Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 19, 2018
“A Blue Wave Won’t Fix This.
That’s Not Entirely Bad.”
2nd Corinthians 12:9-10 – NRSV
God 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. 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.
A pastor, teacher, and public defender all died and went to heaven. Standing in front of the pearly gates, they looked for instructions where to line up. The pastor thought surely there must be an express line for her. The teacher and public defender similarly thought they deserved expedited service for their years of dedication to the public good. But all three had to stand in the same line as everyone else and wait their turn. When it came their time, Saint Peter came over with his clipboard and explained that everyone needed 100 points to get in. They all thought that should be easy.
The pastor proclaimed, “I was a minister of the gospel for 47 years.” The teacher proclaimed, “I taught sex ed to middle schoolers for 30 years.” The public defended proclaimed, “I saved the lives of over 200 falsely accused men and women.” Peter exclaimed, “That’s wonderful. You each get one point!” Each of the recently deceased protested. “That’s all I get for 47 years of ministry?” The teacher leaned in, “Have you ever spent even one day in a classroom with 30 boys who haven’t discovered deodorant?” Peter wasn’t amused. He reiterated: “One point.”
So, each began to list things they thought should count as points, one after another. I tutored a neighborhood child. I spent a week at church camp. I marched in Selma. One by one, Peter put checks next to each name and kept a running tab. “OK, you’re each up to four points. Just 96 more.”
The threesome looked at each other in distress. The teacher said, “I don’t think I have 96 more examples.” The pastor yelled at Peter, “This isn’t fair. I’ve given my whole life to the church.” The public defender shook her head and finally said, “I don’t stand a chance, except for the grace of God.”
“Ding, ding, ding!” Peter handed her a ticket and swung the gate open wide. She smiled back as she walked in, as the other two quickly yelled at Peter, “Grace! Grace!”
Week after week this summer, the news has given us another reason to feel depressed one day, outraged the next; or “fired up and ready to resist” one day, and “I’m worn out, let’s just wait this out,” the next, each week causing more people to slowly disconnect from the news.
I reflected back on some of the sermons I’ve preached this summer, one of which, about the underserved suffering of Job and the separated families, I ended by saying we need to just sit in some old fashioned biblical lamentation. I’ve tried to encourage us with reminders that when all we can do is sigh, that is, in fact, the intervention of the Holy Spirit. I’ve given rallying cries for resistance as well as encouraged breathing and making sure we take time for rest. In each sermon, I tried to listen faithfully to the text for our call as Christians during these distressing and disgusting times, last week wondering, how can some Christians just stand by all as all this happens, and not just stand by, but actually approve at rates higher than the rest of the country?
John Pavlovitz joins in wonderment. The early Christians, he wrote, the immediate followers of Jesus, joined him in welcoming the outcast and the vulnerable—they didn’t refuse to serve them or harass them at school.
Christians then, cared for the sick and fed the hungry and clothed the naked—they didn’t claim they were lazy and had made bad choices.
Christians then, sought to destroy social barriers between people—men and women, slave and free, Jew and Gentile. They didn’t try to make the barriers worse.
Christians then, pushed back against the powers that hoarded wealth—they didn’t admire them.
Christians then, loved their desperate neighbors as themselves—they didn’t wall them off and lock their kids in cages.
Politicians can say and do all they want, but Christians can’t hold up “John 3:16” signs at football games and proclaim “For God so loved the world” and then angrily yell “America First” at rallies.
And a blue wave in November or a red wave the next won’t fundamentally change the dynamic of division in our country. It all leaves me feeling both ready to fight and hopeless at the same time.
And then I came upon this text: God said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” So, Paul said, “I’ll gladly spend my time bragging about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power can rest on me. 10 Therefore, I’m all right with weaknesses, insults, disasters, harassments, and stressful situations for the sake of Christ, because when I’m weak, then I’m strong.
When I’m weak, then I’m strong. The president loves to divide people into the weak and the strong. To him, calling someone weak is the ultimate insult. That’s why he loves dictators. Because they are strong. He would have been a huge admirer of Caesar and the ruthless power of the Roman Empire. And yet, Jesus spent his entire ministry trying to demonstrate the opposite.
Jesus lays out his vision at the beginning of his ministry in what we call the Beatitudes – known in Matthew as the Sermon on the Mount and in the Gospel of Luke as the Sermon on the Plain. The more familiar in Matthew speaks only of blessings, though they are upside down, such as blessed are those who mourn, for they shall receive comfort; and blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. But the version in Luke is much more pointed:
20 Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
25 “Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Those are pretty strong statements! They are also examples of things for which we don’t strive. They are not achievements. We don’t try to be poor or hungry or to weep. But they are one way to illustrate Paul’s claim that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. The experience of grace isn’t found in those things we can achieve, but grace is revealed each time we say, I can’t. Or, I don’t know how I can possibly do this anymore.
