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The Reverend Dr. Adam Hearlson
May 3, 2020
2 Corinthians 12:3-10
A Reading from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians
I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven–whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person–whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows– was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. 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.
Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is suﬃcient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
My friend Mike has bad feet. I mean they are flat. He struggles to run. So, of course, a few years back Mike decided to run the Boston Marathon. He was moved by the heroism in the midst of the Boston Marathon bombing and became determined to run the race. Now, bad feet hadn’t stopped Mike before. He was told that he was excused from military service during the war in Vietnam because his feet were so bad. But he enlisted anyway and became a helicopter pilot. Mike has never been one to let his feet stop him.
So, he started training. He didn’t even know if he would win the lottery that would allow him to run in the race, especially during a year when the race was overwhelmed with applications. Still he trained
— running on his bad feet not knowing if he would get his chance. Truth is, he never did his long training days. But finally, just a few weeks before the race, he got the call. He was in.
On the day of the race, I was in my oﬃce, a few blocks from the race route and I began to get nervous. I called his Mike’s daughter, Danielle, I have known Danielle my whole life.
“D, how’s Mike.” She says, “He says he’s ready.” “Yeah? ok. What do you think? Is he gonna do this?” “Adam, I don’t know. 26miles is a long way.”
We spoke like this for a while. The type of conversation that is fraught with nervous energy and hopes and doubts. The type of conversation when you know that everything is out of your hands. The conversations that happen while your loved one is surgery. The type of conversation you have after you drop your child oﬀ at college. The type of conversation you have as scientists and doctors work on a cure, a vaccine, a course of treatment. Success and failure are finally not yours to control.
I hate that feeling. Blech. No one could run the race for Mike and darn it all, my friend Mike has bad feet.
Not an ideal way to run a race. Not perfect conditions by any means.
So, I sat in my oﬃce and I began to run over the litany of obstacles. Bad feet, hot weather, three large hills at mile 20. “If only,” I said to myself.
If only. What a tragic phrase. If only. If only we were stronger, faster, smarter, richer, more beautiful, more talented, more healthy, more charismatic, oh and did I mention richer? If only everything were perfect. What we could accomplish if everything were perfect.
But perfection is not a promise of God, grace is. And I don’t know about you, but right now I need an adult dose of grace. And so does Paul.
In our scripture this morning, Paul is not immune to being slavish to his own expectations of perfection.
He says he has a thorn that he has desperate to rid himself of. A problem he cannot solve. A hindrance that is blocking his own pursuits. Something that has prevented him from meeting the goals of his ministry and life. Paul keeps thinking, “if only.” “If only this thorn wasn’t here, do you know how much I could do? Do you know how great this whole Church thing could be? Do you know how big these churches could be? How many more we could plant? If only.” Paul is struggling with the curse of “if only.” So, he prays and he prays and he prays. Desperate prayers. Sincere prayers.
Honest prayers. and…nope.
“but I could do so much more without the thorn” Paul pleads.
God replies, “I will forgive you for not doing more. So, now who are you doing more for?”
God is saying, “my grace is more valuable to you than those accomplishments are to the world. Who you will be with grace is better than who you will be without it.”
God alone is perfect, the rest of us need grace, not as a concession for our imperfections, but so that we might truly understand what it means to serve a God of grace. But grace rarely feels good enough. It doesn’t feel “suﬃcient,” no matter what God says to Paul.
I think this is because the values of grace and perfection have been inverted in our world.
The world around us tells us that grace makes you weak. Grace is the enemy of perfection. Perfect security demands no mercy. We must have a zero-tolerance policy at our borders, in our homes, and at our jobs. The world tells us that withholding grace will create perfection. If we hold the line, we will finally reach our potential.
But it is a rigged game, no one wins. Our young people are suﬀering with crazy pressure to measure up to standards of perfection and their rates of depression and anxiety and suicide are rising. Adults are crumbling under the million expectations of what counts as a perfect boss, a perfect employee, a perfect citizen, a perfect friend, a perfect spouse, a perfect neighbor, a perfect home school teacher, a perfect employee, a perfect session member, a perfect minister, a perfect person.
This is exacerbated even now as I continue to hear advice from the world to use this time productively: get in shape, learn to bake bread, get ahead. Use this time to get more perfect.
And when grace shows up, we resent it. Like Paul, we keep pleading for another strategy. Something, anything, besides grace. Give me something to fix this, because what does grace do, anyway? Grace exposes our weaknesses. Asking for grace means we have a problem, asking for grace means we might actually need grace.
