2 Corinthians 12:2–10
Happy Fourth of July everybody. Please, drive safe and sober this holiday. Don’t blow any of your fingers off, please. If you’re at the beach, wear plenty of sunscreen. Watch out for sharks. Don’t forget to put your thunder shirt on your dog tonight. This is a tough weekend for a lot of dogs. And if you manage to do all that, and you’re having a pretty good fourth of July, maybe say a prayer for the good ol’ US of A on her 245th birthday.
We’re not feeling quite as spry as we were some years back, but you never know. I’m nowhere near ready to count the old girl out. Things are tough right now. These are some hard years. And difficult times lead some people to look for any excuse to behave badly. BUT there are also deep wells in this country of pragmatic sense, hard work, creative ingenuity, and selfless sacrifice. This morning I’d like to talk to you about maybe getting the bucket to go down a little further in those wells. We might need a longer rope—the wells are deep, and they’re nowhere near dry—no way.
Funny thing I’ve realized about democracy: If you live in a country where everybody seems to agree all the time, you probably don’t live in a democracy. Democracy is designed to bring the will of the people to the government, of course, but it’s also designed to hold the people together as a nation even as we disagree. When most everybody has a right to speak, and most everybody gets a vote, the world gets loud with opinions. There’s a competition of ideas and interests. There are appeals to our ideals and to justice and fairness. AND there’s mudslinging and name calling and baloney, and plenty of frustration to go around.
You know, it wasn’t God’s idea to put a king over all of Israel. But the people came to Samuel and his sons who were acting as judges over the individual tribes, and they said, “We want a king! Things will be easier with a king! One guy to ride out in front of us and tell us all what to do!” So, Samuel prays to God, “Hey, what I do with these people?” And God says to Samuel, “Listen, tell them how lousy kings are. Tell them he’s gonna send your sons off to fight his wars, and he’ll take your daughters for his servants, and he’ll set you to plowing his fields, and he’ll take the best of your wine, and your oil, and your livestock and give it to his favorites, and you’ll all basically become his slaves and won’t be able to say a word against him. And if after telling them all that they still want a king, well, we’ll give ‘em a king.” So Samuel tells the people how lousy the king’s gonna be. And the people still want a king! “Everything will be easier with a king! One guy to ride out in front us and lead us! It’ll all be worth it for that.”
It’s an understandable mistake. It’s tempting to want to quiet the voices of dissent and disagreement, voices of conspiracy, rage, and sometimes hate by shutting the whole project down. Just shut it down. Give us a king. One guy, one opinion. Everybody else, shut up!
In a country as large and diverse as the United States, with such a complicated history of ideals and failures, it’s not surprising that there are such big differences of opinion about the state of the nation. It’s unfortunate to me that the loudest voices seem to be at the extremes, and they seem to be saying (even more loudly recently) that you have to choose a team: You can either love your nation uncritically or you can criticize it lovelessly. Those in the middle who choose to love their nation while acknowledging its flaws or who choose to quarrel with their nation—like a lover working for a better shared future—are made out by both extremes to be suckers, simpletons, and traitors.
As Christians we see how God works to redeem the whole world—by loving us unceasingly and by offering us sharp warnings when we stray from the narrow path. That may be all well and good for God, but apparently in the United States today, you can’t love America and criticize her, you can’t criticize America and support her. So, patriotism has become artificially bifurcated into pro and con, when God has given us hearts that are big enough to contain both deep love and passionate critique.
I love in our scripture reading this morning that in Paul’s refusal to boast, he manages to boast quite a bit, doesn’t he? That’s the wonderful way that Paul has with words. Paul was writing this as a letter to the church he founded in Corinth. He’s replying to a letter they sent to him. We don’t know exactly what that letter said, but it seems like there were possibly some other preachers moving in on Paul’s turf, and they were maybe badmouthing him. “Oh, Paul?” they might have been saying, “Yes, he’s a nice guy, but a little boring, don’t you think? Take a look at me, I’m the newest, fanciest, holiest thing in Corinth.”
So, Paul feels like he has to respond. He doesn’t want to play the bragging game. At the same time, he wants everybody to know that if he were to stoop to their level and play the bragging game, he’d definitely win. But even as he relates being taken up to the third heaven (in the third person, of course, to be humble about it), he still manages to keep his feet on the ground. Sure, Paul could boast all day about his spiritual bona fides, but he knows ultimately that won’t serve him, serve the Church in Corinth, or serve God. So, very quickly he transitions to bragging not about his strengths, but about his weakness—the thorn in his flesh.
We’re not exactly sure what this was. Chronic pain? An old injury? A disease? We don’t know. But since he doesn’t name it or describe it, the folks in Corinth must have all known what he meant. Maybe even the new preachers were putting Paul down for it, “Oh Paul?” they might have said, “He’s a fine enough fellow, I suppose, but I do wonder why God hasn’t cured that old limp of his. Did I ever tell you about the time God cured my lumbago?” But (in one of the most extraordinary lines in all of scripture) Paul reminds the church in Corinth that his ailment is a sign of God’s grace and favor because “power is made perfect in weakness.”
In 1887 Lord Acton famously wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” More than 1800 years earlier, Paul understood the temptation to power and invincibility, and chooses instead to brag about his weakness as the piece of his humanity that keeps him human and brings him closer to God.
Paul’s words are shocking to us because he’s saying something most of us are too afraid to say—that there’s nothing wrong with being weak. But there is something terribly wrong with trying to pretend that we’re not. Every boast of perfection, Paul says, should be a boast that acknowledges our vulnerabilities. Because boasting that doesn’t is a denial of God’s grace. Paul prays three times to be healed. And God answers, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Perfect people (and flawless nations) don’t need God to shed his grace on them. I need God’s grace shed on me because I am not perfect. I am flawed and working to improve. America needs God’s grace because we are not perfect. We are flawed and if we’re going to improve, we’re going to have to work together.
Improvement and working together require two key, related ingredients: Grace and Love. It would be a terrible mistake to limit our patriotism to the idolization of a whitewashed history, just as it’s a mistake to drain our struggle for a better nation of the lifeblood of our most profound and positive connection to that nation—our love. Loving the nation doesn’t mean you have to love everything America has done or is doing. I don’t. Loving America doesn’t mean you have to like everybody living in America. I don’t. But in a country this big, this diverse, this beautiful, you can find something to hold onto and call your own, some community to cling to, some kid whose future you care about. Disenchantment and outrage are not sufficient to write a new chapter in American history. The brighter future of our more just nation will be written down by the hand of grace in the ink of eyes-wide-open love, or it won’t ever be written at all. Don’t put your fingers in your ears when someone tells you the story of a piece of the American landscape that needs to be changed. And as you tell those painful and difficult stories, don’t forget that you have every bit as much right to love your home as anyone else.
So, beloved, let’s say a prayer for the good ol’ US of A. But let’s also commit ourselves to working together as an American people for the American people. In the words of Tacitus, let’s set ourselves in loving competition with our forebears, and let’s build a better future for all from the uneven grounds of our triumphs and failures, relying on the grace of God to make our flaws more perfect and our love more known.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations