reclaiming weakness

Homily for July 8, 2018

The old Popeye cartoons all had pretty much the same storyline: Popeye was a hardy but small sailor who vied with his rival, Bluto, for the hand of the lovely Olive Oil.  Bluto he was a picture of brute strength, and he did whatever and took whatever he wanted. What did Popeye do to fight back? All he needed was a can of spinach and he’d be powerful enough to take Bluto down. The storyline was all about strength and weakness: brute strength against a weakened hero, who became valuable when he suddenly grew strong.

Paul has something to say about weakness and strength, and it’s quite different from what the Apostle Popeye taught us. But before I go there I want to recall another image of strength, though. I watched an interview in the days after the Charlottesville protests, where one of the alt-right leaders talked about how he had prepared himself. It was all about strength. He described his workout regimen at length: he trained like a soldier, he trained to prepare his body as a weapon. [i] What is that but the worship of strength, but also a clear picture of where it gets us?

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When Paul talked about his own weakness, there was a story behind it. In this part of his letter to the Corinthians, Paul is competing with rival evangelists who are trying, for lack of a better word, to steal sheep out from under him.

Paul described his rivals as boastful of their strength and the power they held as missionaries. That didn’t pass the smell-test with Paul. He even mocked them, calling them the “super-apostles”. These super-apostles appealed to the Corinthians’ egos, they appealed no doubt to their insecurities and their sense of superiority (which we know is really the same thing). They must have preached a prosperity gospel, they must have preached strength and power through their version of Jesus; they offered the Corinthians not the cross, but a can of spinach.

Christianity without the cross is not the gospel. Paul responded to the boastfulness of these super-apostles by pointing out his own weakness. His own pain. His own vulnerability. He speaks of the thorn in his side – we don’t know what that is, it may well have been a disease of some sort – that keeps him in a physical state of weakness.

I remember when I was about 32, I was on a youth mission trip and met another young minister – he was early 20’s and from a different denomination. He was in great shape, and he told me that he worked out and maintained his appearance because he believed that being strong and good-looking would help him to bring more people to Christ. I am not kidding about this, though I wish I was.

Did Paul need to be strong and good looking? Clearly not…for he writes to the Corinthians that he suffers, he lives with pain that won’t go away, and that through his very weakness he shares in the weakness of Jesus.

But more than that, Paul is redefining strength. No, that’s not exactly true: Paul is redefining weakness, and leading with that. Weakness is not being a doormat, or having a bad hand to play, or even simply being frail or without power: weakness means coming out from our hiding places, behind the supposed strengths of this world, and trusting in the sufficiency of God’s grace.

Jesus’ power came in his moment of greatest weakness. At the core of our faith is a broken human being, humiliated on the cross, completely weakened in the face of human violence.

Yet in that weakness, we find the Glory of God.

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I sometimes wonder how much of our suffering comes from getting this strength and weakness thing backwards. It’s a deeply personal thing, too…think of how often we get hurt, how we want to keep pain at a distance by erecting impregnable fortresses around our tender hearts.

Christian Wiman writes about this beautifully. Bear with me…this is a long passage, but he writes;

How many loves fail because, in an unconscious effort to make our weakness more strong, we link with others precisely at those points? …How many apparently strong and successful men seek out love like a kind of topical balm they can apply to their wounded bodies and egos when they have withdrawn from combat? Herein lies the great difference between divine weakness and human weakness, the wounds of Christ and the wounds of man. Two human weaknesses only intensify each other. But human weakness plus Christ’s weakness equals a supernatural strength.[ii]

This is not the kind of supernatural strength that comes from a can of spinach or the barrel of a gun, because in neither case do we embrace our weakness. In Jesus, however, that’s precisely what we do. Jesus doesn’t fix our weakness, he glorifies us in it.

The way of love does not come through strength. It comes through weakness and vulnerability. It comes when we are willing to risk ourselves, to give of ourselves, to open our hearts to God and neighbor.

What does this weakness look like? In contrast to meeting hardship with bravado or even a stiff-upper-lip, it means coming undone, letting what we think we knew break apart so that God can heal us and remake us. David Frederickson tells us that “It’s the weakness that resides in our mortality or in the weaknesses we feel in ourselves as we contemplate another’s mortality.”[iii] We can add to that, saying that weakness is grief, it is a willingness to sit with pain and loss, and even help carry the pain of others, without inflicting it on others, as strength will so often seek to do.

As Richard Rohr reminds us, pain that is not transformed is transmitted. When we embrace weakness, we refuse to pass our pain along. We breathe it in, we suffer alongside others, we take our pain to the foot of the cross.

We let ourselves come undone, so that we can be remade.

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It should be no surprise that a world that so values strength and so fears weakness would give us mythic heroes like Popeye and Bluto to explain how the world works. But that’s not how we as Christians view the world. As followers of Jesus, we offer ourselves in weakness because that is what Jesus did. We refuse to let another person suffer pain because we couldn’t live with our weakness, and we refuse to let others inflict that harm on our behalf.

Instead, we share in Jesus’ ministry by bearing that pain ourselves, and by letting seeds of love and holiness grow in the tender places of our own vulnerability

 

 

[i] https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/8/16/16155942/charlottesville-protests-nazis-vice

[ii][ii] Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss. P. 25

[iii] Fredrickson, David E., https://www.workingpreacher.org/

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About bernardowens

I'm an Episcopal priest in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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