experts in these matters.  Their web address is womanspace.org.  Their chaplain, Susan Victor, is wonderful and will be leading our adult forum next Sunday.

Okay, moving on to the text.

We are still hearing The Sermon on the Mount and Jesus is still referring to Hebrew Law and then upping the ante.

The old law, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was developed to stop people from trying to right wrongs with disproportionate violence.  This way, if a sheep was stolen, the sheep needed to be replaced, rather than the other farmer’s farm being burned to the ground.  The law was designed to rein in our impulse for revenge that escalates our conflicts.   It’s a pretty good law!  It’s sensible!

But Jesus turns the tables and tells his audience that if they are slapped on one cheek to offer their other cheek!  And if someone steals their coat, they are to give them their cloak as well!

At first it appears that Jesus is encouraging victimhood, that the Christian’s role in the world is to be pathetic and taken advantage of.  But Jesus knows that the power of God is not going to be shown through spectacular acts of revenge—anyone can enact revenge.  The power of God is shown through strength of character and through love.  And really, what shows more strength then calmly and steadily turning one’s face to receive a second blow?  And imagine if a Roman on a horse came by and stole your coat, how better to illuminate the bad behavior of the Roman than by offering him your cloak, which was the only garment you had left to keep you warm.

What shows more strength than loving your enemies?  It does not take much character or will power to hate your enemies.  If your upstairs neighbor plays his music too loudly, and won’t turn it down when you ask politely, it’s much easier to call the police than to bake the guy some brownies and ask him nicely one more time.

Walter Wink, a professor of biblical interpretation at Auburn University, supports the view that Jesus is not asking his followers to be victims. He believes the word for resist—antistenai—is mistranslated here, since the same word is used to describe warfare in other parts of the Bible.   He believes Jesus intends to communicate that his believers should not resist evil violently. Wink argues that Jesus resisted evil all the time, whenever he encountered it, so it would not make sense for him to tell his believers not to resist evil.  Wink believes Jesus is trying to stop the cycle of violence. [1]

Martin Luther King, Jr. understood the power of this point of view.  Rather than interpreting “turning the other cheek” as blind acceptance of the abuse of power, he used the text alongside Ghandi’s teaching to help create the peaceful protests of the Civil Rights era.  In 1964, Gunnar Jahn, who was presenting King with the peace prize, quoted King as saying,

If you will protest courageously and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written [in future generations], the historians will [have to pause and] say: “There lived a great people – a black people who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.” This is our challenge and our overwhelming responsibility.[2]

King demonstrated to us that turning the other cheek, refusing to respond to violence with violence, can change an entire country.  We saw similar protests earlier this month in Egypt, which also affected great change.

And maybe the great large scale non-violent protests do have something to say to us about our personal struggles.

Maybe there is something to be said for maintaining one’s dignity and continuing to act in a kind a loving manner when someone is trying to dominate or take advantage of you.  Of course that does not mean we have to yield to the demands of the person with power.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue, because I’m hearing from more and more of our kids about bullying in school.  Even our little second and third graders are trying to figure out what it means to stand up for yourself, but still be a kind and loving person.  How do we teach kids about the injustice of the world?  That people behave in rotten ways, even people who are not inherently rotten?  How do we so root them in God’s love that they can move confidently through life, knowing their valued place in the world?  How can we help prepare them to be non-violent resisters, who don’t accept bullying as the status quo and help to change the culture in their schools?  Seriously, if you figure this out, please let me know!

In the meantime, those of us who are adults can start to act out resisting evil in a way that show the evildoers that we are different.  Yes, we will stand up for ourselves.  But we will conduct ourselves with the highest ethical behavior.  We will not bully back, or slander, or slash tires, or gossip.  We will not throw a punch or destroy someone’s credit rating.  We will protect ourselves and our families, by distancing ourselves from the evildoers, or by going through appropriate legal channels, but we will also treat the person who torments us with dignity and we will pray for them.

This may seem difficult when our blood is boiling, but Jesus is looking out for us when he ups the ante on these laws.  He knows that perpetuating the cycle of violence only brings harm to everyone involved.  He knows that living a life of dignity and restraint will help us not only be more faithful Christians, but be happier, to boot!

When we learn how to lovingly and firmly resist evil; when we find a way to see the humanity in our enemy; we are given a kind of freedom.  Jesus shows us a way to live our lives in which our identity is so rooted in being children of God that our enemies’ behavior does not define us.  We may not feel stronger than our enemies, but God is always stronger than evil and we belong to God.

Thanks be to God.


[1] http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/wink_3707.htm

[2] King, Martin Luther as quoted by Jahn, Gunnar in his 1964 speech presenting King with the Nobel Prize.  http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/press.html

Proper 9, Year B, 2006

This season on Oprah, one of Oprah’s guests was a young man named Kyle Maynard.  Kyle Maynard is in his early 20s and in many ways is a typical college student.  He goes to class, lives with a roommate, dates, and is on the wrestling team.  What makes Kyle unique is that he was born with a congenital birth defect that left him with stumps for arms and legs.  He has no elbows, no knees, no hands and no feet.  Most people born with those differences would live life as defeated person.  Kyle’s parents, however, made a decision not to treat him any differently than their other children, so Kyle compensated for his missing limbs and began to learn how to walk, brush his teeth, type, and all the other daily tasks that are required of us. 

