July 8, 2018

Series: July 2018

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

2 Corinthians 12:2-10

2I 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. 3And I know that such a person — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows — 4was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. 5On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. 6But 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, 7even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. 8Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9but 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. 10Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD. THANKS BE TO GOD.


As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, recently my wife and I saw the film Won’t You Be My Neighbor.  If you liked it, by the way, I heartily recommend another film titled, Mr. Rogers and Me.  Rogers’ style of engaging with children through public television is well known even though his show has been off the air for years, but did you know how it all started?  Early on, he delayed seminary—he was eventually ordained as a Presbyterian ministry—to work in this new medium called television because he thought it could be a powerful tool to build a relationship with children.  He was disturbed that children’s programming available at the time, dominated by people throwing pies in each other’s faces, and laughing at people tripping down stairs.  All of it he found demeaning.  An important opportunity was being missed. 

Mr. Rogers’ work began with utilizing free footage, but there was a weakness in this approach…literally. The film was often very thin and apt to break.  They had to fill in the gaps with live scenes which they did largely through the use of puppets, and thus characters such as Daniel Striped Tiger who eventually populated the Neighborhood of Make Believe, the imaginary world connected to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, were born. 

It began with another weakness, Rogers’ own. He was a sickly child.  He caught everything and thus spent a lot of time alone in bed.  By necessity he learned to entertain himself, honing the art of storytelling. 

Weakness, it’s where a greater strength enters in. That’s how we tend to preach this beautiful passage from Paul.  We quote singer songwriter Leonard Cohen and say the cracks are where the light gets in, or we stay with Paul’s words which reminds us that God’s grace is sufficient, “for power is made perfect in weakness.”

The lesson is always the same, that weakness becomes the occasion for another kind of strength and there is much that is right and good about this:

  • Our weakness can lead us to reach out for help, and we are reminded not only on our dependence on the Creator, but on creation, and our fellow creatures.
  • Weakness can humble us and keep us from over assessing and over expressing our power.
  • Weakness, or the failures to which we attribute to weakness, can cause us to reflect critically so we can grow and improve, strengthen if you will.

There is good news in Paul’s testimony about weakness, for it gives hope to all who feel weak. That weakness may provide room for God to enter in and do something beautiful, something meaningful, something stronger than the greatest strength you ever imagined.

It’s a wonderful message…and I have to admit there is also something that always bothers me it, at least when it is so casually thrown about. I don’t mind when people testify to the ways in which their weaknesses became openings for God to enter in.  What a wonderful experience that must be.  This is what Paul seems to be doing, describing what he calls a God-given thorn in the flesh.  For Paul to testify about his own pain, and God’s appearance in it and working through it is fine, even inspirational.  Paul is a powerful person—educated, male, an expert in Jewish law, and Roman citizen.  Most importantly it’s his experience.  For him to say, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, calamaties,” that’s one thing.  Where it can go sideways is when we tell someone who is not powerful to relish in their weakness.  There are many people whose weakness has left them feeling abandoned.  Let us not allow our experiences of grace excuse or even justify conditions that keep some people weak and others strong.  It’s awfully convenient, particularly for those in power, to tell others how great weakness is. 

Grace is the gift, not weakness.

Paul is not a theologian of weakness; he is a theologian of gifts, God-given strengths. All throughout his writings, and those written in his name, are passages about the presence of spiritual gifts, diverse and varied gifts given to people.  His guiding metaphor is of the body, each part with their particular ability and role.  I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the assessment tool “Strength Finders.”  We have at least one certified expert in it in the congregation.  As the name suggests, it’s a tool that helps people identify their strengths.  It’s based on the premise that we actually spend far too much time working on our weaknesses, on which it is really difficult to make progress, when we could and should be leaning into our strengths.  To me that’s good theology, because it’s a theology of gifts.  It’s very Pauline.  Among other things, it recognizes that the others are needed to round out the body, whether the body is a family, a workplace, a neighborhood, board, or community.  We come together to complement each other. 

Do we remember this in our faith lives? As you heard earlier, we just returned from a week at family camp at Zephyr Point, a Presbyterian retreat center on Lake Tahoe.  It was a wonderful time.  Among other things, the adults enjoyed an inspirational speaker who was living out his faith in very powerful even dangerous ways.  He’d been to Pakistan, to Israel-Palestine, faced arrests and all kinds of threats.  He’d experienced ostracism from members in his family who understood the call of Christianity differently.  His talks really motivated people to get active in their faith.

