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2018.11.11:Faithful No Matter What: Boasting in Our Weakness

Preached at First Presbyterian Church on November 11, 2018, by Langdon “Buddy” Hubbard

Faithful No Matter What:

Boasting in Our Weakness

2 Corinthians 11:22-33

            I have heard about preachers who get together and boast about how big their congregations are, but I have never experienced that, largely because most pastors I know don’t have huge congregations.  Instead we tend to tell stories about our struggles and how we’ve messed up.  We usually end up in stiches on the floor.  Pastor’s failure stories are often hilarious.


            Like the time my good friend Doug Strong was leading the Apostles Creed in a service that was being broadcast all over Philadelphia, and he said these words of affirmation:  “We believe in Jesus Christ who was crucified by the Holy Spirit,” only to realize in that moment, and when it was too late that he had committed a terrible heresy.  That was Pontius Pilate, not the Holy Spirit, who did Jesus in.


            Or my minister friend who was happily riding his riding lawn mower one Saturday afternoon, when all of a sudden his wife came running down the hill toward him waving her arms in great alarm.  He stopped the mower.  “What’s wrong,” he asked her.  Breathlessly, she cried out, “The wedding, the wedding.  You’re supposed to be performing a wedding right now!”  He had totally forgotten.  As he told the story, we started filling in how we thought the story would end.  We chimed in, “So you threw your suit on and went directly to the church and saved the day, albeit just a few minutes late?”  “No,” he said.  “The wedding was actually an hour away, and my robe was at the church.  I took a quick shower and went as fast as I could, but got there almost two hours late.  I’ve never seen such an angry bride.  If looks could kill!”


            I remember thinking, “Boy, I’m glad that’s never happened to me.”  And then it did.  I was gardening one Saturday, when I got a call.  “Are you coming to do the graveside committal of our beloved mother?”  I looked at my watch and then my calendar.  I had totally gotten caught up in my yard work and forgotten.  I was already ten minutes late and had to drive thirty minutes to get there.  I didn’t even take a shower.  I threw on my suit and lots of cologne and deodorant and got there as quickly as I could.  By the time I arrived they had already gone back home, having done the service themselves.  I offered some apologies, and prayed for them.  They were gracious, but I felt terrible, not only for being so late but because I was really sweaty and stinky.


            Oh, the life of a pastor.  You certainly have never had those kind of experiences of utter humiliation, have you?  The looks on your faces tell me, maybe you have.  Want to tell your story.  We could all use a good laugh…at your expense, of course.


            We all struggle, hurt, and fail.  So you and I have a hint at least of what Paul means when he says, if I’m going to boast I’m going to boast of the things that show my weaknesses.  And why?  Because as he said earlier in the letter, they are what reveal that the greatness belongs to God, not me.  What we have to offer is our weakness.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve got plenty of that to go around.


            Now at first Paul sounds like he’s about to boast of how great he is, like some people do.  Speaking about what apparently is a group of Jewish Christian missionaries who are spreading some fake theology, Paul begins by comparing himself with them.  “Are they Hebrews?  So am I.  Are they Israelites?  So am I.  Are they descendants of Abraham?  So am I.  Are they minsters of Christ?  I am talking like a madman – I am a better one!”  He seems so narcissistic, and even childish.  You know the refrain, “Oh, yeah!  Well, I’m better than you.  Nana nana boo boo!”


            But then he goes in a completely different direction than we thought he was going in.  He doesn’t name drop his elite seminary where he learned the Bible, or the stellar world-renowned Bible teachers he studied under, or how many people he converted to the faith, or how many people went to his church.  No, he rather tells them about how much pain he had suffered for the sake of the gospel, all the failures and trials, where he not only didn’t persuade people to follow Jesus, but instead incited violence against himself.  He said if he was going to boast, he would boast about his weakness, and that is exactly what he did.


            He told them about how he had been through more problems than most people, and he named them: hard labors, imprisonments, countless floggings, often nearly to the point of death, the five times he received 39 lashes, the three times he was beaten with rods, the time he was stoned (you know what I mean, with real stones), the time he was shipwrecked, the night and a day he was adrift at sea, all the long journeys he went on, in which he was in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from his own people, danger from the Gentiles (that is, non-Jews), danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters, times of toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked,   and on top of it all daily pressure from his anxiety over the churches and how they were doing.


            “Who is weak, and I am not weak?  Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?  If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” Because those are the things that show not how great I am but how great God is.  It’s not about me.  It’s never about me.  It’s about God.  What entices people to the faith is not by showing them how great I am, but in showing them how great God is, and how God is always there even in the most difficult times.  It isn’t my success that convinces people of God’s greatness, but my willingness to keep my faith and hope alive in all times and in all places, no matter what.  You see, our great achievements don’t help people get closer to God, or find hope to help them through the difficult times of life.  What they want to hear from us is that we went through the same kind of pain and suffering they are going through and we made it, and so can they.  They want to be able to believe that God is faithful at all times and in all places.  And that’s the kind of witness Paul gave to the people in Corinth. 


            One of my favorite books by Henri Nouwen is The Wounded Healer (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1979).  In this book he tells us how people don’t want to hear about our triumphs or greatness.  The people who go around telling us how great they are, how they are the best, how they have all the answers, are the least helpful people in helping us find our hope and healing and strength.  They are too far removed from us and above us, or as we often suspect, they simply aren’t telling the truth.  What we need are wounded healers, the people who have faced life as it really is, have been broken down by it, and found the way back up.  We learn more from our failures and the failures of others than we do from our successes and the successes of others.  We need people who give witness to the power of faith in God to help us rise up.  And that’s just what Paul gives them.  He boasts in his weaknesses, because it is only God who could rescue him, and it is only God who can rescue us.


            History has given us plenty of examples of people who found a deeper faith through their failures and wounds from life.  Like John Perkins, an African American man who was beaten almost to death by white police officers, leading him to hate white people with a vengeance until his daughter came to know Jesus and his amazing love that showed him that love is stronger than hate.


            Or like, Clarence and Florence Jordan, who were trying to bring black and white people together in Americus, Georgia in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, and then one night someone called them up and told them they were coming to kill them that night.  A car drove up and Clarence was scared, but Florence told him to go back to sleep.  There wasn’t anything they could do to them ultimately; they belonged to Jesus.  He found faith from his wife, and went back to sleep, and the car drove on.


            Or like Martin Luther King, whose life and home were threatened, and he felt like giving up on the Civil Rights movement until he felt the presence of Jesus telling him to keep on for the sake of truth, and justice, and righteousness.  He found a deep peace that night and went to sleep.  The next day they bombed his home, but he didn’t feel afraid any more. He found faith that night, and he passed it on to all those who might be afraid.  He looked death in the face and laughed, and with God’s help changed the world. 


            Or like Rosa Parks, who decided one day she wasn’t giving in to racism any more, and stayed in her seat on the bus when told to move, was arrested, and she launched a movement of faith that conquered fear, and inspired others to follow her inspiration.


            We could name so many other faithful people who faced adversity and rose up in faith.  And we don’t have to look far.  You have your own stories of faith giving you strength to carry on.  We need to hear them; we need you to share them.  Because sometimes our faith gets shaky and we forget that’s true for everyone at some point.  We can’t make it through this life alone.  We need some encouragement.  We need to hear the stories of how other people have found faith in tough times.


            On Friday I received a text from a young woman who was struggling.  She needed help.  I texted another young woman who I knew had struggled with the same things and found a way through.  I connected them and they are now helping each other.  That’s how it works, this life of faith.  We just keep passing on the good news of the help and hope we have found.


            A church is at its healthiest not when everyone’s got it all together, but when people share with each other out of their brokenness how they found faith and the presence of God in the midst of their darkest moments.  That’s what inspires us.


            Do you sometimes feel so weak?  And in those low moments have you reached out to God for help?  And have you experienced the presence of God lifting you up?  Then you are just the person God needs to help someone else.  We’re all a bunch of wounded people with the potential that in God’s hands we may also be wounded healers, offering to others the faith we have found that gets us through, at all times and places, no matter what.