2 Corinthians 12:2-10
November 10, 2019
In a few weeks time, after we’ve awakened from our Thanksgiving tryptophan coma, we’ll likely load the family up in the van to go pick out a Christmas tree. We’ll take the tree home and put it in the stand and string the lights up.
Then our daughters will put ornaments on for a whole 20 minutes and then leave the rest for Mom and Dad – at which point we will wait until the children are asleep, put on the movie Love Actually and finish decorating. Inevitably – we will come to the part when Emma Thompson says:
“The trouble with being the Prime Minister’s sister is it does put your life into rather harsh perspective. What did my brother do today? He stood up and fought for his country. And what did I do? I made a papier-maché lobster head.”
The Apostle Paul makes me feel like that.
Here’s a guy who scattered himself to the four winds planting 14 churches in the process.
He endured all manner of insults and imprisonment; he was beaten, berated and interrogated – all for the sake of the Gospel.
It’s difficult to compete with the Apostle Paul.
Our reading today comes from Paul’s letter to one of those 14 churches. We call the letter 2 Corinthians…but here’s the thing, it wasn’t his second letter. It was at least his third letter to that deeply troubled congregation. Here’s a bit of the back story.
Paul was not a cautious evangelist. He planted churches in some risky, seedy places, like the sea-port of Corinth where, appropriately enough, people did everything “like a sailor” (cursing, drinking, other things, fill in the blank). Paul spent about a year and a half there carving out a foothold for the Gospel. He got the Corinthian church on its feet and then he moved on.
But after a while it all went south. Some other missionaries came to town and stirred up trouble.
Given our own backdrop of impeachment inquiries and partisan gridlock – this will sound all too familiar.
Paul derisively called his rivals the “Super Apostles” – they rolled into Corinth talking trash about Paul. They made fun of his less-than eloquent preaching and claimed he was lacking in the more dramatic spiritual gifts that would bring that wow factor to worship.
In response, Paul sent the letter that would become 1 Corinthians, and then he personally visited Corinth to settle the dispute, but his presence only made matters worse.
Paul then wrote a second letter – one he describes as a letter “covered in tears” – which has been lost to history. Apparently, the tears did the trick and Paul won back many of the defectors.
He then wrote what came to be known as 2 Corinthians. For the most part it is a thank you letter, but in the part we are reading today he addresses that remnant of opposition who still prefer the flash and flare of the Super Apostles. Paul was also not a very subtle man so when he says “I know a guy…” he’s talking about himself. This is what he had to say about the boastful Super Apostles.
[If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.]
2I 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.
3And I know that such a person…was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.
5On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.
(Time out – he’s talking about himself…got it…good)
6[Even] if I wish to boast I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, 7even considering the exceptional character of the revelations.
Therefore, to keep 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.
8Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me,
9but 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.
10Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities
for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
The first week on the job here at UPC was one of those blazing hot August days. We joined the YMCA as soon as we got to town because we needed a swimming pool stat. The bonus is that there’s also a YMCA just one and a half miles from the Church. This is perfect – I’ll start off on the right foot with a regular exercise routine.
One day I thought to myself, ‘instead of driving to the gym and getting on a treadmill, why don’t I get my cardio out of the way by running there instead…”
If you can picture the path you already know the flaw in my thinking. Running down Hillsborough street is easy…I mean, it’s down. I got to the Y, messed around in the weight room for a bit and then decided it was time to run back to Church… UP Hillsborough Street. It was a harsh reminder: “Oh! That’s why it’s called Chapel HILL!” That it was pushing 98 degrees was just icing on top.
I had one of those moments when you’re running up a steep hill and you say to yourself “You know, it might actually be faster if I walk.” But the truly demoralizing moment came when some incredibly fit 20 year old – with no shirt on, of course – zoomed right past me as if he was gliding on clouds – it was absolutely effortless. As I watched him quickly recede into the distance I heard that familiar voice inside me saying “WEAK SAUCE, MCLAUGHLIN! WEAK – SAUCE!”
If you’ve never heard that piece of slang, it means exactly what it sounds like. Weak Sauce is what you call something that is inferior. Something that champions mediocrity. Something that is plain weak.
Nobody likes to be thought of as weak.
In my experience, we’ll do most anything to avoid being seen as weak.
My mind drifts to Jeff who was the resident tough guy in my Elementary School.
One day I was running across the playground equipment – probably lost in some game of chase – I came flying down the slide and bumped in to Jeff at the bottom. Without skipping a beat, Jeff reared back and slugged me right in the gut as hard as he could. It knocked the wind right out of me.
I know that I wanted to cry. But I didn’t.
Instead – I picked myself up off the ground.
I looked Jeff in the eye.
I turned on my heels, walked to the bathroom,
Closed the door behind me.
And then I burst into tears.
But No – not in public.
By seven years of age, that voice was inside me.
“Don’t cry McLaughlin – not here, not now – that’s weak sauce”
Do you know that voice? It can be pretty loud.
So, the Apostle Paul can scarcely compete with it.
Paul offers a peculiar story of a trip he took to “the third heaven.”
This might only make sense to people from my generation but I cannot help but think of Super Mario Brothers where you find the secret passage that allows you to warp three levels ahead and suddenly there’s that cloud throwing porcupines at you…right?!? I digress –
Amidst this bizarre story of secret revelations, Paul challenges our notion of what it means to be strong. He says “I am content with my weaknesses for the sake of Christ…for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
When Paul’s own playground bullies are exploiting all of his weaknesses, Paul claims that his weakness is precisely what makes him strong enough to lead the church.
