Pentecost 6B: Boasting and Praying on a Pandemic Fourth

The Second Reading for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost is 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 in which Paul demurs from boasting, says he could boast in his visions, but concludes that Christ’s refusal to remove his “thorn of the flesh” taught him to boast in his weakness.

What follows is a sermon I am to deliver this Pentecost 6/Independence Day weekend—a meditation on Paul’s lessons about boasting and prayer.

We can use these lessons this weekend because the Fourth of July is always a time of boasting, isn’t it. We wave flags. We set off fireworks. Why? Because we want to stick out our chests—we feel proud—we love our country, and we want the world to know. We are BOASTING.

But this Independence Day comes after a long, long time when this nasty pandemic has kept us alone—separated from friends and family. And when we are alone, with our thoughts, and with nobody but God to talk to, we want to pray. We have to pray to keep ourselves from going a bit crazy.

So, Paul’s first lesson for us is about boasting: 

  1. “It’s necessary to boast.”  Paul says he has been pushed in a corner by people who have come to Corinth saying he has no right—no credentials to be a missionary.
  2. “But nothing can come of it.”
  3. I could boast of my visions, but, instead, I’ve learned to boast only about one thing: My weakness.

I think I may have some personal insight into what Paul is talking about. Let me tell you two quick stories that shaped me.

The first happened on the railroad tracks that ran behind my house in Louisville, Kentucky. We kids hung out there a lot, and one day when I was about 12 or so, I had a run-on with Renee Butchel. Renee was a big bully from a nearby neighborhood; and he and I didn’t encounter each other that often, but each time we did, he humiliated me. He called me “chicken,” threw mud all over me, even pulled a knife on me and tried to cut me up. But this time, on the tracks, he pushed me too far. We fought with fists, and when one of his landed on my face, I thought, “He hits like a girl!” (no offence to you girls out there). So I clobbered him and wrestled him to the ground. And when I had him down, I started to beat his head on the railroad tracks.

Having him there I felt boastful. I had him beat. I was strong and he was weak.

But then I caught a glimpse of my friends – and even my own older brother—standing around. And their faces looked sick. They were stunned. They were appalled at what I had become.  And so was I!

That was one kind of boasting. “I’m stronger than you. I can dominate you. I can destroy you.”

Thank God there was another story.

The guys and I were now starting a baseball game on the field of my elementary school. We were happily choosing up sides with Bobby showed up on his bicycle. Bobby was too fat and too slow and he wore thick glasses and everyone was used to making fun of Bobby. He stood there stubbornly, wishing one of us would choose him for a side. But, instead, one of the kids went over, walked past Bobby, and spit all over his bicycle seat.

But I felt for Bobby. So I went over and I wiped his bike seat clean. 

I knew it was a risk. I was there with spit all over my shirt sleeve. I looked weak. And I had invited Bobby onto our side and nobody wanted him there.

But something told me I was weak, but some sort of new, different kind of power was coming alive in me. And I had made my choice—this was the strength and power I need to boast about.

Now, we Christians aren’t the first to discover this other kind of boasting and power. Philosophers down through the ages have pointed towards it too. For instance, at the same time Paul was writing his letters there was a famous philosopher named Epictetus—and he wrote this:

 So that you may see for yourselves, O people, that you are searching for happiness and serenity, not where they are but where they are not, behold, I have been sent to you by God as an example—one who has neither goods, nor house, nor wife, nor children—no, not even a bed, or a shirt, or a pot. Yet you can see how healthy I am. Make trial of me, and if you see me maintaining my tranquillity, then listen to my remedies and the treatment that cured me.

For Epictetus and the Cynic and Stoic philosophers of the day it was not brute power over others, nor was it wealth or prestige that people should be proud of – that would give them happiness—but it was inner virtue.

Good advice. But our teacher, the Apostle Paul, takes us much deeper. He takes us to Jesus Christ.

First, Christ shows us what virtue is for—love and respect of others. What good is it to go against the grain—to be counter cultural – to choose what other people look at as weakness?  And what is the true purpose of this power that the crowds around us miss?  IT IS TO LIVE FOR OTHERS – AND TO BE WILLING TO SUFFER AND EVEN DIE FOR YOUR LOVE OF OTHERS.

            Paul was on his way to punish Christ followers. He was feeling boastful along the way. He had all the right answers and those who believed in Jesus were just plain wrong. But when Christ said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me,”  he began to have his eyes opened. What good is it to be right when all you do is hate?

            Paul learned how Christ emptied himself for us. How his mission was to be a servant to all people, and to give his life for others—even out of love of his enemies.

            Paul learned how Jesus didn’t hate anyone, but ate with sinners and tax collectors, came to the defense of an adulterous women, healed the servant of a Centurion – brought back from the dead a gentile boy.

            Yes, Christ looked weak and died a humiliating death as a criminal – but he did it out of love, and to bring respect for other people back into religion, and the human race.

