Monday, July 6, 2015

A Sermon: I Am Weak but Thou Art Strong (July 5, 2015)

 I Am Weak but Thou Art Strong
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
July 5, 2015[1]

I love to watch baseball!  I am amazed at the talent, strength and skill that Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Denard Span, Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina (just to name a few) display on the field.  It all seems to come so naturally to these superstar athletes.  The power of a home run crushed to the deepest part of center field, the duel between the power pitcher and the hitter with the eye and the quickness to protect the plate and extend the “at bat” to ten or twelve pitches.  The intricate coordination and dance of a well-turned 6-4-3 double play.  The drama of the throw from centerfield to home plate to throw out the base runner trying to score.  The skill and strength of these players amaze me.  I wish that I could be as strong in my faith journey as they are in their baseball journey.  Sometimes, I feel so weak.  In today’s scripture lesson, I discover that I am not the only one.


Paul was having trouble with the church in Corinth that he had founded.  What we read as the Book of 2 Corinthians was actually one of several letters that Paul exchanged with the people in Corinth after he had started the church and then moved on to other mission fields. 
It is hard to put together the pieces of this story.  We are reading Paul’s letter (or perhaps fragments of several letters that were compiled into one document; we aren’t sure).  We are only reading one side of the correspondence.  Since Paul and the Corinthian readers both knew what he was talking about, he did not give us all the facts. 
From what we can piece together, it seems that one or more persons came to Corinth and challenged the credentials of Paul as an apostle.   During one of Paul’s earlier visits (before writing this letter), there was an ugly confrontation with these newcomers.  Conversations did not go well, and Paul left Corinth in a hurry.  In the correspondence with the Corinthians that followed, Paul wrote some very emotional words.  He said that “I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love I have for you.” (2 Corinthians 2:4).
Just what were these new “super-apostles” saying?  The text of our Pew Bibles understates the rhetoric.  To get a better sense of the emotional diatribes going on, I find it helpful to read from Eugene Peterson’s translation called The Message:
Paul says, “I hear that I’m being painted as cringing and wishy-washy when I’m with you, but harsh and demanding when at a safe distance writing letters.  Please don’t force me to take a hard line when I’m present with you.  Don’t think that I’ll hesitate a single minute to stand up to those who say I’m an unprincipled opportunist.  Then they’ll have to eat their words.” (2 Corinthians 10:1a-2, The Message).  Later on, he compares these new apostles to the serpent in the Garden of Eden:  “I’m afraid that exactly as the Snake seduced Eve with his smooth patter, you are being lured away from the simple purity of your love for Christ.”  (2 Corinthians 11:3, The Message).
Paul goes on to accuse one of these new apostles of “preaching quite another Jesus than we preached—different spirit, different message,” but yet the Corinthians “put up with him quite nicely.”  Paul asks, “if you put up with these big shot “apostles,” why can’t you put up with simple me?  I’m as good as they are!” (2 Corinthians 11:4, The Message).
This is part of the context to today’s Gospel Lesson.  When Paul is “boasting” about the trials he has endured for the sake of the Gospel, or about his times of spiritual visions and ecstasy, he is boasting for a reason—to reestablish his credentials and authority as an apostle sent by Christ himself to preach the Gospel.  But his boasting begins with an acknowledgment of his own weakness.  Paul could truly say, “I am weak but Thou art strong.”
Is our world all that different?  I remember my days in the legal and corporate world. I remember watching the older, established employees struggling to understand how to react or respond when the “boss” brought in a younger “wiz kid” to turn things around.  We would see the drama played out between honoring the people who had brought you to where you were vs. honoring the creativity and talent of someone young, who may have had credentials in a given field, but did not have the experience of applying their book knowledge in the real world of business and relationships.

The long-term employees would question why the boss would rely so much on the advice of unproven newcomers.  Yet, in their heart of hearts, the long-term employees knew that they didn’t have the energy level or the spark or the creative edge that they once enjoyed.  They began to doubt themselves.  The newer employees would wonder why the boss would stick by the “old guard” who were past their prime and were out of touch with current trends, technology and business.  If the young employees were self aware, they might reflect from time to time that they were out of their league, but they didn’t dare admit to any weakness, at least not publicly.  But in their quiet moments, both the long-term employee and the young, up and coming talent would have to admit that they were weak, even though they wanted to be strong.

