2 Corinthians 12: 1-10
It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I 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. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But 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, even 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. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, 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. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
I’m a strong woman and I come from a long line of strong women. My grandmother Helen took out a needle and thread and sat down in her farm kitchen and sewed up a large deep wound on her calf, carefully stitching the layers together and then covering her work with iodine when she was finished. Then I imagine she went on to the next chore on her list as farm work never ended. My mother Dotty repeatedly told my sister and I that we had to grow up and take care of ourselves. :Don’t ever become financially dependent on a partner,” she would say. She left her first marriage due to domestic violence, and always preached to us that you could depend on no one, but yourself. Playing in the background of these home messages was the chorus of White Privilege “just pull yourself up with your own bootstraps” and “only you make your own success.” Being weak was never an option. Thank goodness that I never suffered from any chronic illness, or ever couldn’t figure out something for myself, because weakness wasn’t an option.
Even as I submitted my dossier to be your pastor, I felt as though I had to “shine.” I wanted to prove that I have a great imagination, a stellar spiritual life, good ideas and endless energy so that you would all pick me. No pastor seeking committee wants a needy, whiney, exhausted person to interview. We must be strong, amazing, energetic, young enough to be hip for our younger congregants and wise beyond our years.
I wonder if that is why Paul wanted to tell his congregation at the church in Corinth about his spiritual visions. Perhaps they had been swept away by the great looks and positive energy of the Joel Osteen and wife of their day. Some super shiny, spiritual, cool, Rob Bell type had shown up with the latest and greatest in Spiritual experiences that results in huge numbers in the pews and amazing financial success.
It is difficult to pin down what is going on at the church in Corinth. What we are left with is a partial correspondence. It is at the very least one sided. We see what Paul wrote. Added to that, these two letters of 1st and 2nd Corinthians were initially 6 – 9 letters to the congregation neatly edited into these two letters for your reading pleasure. To further complicate matters, portions of these two letters are out of chronological order. Scholars redubbed the letters A,B,C,D,E F and perhaps G. The passage we read might have been written a long time before what follows (10 and on) or what follows could have been written a very long time before what we just read, or could have been a separate letter. Scholars don’t agree. Suffice it to say, there is so much that we don’t know about this young church in this cosmopolitan city. One idea that I have is that this young church that Paul had established had been swept away by a Joel Osteen type: some rich beautiful person with a rich beautiful partner with perfect bodies and make up, who attributed their incredible wealth, beauty, strength and success to their amazing spiritual life and their ecstatic experiences. I mean, Joel Osteen has a church that seats 17,000 people, has 7 million TV viewers a week here in the US and 20 million around the world each month. He has no divinity degree and subscribes to the prosperity gospel that believes that God wants to bless all pious Christians with wealth. I imagine that the church in Corinth had some leadership like this show up. With the possibility of a new leader offering amazing experiences, networking, wealth and success, who wouldn’t want to follow the new guy?
Paul tells the congregants in this letter that he too could describe some ecstatic experiences. He could talk about amazing visions and revelations, experiences that swept him away. Instead, Paul said that he could not boast about his visions. He could not boast about his religious experiences. Paul believed that he instead should boast about his weaknesses. He calls it his “thorn in the flesh.” Then he goes on to testify that his struggle with physical vulnerability revealed the nature and power of God to him more surely than any divine ecstasy could. That deserves repeating: Paul could see the power of God at work in his life because of his weaknesses, not because of his mountain top spiritual experiences. The Presbyterian Churches Confession of 1967 captures the nature of God this way: “God’s sovereign love is a mystery beyond the reach of the human mind. Human thought ascribes to God superlatives of power, wisdom, and goodness. But God reveals divine love in Jesus Christ by showing power in the form of a servant, wisdom in the folly of the cross, and goodness in receiving sinful people. Power in the form of a servant. Wisdom in the folly of the cross, strength in weakness. What paradoxes. God’s power is manifest in this world through weakness. If we can’t see our own weakness, or our own brokenness, or our own neediness, why would we need to call upon the love and power of God? We should not embrace the idea that God plans our difficulty or suffering to experience God’s power. Stuff just happens. What Paul is saying here is that God’s power is power that is viewed through the cross. Not power of wealth, of beauty, of domination or a spectacle of blessing, but instead power that can make us whole.
If we are healthy, happy, strong, rich and able, what do we need God for? What do we need each other for? As I said at the beginning of the sermon, I am a strong woman and I come from a long line of strong women. I am also a weak woman. Sometimes things happen to me or from me, that make me realize how needy I am. Then I know that I must ask for help. All of June and July, I could not drive and needed rides everywhere. Thank you everyone who carted me from place to place. Thank you for literally feeding me and cheering me on. Sometimes things happen to me or from me that you cannot help with, and then I pray and pray for God to meet my weakness with God’s strength. If we cannot admit that we are weak, if we cannot admit that we are not whole, if we cannot admit that we are in need, then we won’t ask for help from each other or from God.
If our community, this church, the United Churches of Olympia is healthy, strong, rich and able, what do we need God for? What do we need one another for? We are strong and we have a strong history of being joined together as two for over a hundred years. We’ve had great pastors and wonderful leaders. We are also weak. Sometimes our focus is strung in too many directions and we pull apart from one another unable to hear varying perspectives in the echo chambers of our own ideas and beliefs. Sometimes we are needy and we have to ask one another for help and we have to ask our community for help. We must admit that we don’t have the answers and that we need each other and that most of all we need God who demonstrated power in weakness, and wisdom in the folly of the cross.
We are hungry for a deeper spiritual experience. Generally, I have received very positive feedback about what members and friends are experiencing in our reVision small groups. People in our church are committing to a daily spiritual practice. I would like to share what one of our members wrote to me this week: “Coming into a solid recognition of God working in my life daily and nurturing that connection has been revolutionizing my life. Honestly, I don’t know where I would be without the church in navigating this time of grief. This is such an exciting time for me spiritually, life is full of surprises. I really hope this reVision process touches people’s lives in a profound way, the next few months seem to be the beginning of something truly beautiful.” Acknowledging a time of grief and sharing our need with one another so that we can meet each other in our need is truly beautiful.
As Lara preached last week, the church is in the midst of a “big rummage sale” (Phyllis Tickle) What will we keep and what will we put on the curb so that we can continue being a vital place of peace, welcome, of hope and wholeness for our community? One thing that we can put on the curb is the need to have all of the answers. Another thing to put on the curb is thinking that we can go it alone as individuals and as a church. People in our community are anxious and fearful, they often feel overwhelmed and in need. What if we create a place of peace and welcome, where needs are shared along with joy. What if we could be vulnerable with one another and pray for each other and be willing to be called by God outside of these walls trusting that God’s power and grace are sufficient for us and our calling, burdened and vulnerable as we are, so that WE can challenge the way that power works in this world.
The culture is eying the churches these days, testing our credibility. We might think that we should look together and shiny and strong, but we don’t. I believe that it is precisely our weaknesses and struggles that press us into the kind of engagement with the Spirit of God and with one another that make us a credible witness of grace and hope in this frantic and fearful world.
When we are weak, we are strong, because God’s grace meets us where we are. Amen
 Confession of 1967 PCUSA