David is a relative of a family in our fellowship.
The Holy Weakness of God
2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13
When I was a teenager, my time overwhelmingly revolved around two activities: academics and athletics, around earning top marks on exams and around running faster than my competitors on the track. When I wasn’t running, I was studying. When I wasn’t studying, I was running. But what began as passions that brought me deep meaning and joy became something of a trap. The more gold medals I won, the more academic honors I achieved, the less free I was to enjoy either.
And so, in perhaps the only wise decision I ever made as an adolescent, I decided on a lark to sign up for a school course in Chorus, even though I had zero ability, and was in fact, profoundly petrified of singing in front of people. See, I grew up in a church in the rural American South that believed using musical instruments in worship was a sin. That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy singing. We certainly did. It’s just that without the aid of a well-tuned piano or guitar, we often embodied — with marked emphasis — the Psalmist’s declaration to make a “joyful noise unto the Lord.”
As a result, the musical notes that took root in my soul at a young age were shaped primarily by the deep twangy accents of the rural Appalachian mountain communities in which I was reared. And every note that came out of my mouth bore that heritage, and when I sang, it was either so sharp it could cut glass or so flat it could collect water.
So, I walked into my first day of Chorus class as a 16-year-old, completely accustomed to being the star, and therefore completely unprepared and completely daunted.
Now, I’d like to tell you that, with proper training, I blossomed after that year of Chorus into a honey-tongued singer, that I sang a moving solo at our end-of-year concert, that I learned to read musical notation with some skill, or that I at least conquered my fear of singing in public. Especially coming here to Wales, this land of song, whose traditions around singing and music are so rich, profound, and well-known, I would love to stand up here and impress you all by singing a hymn with perfect pitch or to sit down at the piano and share music from my part of the world.
But alas, none of that would be true. I still can’t read music and just this past Easter, when I had to chant the early morning Easter Vigil service, I have never, ever been more terrified in my life, and I have never, ever, ever been closer to renouncing my ordination vows and taking up atheism than in the moments before that service began.
Even though I didn’t transform into powerful singer, I still treasure those two years in Chorus as a teenager. Because I think it was my time there, singing slightly off-key and in the background, the weakest member of the ensemble, that I came closest as a young adolescent to touching the divine image in my own soul, because it was the only time I willingly and whole-heartedly became the weakest one in the room.
Much like God does.
That’s what I think St. Paul is getting at today in our Epistle. See, Paul is struggling with the Corinthian church. They think he’s not so impressive, not quite as powerful as some of the other preachers going around, and Paul seems to want desperately to be one of the cool kids or at least to defend his own ministry. So with at times biting sarcasm, he destroys their reasoning by offering not a litany of his accomplishments but a resume of all his perceived failures and weaknesses, like the number of times because of his preaching, he’s been arrested, run out of town, or beaten up. But in the midst of this withering, self-deprecating critique, Paul unexpectedly offers an honest glimpse of his true vulnerabilities and even insecurities. He’s been given a thorn, he writes, a weakness, a place of pain, and so he begs God to take away his weakness. But he doesn’t really get the answer he’s hoping for.
Rather than waving away his weakness, God tells him that grace is sufficient.
And, in fact, power is made perfect in weakness.
Now, often times, I’ve heard folks explain that essentially this means that our weakness helps us to discover some hidden strength, that weakness tempers us like steel, that it causes us to rely on God, and thus, with God’s help, we become stronger and more powerful than we could ever imagine. It’s the theological equivalent of the classic hero’s journey, in which the protagonist experiences a devastating or humbling setback only to emerge wiser and with renewed vigor in order to crush their enemies.
But I don’t think that’s what this passage is really attempting to communicate, because I don’t think that God is in the business of making us more powerful.
Instead, to suggest that power is made perfect in weakness is to suggest that power, by its very nature, is imperfect and incomplete. And the more power any person or society accumulates, or even seeks — whether through wealth, might, or even well-intentioned moral or empathic influence, like say, a priest — the more incomplete and imperfect they become. It’s counterintuitive at first glance. As humans we are obsessed with influence, with power, and with being able to shape the world around us into an image we like, all as a way to make us feel safer and more secure.
