TEXTS: Ezekiel 2:1-5; 2 Corinthians 12:1-12; Mark 6:1-13
The words of St. Paul in this so-called “second letter” to the Corinthians which may, in fact, be a redaction from portions of several letters strung together, have had great meaning for me over the past 30 years. There was a time when my world was crumbling, and the future seemed very unclear and uncertain, when I heard these words afresh: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I know the stories of the lives of many of you, and I believe that, although you may not have known these words, that they have proven true for each of you at some point in your life too. That somehow a grace so overwhelming that it had to be holy, not just the go-along to get-along sort of grace—was sufficient to make you strong, even though you were weak.
In my own case, I had left home to attend a set of lectures back at Yale, in hopes of getting just some brief respite from, and some encouragement for the stresses and strains that were pulling apart the life, and marriage, I had anticipated having. The story of the healing of the paralyzed man who is let down through a hole in the ceiling of Jesus’ home by his four friends was read, followed by these verses from 2 Corinthians. After reading the words: “for whenever I am weak, then I am strong,” the speaker, who happened to be Bill Coffin, said: “That would be good to believe, wouldn’t it?” And suddenly, I did believe it. I felt, as I left Yale that October day, much like the paralyzed man: that I had been given the health and strength—even though I was still very weak—to pick up my mat upon which I had been wallowing in self pity and walk into my future.
Paul was writing to a congregation that he had founded but that was being pulled apart by jealousy, by cliques attached to various preachers who were playing on their own popularity and their own spiritual claims and demeaning Paul for being dull and flat-footed. Compared to Apollos who must have been a gifted orator, Paul was apparently a terrible preacher. Compared to Peter, Paul had no experience with the pre-Easter Jesus. He had no qualifications in the minds of many to call himself an “apostle.”
In the passage we read earlier, Paul indicates, by speaking of himself in the third person, that he has experienced ecstatic transcendent moments; that he has heard things that he feels he is not permitted to repeat. He knows he could boast about having that experience, but he does not, and instead points only to his weakness, which outwardly may have been an unattractive physical body, a speech impediment, perhaps blindness, or perhaps epilepsy.
Grace, you see, is the experience of being deemed of worth, value, and dignity even when you know you don’t have it all together, even when you know that you are frail and weak. Ernest Hemingway famously noted that “Life breaks all of us, but some of us are strong in the broken places.” There are echoes of that truth in an old Hasidic saying that “a whole Jew is one with a broken heart.” Ezekiel knew about a broken heart. Jesus knew that people took offense at him, and it must have hurt his feelings, if not given him pause to think again about the course upon which he had set himself. Judaism and Christianity are the only world religions, by the way, that worship a God who suffers. Speaking through the prophets, Israel’s God confesses to a broken heart over the waywardness of the chosen people. For Christians, God, as demonstrated in the crucifixion, allows the world to do its worst, and, in essence, is broken and put to death on that tree outside Jerusalem, in the name of love.
In reflecting about this again this week, I think that living by grace means that we have to accept that we are not going to make it to perfection, not ever—either in the wished-for life, or in our efforts to be the best at whatever we think our talents may be, or even in our relationships. Such an acknowledgement, of course, is the beginning of humility. Let me hasten, however, to note that too many people are falsely humble, thinking less of themselves and what is possible for their lives, than may be true, and so they never try. They live lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau once noted. But others, people like you and me, know that we have opportunities, potential, intelligence. And some of us think too highly of ourselves, so when life breaks us, as it inevitably will do, the danger is that in fallenness, the broken ones will never try to get back on their feet.
But living by grace opens you to humility first, and that leads to the acknowledgements that failure doesn’t mean the end, that if none of us have all the answers, then together we might find ways that are better than those we have attempted alone. Living by grace means that you live because of the talents and tender mercies of others—be they doctors, or therapists, or friends, or maybe even a preacher or a fellow church member. Living by grace embues you automatically with empathy and sympathy for your neighbor no matter how different from you they may be, yet whom you know has struggles just like you, and to whom you then grant a new respect and dignity. Knowing that only grace is sufficient constitutes the essential ingredient for restoring civility, respect, and decency to our social and political life together as a nation, among the nations of our world.
