Strength through Weakness
July 4/5, 2015
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The theme of this sermon is a kind of anti-independence theme. Maybe it’s good for this weekend, given the emphasis we hear often about how strong America is, and how we lead the world in this, and that, and the other. So bear with me a little as we delve into issues of strength and weakness that St. Paul explores in our second reading today.
First let’s start with something from the writer / Anne Lamott. She quotes her friend Tom Weston, who’s talking about what he calls the “Five Rules of the World.” These are rules that most of us have grown up with—even if we haven’t been taught them outright. We’ve absorbed them from the air around us. Here they are—the Five Rules of the World:
“The first rule…is that you must not have anything wrong with you or anything different.
The second rule is that if you do have something wrong with you, you must get over it as soon as possible.
The third rule is that if you can’t get over it, you must pretend you have [gotten over it].
The fourth rule is that if you can’t even pretend you have [gotten over it], you shouldn’t show up. You should stay home, because it’s hard for everyone else to have you around.
And the fifth rule is that if you are going to insist on showing up, you should at least have the decency to feel ashamed.”
[Brother Curtis Almquist, SSJE, quoting Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, p. 100.]
Just reading these so-called “rules” makes me sad… especially because I think so many of us do live by them. Basically they say that any kind of weakness is BAD and should be HIDDEN. But the Apostle Paul says today that weakness is GOOD, and something to celebrate. For, he says, “whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
This teaching of Paul is pure paradox—and so countercultural. And it’s always been countercultural. Humans want to be strong, or at least to look strong. We want to be in control, or at least to look in control . . . right?
But Paul’s teaching, as deliciously paradoxical as it is, has influenced a long line of people throughout the history of the Church. We are inherently weak. We need help. And when we know we need help—especially from the Holy One—we are strong! Go figure.
We see the “strength through weakness way” in Jesus. He, the ultimate in strength, came to us as a weak and vulnerable baby born into a family of impoverished nobodies. He died the death of a powerless man—a criminal. And he rose to the life of the Godhead, in the apotheosis of power.
We see the “strength through weakness way” in the Desert Fathers and Mothers. These Christians in the 3rd or 4th centuries renounced the ease of life in society for the challenges of living in small, almost monastic communities out in the deserts of the Middle East and northern Africa. They taught that the ultimate virtue of the Christian life was HUMILITY.
And part of being truly humble is developing the ability to regard others as more powerful than yourself—as better than yourself. It’s weakness chosen freely instead of the pursuit of strength. Brother David Vryhof from SSJE writes that “the life of humility manifests itself in a willingness to learn from others, combined with an unwillingness to stand in judgment of others. Both of these stances grow out of a self-understanding based upon the grace of God / rather than on one’s own virtues or accomplishments.”
And the “strength through weakness way” produced in these early Christians a store of wisdom and self-awareness. Even to this day / the Desert Fathers and Mothers still provide guidance to many Christians / through their writings that have been passed down to us.
Now, just how are we weak? First of all, we’re mortal. We live short, earthly lives that will end. It’s important to remember that we are, by nature, incomplete and constantly growing. And it’s important to remember that we are shot through with imperfection. [These ideas come from Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE, retreat for the clergy of Connecticut, 2013.]
And personally I can say that there’s nothing like getting older to remind us that our bodies are limited and that our minds can no longer hold all the stuff they held 40 or 50 years ago. It’s humbling, but it’s good to be brought to this kind of place. It’s good because it reminds us that God’s actually the one in charge—after all. And it reminds us that we surely do need God’s help to do the work we’re given to do.
Being reminded of our weaknesses takes us to our knees in humble supplication—asking God for help. And therein comes the power—the power of God, answering that prayer and carrying us through the really difficult stuff along the way. When we are weak, then we are strong.
A few weeks ago I included a story in a sermon about asking our bishop, Ian Douglas, if he wished it still was 1955 again—wouldn’t that be great, and easy—to live when the church was exploding with people? And he really surprised me when he said that NO, he didn’t wish it was still 1955. He was happy that it was 2015, when life in the church seems much more tenuous and we are brought up short by cultural changes that strongly pull folks away from religion.
He felt that now, in our weakness, we are becoming strong, because we’re going back to our roots—to the kind of struggles that the first apostles and disciples dealt with. We’re rediscovering our need to go before God in humble supplication, asking for help and asking for inspiration. For when we are weak, then we are strong. Then God has a chance to get in to us and change hearts and lives.
Just think: with the church, and with our own individual lives: how much of the mirage of perfection we’ve bought into! What might it feel like as individuals to let go of our own desires to be perfect and in control? To let go of our dissatisfaction with our jobs or our houses or our bodies or our selves. To stop trying to be perfect, or smart, or liked by everyone, or fit, or beautiful or skinny. To let go. Ahhh, doesn’t that sound great? By letting go, we make room for God to fill us up, and to help us move forward in a good direction, away from the pathological pursuit of the perfect, and toward a healthier and holier life.
Imagine what it would be for the church to let go of our anxiety over losing some members. To let go of our addiction to numbers and measures of so-called success. But instead to turn to the Only One who is SUCCESS itself—God—Jesus—Holy Spirit. Imagine the freedom if we can stop worrying / and then turn to the Holy. And to do the work that naturally flows from that—to really live the gospel and share it, to seek the Good, to give generously because we have a deeper understanding of who we are in Christ, to be an integral part of the Jesus Movement, as our PB-elect says so often.
And now, just because it’s so delightful, I’m going to end with a little poem by Hafiz, who was a Persian mystic and poet of the 14thCentury. It’s called “Tripping Over Joy.” I’ve used it before in preaching, and here it is again—it’s that good. I hope we’ll hear it as a fine reminder about our own powerlessness, and about the Power of God.
“Tripping Over Joy
What is the difference
Between your experience of Existence
And that of a saint?
The saint knows
That the spiritual path
Is a sublime chess game with God
And that the Beloved
Has just made such a Fantastic Move
That the saint is now continually
Tripping over Joy
And bursting out in Laughter
And saying, “I Surrender!”
Whereas, my dear,
I am afraid you still think
You have a thousand serious moves.”
― Hafiz, I Heard God Laughing: Poems of Hope and Joy