But power is fundamentally flawed, because of what it does to our souls. Because we are made in God’s image, and God’s nature is not one of power but one of love.
Power surgically and insidiously separates us from our ability to love, often without us even realizing it. It’s religious wisdom that even the world of science is beginning to support. Modern researchers have found that, in most situations, people rise to power in communities not through domination or oppression, but primarily through empathy, relationships, sharing, and other prosocial behavior. But in his book, The Power Paradox, researcher Dacher Keltner has found that as soon as people begin to gain — or even feel more powerful — they rather quickly begin to lose the very empathy that secured their power in the first place.
In one experiment, Keltner took two groups of people. In one, he reminded them of their comparative power to others. In the second, he reminded them of their comparative lack, their societal weakness. What he found was striking. Those who were reminded of their power completely lost their ability to read emotions when shown people’s facial expressions. Another study asked people to think about another person’s daily life. For those who come from more privileged or powerful backgrounds, researchers found that the empathy networks in their brains literally were asleep, shutdown.
It’s built into our biology. The more power people experience the less they care about others.
Power short-circuits our capacity for empathy. It hot-wires our brains and steals our humanity.
It bears mentioning that right now this is happening on an unfortunately grand stage in my own country whose president is demonstrably obsessed with power and mortally afraid of weakness. Perhaps such a dynamic might explain, though not at all excuse, some of the inhuman practices, policies and rhetoric we’ve seen coming from the White House these past two years.
Probably the best example of this mentality came from the president’s annual speech to the U.S. Congress in January when he declared that the “surest way to conflict is weakness, and unmatched power is the surest means to our true and great defense.”
But power is actually made perfect in weakness.
It seems Lord Acton’s well-worn aphorism might well stand the test of time, in light of religious wisdom, scientific evidence, and current political experience.
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
I’d even go a bit further. It’s not just that power corrupts. It’s deeper, more fundamental than that. Power cuts us off from each other, from the image of God within us. Power is actually contrary to our true nature, to how God created us, to who God really is.
God is not powerful. At least not in the ways we have tended to define power, as self-sufficiency, as controlling one’s own fate, as molding the world to suit one’s own needs. Rather God, time and again, has revealed God’s self not through power, but through foolishness, vulnerability, dependence, and the kind of self-emptying love that can only reach out in the midst of these. In fact, I believe the movement of God, the overarching biblical narrative, is one of God moving away from divine power and into holy weakness through love.
And in a world whose politics tend towards the belief that might makes it right to conquer the weakest, whose science tends to favor the survival of the fittest and the extinction of the weakest, and whose Christian religion is often warped to believe that God only helps those who can help themselves, the revelation of God’s holy weakness really is the very best of news.
It often shows up when you least expect it. In the story of Noah and the Great Flood, when God puts the rainbow in the sky, the Hebrew makes it clear that God is literally hanging up a warrior’s bow in the sky, the same bow that sliced through the heavens and the earth and that covered creation in tumultuous floods. The bow, hung upside down and out of reach in the sky, serves as a reminder to humanity — and to God — that God has traded this kind of power for covenant and relationship with all creation.
Throughout Hebrew Scripture, we see a curious dance of a God who gets angry, threatens, and tiptoes to the edge of divine vengeance with the people of Israel, but then interrupts God’s self, sometimes in the middle of an angry rant, with the reminder that the divine nature is one of unfailing and unceasing love and forgiveness.
And, of course, in Jesus, we see the full revelation of God’s holy weakness through love and vulnerability, in which God empties God’s self into the human form of a fragile infant, helplessly dependent on two inexperienced, ostracized parents. In Jesus, we see one who repeatedly refuses the temptation to power, first in the 40 days in the wilderness with the devil, then in Peter’s temptation that Jesus could avoid suffering and pain by remaining in Galilee or on the mountaintop of transfiguration, and finally, by refusing the violent revolution of power when his disciple takes up the sword against a garrison of police and soldiers in the Garden of Gethsemane to prevent our Lord’s arrest and march to crucifixion.
The seductive offer of power is never far from Jesus, the temptation to bypass the way of weakness — and its suffering, vulnerability, empathy, and love — and instead to impose the Reign of God by force like a petty tyrant.