And here comes Paul with the strangest, most counter intuitive piece of wisdom. “When I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul rewrites the world’s vision of grace. You wanna know strength, he says, look at the people who can admit their weakness.
Look at the people who know their limits, who recognize all of the ways in which they fail to reach the heights expected of them. Look at all of the people who remain dependent on their communities.
Look at all of the people who know that they cannot live without the help of others. Look at the people diverted by their weaknesses; there you will find a path that leads to the kingdom of God.
That which makes us weak leads us to the place that makes us strong, grace leads us to God and God’s grace, the source of all strength. God’s grace is suﬃcient to make you strong. If you are like me, each day contains moments of total failure. I am not good at homeschooling my kids. I am short on patience. I stay up at night thinking about the congregant’s I didn’t call, the to-do list that grows faster than I can tick oﬀ the boxes. The funeral I have to plan, the sermon that I have to write that will not be anything more than a solid C+. So, I work harder, thinking that the way to succeed is by doing more, trying to fail less spectacularly.
But hear God again, “My grace is suﬃcient.” God is saying, “My grace will get you to where you want to go. By grace you will win.”
So, I stay in my oﬃce, waiting of the marathon to begin. I was able to track Mike online. It would tell me every time he passed a five-kilometer marker. So, I waited and then, there he was. 5k down.
Good pace. Strong. Then 10k. 15k. Alright Mike. He is doing it. Then, he begins to slow down. The 5k splits are widening. And yet, he is still moving and each time he shows up on my screen, I do a little fist pump, “Come on, Mike.” Soon, he passes a mark and I leave my oﬃce and go down to the race to see if I can see him run, cheer him on, do my part. I worked right at Heartbreak Hill, a high hill 20 miles into the race. I wait for a long time trying to catch Mike, but he doesn’t show.
I feel sick. So, I go back to my oﬃce, sure he hasn’t made it. Sure, the race is over. Then I look at my screen and blip, he has made it past the hills. I scream. Yes!
I call Danielle, “D, he is coming.” She is further down the race route and she says, “I just saw him, he is has made it into Boston. Not three miles left.”
“How is he?”
“He is pretty beat up,” she said. Come on Mike.
Waiting for those little blips on my screen felt like eternity. But one after another they came. until he had half a mile to go. So, I turn on the video feed of the finish line. I wait. I wait. And then I see a man with a white beard, an orange shirt, and a white hat. It’s Mike. And he is just shuﬄing, barely picking up his feet. But he is moving. He’s a hundred yards away. I am out of my seat and I am screaming. “Come on Mike! Come on!” And then with about ten yards left he raises his hands in the air, slows, and stops on the finish line and then, and this is my favorite part. He bows.
I am crying, hollering and deliriously happy. My friend Mike has bad feet, but that didn’t stop him. And I just wanted to be around him. I wanted to tell everyone I knew about this amazing thing Mike did. I felt such joy and optimism. Everything felt possible at that moment.
Church, this is the final point, the great gift of our grace is that we are freed to rejoice in the victories of those who are doing amazing things.
To embrace grace and recognize that it is enough, we are less likely to see the accomplishments of others as a reflection of our own inadequacy. We might not boast of our own accomplishments, but grace frees us to boast for others, to talk about the amazing things other people are doing.
You see we rejoice when people do the amazing and the impossible. The fact that we are covered by grace makes it easier to celebrate the victories of the world.
I think of Mike, and I can’t help but also think about Jesus, shuﬄing out the empty tomb on two broken feet. And I want to scream “take a bow.” In this Easter tide, it is worth remembering that the great gift of Christ is not simply that he shares our suﬀering, and alleviates our burdens, but that we are privileged to share in his victory. This is the gift of grace, though we didn’t win, we get to share in the victory.
That we didn’t win doesn’t mean we celebrate less. It doesn’t mean that it tastes any less sweet. It actually tastes more sweet, because this victory was impossible for us to begin with. Victory over sin and death was never an option for us, but it was for Christ.
We have no business being here, but here we are. It is only when realize our limits that we fully understand the beauty of salvation, it is only when we recognize our powerlessness that we finally understand the power of God. It is only when we recognize our need for grace that we understand this gracious God. The victory is ours, not because we were perfect, but because God was.
All honor and power and glory to the god of grace. Whose grace is more than suﬃcient… Amen.
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