Sermon: Choosing Weakness over Strength

“A Peculiar People: Choosing Weakness over Strength”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
September 8, 2019

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.

2 Corinthians 12:8-10
“Three times I appealed to the Lord about my affliction, that it would leave me, but God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power achieves full strength in weakness.’ So, I will 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.”

Today we begin a fall sermon series called “A Peculiar People.” The title of this series comes from 1 Peter 2:9, where in the King James Version of the Bible the author describes Jesus’ followers as “a peculiar people.” Back when the King James Version was written, “peculiar” meant “distinguished” or “special” – and indeed, the way other versions translate the Greek word used here is that we’re “God’s very own people,” “people who belong to God.” We are called to be God’s own particular folks, in other words – but I’ve kept the translation “peculiar” because it also means we’re called to be a little weird! In this series we’ll take a look at how God often invites us, the people who belong to God, to choose attitudes and actions that are at odds with the culture around us – and how the challenge of living up to such peculiarity can enrich our lives and our church in incredible ways.

We’re starting off by talking about weakness. Weakness is not something encouraged or prized by our culture; in fact it’s something shamed out of us from the time we scrape our knees as little children: “Toughen up, it’s nothing to cry about.” This message of weakness as shameful continues through school, where kids who telegraph vulnerability get picked on, and into the workforce, where letting weakness show opens the door to a competitor vying for your position. No one wants to admit that we can’t handle something by ourselves, that we need help or that behind closed doors our lives don’t match up to everyone else’s seemingly idyllic experience. Whether it’s a pair of extra hands for a chore or errand, another set of eyes on a work project, or a shoulder to cry on when life is overwhelming, we’re socialized to shoulder the burden alone and pretend it’s all okay.

Yet here is Paul, not only being glad for his weakness, but boasting about it, even going so far as to claim that it’s through his weaknesses that Jesus’ power is most at work in his life.

Make no mistake, Paul’s culture wasn’t any more welcoming to weakness than ours; in fact, if anything, it was more hostile to it. Ancient Greco-Roman culture lauded those who demonstrated their strength through athletic feats, commanding oratory, military might or economic prowess. Paul, an itinerant preacher who scraped together a living by making tents, was also likely an unassuming speaker and, scholars think, rather unimpressive in person. He is writing to the church in Corinth trying to wrest back theological authority from other, more charismatic apostles who are trying to take his place and alter his message about Jesus. He has a lot to lose by appearing anything less than polished, charismatic, and in control. But he knows something the Corinthians, Greco-Romans to their core, appear not to.

Last week while we waited for kindergarten to start, we took Davie and a friend to the beach. The girls were trying to float on their backs in the shallow water, asking me to hold my hands under them as a safety net. I had explained how it was much easier to float in saltwater than in the bathtub or even the pool, and that they would need to stretch themselves out as far and as flat as they could go. But every time they were about to achieve optimum horizontal expansion, their reflexes would take over and they would curl up in a ball and sink. 

It made me think about how counterintuitive it is, for ancient Greco-Romans and modern day Americans alike, to expose ourselves like that: to open our most vulnerable places to the wide sky above us, unable to see whatever might be lurking in the water beneath us – but how it is our very willingness to spread out and open up that lets us float. It turns out that if you want to be held up by the sea, you have to embrace being vulnerable. 

Researcher and best-selling author Dr. Brené Brown gave a TedTalk on the subject of vulnerability that has been watched over 11 million times. It’s really excellent – I highly recommend a listen it if you haven’t seen it, or re-watching it if you have.

In her talk, Brené Brown tells about the thousands of people she has interviewed over the years, and how she has pored over their stories to try to discover a data-driven pattern about what bolsters human connection – something we all inherently need – and what stifles it. She found that the thing that keeps us from connecting with others is simply the fear that we aren’t worthy of connection – a fear that if people saw our imperfections, our weaknesses, if they saw us for who we really are, they would reject us. From this perspective, vulnerability is something to be avoided at all costs, because it exposes our weak places, and if our weak places are exposed, we’ll get hurt. Vulnerability literally means “woundability” – the ability to be hurt.

Paradoxically, though, Brené Brown also found that those who have the least amount of shame around their weaknesses – the least fear that they might be rejected – are the people who “fully embrace [their] vulnerability,” their weak places. They’re also the people with the greatest sense of connection with others, the most powerful sense of love and belonging. These people “didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable,” says Brené, but neither “did they really talk about it being excruciating” the way we all imagine it to be. “They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, ‘I love you’ first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram, [the] willing[ness] to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this [vulnerability] was fundamental.”  They had learned, Brené decided, that “in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen” – even, especially, if it means that all our faults and imperfections and weaknesses are on display.