It’s why when read today’s gospel, about Jesus’ inability to do “deeds of power” in his hometown, I don’t consider so much a criticism of them as it is a gift to our Lord. It’s a reminder — whether intentional or not — that Jesus’ work wasn’t ultimately about doing “deeds of power,” but about ushering in a new way of the world — not one of power but one in which the vulnerable love of God sets people free to love and to heal each other and the world. Perhaps that’s why, immediately after his own power is checked by his hometown, Jesus picks up the pattern of God we see throughout scripture, the pattern of sharing and giving to others. He sends out his disciples to do the work of healing and sharing of the Reign of God, while he stays behind. He makes the Reign of God, the kingdom of God, not just about himself, but about all those following him, too. He distributes his power, rather than keep it solely for himself. In fact, throughout his ministry, Jesus goes on to become rather ambivalent, even reluctant, to perform such miracles, signs, and deeds of power in his public ministry.
But it is only through his death that he at last and finally resists the temptation to power, completely and perfectly. It is only through his death that he shows the way of God, the nature of God, the revelation of God is truly one of holy weakness through love.
“It is finished,” Jesus declares in his last breaths, hanging on the cross.
Or more accurately translated in the Greek, “It is accomplished.”
“It is completed.”
“It is perfected.”
And there it is.
Power being made perfect through weakness.
The same word Jesus cries out on the cross when he declares it is finished is the same word God speaks to Paul in the epistle today.
And I love the idea that God is echoing Jesus’ final statement in a way, his final revelation to the world, to Paul in his own time of need. It’s a reminder that what we need in this world, in the midst of conflict, strife, and tragedy, isn’t more power to fix, to control, or to defeat our enemies, but more holy weakness, more vulnerability, more self-emptying love for the world, including our enemies.
That was ultimately the work of God and the purpose of the Incarnation: for God to become weak, to destroy power by revealing its fundamentally imperfect state. The Incarnation was about disarming of divine power, and thus completing it, finishing it, perfecting it, and bringing it to an end. It was accomplished when the power of God was executed on a cross by the Powers that Be who believed in peace through unmatched power, the Pax Romana.
It’s enough for me to begin to wonder, after a nudge from my dear cousin John a few weeks back, whether power and love can truly coexist. Power tends to insulate us from pain. It’s how we protect ourselves from the wounds of the world and our own souls. Power creates a small state of mind, full of fear, and the more power we acquire, the more we lose sight our humanity and the image of God in which we are created.
Love, on the other hand, opens us up to pain. It’s how we become vulnerable to others and connect to the places of pain in the world. Love is an expanse state, full of courage. The more we love, the greater capacity we find within ourselves to love. And it is our weakness, not our power, that leads us to love, leads us to reach out to others, into interdependence, and to the truth that we really can’t make it all on our own.
I know I can’t. I have any number of weaknesses and shortcomings that I’d rather not share during my first time preaching here, but in a very small way, it’s one reason that, in spite of dreading it, I’m rather thankful I’m required to sing and to chant — often solo and a cappella — in the Anglican church.
Even though it makes me question my faith and turns my stomach into knots, I hold onto my experience of weakness when I sing, not to wallow in self-pity but as a symbol and an icon about the life I’m called to as Christian, a life of holy weakness through love.
I think it’s why I find myself drawn to popular singers like Levon Helm or Leonard Cohen whose voices aren’t nearly pristine or powerful, but have a certain shredded or cracked quality to them, whose songs are touched by a similar weakness as my own voice was in Chorus as a teenager.
Cohen’s song, “Anthem” probably more than anything else, comes closest to summing up what I’ve been preaching about for the last 20 minutes, the narrative arc of Scripture, Paul’s sentiment, Christ’s incarnation, and the holy weakness of God.
His powerful verse is made perfect by the weakness of his voice when he sings, “Ring the bells that still ring. Forget your perfect offering,” Cohen sings in his rough, flat-tones. “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
It is finished. Power is made perfect in weakness. There’s a crack in everything. In you. In me. This world. My singing voice, too. But thanks be to God, for it. Because that’s the only way the light gets in.
See, it’s not that when we are weak, we finally become powerful through the might of God. It’s that when we are weak, we are actually most like God, closest to God’s very nature of Love, and if we are lucky, we might just find the light and glory of God seeping into and shining forth from us.