2 Corinthians 12:6-10 (NRSV)
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.
Luke 22:24-27 (NRSV)
A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”
Sermon: Power and Weakness
Let us pray:
Patient teacher, we know we seek to control our own lives, but you remind us through scripture and story that you have different intentions for us. You intend us to love. So be with us in worship this morning, speak through the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, so we draw ever closer to your intentions for us. Amen.
One of those values has really struck me lately. The Harry Potter story is an illustration not just of a battle between good and evil but between the love of power and the power of love.
Sure, there are definitely evil characters in the books. Lord Voldemort is the epitome of evil: he has no redeeming qualities and really spent his whole life being evil, even his childhood. Harry, Ron, and Hermione, the heroes of the story, are a little more complex, but they are at their cores good people. I would think many of us would prefer to think of ourselves as the Harrys, Rons, or Hermiones of the world, but even though evil is apparent even in our own communities, I think we would be hard pressed to point to someone and label them as the embodiment of evil the way Lord Voldemort is in the story. And so we can distance ourselves from the story. Oh, we think, we would join resistance movements if we lived in that kind of world, but we don’t, so as long as we are nice to people that counts as acting out goodness in the world. We have less responsibility in this framing of the story as good v. evil. So I want us to look at it differently. This is not just a battle of good over evil, but of power and weakness.
Did you catch that phrase in our scripture reading today about power and weakness? Paul, was writing to the Corinthian community in what sounds like a defensive way. Someone must have accused him of being weak, of being not as important as everyone made him out to be. I mean, if someone refered to me as weak, I would probably be mad. And Paul probably was too. But his response is not to show power, not to prove that he was strong, but to agree with the criticism. Yes, he says, yes I am weak. This, as my friend David points out, is a truly vulnerable moment for Paul.
He tells his Corinthian readers that he is hurting; really hurting. He is looking for God to take something from him, some part of him that caused him deep pain. We don’t know what it is, but we do know that Paul wants to be done with it. He wants an instant cure.1And he admits to that desire to the whole Corinthian community. He is hurting and uses the famous phrase everyone wonders about: he says he has a thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7). We don’t know what it is. But I understand his desire to be done with pain and want an instant cure.
My understanding comes not from a physical illness or pain in my own life, but from the pain that comes from being vulnerable enough to love and then having to face losing that love. Brené Brown, a researcher and storyteller, defines “vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”2 It is easy to decide the risk is too great, to decide that feeling is linked with failing, with weakness, and we try to shut ourselves off from vulnerability. This is what Voldemort’s whole life illustrates. His father left, mother died, he grew up in an orphanage, and so even as a child, he decided that loving someone who could leave him or die was too great a risk. Instead, he would focus on what he could control and began to pursue power and success at any cost.
Over and over again throughout the books, Voldemort scoffs at the power of love. When he confronts Harry Potter in the Chamber of Secrets, he wants to know the great power that protected Harry as a baby, and when he discovers that Harry was protected by his mother’s love, Voldemort dismisses that as luck.3 Voldemort always believed that if he discovered a more powerful wand, or used more powerful magic, he would never have to love anyone and risk being hurt by them. But that meant that he never risked knowing the power of love either.4 He was so afraid of experiencing the thorn in his side that Paul spoke of, so afraid of being weak, that he never knew the true strength of love.
Now, I don't think any of us are like Voldemort, not in the sense of his complete failure to empathize or feel remorse, but I do think we sometimes avoid being vulnerable because we don’t want to risk, we don’t want to appear weak, we don’t want to hurt. And we don’t want to change. Maybe we don’t trust that love actually wins. Many of you know I have had multiple miscarriages and suffer with infertility, and I have found that despite all the ways I have witnessed love winning in the pursuit of parenthood, despite all the different ways there are to parent, there are absolutely times I want to shut myself off, stop trying to be a mother in any way and just do something different. Maybe take up juggling? Have you ever felt that way? In the wake of a divorce or a friend’s betrayal or a lost job or an unexpected death, do you want to run away, shut yourself off from feeling? Find some way to not feel so weak and exposed?
Or maybe your avoidance of vulnerability comes within community. Maybe you don’t want to argue anymore, so you don’t engage with anyone about politics who doesn’t agree with you unless it is to shut them down. Maybe you are afraid of illness and so you don’t want to visit anyone in the hospital, not matter how lonely they may be. Maybe you are uncomfortable around people speaking a different language and so you belittle them and avoid them and start to believe they are profoundly different from you. To be vulnerable means that we might have to feel not only our pain, but also another’s pain. And if we feel someone else’s pain, we might feel a responsibility to do something to support them.
Harry, Ron, and Hermione are vulnerable throughout the story. And their vulnerabilities are risks, they do get hurt. Harry spends so much of the books looking for a father figure in the headmaster Dumbledore, in his godfather Sirius, in teachers like Lupin and Mad-Eye Moody. And these figures often fail him in some way; they hide truth from him, they leave him, they turn out to be someone they are not, or they simply make a mistake. And yet from each of these figures, Harry learns love and grows stronger in that love. Even with their betrayals and failures, still that love built him up to be the hero he becomes at the end of the story.
And that’s the point Paul is trying to get across, I think. He is acknowledging that he is just like us, just like Harry. He doesn’t want to hurt. He doesn’t want to be so vulnerable. He has asked God to take away his weakness. But God didn’t take away his weakness, and God doesn’t take away ours either. Through Paul’s prayers, God speaks to him and all of us, saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Through the Harry Potter story, through our own lives, we see the same thing. True power, the power of love, is made perfect in weakness, in vulnerability. In taking risks and walking without certainty.
This is what Christ asks of us. This is how Jesus himself lived. In our Gospel story today, Jesus reminded his disciples that true greatness isn’t about power but about service. Throughout Jesus’ life, he consistently chose love over power, even though that meant instead of a crown of gold he wore a crown of thorns. He chose love even when facing violence and ridicule. But this choice of love is the power of Christ. That in our vulnerability, in our risk taking, in our weakness, love has the last word over death.
My question for you, for us, to go home with this week is in what ways do we choose love? Not in what ways are we good and nice to other people, but in what ways do we open ourselves to one another, even when it makes us weak and vulnerable? In what ways is God making us perfect in our weakness, perfect in our love?
1David Finnegan-Hosey, Christ on the Psych Ward (New York: Church Publishing, 2018), 67.
2Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York: Gotham Books, 2012), 34.
3J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, (New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, Scholastic Press, 1999) 317.
4See J.K. Rowling, “Chapter 35: King's Cross,” Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, (New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, Scholastic Press, 2007) 705-723.
5J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, (New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, Scholastic Press, 2007) 654.