My Weakness, Your Strength
Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon at Resurrection on July 8, 2012, the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost. The text for the sermon is 2 Corinthians 12:2-10.
St. Paul tells us in the second lesson for today: “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” What do you think of this idea of strength coming out of weakness?
The television show “Undercover Boss” is one of my favorites. Each week a top level administrator of a well-known US company, usually the CEO, leaves corporate headquarters and disguises himself or herself in order to visit branches or stores across the nation to see what is really going on. Usually the story is that they are in training and need to understand by doing all the various jobs, including grunt work. The funniest parts are seeing these very important people realize they can’t do the work as well as the people who are out there in their workforce. The show always ends with the CEO all cleaned up in their best clothes, sitting behind their corporate office desk, and revealing themselves to people they have worked with out there. Time after time they share that the strength of their operation is in these people and how they give of themselves to their work.
I’ve been feeling a bit vulnerable myself these past few weeks as we approach Vacation Bible School. Lots of people are stepping us to be staff for VBS, but no one was available to be the Director. So, somehow the spirit moved me to say, “I’ll take that on.” Now I understand better how some of you must feel when I ask you to take on a responsibility that is new for you. Several of you here today are so much better qualified to be the Director, because you have done it before, and done it well. Here’s my little secret: I have never before been the Director of Vacation Bible School! I’ve taught many years in VBS, I served as Pastor of Christian Education in two congregations. But in every congregation there was a Director or Co-Director of VBS that I worked with. Now I know what it means to be the VBS point person and do last-minute worrying: How many kids will show up tomorrow? Too few or too many? Will it be too hot? Will there be a thunderstorm? Do we have enough staff? Do we have too many staff and will some get bored? I am forced to this conclusion: we have really good people who have volunteered for all the needed-staff positions. And, most importantly, we have Jesus Christ, who surely wants to bless this opportunity to share His Good News this week with children of all ages.
So, this sermon is for me today, as well as for you. St. Paul wrote his letter to the Church at Corinth. Some were questioning his credentials as a Christian teacher and preacher. He wants to respond to them in a way that he thinks is Christ-centered and not Paul-centered. What we heard today is part of what he wrote to those Corinthians. Here’s the gist: I could tell you that I had an experience 14 years ago when I encountered God in a most amazing way, being given a glimpse of heaven and permitted to hear things that mortals aren’t supposed to hear. But I’m not going to lift that up or other experiences I can boast of. What I intend to do is share with you what is more important, that is what I have learned in my weakness. I was given a thorn in the flesh. Paul calls this “thorn” a messenger of Satan that tormented him and kept him from being too elated.
Christians over the past 2,000 years have wondered what this “thorn in the flesh” could be. There has been lots of speculation, since we are not told. Some have suggested epilepsy, or stuttering, or poor eyesight. Whatever it was, Paul says he asked the Lord three times to remove this thorn. And the answer he received from God was this, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I not only like God’s answer, I am impressed that Paul asked just 3 times. How many of us have a thorn and we ask over and over and over again? Paul accepted his “thorn” and came to see that it forced him to rely on God’s strength and not only his own. He can then give complete credit to God and not to himself. This is how he puts it, “I will gladly boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 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.”
I am so thankful that Resurrection is part of the larger Body of Christ. I’m especially grateful to God for using the strength of the Virginia Synod and the ELCA to bolster us here when we have been weak and vulnerable. Over the 22 years of life this congregation has been able to give somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000 in benevolence to the synod and ELCA. That’s a good amount to help support missionaries and training pastors and helping colleges and social services ministries and so on. Thanks be to God for inspiring this kind of giving, and I pray that we will always recognize the vital relationships we have in our denomination. By the way, I also did some rough calculations on the amount of funds that have come back to this congregation over the past 22 years from the synod and ELCA. Here is what I can up with: we have received back roughly $240,000. That includes pastoral salary and housing for the first 2 years of Pastor Jeff Ruby’s ministry, a large grant during Pastor Paul Conradt-Eberlin’s ministry, a large grant for our Health Ministry starting in 2007, and my ¼ time compensation these past two years for doing stewardship ministry for the synod. We won’t always have funds like this coming back to Resurrection from the synod and ELCA, but it is true for us: when we were weak, we were strong.
What does it mean that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness? It means at least two things. First of all, it means that adversity strengthens us for service. We grow by overcoming our weaknesses.
The story is told of a Renaissance artist who made the world’s most prized vases. A visitor came to observe his method. After laboring for many weeks with one piece of clay firing it, painting it, baking it he placed it upon a pedestal for inspection. The visitor sat in awe at this thing of unspeakable beauty. But it appeared that the artist was not yet finished. In a shocking and dramatic moment, the artist lifted the vase above his head and dashed it against the floor, breaking it into a thousand shards. And then, quietly, he reconnected the pieces by painting the edges with a paint of pure gold. Each crack reflected invaluable gold. In the end, the magnificent, but imperfect, piece became the most valued piece in the collection.
Here’s a truth: adversity strengthen us in a way that a life of ease never can. I look back upon my life and realize now how much I grew after I came through a time of testing. Here is an even more important outcome: what others may have learned from seeing me or you overcome or live with our weaknesses.
Some of you will recognize these words:
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn to humbly obey…
I asked for health that I might do great things.
I was given infirmity that I might do better things…
I asked for riches, that I might be happy,
I was given poverty that I might be wise…
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of others.
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God…
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was given life that I might enjoy all things…
Paul learned a lesson so very long ago that is just as true today: In our weakness we can find our greatest strength! Thanks be to God for this gift of grace.