Strong in the Broken Places

All of us are gathered here this morning to celebrate. In fact – if we didn’t have something to celebrate, each of us would be inside our own churches or maybe even still in bed this morning. But no! We got up, we got dressed, we brought out the lawn chairs this morning because there is so much to celebrate we just couldn’t stay home! We just couldn’t stay quiet! Can I get an Amen! (AMEN!)

Isn’t it such a great day to get together and celebrate the fact that we suck? Yes you heard me right. We suck. We are not perfect. We can’t do it all. We are not the best, or the brightest, or the most talented. We don’t have the most money, or the biggest churches, or even… and I know I’m going out on a limb here… we probably don’t even have the most wonderful pastors in the entire world. We make mistakes… a lot of them… all of the time. We are a nation that is stressed out, frustrated by our jobs, worried about our families, just trying to make ends meet in a world that seems to be out to get us.

Now – I know that doesn’t sound like very good news. That doesn’t sound like a very good reason to celebrate either… but hang in there for just a second!!

Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian and ethicist at Duke University, has a rule that I think applies here. His rule is this: You always marry the wrong person. But that rule has a very important qualifier – the wrong person is the right person.

Pastor Brian Volck heard that rule of Hauerwas’ and realized that our relationship with God could be described the same way. Volck writes, “We in the church Christ gathers are generally a nation of rebels, impudent and stubborn. We repeatedly go whoring after idols of status, security and national pride or, out of false humility (oh, I couldn’t possibly make a difference in that situation, we) fail to respond when we see members of the Body harm others and themselves. And – here’s the catch – the Creator of the Universe chooses us to be His people, sending us into the world unarmed, scarcely ready, flawed, dependent… In short, we are the wrong people for the job.”

But you know what? It’s precisely because we are the wrong people that we are such a perfect match for God’s plans.

In our scripture for this morning, we find Paul writing to the church in Corinth. Now, we may not know all of the circumstances, but it is safe to assume that the people in Corinth thought Paul might be the wrong person for the job as well!

Corinth was a city that was all about power and strength. They hosted athletic contests and games where competitors outdid one another in feats of strength. They were an economic power house being a huge harbor on the Mediterranean Sea. Power and success were worshipped in Corinth much as they are in the United States today – even among the Christians that Paul ministered to there. And Paul had impressed them with his letters, but something about Paul-in-person, turned them off. Two chapters before our reading today, we find one of these complaints quoted… “His letters are weighty and strong,” some Corinthian writes, “but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.”

The people in Corinth much preferred the “superstars” who came into town after Paul left – the traveling circus of visions and wonders and contemporary music and dramatic preachers. Superstars who swept them up in an emotional fury and then left them begging for more! Superstars who were paid a pretty penny for their services.

Compared to these showmen, Paul seemed rather lame. He didn’t charge anything for sharing the word of God with them. He seemed to always be getting in trouble with the local governments. And he wasn’t that entertaining when he showed up either. He spent way too much time telling them what not to do, rather than making them feel good about themselves. We don’t know all of the details of the exchanges back and forth between Paul and the followers of Christ in Corinth, but there were some problems there.

So part of the reason that Paul is writing to the church is because he needs to defend himself a bit against the misguided theology of his opponents. With great sarcasm and irony, Paul writes to compare himself with these “superstar apostles” who have been visiting Corinth as of late.

You have no problem putting up with those fools, he writes, so let me tell you just how foolish I am. Instead of boasting of all of the things I can do like they are so prone to do, I’ll boast of my weaknesses! I am a fool for Christ. I’ve been beaten, imprisoned, shipwrecked, robbed, hungry, thirsty, and homeless – you can’t necessarily call that successful ministry by the world’s standards. Oh, I can match them, vision for vision if they want to talk about ecstatic experiences and revelations from God – but I’m not going to play that game. I will not boast of anything but my weakness and God’s power.

In fact, Paul writes, just to help me remember that I am weak but God is strong, I was given a thorn in my side – a permanent reminder in my life – that I am not perfect, that I don’t have it all together, but that God chooses to work through me anyways. I don’t have to be everything because God is everything and God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.

We may not be the right people for the job, but through God’s grace we are perfect for the job.

Paul is desperately trying to tell us some good news! News that is contradictory to the Corinthian view of power and to the ways of this world… it is because we are weak, that we are so strong in God. It is because we are flawed and imperfect that God’s grace has room to maneuver. It is when we get our overinflated egos out of the way that people can see Jesus Christ in our lives.

Throughout history, God has chosen the wrong people to be his servants. He chose Jacob the trickster, Moses the murderer, David the adulterer, Mary and Joseph, a poor unmarried couple to nurture the Christ Child, a whole band of disciples who got it wrong more times than they got it right. And God chose Paul – a persecutor of the church to be one of its greatest evangelists. In each and every single one of those partnerships – it was God’s power working through their lives, not any personal strength that they had.

Earnest Hemingway wrote that “Life breaks all of us, but some of us are strong in the broken places.” In the church, we might rephrase that to say that we are all fallen and broken people, but some of us turn our brokenness over to God and through God’s grace, we become strong in the broken places. God uses our hurts and our pains and our frustrations and our failings and makes something beautiful out of our lives.

This is a time for celebration. We come to celebrate this Independence Day holiday, and to celebrate the birthday of our community – and in the midst of that celebration there is a lot of boasting. But let us also remember to boast about our weaknesses. Let us also remember to boast about the places where our communities are broken. Let us remember a hospital that almost closed, and a river that threatened to overrun the town. Let us look through the pages of our history and never forget the times when only God’s grace got us through.

As we gather today around this table as the family of God, some of us are feeling quite broken. We may not speak of it, but we all know that it’s there. We need to remind one another that through God’s grace, we can become strong again; we can endure whatever hardships come our way.

Let one another know of your struggles. Don’t be afraid to speak them out loud! Don’t feel like you have to pretend that everything is okay when it’s not… Because it is in those broken places in our lives that God does his best work. It is our faith in the midst of those broken places that gives us the foundation we need to stand on.

God’s grace was sufficient for Paul. God’s grace is sufficient for me – in spite of my weakness. God’s grace is sufficient for you… And God’s grace is sufficient for this nation and this world – no matter how broken, how unredeemable we may seem. Amen. And Amen.

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