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.’”
Sermon for Sunday, July 5, 2015 || Proper 9B || 2 Corinthians 12:2-10
The first weekend of June, I was doing some yard work with my father-in-law outside the rectory. While carrying some brush down the stone front steps, I slipped and fell backwards. I caught myself, but my lower back hit the edge of the step with enough force for me to feel it, go inside, and start icing. The ice helped, and I felt much better the next day. The day after that, I played soccer. I didn’t hurt my back during the soccer game, but running around for two hours at my age didn’t do me any favors. (Yes, yes, I know I’m young, but there’s a reason most professional athletes retire in their early thirties.) Put the soccer and slipping on the steps together with sleeping in a soft bed and picking up two babies for ten months, and Wednesday morning I could barely move. I spent the day lying on the floor, in a sizable amount of pain.
The next morning, I arrived at church to prepare for the 7 a.m. service. The pain was less than the day before but still considerable. I did my best to hide it during the first half of the service, but my acting job was unconvincing. After the peace, folks asked what happened, and I told them the story I just told you. When we came together around the altar for communion, I was about to start the prayer when Barbara Barrett asked: “Adam, can we lay our hands on you and say a healing prayer for your back?”
I looked around at the people circling the altar. They seemed eager to assist Barbara in her request. I had never considered asking for such a gift, but when it was presented, there was only one possible answer, a very thankful, “Yes, of course!”
The fifteen or so people present clustered around me and touched my back and arms and shoulders. Barbara prayed aloud. When she was finished, I exhaled and inhaled. As I breathed, I felt my insides expand and the stiffness in my back stretch out just a little bit. The pain remained, but it was lessened because fifteen people were now bearing it with me.
As I reflect back on that morning, two questions spring up for me. First, why had I never considered asking for the laying on of hands? And second, why did I feel it necessary to hide my obvious pain? I could answer each of these questions at length, but in the end, the answer to both questions boils down to a single word: weakness.
Something inside me convinced me not to show my weakness. That something might have been the myth of the tough guy: “Walk it off. Gut it out. No pain, no gain.” Or perhaps 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.” Or perhaps the myth of individualism: “I can get on very well by myself, thank you. I don’t need help from anyone.”
Whatever it was that convinced me not to show my weakness, it worked; that is, until Barbara spoke up. Her invitation to healing silenced the myths, and in that silence, the words of Paul we heard today bubbled to the surface: “Three times I appealed to the Lord about [my thorn], 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.”
My grace is sufficient for you, 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 Christ dwells in us, and it dwells most effectively in the parts of us that the 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 and the power of Christ enliven our whole selves, 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 the 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.
When Barbara spoke up about healing prayer, she reminded me that I’m really not okay on my own. I need God. And I need you. Priests 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 Christ washed his disciples feet and allowed certain women to wash his. On that Thursday morning, the power of Christ worked through my weakness, and, God met me in the hands of fifteen parishioners, who gave me the gift of healing and helped me bear a burden. My weakness kept me from asking for healing, but perhaps it was that weakness (and not my back), which found healing that day.
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 power of Christ dwelling in their hearts. 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. 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. So did Jesus. What else but a weak, painful failure was the cross in those few days before the resurrection?
But the good news is this: the power of God’s grace redeemed the cross when Jesus rose from the dead. And the power of God’s grace redeems our weaknesses when we don’t hide them, but instead use them to connect to each other. Thank you Barbara and the rest of the Thursday morning group for your gift to me: the gift of reminding me its okay to be weak because y’all are there to help bear my burdens and because God’s grace is not just sufficient – God’s grace is abundant, extravagant, more than we could ever ask for or imagine.