Sermon: Elated

Plumeria blossoms

July 4, 2021

2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

by Eric Anderson

The plumeria was cast down. Somewhat literally, in fact. The tree itself was standing, but all its flowers and all its leaves had long since released their hold on its branches and fallen sadly to the ground.

The tree looked down at the rising shoots of hibiscus plants below. They bristled with green leaves. They nodded in the breeze with brightly colored flowers. It seemed that for every blossom that faded and went to seed, another two buds would form and flower.

To put it succinctly, the plumeria was jealous.

“Why can’t I have leaves all the time?” it asked the wind. “Why can’t I have blossoms all the time?” it asked the birds.

The wind might have known, but it blew away without answering. The birds merely fluffed their feathers while they rested on the plumeria branches, then they flew away. To be honest, I’m not sure they understood the question.

The plumeria spent the winter going back and forth between jealousy and depression. It hardly seemed fair that these small plants grew leaves and blossoms like that, and a big tree – well, big compared to the hibiscus – had to stand stark and gray.

When spring came, the plumeria rather sadly shook out its new leaves. Yes, they were broad and deep green, but they grew so oddly from its branches ends rather than all along the stems like the hibiscus. The buds took form as well, standing as snowy spikes for a day or two, then opening into those distinctive petals in white and gold. It made a good show, but was it as pretty as the hibiscus? The plumeria in its sadness thought not.

Below it, the plumeria heard the hibiscus rustling. It thought they were laughing. But the breeze which had had nothing to say months before picked up the sound from below and carried it up so the plumeria could hear clearly.

The hibiscus were awed.

“Do you see that crystal white?”

“Do you see those shades of gold?”

“Can you smell that scent in the night?”

“Wow. Wow. Wow.”

The plumeria has to rest itself each year, shedding its leaves and its flowers to stand gray beneath the sun. But when its growth returns in spring, even the hibiscus raise their voices in admiration.

Power is made perfect in weakness.

That is not, shall we say, a terribly American way of looking at the world. Luke A. Powery writes for the, “Our glamorous culture grasps for fame, prestige, and power as we climb up the ladder of success, but Christianity embraces weakness. Paul realizes that God works with us when we are weak and needy, or, as Walter Brueggemann says, ‘Where life is not rent [torn apart or wrecked], the God of Israel is not inclined to be present.’”

Rather than “Power is made perfect in weakness,” we might prefer phrases like, “Power is made perfect in preparation,” or “Power is made perfect in protest,” or “Power is made perfect in resources,” or “Power is made perfect in productivity.” I’m sure you can think of ways you might like that sentence to go.

If it has to have some relationship to weakness, though, how about ways to compensate for or to address our human weaknesses, such as, “Power is made perfect in a nutritious meal,” “Power is made perfect in education,” or “Power is made perfect in a sensible program of exercise”? At this point in my life, career, and this global pandemic, I would be inclined to favor, “Power is made perfect in a really long nap.”

But… that’s not what Paul said.

Paul was engaged in a contest, a contest with other teachers in the Christian movement, teachers whose message conflicted with his own in pretty serious ways. Paul further suspected these other teachers were taking advantage of the Corinthians’ hospitality, were boasting about their authority, and were abusing some of the people in the church. In chapter 11 Paul compared his own record as an apostle with theirs, saying that in many ways he was their equal, and in some ways – “with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death” – a better one.

Here in chapter twelve, Paul reveals something that God had spoken to him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Most of history, I’m sorry to say, argues that power is made perfect not in weakness, but in violence. Human beings have sought resolution to disputes over and over again in fistfights and assaults, in gangs and in family feuds, and at the level of nations in war. Some of those disputes might have been resolvable. Others, of the “I want it so we’ll take it” variety, were not. When is power made perfect in weakness?

Well. There’s India. It was a nonviolent movement, not an armed rebellion, that ended British rule over India in 1947. Lest we get too exalted by that, Mahatma Gandhi launched the first non co-operation movement in 1920. It took twenty-seven years to attain independence.

There’s the welfare of Americans of African descent in the United States. On this anniversary of the nation’s Declaration of Independence, we have to confess that paragraphs condemning the slave trade and slavery itself were eliminated from the document before it could be approved by the Second Continental Congress in 1776. We have to confess that the Constitution denied enslaved persons the vote while simultaneously giving expanded voting power to slave owners with the infamous three-fifths rule in the original US Constitution. The deadliest conflict of the United States ended legal slavery, but failure to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteeing the right to vote regardless of race meant that African Americans were routinely prevented from registering or voting until the 1960s, when a leader inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and the stories of Exodus took up non-violent means to win civil rights for black Americans. Like Gandhi himself, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated for his efforts.

With the Voting Rights Act further gutted by the Supreme Court this week, has the need for nonviolent resistance, for power made perfect in what appears to be weakness, risen once more?

In the COVID-19 pandemic, we have had a year and more of feeling powerless. Israel Kamudzandu writes at Working Preacher, “The years 2020-2021 have indeed brought a ‘thorn in the flesh,’ not just to one person, but the entire global world. The point of God’s intentionality is challenging and daunting, yet the apostle Paul sees it as a sacred space.”

Weakness… as a sacred space.

Strength does not impel us to seek the aid of God. When I’m strong, I’m fine. I’ve got this. I might need a nap, but I’m ready for anything later this afternoon. No problem. Weakness, however, can invite us to seek God, to reach out, as I might have put it last week. In a reflection on this text, members of the Taize Community wrote, “For we say to ourselves: ‘If others see what is broken in me, they will not love me.’ In Jesus, especially in the way he welcomed those who were considered to be weak in society, and finally by giving his life on the cross, we understand that God uses the door of vulnerability to enter the world. God is vulnerable because God is love. Anyone who has decided to love knows that to love means to become vulnerable. In Jesus, we understand that God is the most vulnerable of us all.”

I have to say that in my life, when I’ve known my weakness and shared my vulnerability, I have known affection and support and comfort. When I’ve known my weakness and not shared my vulnerability, well, I’ve run dry. When I’ve not known my weakness and consequently not shared it, I’ve collapsed entirely.

I would venture to guess that Paul wrote from similar experiences, given how his life had gone.

In Second Corinthians, Paul didn’t write from a sense of elation. He wrote with a grim determination to head off, as best he could, if he could, to the extent he could, the Corinthian church from dissension, division, and collapse. Despite the temptation, he didn’t bully but cajoled; he didn’t command but he argued; he didn’t commend himself (much; Paul struggled with his ego) but emphasized his weakness; he didn’t praise himself but praised Christ.

Our strengths are real, but they are also curtains that obscure the real strength of God that lies beneath. Our strengths are beneficial, but they pale in comparison with the effectiveness that God’s strengths provide. Our strengths are true, but the truth of our weakness displays the greater truth of God that can shine forth unobscured when we lay those strengths aside.

Then might we truly be elated.


Watch the Recorded Sermon

The video above contains the entire worship service of July 4, 2021. Clicking “Play” will jump to the beginning of the sermon.

One hopes that in this example of Pastor Eric’s weakness – his inability to stick precisely to the text – the Holy Spirit has manifested.

Photo by Eric Anderson

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on July 4, 2021

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