We began our worship this morning with that terrifying question: “What does the Lord require?” And we gave the answer that the prophet Micah gave: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.”
There are times, when like Ezekiel, we are given a task of speaking a word of remonstrance, a word of challenge and truth.
The Church has a task to speak the truth. Jesus is pretty clear that we have a message that needs to get beyond ourselves to the world. If the world doesn’t like it, we can shake the dust from our feet, but it shouldn’t stop us from being the canary in the coal mine, the voice of challenge. The Church, as I suggested last week, may have the responsibility and the only authentic voice that can call our nation back to the wise dictum that “united we stand, and divided we fall.” The church is a people in exile—the dominant culture is not ours. It is one reason I am very suspicious of these huge popular mega-churches because I worry that they cater to making people feel comfortable with the status quo of little lives. To be without worry may be the most arrogant state of being possible for a human being.
Instead, I think that the church should communicate a different message, a message that we human beings have to understand that we are in this life together, and that when individuals live for themselves alone, without regard for the weakest people in the fabric of our common life, the whole cloth of society begins to come unraveled.
The church isn’t called to be popular, to be the biggest scene on the block at 11:00 on Sunday morning. It has the task of being the sign of God, the people of God, in a world where too many people want only to get through life’s struggles with as comfortably as possible.
Ezekiel’s task was to help his exiled people learn how to blush. I am suggesting to you this morning, that one of the primary tasks, vocation, calling of the church in our times is to be prophetic: to be a sign in our world that makes it blush with embarrassment. We are to be the sign to the world of Christ—the Christ who provoked controversy and stirred people up—not just for the fun of watching the fall-out—but for the sake of making people think—something that occurs far too little amongst the majority of human beings—not to mention the lack of thinking that goes on inside churches.
A second task of the Church is not to meet the expectations of the world, but to listen to God’s expectations. When the people of Nazareth couldn’t see past their own prejudices, they missed out on who Jesus was. I’m sure it must have hurt him, but it did not stop him. He went on from there—teaching and healing the sick in other villages. And he sent his followers—that’s us. He didn’t keep them close so he could meet their needs. He sent them. The essence of the church is its “sentness”. The tasks he gave the followers are the same ones we have today: to have authority over unclean spirits, to cast out demons, and to anoint with oil those who are sick and to cure them. Or in other words: to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. We have the power, the strength, the ability to bring wellness to the sick places in people’s lives, and in our society. God’s grace is sufficient for us.
Casting out demons may mean that we roll up our sleeves and help with habitat houses, or the Diabetes Association, or SeedLeaf, or Mission Lexington, or Kentucky Refugee Ministries. Or it might mean calling a “spade a spade”, and that we speak up to politicians, our fellow citizens, the media and others that we are tired of dishonest manipulations of the truth in our political life; that we are fed up with vitriol, half-truths, and refusals to compromise; that it is time to return respect to our common life and to the halls of government at every level.
Along the way we can be sure that there will be briars and thorns, and that we will feel weak and unequal to the tasks. Yet if we trust our own experience, we know that grace has made us strong in the broken places of our lives.
Dive deeply into the life of this congregation, and others like us, but only if you can accept the possibility that the church’s purpose is not to meet your needs but to help you rearrange your needs, to give you needs you never would have had had you not come to church. And you know the really powerful thing, the paradox, the holy mystery of it all: there’ll be grace enough for those tasks, and grace enough for the challenges of staying alive to hope, and grace enough to deal with the thorns. There’ll be sufficient grace to use our very weaknesses, to show that we are interdependent creatures, or we will be destroyed. Grace enough. Believe it. Live it. Do it. Amen.