Year B, Proper 9--My Grace is Sufficient for You: Of Jim Bolton, Pancakes, and Paul
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. mark
2 Samuel 5: 1-10; Psalm 48; 2 Corinthians 12: 2-10; Mark 6: 1-13
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
When I was in university, I had a job at a Garden Center in North Toronto—Fairlawn Market. It was owned by a bear of a man, a former Canadian Football League linebacker who was tough as nails (probably tougher). He had a heart-attack one day and was back at work before dawn the next, grimacing as the staples in his chest popped out whenever he lifted something heavy. Needless to say, Jim Bolton was not a man to be trifled with. So it was with some trepidation that I showed up for work at 4:45 a.m. to meet the flower trucks as they pulled into the yard with flats of annuals—petunias, impatiens, geraniums—all the usual summer fare.
My job was to get these huge steel racks of flower flats down the truck ramp. The racks were easily seven feet tall and weighed a couple hundred pounds. What I didn’t realize is that once you got that much weight moving, they were darn near impossible to stop—momentum took over and the effect wasn’t too different from a run-away freight train. Hoping to impress big, gruff, cussing Jim, I leapt into the fray and yanked one of the racks onto the ramp. Sure enough, it was too much for me to hold and it started barrel down the ramp with me directly in its path. I won’t say my life flashed before my eyes, but I did ponder what a shame it would be to go out with face full of purple petunias as my last earthly glimpse.
Out of nowhere a massive arm reached out and grabbed the rack. The same brawny ease with which Jim Bolton immobilized offensive lineman was on full display. He held the rack in place on the ramp with hardly a sign of strain and then looked over at me with a rather glumly disappointed look on his face. “Doherty!” he bellowed. “Get out of here! You are as weak as a pancake!” I decided that now was not the time to expound on Paul’s doctrine of God’s strength being revealed in our weakness and hightailed it over the hanging basket section.
It’s not just in garden centers where weakness is considered a liability. We see it in nearly every corner of daily life. Weakness is something to hide, to be ashamed of, to work like the dickens to get rid of or repress. Vulnerability is a liability, and strength is seen as not needing anything from anyone and being utterly self-reliant. It’s no mistake that we celebrate Independence Day on July 4th and not dependence on God day. The myth of the self-made man or woman runs deep.
Our reading from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, however, points to a different way of seeing weakness and highlights the gift of vulnerability. Paul has this ecstatic vision where he is caught up into the third heaven. He doesn’t go into the details of all that was revealed to him. Instead, he pivots and begins to speak instead of the mysterious “thorn in the flesh” that he prayed to the Lord three times to remove. Paul thinks, that this thorn in the flesh, the thing that keeps him from having it all together and the world by the tail, needs to be removed in order for him to be a proper vehicle for the Glory of God.
If we are honest, I think many of us think the same thing. If we were only just a little more something and little less something else, then our lives would be better. We think our thorn in the flesh—our fear, our shame, our anger, our arrogance, our pride—needs to be taken away from us in order for us to be better people. But what does Paul hear the Lord say to him? “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” What’s going on here? God doesn’t seem to interested in thornless flesh in the least. In fact, he seems to prefer fallible, foible-prone weakness to perfection. The thorn, the very thing we think is what prevents us from enjoying the presence of God, is actually the very thing God uses to make His love manifest. Indeed, the climax of gospel narratives centers on the cross—an instrument of torture, shame, punishment and exclusion is turned into the manifestation of God’s love as stronger than death.
The entire sweep of scripture is filled with all manner of unscrupulous characters through whom God has chosen to act. Moses the tongue-tied sheep herder to whom God speaks in the burning Bush. Flawed David. The somewhat sinister Saul. Even the ordinariness of the first disciples—poor, uneducated, rather bumbling in their non-recognition of Jesus as God in human form. The creator of the universe could surely have chosen anyone anywhere to bring about the Kingdom of God. He could surely of chosen an A-team of supermen and women, but he didn’t.
Part of the reason, I think, is that flawed human beings who embrace their weakness know in their heart of hearts that they haven’t gotten things sewn up tight. There is an openness and a receptivity in flawed human weakness that keeps us continually turned to God as the source of all beauty, truth, and goodness. Flawed human beings know that they can’t do it on their own, that left to their own devices they have little to communicate but the “contagion of their desires” as Thomas Merton calls it—“There but for the grace of God go I.” Being weak as a pancake in the Gospel’s upside-down way of seeing and being in the world is actually what opens us up to receive the grace of God, that God in Christ through the Holy Spirit might live his life in and through us.
We are so used to looking for apparent strength, that it can often blind us to how God is present and active, working for the transformation of the world right in the midst of the apparently ordinary and mundane. The hometown crowd sees Jesus only through the lens of how we evaluate strength and power in worldly terms. “Is this not the carpenter’s son?” they cry. It’s interesting to note that Mark tells us the crowd “took offense at him.” They aren’t just dismissive, they are actually offended that God doesn’t fit their image of how God should be and what God should look like. It’s rather humorous if you think about it. It’s as if the crowd is saying, “How dare you appear to us in such fashion Lord God, Creator of the Universe, High and Lofty One. Don’t you know you are supposed to conform to our ideas about you?”
When Jesus sends the disciples out he sends them out with nothing. They are weak. They are vulnerable. They have no bread, no bad, no money, and only one cloak. The physical poverty of the disciples is a sacrament of discipleship, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Poverty, weakness, thorns in the flesh contain in themselves a powerfully transformative potential because they point us to God, away from our own efforts and achievements. The disciples’ poverty, their weakness, is what allows them to be vessels of God’s grace, open places where God can act, instances where love happens.
When we embrace our weakness and enter willingly into poverty, when we become like little children, we find in our own experience that losing is finding, that the way down is the way up, that in giving up our ideas of how God should appear God shows up as He is in ways we could never imagine. We discover that God’s grace is sufficient for us. We don’t lack for anything—even though the teacup is chipped, the rug stained, and there are spots on the silverware. That is—God meets us, just as we are, right where we are, and works in and through the mundane circumstances of our so-called ordinary lives. We don’t need to hide our weakness away, repress it, or put on a showy act of strength, wealth, power, or control. We boast not in our own power or our illusory thornlessness, but in our weakness. We boast of our littleness, our utter dependence on the source of all beauty, truth, and goodness. We boast of our openness, receptivity, and availability to God in Christ through the Holy Spirit who molds us like clay in the potter’s hand into vessels of His grace, His Glory, His humble, self-emptying love for the last the least, the lost, and the left behind.
My prayer for us this week is that we come to know that “[God’s] grace is sufficient for [us], for power is made perfect in weakness.” My prayer is that we learn, like the disciples who set out with no money, no bag, and no food, what it means walk the way of the empty hand. My prayer, in a culture that espouses strength, storing up, and the endless quest for self-perfection, is that we realize that it is becoming poor, like a little child, that we become sparks of the new creation. My prayer is that having had our eyes opened by the boundless love of God, we might start to see him at work in strangest of places if we look at it right—in thorns, in carpenter’s sons and in the midst of our so-called ordinary life.