It happens in the church world, as well.  The so-called “mainline” churches worry about declining membership, and introduce the latest and greatest strategic analysis to turn around the decline.  We see tension develop between the old guard and the new wave of leadership on social issues.  Sometimes, the tension shows up in differences of preference in worship practices—with some people lamenting the loss of the “old songs” and others wondering why we still bother with responsive reading of the Psalms.  Sometimes, the stress shows up in the fixation with statistics we are required to report on church growth and participation in mission trips.  Sometimes, it shows up in our building projects and in our programs.  We try so hard to project an image of strength and power that we forget the source of our strength and power.

If it is true for the church, it also is true for me personally.  I grew up with a vivid imagination of my spiritual heroes, and I wanted to be like them.  As a kid, I grew up with what now seems like a really naïve and almost arrogant notion.  I remember so well on the long afternoons that I was walking my five-mile long paper route, thinking that I wanted to know God better than anyone else ever did.  I don’t know what ever caused me to think that I deserved such an honor; but that is what I hoped for.  I wanted to be strong; the reality was always a much different picture. 


Paul’s letter to the Corinthians hits me in different ways.  Sometimes, his description of himself as weak sounds self-deprecating, sort of a Gomer Pyle, “Golly gee, Sgt. Carter.”  Sometimes, Paul sounds arrogant and boastful.  Sometimes, he sounds whining.  But by the end of this morning’s Scripture Lesson, Paul has found his voice. 

The power in Paul’s voice doesn’t come from bragging about surviving shipwrecks.  His power doesn’t come from telling stories about daring escapes, like being let down in a basket through a window in the wall surrounding the city of Damascus.  His power doesn’t come from telling about visions of ecstasy and out of body religious experiences.  And his power doesn’t come from his stories of overcoming personal disabilities or “thorns in the flesh.” 

We never get to see the climactic moment in which Paul turns the corner in this struggle.  If this were a major movie or television production, at this point we would hear the music in the background getting louder and louder, and then we would see a spotlight shining on Paul, perhaps creating an aura or glow around his face, with a few glycerin tears escaping his eyes.  But this is no Hollywood production.  Real life does not come with a sound track.  We simply hear Paul bearing witness that it is only in his weakness, when he is at the end of his rope, that he is able to hear the voice of the Lord assuring him that “My grace is sufficient for you.”  It is only when Paul recognized that he would never be smart enough, strong enough, or good enough to make it on his own that he can hear the words, “power is made perfect in weakness.”  (v. 9).  It is only when Paul relies on the power of the cross, when he is able to plead for “just a closer walk” with the Christ of the cross, it is only then that Paul discovers the true secret of spiritual power.


It was true for Paul.  Can it be true for us today?  Is it possible for the church once more to discover that in our weakness, we can find strength?  Can we rediscover once again that God’s grace is enough?

I wonder what would happen if our churches were able to let go of the worries and concerns over church growth and rediscover the simplicity of Christ’s call to “follow me”?

What would happen if our churches were able to let go of the need to prove how vital it is and to focus instead on living vitally.  Would we as a church be able to remember that God’s grace is enough?

Remember that image of the boy on the paper route wanting to know God?  Well, he has tempered his language a bit.  He has realized that knowing God doesn’t always mean seeing visions or building mega churches or writing bestseller spiritual guides.  He has learned, instead, that saint-sized faith begins in weakness, when we realize that we are weak but Jesus is strong.  It begins when we are able to let go of the concerns about how others see us and cling instead to the cross-to its way of living and loving.  What would happen if we instead of planning for the big event, we were to focus on “daily walking close to” the one who invites us to take up our own cross and to follow Him?

“Let it be, dear Lord.  Let it be!”[2]

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.
[2] Anon, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” in The Faith We Sing (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 2158.