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.



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.