“I know that vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness,” she says, “but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”

I count it among one of the highest privileges of my calling as your pastor that you all are willing to share your “weaknesses” with me, that you are vulnerable with me: that you talk about diagnoses, marital struggles, worries about your kids, profound and lingering sadness over loss, and even the fear that you might not be worthy of love – not if people could really see who you are. I know from my own “weak” places that it feels like you must be the only person carrying such a load, the only one hiding shameful failures or unhappy secrets or a less than perfect life. But one of the advantages of being a pastor is that I can see that isolating, connection-destroying lie for what it is, because I see how many of you – how many of us – struggle with similar problems. 

I fervently hope you will keep coming to me to shine a light on your struggles, because those moments are where the healing begins, where I get to my favorite part of my job: reminding you that yes, you are worthy, worthy of belonging and connection, and yes, God loves you no matter what, unendingly and with great affection. 

But I hope you will also consider sharing those tender places more widely, too. Our reflex is to bear them privately, afraid of rejection, instead of naming them aloud, without shame. Yet that is exactly where the magic happens, when we start to say, “I’m going through a hard time,” or “I did something I regret,” because that’s when other people start to say, “me too, I’ve been there too.” That is where we all begin to feel less alone, to recover some of that sense of worthiness, love, and belonging we’re all hard-wired to need. 

The writer of Ecclesiastes, from whence this morning’s Hebrew scripture comes, is said to be Solomon, the wisest king in Israel’s history. Here’s what he said: “Two are better than one…For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.” In his divinely gifted wisdom, he knew that there is no getting around the fact that we all, at some point, fall. We all, at some point, find ourselves alone and shivering. We all, at some point, find ourselves set upon by an enemy or situation too hard to withstand. And the answer, wise Solomon writes, is not, “One is better than two, for if the one falls, no one will see the fall.” It’s not to keep ourselves isolated so no one else will know we’re struggling. The answer, he says, is to share the struggle with someone else. To find a friend, a community, that will walk alongside you and hold you up when you fall.

That’s because, when we are willing to share these tender, wound-able places with each other, to shine a light on all the things that society would rather pretend don’t exist, that’s where the power of Christ dwells most fully in us – in the places where we’re willing to open ourselves to the wide sky above and be held up by the ocean of God’s love. 

Do you know what the Greek word we translate as “dwell” – “Christ dwells among us” – actually means? It means that “pitch one’s tent.” Contrary to being a source of shame or rejection, our weak places are the very location Jesus comes to pitch his tent, to spread his banner over us, to make his home in us. If we’re perfect – or if we act like it – we keep Jesus out. We stay walled up and dark inside. But if we let our imperfections show, we invite Jesus to dwell within us. As Leonard Cohen famously said, “The cracks are where the light gets in.” 

Today, on Regathering Sunday, I want to encourage us to think about how we as a church might become more vulnerable in the coming year, how we might become weaker, in Paul’s terminology – how we might free ourselves from the illusion that strength comes from the ability to tough it out alone. How can we invite someone else into our tender, wound-able places? How can we invite Jesus into them? Might we dare to share our struggles with a friend at coffee hour, or call up our deacon and ask for help when things get overwhelming? Might we dare to say we can’t sleep at night thinking about the hurts of the world, and come together to do something about even just one of them?

At Bible study this past week, we closed with prayer as we always do. I like to ask “How can we pray for you?” as a way to invite us into vulnerability, as a way to draw us closer to God and each other. And that night, one of the participants asked for prayers because earlier in the day they had said something they wished they hadn’t, something they immediately wished they could take back – something they had said once, years ago, and promised themselves that they would never say again. I imagine that it took a lot of courage to admit, in a room full of fellow Christians – the Bible study-attending-kind, no less – that this person had intentionally, if regretfully, said something that harmed another person. It would probably have been easier to keep silent about it – God hears our prayers either way, of course – than to share something that opened this person up to judgment. 

But instead of looks of judgment, there were heads nodding. As we prayed I found myself saying, “We’ve all been there, God.” Rather than shaming this person, rejecting them and making them feel unworthy of our love or belonging in this Christian community, our compassion was ignited. And we drew closer together for having acknowledged a common weakness, a common place where we needed Jesus  to buoy us up on the wide open sea, to shine the light through our cracks.  

“My grace is sufficient for you,” says God, “for it’s in weakness that my power comes to full strength.” May it be so. Amen.