There was something else, however, unintended of course. I got the sense from some discussion that not everyone was sure they could live out their faith that way and therefore wondered what work was theirs to do.  It all begged the question of when someone is off getting arrested, who is at home taking care of the children, or what to do if you couldn’t risk your job to go to the border in protest because you had a family, maybe an extended family, to support.  There has to be a place for everyone, within their skill set, season of life, and resources.  It’s good to be stretched, and it’s good to remember you can be faithful right where you are with what you have.  Both are true.

Hafiz, the great Sufi Muslim has this beautiful image. He says, “I am a hole in a flute that the Christ’s breath moves through.  Listen to this music.”  What is a flute, but an arrangement of strengths and weaknesses, solid pieces and holes, each necessary for the breath to flow through and make music.   The holes must be of a certain size, a certain distance apart, to make the music, and so the question becomes not simply can we recognize our weaknesses as an opening—that’s well and good—but can we shape ourselves in such a way as to be an instrument for the Christ breath to flow through and make music?  In this sense, both our weakness and our strengths become occasions for God to flow through and make music. 

Mr. Rogers would have understood this. He studied music and composition in college.  He would have understood, emptiness and fullness, note and rest, the give of a piano string and the strike of a hammer.  I described his beginning to be one of weakness, and certainly his whole life was marked by gentleness, but that shouldn’t be taken for a lack of strength.  He showed not only an incredible work ethic, attention to detail, and dedication to what he knew he was called to do, but also an enormous amount of moral courage.  We forget that.  There was a time when some whites didn’t think black children and white children should be swimming together and you can see footage of excess pool chemicals being dumped in pools to clear the African Americans out.  What did Mr. Rogers do, but have an African American character—who he made a police officer, mind you, very intentionally confronting African Americans’ experience of police too—he had this man come by on a supposedly hot day, when Mr. Rogers was cooling his feet in a plastic kiddie pool.  He invited the man to do the same, symbolically “swimming” together.  It didn’t stop there.  When the man was finished and started to dry off, Mr. Rogers offers to help and before you know it, if you have eyes to see, you recognize Mr. Rogers washing the feet of a black man—the Christ breath flowing through. 

The very first week of Mr. Rogers, in 1968, Mr. Rogers penned an episode that had the puppet King Friday not like all the change that was happening around him. Upset at the change makers and how the way he was used to slipping away, what did he do?  King Friday ordered a wall to be built around the kingdom.  The people on the other side began floating messages of love and coexistence over the barrier—The Christ breath flowing through.  The first week of the show.  Somebody was teaching King Friday about Sunday.  

If you know the show, you’ll remember that Mr. Rogers’ jingle was about neighborliness, the prophetic nature of which sinks in more all the time. He had two main messages:  I like you just the way you are, and I want you to be my neighbor.  Think of that.  You don’t have to change to be my neighbor.  I will relate to you as you are.  It’s not about condoning everyone’s behavior.  It’s about recognizing that relationship precedes transformation, and least the most likely and productive kinds of transformation.  People grow the best when in loving, caring relationships.  Neighborliness is not just the stuff of some children’s show theme song, it may be the defining theme and virtue of the Bible, if you listen to Walter Brueggemann, the preeminent Christian Old Testament Scholar.  Brueggemann writes,

This vision of God is not a vision of accumulation and monopoly so that those who have the most when they die win. This vision of God's future is not about angels who have gone to heaven floating around in the sky with their loved ones. This vision, rather, is about God's kingdom coming on earth as it already is in heaven. God's rule where the practices of justice and mercy and kindness and peaceableness are every day the order of the day. It is a vision of the world as a peaceable neighborliness in which no one is under threat, no one is at risk, no one is in danger, because all are safe, all are valued, all are honored, all are cared for. And this community of peaceableness will come only when the vicious cycles of violent accumulation are broken.[1]

          The question for us is can we muster enough strength and enough weakness to say to the other, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”  Amen.

 [1] Walter Brueggemann in Inscribing the Text by Anna Carter Florence.