Kyle played football and was a wrestler and refused to let any situation defeat him.  In fact, he’s even written a book named No Excuses about his life experiences and his life philosophy.

Kyle’s life is truly a testimony to the power of discipline and the human spirit.  He was not born with strength, but he found strength out of his weakness.

Kyle’s story came to mind as I was reflecting on our Epistle lesson today.  Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians contains different fragments of letters that the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth.  Unlike Chuck, or me, Paul did not have the luxury of living consistently with the people to whom he ministered.  He was a man on the move, which is why we are lucky enough to have so many of his letters.  There were costs to this kind of ministry.  Imagine if Chuck had a habit of periodically disappearing and taking care of some other churches around the east coast. We might get a little restless.  We might even get jealous.  If some other dynamic preacher came along, we might just invite him to come inside and preach to us. 

This is exactly what has happened to Paul.  He has left Corinth to take care of another church and in his absence people he describes as “intruders” have come in and begun teaching bad information to Paul’s people.  These intruders have even questioned the validity of Paul’s ministry.

Paul is really unhappy about this situation.  His response is to persuade the Corinthians that he is, indeed, a valid representative of God.  He does this, not by boasting in his strengths, but by boasting in his weaknesses. Before our passage today, he writes:

But whatever anyone dares to boast of — I am speaking as a fool — I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman — I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death.  Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters;  in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.

(I’m glad I don’t have to measure my ministry by these kinds of hardships!)

Paul transitions from this litany of difficulty to describing a vision he experienced.  He wants to appear humble, so uses the rhetorical devise of writing in the third person.  So, not only has he suffered for the sake of the Gospel, he has also had a direct spiritual encounter with God.  I hope the Corinthians were duly impressed.

While Paul’s rhetorical methods are not subtle, his idea of finding strength in weakness is incredibly powerful.

We live in a world that more and more ascribes to Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” hypothesis.  My two guilty pleasures this summer are “Last Comic Standing” and “So You Think you can Dance”.  The principles behind these shows are the same as any reality competition-the strong survive and the weak get voted off the stage. 

The idea of embracing our weaknesses seems absurd-our weaknesses are what hold us back!  If anything, we should be focused on improving ourselves, becoming better, eliminating any weakness. 

Why then, is Paul so sure that there is strength in weakness? 

Well, the main reason is that God told him.  You see, Paul did not WANT to be weak.  Paul had some ailment or condition that he referred to as  “thorn in his side”.  We don’t know what that was, but we do know that Paul begged God to remove this thorn.  Paul wanted to be strong and dynamic, NOT plagued with some weird condition.  When Paul did complain, God responded by saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Isn’t it irritating how God always takes what we THINK we know, and turns that knowledge on its head?

Once again, instead of choosing some attractive, healthy, dynamic person to do God’s work, God chooses an ordinary guy, with ordinary problems.  God’s objective was to make Himself known, not to make Paul famous.  God wanted to use Paul to convince the world that God had in fact come to earth to become human in Jesus.  God knew that Paul would be faithful and passionate in all the weird ways that God had designed him to be.  God also knew that Paul’s flaws would force Paul to rely on God, and to witness to God, in a way a stronger person might not have to.

Do we offer the weak parts of ourselves to God?  Most likely, we tuck them away from him, like we’ve been tucking them away from ourselves, our friends and our families.  Do any of us go to a job interview and say, “You know, I am terrible at organizing my time.  I’ll probably be late every day.”  Do we go on a date and say, “I am incredibly passive aggressive.  I will never complain, but I will make you feel guilty every day of your life.” 

No, we do not say these things.  We would be fools to say these things!  So, if it is not wise to go around proclaiming our faults, what does it mean to let God work with our weaknesses?

Maybe it means not being afraid to try to open the weak parts of ourselves.  For instance, I was always the last person picked for a sports team in gym class, and rightfully so.  I have an incredibly strong flight reflex. If a ball is flying at my head I will either duck or run.

Tennis was the only sport that did not cause terror in my heart, only because I could use the racquet to protect my face should a ball hurtle towards me. In addition, I have flat feet, so running gave me shin splints. For years I was afraid of any athletic activity because I had pretty strong evidence it would only humiliate me.  In my early twenties, with the help of good running shoes, I began running.  Slowly. I still run slowly, even awkwardly, but to me it is a miracle. I had to let go of all my anxieties and let God give me the courage and the motivation to train.  I also had to open myself to embarrassment.  I have run races in which I am literally the last person to cross the finish line.  I have been so last that during the Waynesboro 10K a police car pulled alongside me and said, “You can run in the middle of the road if you want.  We’ll follow right behind you.” 

Now, that might not seem miraculous to you, but trust me, only the grace of God could make me get up out of my warm bed Saturday mornings to train. 

What is wonderful is that when you start to take risks,  and to function in the underdeveloped parts of yourself, then you stop relying on your own competency and begin relying on God.  God is able to fill in those places that you lack and gives you strength and courage to complete the tasks you are given.

And if you ever feel overwhelmed, just think of Kyle Maynard, the young man born without full arms and legs.  If God can help Kyle Maynard learn to play sports and type and have a full life, just imagine what he can do with your weak places.