So…what do you think? Are we strongest when we are weak?
Do you buy it? Because I ’m not too certain that it’s catching on.
Friedrich Nietzsche critiqued this very aspect of the Christian faith:
“How typical of those Christians,” he says, “especially the clergy. They are weak and cannot be anything but weaklings. So they…construct a moral system that glorifies weakness in order to exert their [own] will to power over those who are truly strong.”
Maybe that’s just Nietzsche being Nietzsche, but it sounds like this whole “When I Am Weak I Am Strong” thing isn’t catching on.
2019 seems to be the year when the term “Toxic Masculinity” spilled out of the Women’s Studies department and into the common vernacular. Of course, it is an often-misunderstood term. Toxic masculinity does not mean that all men are toxic but is rather shorthand for the behavioral expectations that male children are prone to internalize – that they must suppress emotion and exercise power through domination and violence.
Earlier this year, the Gillette razor company ran a striking advertisement challenging this toxic masculinity. It challenged the old axiom we tell ourselves of “Boys will be Boys.” It flipped their tagline from “The Best A Man Can Get” to “The Best a Man Can Be.” All while showing situations where men step in to correct other men or boys who were bullying or cat-calling women or being all other kinds of inappropriate.
The ad received a lot of love…and a lot of hate. You should read the comments section from all the “wanna-be” Alpha Males on the #boycottgillette twitter feed.
Maybe that’s just some trolls on the internet but it sounds like this whole “When I Am Weak I Am Strong” thing isn’t catching on.
Or what about our current political scene? In 2018 Time magazine ran a cover story called “Rise of the Strongman.” Author Ian Bremmer describes how the social upheaval of the 60s and 70s led Hollywood to make films played by Tinsel-town tough guys like Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson – rogue outsiders who pushed past weak-willed bureaucrats to do what was right in their own eyes.
Bremmer claims we’re living through another era of intense change and we’re again seeing the rise of the lone strong man, except this time Hollywood isn’t fabricating them – they are real people occupying positions of power across the globe.
It’s Putin in Russia, Jingping (Gin-ping) in China, Erdogan (air-doe-wan) in Turkey. Our own President has voiced no small amount of admiration for these men and the power they have consolidated. Of course that all of that involves muzzling the press, controlling access to the internet and fiercely suppressing anything close to a dissident opinion.
Maybe that’s just some major players on the global theater but it sounds like this whole “When I Am Weak I Am Strong” thing isn’t catching on.
And should we be surprised?
It’s difficult for accomplished, educated and able-bodied folks to see weakness as a virtue.
But that is the Gospel that God has served us.
And here we are – a community gathered around this Scripture and its claim on our lives.
So what are we to make of this weak sauce Gospel in a strong-obsessed world?
I wonder if Paul’s testimony is worth a closer examination.
He talks about a certain “thorn” in his flesh. My how folks have speculated on what this thorn might be. Was it a physical ailment? Was it temptation of some kind? Was it depression or some other mental health condition?
It doesn’t really matter because Paul doesn’t focus on the thorn itself. Instead, Paul tells a story of fervently praying for the removal of this thorn, but instead of handing him a pair of tweezers, God instead says to him “Leave it there…life is lived in a briar patch. Nobody gets out unscathed. Anybody who pretends otherwise is pretending. Forget about being strong all the time. My grace is sufficient for you.”
Brene Brown has become something of a household name thanks to her work with the concept of vulnerability. She credits much of her interest in vulnerability to her mother.
Growing up in a poor household where alcoholism was the norm, her mother compensated for the dysfunction by becoming the valedictorian and the captain of the drill team. After starting her own family she committed to sustaining change in her family system – seeking out therapy for herself and making her children go to. “You have to talk about hard and vulnerable things,” she often said to them.
When Brene was 21 years old her uncle was shot and killed in a random act of violence. Brene’s grandmother basically became unhinged with the grief. During that terrible year, Brene recalls seeing her mother cry a lot…Brene had never seen here cry much before.
Brene said to her mother one day “I’m scared. I’m not used to seeing you weak like this,” at which point her mother stopped her right there and said sternly “I’m vulnerable, for sure, and I’m sad and I’m scared…but I am not weak. If I was a weak person, I’d be dead by now.” That was the moment when Brene began to realize that there is a difference between vulnerability and weakness.
I wonder if Paul is coming to the same realization in this letter. I wonder if he’s asking us to risk vulnerability because that is the only way we can open ourselves to the power of God.
Some might call that weak sauce, but in my experience, the people who pretend at being strong are actually the most frail of all.
The ones who puff their chests are deathly afraid you might discover how hollow they are inside.
The ones who suppress information live in fear that facts will blow down their fragile house of cards.
Paul hints at an alternative in which we can stop pretending…where we can risk making ourselves vulnerable. When life is lived in a briar patch, the world will definitely leave its mark. God knows that – look no further than Jesus’ hands and feet. But love leaves its mark, too… a mark that is stronger than death itself. It’s the power of resurrection that makes us strong when we are weak, that snatches victory from the jaws of defeat.
Whether it catches on or not – that is the Gospel…served to us with a big old side of weak sauce. So let me ask you again – do you buy it?