But first, what is the context of Paul’s statement? Earlier in same chapter, Paul says we shouldn’t boast, even if we have a right to do so, whether it is teaching middle school sex ed or being a pastor for 47 years. And yet, Paul has also just listed how he has suffered as an apostle: imprisonments, floggings, stoning, shipwrecks, and the danger and hardships of long journeys: from bandits, rivers, hunger, thirst, cold, to walking hundreds of miles across Asia Minor and Greece. “But I’m not bragging!”
He is, rather, likely trying to defend himself against adversaries, or an adversary, unnamed but probably in Jerusalem, who criticized Paul, for unknown reasons. Kind of vague, right? But hearing only one side of a conversation does that. If I’m listening to someone talk on the phone but I don’t know what the other person is saying, I can only guess and fill in the blanks. The comedian Bob Newhart was a genius at doing this. That’s what these letters of Paul are, whether to the Corinthians or Romans or whomever else. But further complicating matters, this book known as 2nd Corinthians is not just one letter but a combination of perhaps three letters, written at different times about different issues. We’re left to try to figure out what’s going on behind the story.
And yet, whether it’s an actual adversary or something else, in this text he called his adversity a “thorn” in his flesh. He prayed to God three times to take it away, but, he said, God would not. This thorn is the subject of much speculation. Scholars have offered lots of opinions, including, as I mentioned before, a particularly difficult, unknown critic. Others have suggested that he suffered because of a physical problem, or maybe migraines, or maybe depression. Maybe he was trying to control bouts of anger or some other torment. Some scholars have even said that perhaps he struggled with sexuality.
But by not naming his thorn, we’re invited to each name our own. Things we wish we could get rid of or change but will not go away. If I ask you, “What is your thorn in the flesh,” you could probably answer without too much trouble. The president has a new thorn named Omarosa. But with all seriousness, that which we may consider our greatest torment or fault is the source of our greatest strength. Whether it is the thing that causes us to lose sleep at night, or a chronic illness, Paul suggests, from his experience, it is a source of strength. Why? Precisely because when we feel most at our wits end, that is when we are most open to a power not of our own making.
I have some questions:
What is a reason you can’t sleep at night? What keeps you up?
Is there someone who constantly torments you or criticizes you?
Where in your body do you experience pain or anxiety?
What emotion do you find yourself unable to control at times?
What or who do you wish would just go away?
Those things are ultimately our strength because they make us most open to God. We may even come to realize we are strongest in our broken places.
For me as a young man, it was being gay. I had no conception that anything good could come from it. All I saw was limitation. Pain. Heartache. I wanted God to take it away. I got down on my knees and prayed a lot more than three times for God to relieve me of the thorn in my flesh. But when I was at my lowest, when I had nothing left with which to fight, I finally let go and let God into my greatest brokenness. I did not expect it to be a blessing. But because of it, I found a strength I would not have otherwise known. Because of my thorn, I came to understand the line from Ernest Hemingway: “Life breaks all of us, but some of us come to realize we are the strongest in our broken places.”
That reason we can’t sleep at night.
That person who is constantly tormenting and criticizing.
That very place in our body where we experience pain and anxiety.
That emotion we can’t control.
The very thing we wish would just go away but won’t.
That’s not something a blue wave can fix. And that’s not entirely bad.
We find strength in some of the oddest places. The five-year anniversary of my brother-in-law’s death is coming up in a few days. I was reminded how, a few months after, my sister Judy saw a tree-trimming service working at her neighbor’s house. She crossed the street and asked the foreman to come over and look at the dead tree in her backyard. It was one of many tasks her husband would have taken care of, but with his death, it was one more thing she had to deal with. My sister was worried it could fall on the house, but the man told her she didn’t need to worry. “Cottonwoods are stronger in death than they are in life.”
It was another occasion when a complete stranger said something that brought my sister to tears. He stood there, his flannel shirt covered in saw dust, and just held her. I looked on a forestry website to see if it was indeed true, and though I’m not sure that it is, regardless, it was one of those broken moments which provided her with the strength she needed to get through one more day.
When we are weak, then we are strong. Our greatest pain may be the source of our greatest strength. I wonder if our country isn’t ultimately going to be stronger because of this time of brokenness. And that we shouldn’t be afraid of it. To stop living from election to election as though that’s going to fix us.
Meanwhile, there are going to be times when we feel like we have nothing left to give. It is in that moment, the grace we need will be sufficient. Whether we need 96 more points or just three.
 Luke 6:20-26
 Marcus Borg, Evolution of the Word, page 103
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world