This sermon was preached at Saint Oswald’s Parkside by the Revd Canon Bill Goodes on Sunday, 4 July, 2021. (Pentecost 6B)
“for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” II Corinthians 12:10
I don’t know whether you follow the adventures of Hagar the Horrible in the comic sections of The Advertiser, but when I came home from Liturgy Planning on Tuesday after reflecting on the readings for today I found Hagar’s troop under imminent threat of annihilation, with Lucky Eddie, the “clown” character of the series, saying, “The tension is too much for me; I am about to throw up”. When the opposing troops responded “Yuck” and turned to flee, Eddie said, “it looks like my weakness was a strength!”
Todays readings invite us to give some attention to strength and weakness.
The Old Testament reading continues the episodes recorded in the books named for Samuel, the last of the prophet-rulers. Remember last week we heard David lamenting the death of Saul and how the mighty had fallen in the midst of the battle. There has been a bit of a power struggle going on in the next few chapters, but today we find David, who had lived the life of a fugitive under Saul’s reign, being acknowledged as king, first by the tribe of Judah in the south, and finally by the other tribes. By this recognition, David was able to rule over the whole of the Israelite people, thus living out his anointing by God through Samuel. His conquest of the hill-fortress of Jebus is skipped over by our lectionary, but it was that conquest that made it possible for him to establish a politically advantageous new capital city named “Jerusalem”, “Jahweh is our peace” belonging to neither southern and northern tribes.
The section today sums up David’s established strength with the words, “David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.”
[That strength was reflected in the Psalm which noted the “sure defence” that God provided on Mount Zion and compared that with the sad fate of “the kings of the earth” trembling and in anguish at the strength of those who relied on the Lord of Hosts.]
In the New Testament reading Paul gives a rather oblique account of his spiritual enlightenment “caught up to the third heaven” and speaks of the strength that was accorded him by hearing words “that mortals are not permitted to utter”. And yet, in spite of the boasting that he (apparently reluctantly) had been doing in the earlier chapters of this letter, he declined to boast about this spiritual power that had been given him. Rather, he says, he will boast about his weaknesses. He speaks about the “thorn in the flesh” that torments him, and describes that as God’s gift to prevent him from being too elated, or puffed up through his spiritual endowments. Scholars have made conjectures about what that “thorn” might be, perhaps the weakness of his eyesight, or some other recurring ailment — we need only to understand that it was something that hindered his work, and weakened his public image.
The Gospel reading shows Jesus in his home town, where he “could do no deed of power”. Remember the power that he had demonstrated so spectacularly with the demon-possessed man at Gadara, or calming the storm on the lake, or healing Jairus’s daughter and the woman with the haemorrhages? And those deeds of power just in chapter 5! Yet here he is in Chapter 6 in his home town unable to do more than “lay hands on a few sick people and cure them”! Here instead, the people of his home town “took offence at him”. “Where did this man get all this?” they demanded. They knew where he came from, they knew his brothers and sisters, they knew that his father was the carpenter, all his weaknesses — he couldn’t possibly be what other people saw in him, and what his teaching there in the synagogue suggested about himself.
However, when he left his home town, it seems that his strength was again able to be exercised, as he went about in the villages teaching and sent twelve representatives out armed with his power to cast out demons, anoint many sick people with oil and to cure them.
So what turns weakness into strength? David gains strength through the decision of people to support him, but more importantly, because “God was with him”. Paul identifies “grace” as what makes the difference. “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness”. This freely-given gift from God, his “gracious” provision for us, is what makes the difference.
[John Wesley, in the hymn that we reflected on to begin the service, thought of that grace operating in personal terms. “Plenteous grace with thee is found: grace to cover all my sins”. He is inviting us to recognize the weakness that comes when we sin against God, and follow our own way, and then to see God’s grace in Jesus Christ, “Lover of my soul” working to “cover”, do away with that weakness and make us strong in purity of life.
That is one aspect of our experience of grace turning weakness into strength. However, there is also the corporate one.]
When we look around this church building, erected over a century ago “to the greater glory of God” and to be the focus of Anglican church life in this district, some of us will think first of all of its imperfections — a roof that leaks in heavy rain, entrance doors that are rotting, inefficient heating, uncomfortable seats, but we recognize also that it stands solid and impressive as a sign of God’s presence among the residences and businesses of the area. We may regret that you can often not see it easily because all the parked cars, or tall apartment buildings, but it is here, a significant part of the Parkside community.
But as we look around at what and who the building contains, we may come to reflect that we don’t have any problem exercising social distancing — there is plenty of space for everyone who comes. But some may remember days when finding a seat was rather more difficult, and when the parish could field its own football team! There have been other times since the early days, when the number of people attending was rather larger. We may remember times in the parish’s history when the same Parish Priest ministered here over many years. Was that when the Parish was strong?
Or thinking even more corporately, there have been periods in history when the Church has had a dominant position in society, and been seen to be among the “ruling” classes. Newspapers would report Church sermons verbatim in their daily news columns. The Churches would be consulted about significant policy changes in their communities. Clergy were respected, at least for their office. Those were the “glory” days of the Church, and sometimes we look back and wonder whether we will ever be “strong” again.
“My grace is sufficient for you” God said to Paul, and he says that to succeeding generations down to our own. Grace, freely given, will enable us to continue our loyalty to this gracious God, and enable us to recognize where God is at work around us, and where we might cooperate. May the good God pour that grace into us and turn weakness into strength.