Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | July 5, 2015

2015.07.05 “Power Made Perfect in Weakness” – 2 Corinthians 12: 1–10

Central United Methodist Church
Power Made Perfect in Weakness
Pastor David L. Haley
2 Corinthians 12: 1–10
July 5th, 2015

It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows—was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” 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.” – 2 Corinthians 12: 1 – 10

It was many years ago on a Sunday morning, that a lay reader in my previous congregation stood before the congregation to read the Scriptures. It was before we ran the readings off in large print, at that time we were reading the lessons straight from a large pulpit Bible. The reading was from where we are today in 2 Corinthians, but the reader had a difficult time finding his place. To the congregation’s mounting suspense, he flipped this way in the Bible, then that way, then back the other way, until finally he found his place and read, with a grin on his face: “I am a fool.” It took awhile for the congregation to stop laughing, and he was able to continue.

It was a “great moment in church,” one of those moments you never forget. Because it was one of those authentic moments that reminds us of our common humanity, even in church, a time when we usually have on our best faces and highest intentions. I’m sure all of us have such moments we remember, although hopefully they happened to someone else, not us, and hopefully not in church. Or, maybe it did, and this is why we remember.

It was exactly such a sentiments that St. Paul had in mind, when he apologizes repeatedly in 2 Corinthians for “being a fool.” He was “being a fool,” putting on pretense and boasting, to compete with the so-called “super apostles” in Corinth who were boasting of their own prowess in their attempt to undermine Paul. Somehow I see them in expensive suits with perfectly coiffed hair, impeccable certificates displayed on the walls of their office or website. And then there was Paul: raggedy tent-maker that he was, balding, often getting in trouble, not a great speaker, not even a great presence in person. No wonder he was losing ground. But then – speaking as a fool – Paul joins the fray. He shares an experience that is one of the most puzzling but revelatory confessions in the whole letter. If these people want to match “spiritual experiences,” Paul says, I could go there. Even as he does, he avoids the first person. “I know a man,” he says, “a man caught up into paradise. Who saw and heard things he can’t even talk about. And then – confessing that it was him – he says:

“Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

“Thorn in the flesh?” What was it? No one knows, though many have speculated. Was it bad eyesight, hearing, malaria, a speech impediment, sexual impurity, stomach problems, epilepsy?) But really, the question is not what, but why, which Paul also answers:  Because “Whenever I am weak,” boasts Paul, then I am strong.”

How can we hope to understand such a peculiar, paradoxical, assertion? Can it really be that the power of God is most known in our lives not in our strengths, but in our weaknesses? Is it the case that the quality God most hates among humans is arrogance, and most loves is humility? Really, I think we can understand.

It is, for example, true in the lives of NATIONS. On this July 4th weekend, do you agree that the American character has been formed most and best not in times of peace and prosperity, but in times of suffering and struggle? One hundred and fifty years before the Revolutionary War, the pilgrims at Plymouth (1620) endured brutal winters. In fact, the history books indicate that 46 of the original 102 colonists, nearly half-perished from the lack of fresh food to eat and the inability to treat resulting diseases.  One historian noted that the new Americans “made seven times more graves than huts.” Despite this, they set aside a time to give thanks, a day that evolved into our modern Thanksgiving holiday.

A century after that came the Revolutionary War that would move us from a colony to an independent nation. Less than a hundred years after that, our nation would be torn apart by the Civil War. And less that a hundred years after that, Americans fought international aggression in the world, in Europe and the Pacific.  After that came a different kind of battle, also hard-fought, to win civil rights for African-Americans. Then, on 9/11, we were shaken by a terrorist attack on our country, and all that has transpired since.  All these events have molded the American character, and made us into the great nation that we are today.

Likewise, I suggest what St. Paul says applies to CHURCH, also. When churches and denominations and congregations become too self-assured, as the mainline church did in the last part of the 20th century, we lose something vital. When we think it is all because of what we do and how we do it – getting the technique just right – we fail to realize that the whole thing is a faith proposition from beginning to end, that from the beginning to the ending depends not upon our prowess like those super-apostles in Corinth, but more like raggedy Paul, in his weakness and in his struggles, emulating our founder Jesus, whose greatest demonstration of the power and love of God was seen when he was dying on a cross.

All across the Northern IL conference, many churches are meeting new pastors today.  Many of them are hoping for a “super-apostle,” with the wisdom of a 60 year-old, who looks like a 30 year-old. Truth be told, most would prefer a “he,” with a wife and 2 kids. They’d probably like to hear his last church had 2,000 people, which he began from nothing starting with his family and their dog.  In which case – if he had – he wouldn’t likely be appointed as their pastor.

How many would consider a candidate whose resume sounds like this:

“I have many qualifications. I’ve been a preacher with much success and also have had some successes as a writer. Some say I’m a good organizer. I’ve been a leader most places I’ve been. I’m over 50 years of age and have never preached in one place for more than three years. In some places, I have left town after my work caused riots and disturbances. I must admit I have been in jail three or four times, but not because of any real wrongdoing. My health is not too good, through I still accomplish a great deal. The churches I have preached in have been small, though located in several large cities. I’ve not gotten along well with religious leaders in the towns where I have preached. In fact, some have threatened me, and even attacked me physically. I am not too good at keeping records. I have been known to forget whom I have baptized. However, if you can use me, I promise to do my best for you.” – the Apostle Paul

Let’s be real, people. There are no perfect churches nor perfect pastors, not even Corinth and not even Paul. Personally, I never want a perfect church, a perfect congregation, or a perfect worship service in which either acolyte or lay reader or Lay Leader or even the Pastor never messes up, because that would not be a church erased of all humanity.  It would not accurately be a church that reflects fallen and redeemed humanity or the cross of Jesus. I want a church that could welcome as a pastor a person like Paul, a man or woman like me – anybody – and then proceed to give them problems, like the Corinthians did Paul

And of course, what Paul had to say about God’s strength being revealed in our weakness is true in our lives as INDIVIDUAL CHRISTIANS. If I want to learn about the growing pains or pivotal points in your life, don’t tell me about your strengths, but about your weaknesses, because those are our “growing edges.”

Many years ago Pastor Paul Miller, of the United Church of Canada (in an article which I have lost) said:

“Life is full of humiliations – or, more accurately, of happenings that we interpret as humiliations because they hurt us. Sometimes the voice of humiliation is a friend. Sometimes it is a spouse. Sometimes it is a congregation. Sometimes it is an impersonal evaluation by someone we don’t even know. People tell us things that wound our pride and raise our hackles. What they tell us stings because it seems so unfair and untrue. And oftentimes, like the statements in a psychological report, they are a mixture of fact and fantasy. But if we listen, and listen carefully, we can discover that God speaks to us through these experiences to turn us around.”

One of my favorite reads over the last several years was a book by Franciscan Richard Rohr, entitled Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.  What Richard Rohr had to say was this: we spend the first half of our life climbing the ladder of life: education, job, marriage, family. But soon or later – though our own failure or circumstance or disillusionment – we fall, sometimes badly.  But if we are wise, it is not a falling downward, but a falling upward, that in the second half of our life – free from illusions – we become stronger, wiser, more compassionate people.

Why? Because it is when we are weak that we realize we cannot do it for ourselves. It is when we are weak that we realize we must reach out to others.  It is not when we are strong, but when we weak and vulnerable, that we open ourselves to the life-creating and renewing power of God.

“Whenever I am weak, then I am strong,” said St. Paul. “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness,” says the Lord.

In his 1929 book, A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway put it this way: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” (Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, 1929)

By the grace of God, may we be those made strong in the broken places of our lives, those places where God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.  Amen.

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