Monday, January 30, 2017

The Grace in Weakness

“For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.”  1 Cor. 1:25

The Reverend Luther Zeigler
4A Epiphany – January 29, 2017
         Let us pray: Gracious and loving God, who chose what is foolish to shame the wise and what is weak to shame the strong, save us from the vanities of this world and the conceits of our own minds, so that we might find grace in weakness and become fools for your love’s sake. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
         That prayer, of course, is based upon today’s epistle lesson, in which St. Paul reminds us that what the world perceives to be weakness and foolishness is often a sign of God’s grace.  I will always associate St. Paul’s words with a story from my days as a middle school chaplain.  There was a young boy – I’ll call him Jimmy – who was then in seventh grade and one of my few students who seemed genuinely interested in chapel.  Jimmy often helped me with worship in quiet ways – as an acolyte, or usher, or crucifer – but his real dream was to stand up in front of everyone and proudly and articulately read one of the lessons.  The trouble was that Jimmy had a bit of a stutter; and for that reason, he was mortified about speaking in public, and always declined to serve as a reader, much as he wanted to.
         I felt torn about the issue, because on the one hand, I certainly never wanted to put Jimmy in a position of embarrassment; yet, on the other, I desperately wanted to help him overcome his fear so that he could fulfill his deep desire to read the Scriptures aloud with clarity and confidence. Uncertain how to proceed, one day over lunch in the faculty room, I sought the advice of a friend and colleague, Sarah, who also happened to be Jimmy’s history teacher. I have a thought, Sarah said:  I’m currently doing a unit on World War II and my intention next week is to show the class the (then-recently released) movie, The King’s Speech, which, Sarah said, may make enough of an impression on Jimmy to inspire him to confront his fears about his speaking challenges and to take a risk.
         The King’s Speech, as you may remember, is the story of King George VI, known to his family as “Bertie,” who had imperial leadership thrust upon him quite unexpectedly.  The second son of George V, Bertie was a shy and awkward boy, in contrast to his older brother, Edward, who was debonair, confident, and handsome.  Everyone always assumed Edward would become the future king, not only because he was older and therefore next in line to the throne, but also because he simply seemed more fit to be king.
         Moreover, little Bertie suffered from one other difficulty that posed an obstacle to becoming king:  like Jimmy, he stammered badly.  In public settings, Bertie would become so utterly afraid to speak that he could not put two words together without stumbling.  Bertie had all the wealth in the world, all the power of nobility, all the privileges that come with royalty, and yet none of this did him any good because he could not do the one thing people expect of a future king:  to speak with eloquence and authority. 
         And then Bertie’s greatest fear comes to pass:  upon the death of his father, George V, Bertie’s older brother, Edward, infamously abdicates the throne, and Bertie is forced to become king against his wishes. And not only that, but Bertie takes the throne near the outbreak of WWII, at a time when the British people desperately need confident and sure and articulate leadership, which only adds to Bertie’s overwhelming sense of panic.
         The heart of the movie is about how Bertie faces the demon of his stuttering through an unlikely relationship with an eccentric, failed actor, who has made a modest reputation working as a speech therapist.  For the rest of the movie, we watch these two men, from dramatically different backgrounds, come to know, and trust, and help one another, so that they might together overcome the fear that underlies the King’s stuttering.  It is a touching story about human vulnerability, and about the grace that is present when people put aside their differences to face and share in the weaknesses that make us human.
         So, to return to my story, Sarah showed the movie to her eighth grade history class, and it did indeed make the expected impression. Seeing how Jimmy was affected by the film, Sarah, to her great credit, gently took him aside after class and offered to coach Jimmy so that he might be able to fulfill his dream. 
         And so, a few weeks later, Jimmy stepped up to the lectern in chapel, and in front of all the school, read a lesson from our sacred text.  His reading was by no means perfect; there were some stumbles and halts along the way.  But everything else about that moment was perfect – including especially how Jimmy’s words were received. As I looked out at all the students as they listened to Jimmy speak, I could see in their faces that they knew how high the stakes were for him.  Like me, they were hanging breathlessly on Jimmy’s every word, praying silently to themselves that he would make it through to the end of the lesson. And when Jimmy finally got to the refrain that always closes our lessons, “The Word of the Lord,” a raucous cheer broke out.  Never before have I heard a group of kids respond, “Thanks be to God,” with such utter abandon.
         Like Jimmy, each of us has his or her own vulnerability, and all the anxieties that go with it.  For some of us it may well be a fear of speaking in public.  For others, it may be an intense insecurity, an emotional problem, an isolating sense of loneliness, a physical disability, an addiction, or something else.  But whatever it is, each of us, precisely because we are human, has some weakness that is part and parcel of who we are. 
         The message of the King’s Speech, and the power of St. Paul’s teaching about the grace in weakness, is not some sentimental message that all will be well if we just try hard enough.  Nor is it that we can always overcome our weaknesses.  We often cannot.  The real lesson lies in the insight that true grace comes when we share our vulnerabilities with others, when we together name our weaknesses and understand them, and when, with God’s help, we together move through them. 
         This, too, is one of the deep truths of the Epiphany season in which we find ourselves.  What amazed the three wise men the night they visited the baby in the manger was not merely the fact that God reaches out to humanity in the birth of Jesus, but how God does so. God chooses to appear as the most vulnerable thing on earth:  an innocent baby, born to homeless peasants, in a desolate and forgotten part of the world, to a people persecuted and oppressed by one of the most powerful human empires on earth.  God chooses to be most present where humanity is most vulnerable. 
         God is with us in our weakness.  And the corollary to this truth is that we are called, in turn, to open ourselves up to the vulnerabilities of others, and to be present to them in their weakness.  The great German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, expressed it this way:  "We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer."  To notice and reach out to another human being in her suffering, and to stand in solidarity with her, is the essence of the divine.
         And that is precisely why Jesus begins his famous Sermon on the Mount with the completely counterintuitive words of the Beatitudes that we heard in our gospel lesson. Jesus invites his disciples to see God’s blessing in values that the world may well view as ‘weak’ and ‘foolish’ – blessed are the humble, the meek, the peacemakers, the pure.  Blessed are those who detach themselves from material things, who persevere in the face of adversity, who thirst for righteous and just living, who weep and care for those who suffer.  Blessed are those who do these things, Jesus assures us.
         As the theologian Stanley Hauerwas explains, “the Beatitudes are not a heroic ethic,” but instead they are “the constitution of a new people.”  These blessings are not so much a list of moral requirements as they are a description of a community gathered by and around a heavenly vision of reckless love for all that is precious and fragile in the human condition.  “You cannot possibly live by the demands of the Beatitudes on your own,” Hauerwas writes, “but that is the point.  Their demands are designed to make us depend upon God and one another.” 
         We are living in an uncertain and frightening time; a time when our country is turning away the weakest among us, and acting more from a place of fear than compassion.  Our place in history is perhaps not as different from the first century world into which our Savior was born as we like to think. As we seek to find our bearings in the midst of such chaos, let us not be misled by the hollow words of the powerful who purport to lead us; but instead, let us follow Jesus. Let us welcome the stranger, house the displaced, feed the hungry, find blessing in weakness, and look upon each other in our sufferings as much as in our accomplishments.  And together with Bertie and Jimmy and all our other fellow-sufferers, let us keep this prayer close to our hearts:  

         “Gracious and loving God, who chose what is foolish to shame the wise and what is weak to shame the strong, save us from the vanities of this world and the conceits of our own minds, so that we might find grace in weakness and become fools for your love’s sake.  We pray these things in Jesus’ name.  Amen.”

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