07/08/18 – Strength of an Open Heart

THE STRENGTH OF AN OPEN HEART

July 8, 2018
7th Sunday after Pentecost
2 Samuel 5:1-10; Psalm 48; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

 

During my final year of seminary, I was required to take a course on the “practical matters” of ministry. This course was deficient in many areas. We were not taught how to read a budget, how to lead a productive church meeting, or how to deal with staff conflict. I do remember being a bit mystified when one of the professors introduced a concept, “growing edge,” without definition. It took me a long time to figure out what he was talking about was “weaknesses” – the stuff you aren’t good at and need to improve.

It is no wonder this professor used a euphemism because Americans loathe admitting to having weaknesses. We admire independence and strength. In job interviews, a candidate is almost always asked: what is your greatest strength and what is your greatest weakness? The challenge is to answer the latter question in such a way that the “weakness” appears to be a strength.

Public figures, especially politicians, worry about how they are perceived. There are public relations firms that specialize in sending in professionals to repair the reputations of public figures or corporations that make a big mistake – sexual or financial shenanigans, unfair business practices, faulty products, environmental disasters. Professional “spin doctors” are called in to perform cosmetic surgery on damaged reputations.

The fear of appearing “weak” is often the root of personal and societal behavior that creates conflict and injustice. Due to public disfavor, the U.S. president, Donald Trump, recently backed down from his policy to separate immigrant families at the southern border with Mexico. He addressed the issue in these terms:

“The dilemma is that if you’re weak, if you’re weak, which some people would like you
to be, if you’re really, pathetically weak, the country is going to be overrun with
millions of people. And if you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart. That’s a tough
dilemma…Perhaps I would rather be strong, but that’s a tough dilemma.”

The Bible turns upside down the notion that strength and might are needed to make a people great.

The great theologian of the 20thcentury, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose execution was ordered by Hitler in the last few days of the war, had preached about the spiritual damage created by fear:

“It crouches in people’s hearts…” it hollows out their insides…and secretly gnaws and eats away at all the ties that bind a person to God and to others.”

In reference to this Bonhoeffer quote, Rev. Dr. Peter Marty wrote in the most recent issue of Christian Century:

“A terrifying narrative of helplessness, hopelessness, and persecution can be
captivating. It seems only a strongman can deliver us from such horror and
threat…. Those of us who don’t want… the biblical and moral ties that bind
us to God ad one another severed, lean on a savior. This selfless one meets
legitimate fears head-on. And he bears no resemblance to a strongman.”

We have a weakness for succumbing to a narrative of helplessness and persecution. The message one receives in our society is to dominate or be dominated. Rev. Dr. Will Willimon observes:

“The received truth in our society is that the strong must prevail over the weak, and the rich must prevail over the poor. Only a fool would deny it.                                                                                     There is an old joke about our text: the race may not go to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that is definitely the way to bet!”

He observes, however, that the Bible presents a different truth: “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” One might add from the Beatitudes: “The meek shall inherit the earth.” From the gospel of Matthew and “He has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” from Mary’s Song in Luke. This divine preference for the weak, the poor, and other vulnerable peoples is repeated throughout the Old and New Testaments.

For many weeks we have been reading in First and Second Samuel the story of how the youngest son, a shepherd, was chosen by God to become Israel’s king. The small boy defeated the giant Goliath. Our reading today concludes the story that tells how David was able to join the two regions of Jewish people and establish a common capital city without going to battle. He dealt with the leader of the northern region with respect and kindness. The Bible tells us David was a better choice to lead Israel than Saul, because David’s heart was open to God, whereas Saul’s heart had closed.

The Apostle Paul was faced with a challenge to his leadership of the Corinthian church he started. It seems that after Paul had established the Corinthian congregation and went on to other places to plant churches, his leadership was questioned. Both letters we have that Paul wrote to the congregation in Corinth address the authority of Paul’s leadership. In the passage we read today it appears that other Christian missionaries claimed to have personal spiritual experiences that gave them more authority to lead the church.

Although Paul is reluctant to boast, he begins his response to his adversaries by topping their spiritual experiences. He makes his claims in the third person – “I know a man”—to distance himself from his boast. He goes on, however, to admit a weakness: “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.”

Readers have had a field day speculating on the nature of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” We will never know the factual truth of Paul’s weakness, but the spiritual truth is that Paul’s thorn is a mirror for our own weakness that inhibits our hearts be open to God. Paul’s prayerful appeals to God to release him from the grasp of his weakness were denied.  Paul came to realize that God used him, through his weakness, to serve God’s purposes. Paul reports having received a message from Christ:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Paul, having been given a lemon, makes lemonade:

“So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Paul presented the Corinthians with the paradox that to be strong in Christ, one must be weak in the things that made for worldly success. These new evangelists, which Paul sarcastically called “super-apostles,” may have preached a gospel that promised less sacrifice and more worldly success, but Paul preached the gospel of a Savior who sacrificed his pride, gave up all his power and control in the most powerful act of love and compassion the world has ever known.

The blessed weakness of which Paul wrote gives us the ability to open our hearts to God and to one another.  With our hearts open and vulnerable what miracles might occur? A world without great income inequality? Without racial or ethnic prejudice and discrimination? Might we have justice that is not sold to the highest bidder? Might we have adequate food, clothing, shelter and health care for all?

In our gospel reading, Jesus returned to his hometown after performing healing miracles everywhere he had been. Yet, among his own people, he was rejected. The crowd in Nazareth dismissed the tales of his power and tried to expose his weakness as a mere mortal like themselves. They did not realize that his humanity is what made his power so astonishing. His power from God was made perfect in his weak human body.

Jesus warned his disciples that, like him, they would experience setbacks and defeats. He told them: “Shake the dust off your feet.” In other words, ‘Let go of the bad experiences, just keep moving. Keep fighting the good fight.’ Rev. Jill Duffield, writer for the Presbyterian Outlook commented on Jesus’ instructions as meaning: “Go on preaching, teaching, anointing, healing, and challenging evil. Don’t hold grudges or commit acts of vengeance. Don’t give into anger, fear, disillusion. As it turns out, not being weighed down by this kind of baggage can prove much harder than leaving even our cell phones behind.”

Jesus did not choose to send the brightest, the strongest, or the most gifted speakers. Jesus chose to send the ones who followed him, the ones who had opened their hearts to him. We too have received Christ’s invitation to do what he sent his 12 disciples to do. Even with our weaknesses, with Christ’s power within us, his good intentions for the world will not be blocked by either human or demonic forces.

Christ challenges us to open our hearts to allow God to turn our weakness into God’s strength. Even our pain can become a source of healing. Like Paul, our pain can open our sensitivity to the suffering of others and inspire us to compassion and healing. God used Jesus’ crucifixion to turn the cross, a symbol of humiliation and death, into a symbol of love and new life with his resurrection.

In a recent week of setbacks for civil rights, John Lewis, who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. more than 50 years ago, tweeted, not a rant, but words of optimism and encouragement:

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

This is what Paul told his congregations experiencing conflict and persecution. This is what Jesus told the 12 who were commissioned to spread the gospel. Paul assures us:  “Power is made perfect in weakness.” With our hearts open wide, God can reach in and turn our weakness to strength. With this power within us the improbable, even the impossible can happen.

All power, honor and glory to our Triune God.

 

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2018, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois