1 Corinthians 1:18-31
An Hasidic tale is told of a student who asked the rabbi, “Why does the Torah tell us to “place these holy words upon our hearts.” Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rabbi answered, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.” (1) Life is heart breaking. And, in a way which is quite paradoxical, where we are broken, where we feel inadequate or powerless, where we are overwhelmed, this may well be the way, perhaps the only way, that God can break through to us. Where do you find yourself coming up short, weak, powerless? When we are convinced that we are not God may be the way, the only way, to open our hearts to the God revealed by Jesus Christ.
St. Paul became convinced of this. In our reading this morning from the First Letter to the Corinthians, we hear St. Paul name a theme to which he returns again and again in his writing: weakness: “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” And he’s writing very autobiographically here when he speaks about weakness. If St. Paul were a politician, this would be his stump speech: that power is made perfect in weakness. God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. (2) Saint Paul is not talking about cultivating weakness, but about realizing weakness. We’re going to come up short in life. We will not have enough. We will not have enough strength in body, mind, or spirit to pull it off alone in life.
Now when Saint Paul speaks of God’s power being made perfect in our weakness, there are two different ways we can hear this. I’ll speak in metaphors. We could hear how God’s power being made perfect in our weakness is like a microphone. This microphone takes my voice and amplifies it to fill this chapel. The microphone takes an existing quality – my voice box and my language ability – and makes it larger and louder for you to receive it. That’s an amplification, making more of something already present. But that’s not it; a microphone is not the right metaphor. That’s not what St. Paul means when he speaks of “strength being made perfect out of weakness.” Rather than the amplification of what is good, this is the transformation of what is broken, or unformed, or lost in your life. A better metaphor for this transformation of weakness is a pearl, something about which Jesus was familiar. You may remember how Jesus tells the parable about “a merchant in search of fine pearls.” (3) Remember from where a pearl comes. A pearl comes from the lowliest of creatures, from a mollusk lost in darkness on the bottom of the sea. Quite tragically, a grain of sand or a small pebble will often wound the inner membrane of the mollusk. The mollusk’s attempt to cauterize, and encapsulate, and heal this inner wound is what produces the pearl. Pearls come from wounds, and so will your greatest gifts, your greatest strength, by God’s grace. The founder of our community, Richard Meux Benson, was equally convinced of this. Father Benson said, “God uses our weakness to make manifest God’s strength.” (4)
Accepting the truth that God’s strength will be made perfect in our weakness, in your weakness, will make a world of difference for two reasons. For one, your own weakness – where you come up short in life – rather than being an impediment in your relationship to God is actually the doorway in your relationship to God. It’s only in our experience of not being God that we have space to realize our need for God. Our own experience of inadequacy, our awareness of our character flaws, our sense of powerlessness, our weaknesses are not the roadblock but rather the highway to God. Our knowledge and acceptance of our limitations and fragility preserve us from denial and illusion, continually throwing us back on the mercy, and the compassion, and the strength, the healing of God. (5) There is an old Jewish saying, “By your very wounds I will heal you” – by not from. “By your very wounds I will heal you.” Our weakness – not our strength – sets the stage for God to be at work. (6)
The nineteenth-century Quaker author, Hannah Whitall Smith, writes of a visit she made to a school for developmentally disabled children. There she saw a group of children being led by their teacher through a series of physical exercises using weights timed with music. She noticed how difficult it was for virtually all of the children to manage their movements, and saw that for the most part, they were out of step with the music and the teacher’s directions. “All was out of harmony,” she reported, “except one little girl, however,.…made perfect movements. Nothing disturbed the harmony of her exercises. And the reason was not that she had more strength than the others, but that she had no strength at all. She could not so much as close her hands on the dumbbells, nor lift her arms, and the teacher had to stand behind her, and do it all. She yielded up her members as instruments to her teacher, and his ‘strength was made perfect’ in her weakness. He knew how to go through those exercises, for he himself had planned them; and therefore when he did it, it was done right. She did nothing but yield herself up utterly into his hands, and he did it all. The yielding was her part; the responsibility was all his… The question was not of her capacity, but of his. Her utter weakness was her greatest strength.” “To me,” she concludes, “this is a very striking picture of our Christian life, and it is no wonder therefore that Paul could say, ‘Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me’” (7) Deferring your own weakness to Christ’s strength at work within you will make a world of difference to you. It will also make a world of difference to others. What we share with others, what we have in common with others, is not our strengths but our weaknesses.
Some years ago I was going through a rather tough time. I happened to be visiting another monastery, and I shared a conversation with a Mother Superior of Benedictine community. The conversation was mostly her listening to me, and I poured open my heart, mostly about disappointment and failure, my own stuff and what I had experienced from some others. Very sad; plenty of tears. And then, in the ensuing silence, she suddenly clapped her hands and said, “Stand up!” Well, I was so shocked I just jumped out of my chair. She came up to me – she was at least a foot shorter than I – and she reached up and grabbed my earlobes, and then pulled my face into her face. I think my nose was touching hers. And she would not let go of my earlobes. Staring into my eyes, she said, “Curtis, there’s not one thing that you’ve experienced in life, not one suffering, not one weakness, that will go unused. God is going to use it all. God will bring experiences and people into your life, and you will know them and you will know what they need because of God’s work within you. Not one thing of your life will be wasted. Jesus will use it all!” And the Reverend Mother would not let go of my earlobes… until I nodded my assent. Which I did. And she was right. God is very frugal and will waste nothing in your life, even the waste, even the weakness, especially the weakness will be used as a channel of strength not only for you but also through you to others. Life is a treasure; however remember – I’ll use St. Paul’s words here – remember “we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” (8) And you will have power, God’s power, made perfect in your weakness.
Being aware of your weakness is not easy, but it is not bad. It need not be bad. Your breaking will be your making. That’s the gospel message. That’s the good news that comes out of the bad news. It’s true. It’s true for me, and it’s true for you. Absolutely. Absolutely.
- Story from “The Politics of the Brokenhearted,” in Commonweal (July 28, 2005; p. 233) by Parker J. Palmer.
- 2 Corinthians 12:9. See also 1 Corinthians 2: 1, 3-5.
- Matthew 13;45-46.
- Richard Meux Benson in Look to the Glory, p. 67.
- Paraphrased from The Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, Chapter 8: “Engaging with Poverty,” p. 17.
- Richard Meux Benson writes, “No skill of [ours] can fashion any work,” he said, “so that God shall come and approve of it and finish it. [God] begins and [God] finishes the work; and so [God] begins every work in the greatest possible form of weakness. Therefore in all divine works, instead of being discouraged because things seem to be weak, we are to recognize this weakness as an almost necessary form of cooperation [with God]. God delights to begin a work when [our] weakness is specially manifest, in order that it may be perfectly manifest that all the work is [God’s]. God delights to show his favor just when [we] can do nothing else than feel [our] inadequacy” The Religious Vocation, p. 89.
- Hannah Whitall Smith(1832-1922) in The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, p. 191.
- 2 Corinthians 4:7.
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