It is largely believed that Paul is blowing smoke at us with his approach to this portion of scripture. He talks of someone he knows and then describes being in the presence of God in a vision or some sort of spiritual encounter. It is thought that he uses this telling of an event in his life to bring a contrast to the point of this scripture, that being in our weakness we find strength. As we shall read, the person is drawn up before God, quite a big deal, but of boasting of this encounter, he choses to reflect on his shortcomings, his flaws, his inadequacies. Rather than to focus on this miraculous encounter. In his words we are presented with what was counter-intuitive for Paul. He wants to boast as he has in other writings, but he resists to focus on what is more essential.
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10
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. 3 And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— 4 was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. 5 On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. 6 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, 7 even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep[a] me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.[b] 8 Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9 but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power[c] 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. 10 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.
Living Counter-Intuitively: Weakness Creates Us.
Today our nation celebrates Independence Day, which commemorates the day that the 13 original colonies joined together to declare their independence from Great Britain. It is logical and proper to see July 4th as the High Holiday of the United States of America. Not a bad way to picture this day of celebration and reflection. It is right and respectful that we give our nation’s leaders, from our time as British Colonies, to our place today, the credit for the labors which they offered on behalf of all Americans.
The first time we were ever referred to as the “United States of America” was in the Declaration of Independence, which was accepted by the leadership of the 13 colonies on July 4, 1776. July 3, we were a collection of colonies. July 4, we were the United States of America. That’s why we call July 4 the birthday of our nation. So, I hope you take some time to recognize and give God thanks for the blessings we enjoy as a nation. I know that not all Americans have enjoyed the same levels of freedom. For some it has been more difficult than for others, and we so not want to overlook those inequalities. And we do want to look ahead to the continued work that the dream of our Constitution, our Declaration of Independence and our Bill of Rights become the reality of all.
This week I heard about a little fellow who was asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and he got all flustered and he blurted out, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one naked individual with liberty and justice for all.” Well, “one naked individual” may be too much liberty for some of us, but I’m sure that this young fellow’s heart was in his recitation even if his tongue took him in a different direction.
I hope you take some time today to consider what virtues make our nation strong, and what obstacles make us weak, and what part each of us can play in building a nation that will last another 245 or so years. We are a nation who has overcome many weaknesses. Key to that is to recognize them and begin rolling up our sleeves.
Paul, in his scripture for today, takes time to focus on his own weaknesses as, he says, they are a source for his strength. As Americans we are perhaps too bombarded by our weaknesses and mistakes. Sometimes it is all we hear about. But to Paul, reflecting on weakness is the foundation for become stronger, better, and wiser.
Perhaps you have heard the word Kintsugi (pronounced kin-SOO-kee).
Three photos follow:
Kintsugi is a Japanese art form that repairs broken pottery by mixing gold dust with lacquer. Instead of hiding the cracks, the art form highlights them. Kintsugi reportedly started around the 15th century in response to a pottery repair for a Japanese leader that was mishandled by using ugly metal staples to repair a prized piece of pottery. By the 17th century, kintsugi was not only used for repair but also to decorate and make ceramics used for tea more beautiful. That which was broken and weak, was strengthened and made stronger by addressing the brokenness, not ignoring it. It would be easier to discard the entire broken piece of pottery. But that would disgrace another Japanese view, and that is the Japanese philosophical idea of wabi-sabi (pronounced WAH-bee-SAH-bee), which accepts imperfection as part of life and advocates seeing beauty in the imperfect. What a beautiful way to go through life.
The lectionary for this week stresses God is with us. (period). No matter our flaws or even our hardheartedness and hardheadedness, God is with us. Paul is assuring us that weakness can actually relate to power.
We all have personal imperfections. We don’t like to think about them, let alone highlight them with gold dust and lacquer. We would prefer to keep them hidden. However, social scientist and researcher Brené Brown believes that imperfection can be a gift. She’s written a book called The Gifts of Imperfection, and in that book, she links our imperfections with our ability to be vulnerable, and our vulnerability with our ability to connect to others.
Vulnerability is an English word that has a negative connotation. Most dictionaries define it as having a condition that makes you weak, easily hurt, or attacked. Synonyms such as helplessness or exposed also make it an undesirable characteristic. That is the way most of us view vulnerability.
As Christians, we struggle with the idea that we are even good enough for God. We know our “dark side,” and we somehow feel we have failed God by not having our flaws managed. It is hard to be vulnerable about our struggles, especially in church, because we want people to think well of us. We want to be better. We are afraid people will not like us, even though one of our unifying values is that we acknowledge that we all sin. We all mess up.
Paul speaks to us today in that place of being both very good and very flawed. He equally regards his mystical experience as well as his weakness before God. Mountain top experiences always are followed by time in the valley.
Perhaps our “cracks” or weaknesses work both ways: they allow God to enter and work in us, and they are the way that God’s work is a shining light of love and acceptance out of us. As Christians, we are witnesses to the world that God works with everyone despite their weaknesses. Taking stock of our own weaknesses and vulnerabilities makes the playing field even as we reach out to help.
We know our calling as Christians is to love all of God’s children and to serve others as Jesus did. As Americans, we are famous for helping the world in a secular way. The amount of support we offer the rest of the world is astounding. We may debate this, but I can tell you from my travels, America and Americans are revered in much of the world for extending assistance and relief. And since our helping others as Americans is similar to our work as Christians, we can find the waters muddied with assumptions.
I’ve told this story before in my years here at Federated. It is a sad story with a very uncomfortable point.
Early in my ministry in Ravenna, now about 40 years ago, I received a call early on a Sunday morning, from a longtime member who told me her son had been beaten and left for dead while brokering a drug deal. He was home, having refused to be admitted into a hospital. The young man and I had grown up together in the church. His mom wanted me to visit.
The visit was dramatic, emotional, and horrifying. My friend, let’s call him Tommy, told me what had happened. This was my very first of such visits so early in my ministry and I didn’t know what to do or say. I listened and prayed for direction as he described how he tried to cheat in the deal, was caught, and horribly beaten. He knew he was lucky to be alive.
After hearing Tommy’s story of drugs, violence, and craziness, I asked, “Tommy, how did you get involved in all of this. What has happened to you?”
His answer was as disturbing as his circumstances.
“It’s all good.” Tommy said. “It’s all going to be just fine.”
“How is this going to be just fine?” I asked. “You were left for dead.” I was obviously struggling for something to say.
“Well, God watches over me,” Tommy maintained. “I’m an American, right? If I’m American I am automatically a Christian so it’s all good.” And then he assured me that God watches his back.
Tommy’s assumption that America is equated with Christian has always made me cautious in my presentation of Christianity. There is a rub in that assumption. There is a danger in making Christianity and American identity the same. And I think this is the similar tension, in some respects, that Paul is addressing in our scripture lesson today. It is certainly why John Kennedy said he was not a Catholic President, but a President who happened to be Catholic.
Over the years I have been frequently asked why we don’t have more patriotic services. Why don’t we have the American Flag in our sanctuary. Is Federated or the UCC anti-American? Where is our national pride? Where is our loyalty? And it always makes me uncomfortable, because the assumptions are that if we are not rah-rah about the USA in church, we are not very good Americans.
I deeply love our country. I feel a great debt to our founders and their vision for what this country could be. I pray for our politicians because the Bible tells us to – even politicians that I don’t particularly care for. I express my appreciation to our service men and women, both in the armed services and in our local policing agencies. I pray often on Memorial Day services in our community, having had that honor for seven or eight times in my 30 years in the Chagrin Valley. I show my patriotic appreciation by giving money to veteran’s organizations that memorialize those who have died for our freedoms, like Wreaths Over America. I have been invited to bring prayers and support to our local wreath laying in December this year.
This, I believe, is my duty as an American. I have similar obligations to my faith in Christ. For me, my personal patriotism is enhanced by faith. I am a Christian who happens to also be a proud American. But I am careful in my mixing of these parts of my life experience. I do not believe that all Americans are automatically Christian. I know many devoted Americans who are not religious or spiritual at all. And that is their choice and world view and I respect that.
The Apostle Paul held a similar belief. Because of his birth, although fully Jewish, Paul was a Roman citizen. Not the norm in his day. He lived his faith as a Jew, but also regarded his citizenry as a Roman important. He understood the necessary differentiation between his spiritual life and his national identity. If we seek to mix our sacred life with our secular life as one begets the other – sort of a two-for-one deal, then we walk in danger of letting our patriotism dictate the expressions of our faith. Just like my friend Tommy did.
Am I being anti-American? Not at all. I love our country. And, I also love a place not made with hands, but set with God in the heavenlies. This place is for a time, that place is eternal. I am a traveler through this realm as I keep my eyes on what glories there are to come.
I hope you will love our nation on this national birthday celebration. Wave our proud flag. Buy a silly necktie or scarf and wear it with devotion to our nation. Recognize our weaknesses and work to build a stronger USA. It’s not only fun, but also important.
And as you slip into bed tonight, thank God for our fine nation, also remembering all other nations and their pride in their counties. Pray for our leaders and for the leaders all over the world. Pray for global justice and peace. Pray for strength for all humans. Scripture tells us to lift up our leaders, whether we like them or not.
That’s about it, except for these:
1. How come there aren’t any knock-knock jokes about America?
Because freedom rings.
2. What kind of tea did the American colonists want?
3. What’s the difference between a duck and George Washington?
One has a bill on his face, and the other has his face on a bill.
4. What did the colonists wear to the Boston Tea Party?
5. Why doesn’t fire get to enjoy a day off on the Fourth of July?
Because fire works.
Happy Birthday, America. And on this Independence Day, I pray – God bless America. And may God always bless you.