            Jesus said – “No one takes my life from me. I lay it down…for others.”

            So, Jesus looks weak on that cross—but the Centurion at the cross knows, Pilate knows, Satan—the King of Death knows Jesus is more powerful than all of them.

            So, what about us? Sure, we too can simply live our lives as humble and helpless, and as perpetual victims. We can whine about it. We can even use it to get attention. But that’s not what Paul is calling us to today.

            Paul is saying, when you empty yourself to serve – to care—to lift someone else up—you have REAL POWER. Love, and caring respect for others is the most powerful thing in the universe though it can’t possibly be measured or proven by experimentation—no scientist or economist will possibly tell you about it.

            But, read Paul’s letters, and you will hear him saying to the people, “I can boast in only one thing—I’ve learned to follow Jesus. I pour out myself for you. And for breaking down dividing walls and pulling together—so there will be no Jew or Greek, slave or free,  male and female, but all one people in Christ.”

Paul’s second lesson about virtue:  Its source and its power comes from Christ.

Christ not only shows us the purpose, but Christ is the source of it in each of us. Paul had this power- but you can I have it too. It comes with faith in God, and being Christians. It comes with our baptisms.

So, Paul writes to us in Galatians 2:

 I have been crucified with Christ; 20 and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

And again in this next chapter of Second Corinthians that we read from today Paul writes that, though his critics say he seems too weak, he is actually sharing with the Corinthians the very power given by Christ:

[Christ] is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful in you. For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.

No, when Paul recommends to us BOASTING IN WEAKNESS, this is no empty and resentment-filled martyr complex. It must never be a ploy by the church to keep women and minorities servile.   It is strength of the eternal kind. It is the power of Christ to change the world and to overcome death itself. And this is the strength that is our baptismal and apostolic privilege.

That is Paul on boasting in weakness.

Now we come to Paul’s lesson on prayer.

Back to my little story about how I learned not to be boastful and beat my antagonizers head on the railroad tracks, and instead to go over and wipe off the spittle from Bobby’s bicycle seat. I always would rather preach myself as sinner than saint. But what I want to say now is that I didn’t change myself. Christ did it.

Christ did it through my mother, taking me to church, and even more, by kneeling at my bedside  and praying with me, night after night.

We like to say “Prayer changes things.” Well that’s right, in a way. But what does prayer change? If we are doing it right, prayer changes us.

But, instead of keeping track of how much of our wish list is granted, and even how many words we pile up—we must listen for God’s reply. It may be “yes.” More often it is “no.” But it perhaps it is most often in silence when God is at work changing not stuff out there—but changing us.

Paul writes to us: “I was given (given by whom? By Christ himself?)  I was given a thorn in the flesh. Three times I asked that it leave me.  But Jesus said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”              

So, now I can  boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”

Prayer changes things by changing us.

One last story:

Howard was a big strapping man with a booming voice, who had made a fortune selling car parts. He was a Christmas and Easter sort of Lutheran. Seldom seen. So when he asked for an appointment to talk to the pastor, it was quite an occasion. He came in and said, “I know this church is on the ropes. And you’re not the kind of pastor who knows the church is a business and should be run like a business. But I’m going to make a deal with you and the Lord. My son-in-law had a car accident, and the doctors said we shouldn’t expect him to live. Now, I don’t want him to die. I’ve been praying for him to live and come back to work. He is a great guy—he works for me and has been great for the business. So now I’m going to put my money where my mouth is. I’m prepared to cut a check for the church for $20,000 if he pulls through. And here, I’ve put it in writing so you know I mean business.         

Well, the piece of paper sat there in the pastor’s drawer for a long, long time, because the son-in-law died. No hope for the big check. But the pastor kept it there as a sort of life lesson.        

But then, a few years later, there was another chapter to the story.    Howard came by again. His chest wasn’t puffed out as much. And he spoke in much quieter tones.  He said he had been praying that his daughter find another good strong guy.  Well, she did marry again. But he was disappointed in prayer again because he thought this new husband was a good-for-nothing weakling. He thought the wrong things. He was an elementary school teacher—and who ever heard of a man teaching third grade?   He voted the wrong way. And he probably couldn’t provide.

But when he and his daughter had an argument about her weakling of a husband, she shared secrets he didn’t know about. Her first husband had been a good provider—but he was cold and brutal to her and the kids. But this new husband was kind, understanding. NOT AS STRONG LOOKING—BUT STRONG IN HIS BELIEFS AND IN HIS CARING.   So, Howard said he was going to give not $20,000, but $40,000 to the church.  

Prayer changes things if we do it right. It changes us.

We begin to give ourselves for others—respect them—see that we need them.

Love wells up in us and love is the greatest gift—the greatest power.

We have something to boast about—our weakness and God’s great strength.

Amen.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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