Sermon for Sunday, July 4, 2021 || Proper 9B || 2 Corinthians 12:2-10
There’s an old standby in American culture that when a job interviewer asks you about your biggest weaknesses, you end up turning the question around so that you actually talk about your strengths. What are your biggest weaknesses? “Oh, I suppose sometimes I work too hard. Sometimes I’m just too welcoming of others’ feedback. Sometimes I care a bit too much.” Now, it is true that someone’s weakness can be their strength taken to an extreme. But I wonder if we all know this particular interviewing convention because revealing our actual weaknesses is something that our culture trains us simply not to do.
And so when we read Paul’s words from this morning’s lesson, they probably sound wrong to our ears: “[The Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’”
How could power possibly be made perfect in weakness? Our culture is addicted to power in many ways: exorbitant wealth that turns into political influence, celebrity status that somehow confers expertise, gatekeeping at many levels of society, and, of course, violence in all its myriad forms.
With these expressions of power pummeling us from every angle, how can we hear Paul’s words? How can we believe them? How many myths out there teach us to hide our weakness? There’s myth of the tough guy: “Walk it off. Gut it out. No pain, no gain.” There’s the myth of perfection: “You’ll only be loved if you always get straight A’s or fit in those jeans or never strike out.” Then there’s one of the most pernicious of all myths, the myth of rugged individualism: “I can get on very well by myself, thank you. I don’t need help from anyone.”
Paul’s words puncture these myths one by one: “[God’s] grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” The word grace is all-important here because grace runs on a completely different axis than power. Grace is the gift of God that we receive simply for being children of God. We are all grace-full, even the clumsy among us. We are grace-full because God plays God’s divine music in our lives and invites us to join the divine dance. And so we dance with God, the perfect partner, who makes even our stumbles into new steps in the routine.
Where power seeks dominion, grace seeks partnership. Where power sows fear and division, grace sows love and togetherness. Where power takes any course of action to secure and bolster itself, grace takes the path of humility and vulnerability. Jesus Christ danced the grace-filled life, and we can learn the dance when we follow in his footsteps.
When we embrace God’s grace as the fuel of our lives, we can hear anew the second half of Paul’s realization: “for power is made perfect in weakness.” There are many countercultural things embedded in the Christian faith, and this is a prime example. In effect, God says, “Don’t look for power where the world looks for power: in the bank account, on the TV screen, at the point of a gun. No, my grace is enough for you to find fulfillment, if you allow my grace to infuse your weakness.”
In his own trials and tribulations, Paul has uncovered something that I personally (and I bet many of you) need to hear over and over again. The power of God’s grace dwells in us, and it dwells most effectively in the parts of us that those insidious myths tell us to hide. These are the parts of us that need the most help, the parts we don’t want to show other people because we think this or that facet of ourselves is deficient or shameful. The grace of God enlivens our whole selves, yes, but like an antibody targeting a disease, God’s grace heads straight for our weaknesses.
And since God’s grace meets us where we are weakest, we learn to rely on that grace to help us overcome our presumed deficiencies. God uses our weakness to gain a foothold within us. God trains us to rely on God when we think we need to (that is, our weaknesses) in order that we might just start relying on God when we think we don’t need to (that is, our strengths). In that way, we eventually rely on God all the time. If God tried to gain a foothold the other way around, I don’t think we’d ever let God in, because our strength, our power, would be telling us we are okay on our own.
If I were being honest with the imagined interviewer, who asked the question about my biggest weakness, I think I would answer with one that affects a lot of pastors. Pastors can fall into the trap of serving their flock with such single-mindedness that they forget sometimes they need to accept service too. Being unwilling to accept the service of another is a debilitating weakness. I suffer from it. Maybe you do too. Too often I forget what a gift mutuality is. I forget that Jesus washed his disciples feet and allowed certain women to wash his. Jesus gave food and drink to so many people and accepted hospitality from many more. Jesus pulled together a close circle of friends, who supported each other, even when they didn’t quite get what was going on. There is so much grace in remembering the gift of loving, mutual service. And that is where my weakness meets the grace of God.
My grace is sufficient, for power is made perfect in weakness. I’ve experienced this truth. So did the Apostle Paul. So did the disciples when Jesus sent them out two by two with only a staff in their hands, but with the grace of God pouring down upon them. So my questions for you are these: what weakness of yours might God’s grace be trying to shine forth from? What part of yourself are you hiding because of some myth or other? Pray these questions this week. Ask God to help you face that weakness, to live into it, to find grace in it, to use it to connect with someone else feeling the same weakness. After all, strength and power are not a universal human constant. But we are all weak in some way, somehow. We’ve all been in pain. We’ve all failed at something.
But the good news is this: the power of God’s grace keeps the rhythm of the divine dance beating in our hearts. God’s grace shines through our weaknesses when we don’t hide them, but instead use them to connect to each other. God’s grace is not just sufficient – God’s grace is abundant, extravagant, more than we could ever ask for or imagine.