The Power of Weakness

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut, on July 8, 2012.

Week after week we have three readings from the Bible that come to us from totally different times, times so different from ours that it’s a major effort to connect with them in any real way. To make it worthwhile, we probably ought to spend an hour or so on each of them and that would be just to get started: three hours for the readings and another hour for the eucharist. But why not?  I mean, this is about eternity. Isn’t that worth an investment of just a few hours every week? Why not? Maybe I underestimate your devotion or over estimate my ability to hold your interest. But let me try this morning to show you just a few of the issues involved and keep the focus on you and me.

Today we have three readings with three central figures: David and Paul and Jesus, probably the three most important people in the Bible.  But let me keep the focus if I can on you and me.  What do these readings say to you and me? Why are we reading them? Why does it matter?

The Old Testament gives us a picture from the beginning of David’s reign as king and notice one thing: he’s a chosen king.  The people went to David and said: Look, you have been our de facto leader for a while now; so look, why don’t you be our king? Granted, Samuel already anointed him, but not publicly. Now the people have recognized themselves that he’s the leader they need. And, do you know, this is the last time the people have any such role. David became greater and greater, the Bible tells us, and when he died, the crown went to his son Solomon and after Solomon, his descendants, like Syria or North Korea, one after another, most of them failures. But the people gave David the power and they never got it back.

The first lesson for us: be careful.  Be careful to whom you give power. You may never get it back. That hasn’t changed in 3000 years. Conservatives will point to the growing power of the federal government. Liberals will point to the growing power of corporate money. They’re both right.  We need to be careful. Times have changed but human nature hasn’t.  That’s one good reason to read the Bible and learn from it.

But David was a wonderful choice, a marvelous king in many ways, but all too human in many ways as well. He took the power they gave him and kept it.  The people never got another choice.  So think about power, where it comes from, how it is used, how it is misused, the relationship between David and the people; the relationship between the people and God; the ways power is exercised in our world; the choices we make and the consequences.  Take an hour or so to ponder and discuss. And that’s just the first lesson today.

But then there’s the Epistle.  Fast forward a thousand years: different story, different people, same issues. In the interim the power David held had been misused, corrupted, divided, defeated, and Paul has learned from Jesus a whole new understanding of the value and nature of power.  Now, Paul is writing to a difficult congregation, new Christians, full of enthusiasm, thrilled with the gospel and the difference it makes in their lives, wanting everyone to have the same experience they’ve had, sure they have the right answers, sure their friends have the wrong answers, so there are arguments, divisions, quarrels, and Paul knows exactly where they are coming from because he was there himself. He’d been sure he was right and the Christians were wrong but Jesus turned him around and if the Corinthians can point to their spiritual experience, so could Paul.  They can speak in tongues?  So can he. They’ve had visions?  So has he; he was caught up into heaven itself. But he knows you make no converts by saying, Look at me; I’ve had better visions than you have. It doesn’t work. Well, actually, sometimes it does.  Sometimes we can be blown away by a newcomer with a lot of charm, and a million dollar advertising campaign, the Hitlers and Stalins, yes, and the great televangelists.  Power works, short term; but the Napoleons and Hitlers don’t last and no televangelist is remembered for very long.

So if power is dangerous, how does God work? How did God work through Paul? There are puzzles in this passage no one can answer.  Paul tells us he had lots to boast of but God made sure he didn’t by sending “a thorn in the flesh” to keep him humble. What was that?  No one knows. Maybe some sort of illness, people have speculated about some recurring fever or seizures, epilepsy, eye trouble, malaria: who knows? What matters is not what it was but how he used it. Think how frustrated Paul could have been: Lord, if you would only heal me, think how much better I could serve you!  I could build you another church, convert so many more people, travel so much further for you. But God said, No. My grace is sufficient for you.  My power is perfected in weakness. So Paul learned to accept his limitations.  Paul learned to remember that for all the force of his personality, the brilliance of his writing, the persuasiveness of his teaching,  all of these were God’s gifts and no credit to him. What Paul had to offer was his weakness and the demonstration of what God could do in spite of Paul’s weakness, maybe even because of it.

Maybe there were people in Corinth saying to themselves, If God can work through someone as handicapped as Paul, maybe God could also use me.  Yes, we all have our limitations:  we find it hard to share our faith, we have a million things to do, we don’t have the energy we used to have, there are others better qualified – well, you know the excuses. We’ve all heard them.  We’ve all used them. Paul takes them all away.  God works better through weakness. God can work also through you.

So I think the first issue raised in the readings is the issue of power: where it comes from and how it is used. And the second issue focuses in more narrowly on the source of human power and the uselessness of human power apart from God. How long would it take really to work through that question in terms of American politics?  Think about it in relationship to the way the powerless somehow dominate so much of the political debate – immigrants, the unemployed, the elderly, the sick.  Some say we need to do more for them and some say we should do less, but one way or another, weak though they are in human power, they seem to dominate our politics. What does that really mean in all these areas?  An hour would barely get us started.

And still we have a third lesson, the Gospel, the focus on Jesus, the center of our lives as Christians. We come to think about Jesus at the end of two thousand years of tradition. We can’t talk about Jesus except against that background. We recite the Creed every Sunday: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made.” How can you even begin to think about Jesus except against that background of power?  Who is Jesus?  Jesus is the ultimate manifestation of the God who created black holes and spiral nebulae. Did you see the reports last week about the discovery of “the God particle”? Billions of dollars worth of research finally possibly identifying the ultimate particle that triggered the big bang from which all creation comes. Jesus brings that power directly into human life – how?  As a helpless child in a cradle, a helpless dying man on a cross. God’s power is perfected in weakness, Paul writes.

So look at this morning’s gospel: here is the ultimate power of God in his home town at the very beginning of his ministry and his friends and neighbors are not impressed: They ask each other, “Who does he think he is? We know him, we know his family. What does he know that we don’t know?” Remember the saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt”? How could someone we know be any possible use to us?  Powerless in his own home town, Jesus began his ministry. They wanted power, charisma, someone famous from far away. They wanted someone in a uniform, someone with a secret service detachment around him, someone arriving on Airforce One or at least a gigantic bus with enormous banners on the side proclaiming his greatness.  God doesn’t work that way. And this is now and always has been an enormous frustration for Jesus’ followers. Fact is, they’ve done best when they’ve been most like Jesus. In the early days, when they were a persecuted, underground minority they spread like wildfire.  When the empire caved in and made them official, the best days were over. When Christians fled here from Europe where the church was established and powerful, the church came back to life.  Still today there are more practicing Christians here where the church has no official position than in any of the countries where it’s still established. But we never learn.  Right now some of the fiercest political fights are over using governmental power to control human life in one way or another. People will tell you they are only trying to do what the Bible calls for – but can you imagine Jesus trying to influence legislation and get laws passed to do it his way?

Do you really think we can work through all the issues involved in these readings in another hour, or week, or lifetime?  So let me just say this: if God’s power is made perfect in weakness, we don’t have much to worry about here at St. Paul’s.  Our human power frightens no one.  And that’s fine.  God’s power is made perfect in weakness and we are perfectly situated for God to work in us.

Think also how the communion is a perfect symbol of all this: a fragment of bread and a sip of wine, power enough to give us eternal life. Think about all of this this week whenever you are feeling most frustrated about your life, most despairing of our politics, most helpless in the face of whatever problems we have: God’s power is made perfect is weakness, trust God to bring new life, resurrection life into our world, this community, your life.

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