180708 – Hard to Be Humble

Yr B – Pentecost 7 – 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

A little context right off the top. Paul is thought to be writing in response to some itinerant preachers who have gone through the Corinthian church and stirred up some trouble with their interpretations of faith. Paul calls them something like “super-apostles” but he doesn’t mean it kindly. They apparently preached about how you have to be strong and powerful and master your adversity to be faithful, like they themselves supposedly were, and that because of their high faithfulness they deserved high status.hard-to-be-humble

Have you ever met a super-apostle? Someone whose spiritual resume is so full that they can’t help but tell you all about it?
[sarcastically] They aren’t bragging, of course, they’re just showing you by their own awesome and amazing example how great a life of faith can be if you live it the right way – like they do!

Perhaps those kinds of obvious “holier than thou” people are less plentiful than the more subtle, but just as misguided, “humbler than thou” types?
Have you ever met one of those? I bet you have!
There’s even a new term that’s been coined to describe what they do – it’s called humblebragging.

Humblebragging is a superficially modest or self-deprecating statement that is actually intended to impress people – or to elicit compliments or recognition. And social media things like Twitter are the perfect vehicle to use to humblebrag to the world!

Here’s a few examples:

A woman tweets, “No makeup on, hair’s not done, pretty sure I’m not wearing deodorant – still get hit on. Sigh.”

A famous spirituality guy tweets, “Hope & despair are born of imagination. I am free of both.”

And my favourite, a megachurch pastor who epitomizes the humblebrag – “I’m truly humbled that you follow my tweets. I pray they enrich your life and strengthen your ministry. God bless all 200,000 of you!”

These are the modern-day version of the super-apostles like Paul was battling. So how would Paul take them on? Well, sadly, he starts with his own humblebrag.
He starts 2 Corinthians 12 with a story of a man he knows who has experienced indescribably remarkable spiritual ecstasies. Many scholars believe he’s actually talking about himself, but we’ll let that slide for now. Then he says this:

2 Corinthians 12:5
On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.

But when you think about it, Paul had every reason to brag! I mean, he was da man! He was previously a Pharisee – learned, respected – and after coming to faith in Jesus he became a church-planter par excellence! Everywhere he went the word of God was shared, the name of Jesus was celebrated, and the body of Christ was expanded and strengthened. Paul had much to brag about! Heck, he’s got churches named after him all over the world! We’ve got one right next door in Bowmanville, and another in Ajax. Imagine how many followers he’d have on Twitter today!

But in the midst of that, despite a little irresistible humblebragging, he says something really, really profound.
Within verse 5 he says, I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.

Paul sets himself up as equal to or better than those so-called super-apostles, but then turns the tables and comes at it from a very different interpretive lens. Weakness.
I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.

That’s something of an oxymoron for us. Boasting in weakness.
It doesn’t compute at first. We need to wrestle with it.
Please note that when he says that he boasts in weaknesses it’s not a really a celebration of lacking strength, or resolve, or resources, or conviction – rather it’s about one’s inability to do it all on one’s own.
THAT is the big spiritual takeaway here. It’s not about boasting about how awesome a follower of Jesus I am, or how I’m some kind of shining beacon of virtue or whatever.
Like so much of Jesus’ teaching the insight comes when you turn that kind of thinking upside down.

Paul says,
I’m boasting that I’m not Super-person.
Boasting that I’m not perfect.
Boasting that I have blind spots.
Boasting that I will indeed fall short many times.
Boasting that I’m not capable of handling everything by my own power.
Boasting that I may actually need a little help.
Boasting that I may be better off admitting that I have some weakness.
Boasting that my willingness to surrender is a greater source of strength than my desire to be in charge ever could be.
Boasting that realizing that is my greatest source of strength!!!

And then, just when you’re thinking, “Gee, this dude really is humble” he goes and says in verses 6-7
But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth.

[O Lord, it’s hard to be humble!]

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.

We have no idea what this thorn in his side was.
Whatever it was, this pain functioned as a means to open Paul to insights about power in weakness, and God’s presence in pain.

But let’s be perfectly clear about something here.
God does not ever manufacture pain to teach us anything.
That is an abhorrent theological error!
Whatever Paul’s painful thorn was it may have revealed God to him but it wasn’t sent by God.

Or maybe Paul’s significant contributions and gifts and skills were sources of prideful arrogance for him and that constant battle between basking in the glow of compliments vs basking in the light and love of God was the thorn in his flesh? Again, no one knows.

But whether it was a physical ailment or a metaphysical one, Paul’s thorn was real!
And the jab of it helped him notice God’s Presence more vividly.

And then Paul closes this part of his letter with this profound and provocative idea:
2 Corinthians 12:9-10

And the Lord 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.

God says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

“My grace, my unmerited blessing, my love for who you are right now, is sufficient for you, because receiving my love is receiving spiritual power – and that loving power is made perfect, brought to completeness and fullness and maturity – in weakness, in surrender, in dropping your guard and allowing yourself the gift of being loved and not needing to be a world-beater all on your own.”

To love or receive love requires weakness – vulnerability!

In that way, love is weakness – and through that loving, vulnerable weakness Christ’s strength in you is made perfect – mature – complete – full!

Now that sounds great in the middle of a sermon, at a church, while we’re all on the same page. But weakness and vulnerability and surrender are not exactly highly valued in today’s world.

The single most popular kind of movies being made these days are super-hero movies. And just like those super-apostles in Paul’s day that is literally the polar opposite to the values of surrender and weakness that Paul is espousing.

Today’s scripture is hard for us to hear because our culture absolutely celebrates strength and victory – especially strength done by your own power, and will, and determination, and grit.

And those aren’t negative things. I’m not saying we need to be wimps or weak.

I’m saying we need to know the difference between what kinds of things need our self-will and what kinds of things need our self-surrender. Of course you need determination, and self-reliance, and personal wherewithal to get by in the world.
But if that’s all you’ve got in your toolbox you will never understand the teaching of Jesus, and the kingdom of God.

So what shall we do? How about we pray?

And I know just the prayer! It comes from Reinhold Niebuhr, and you already know it. Well, you know a popular version of it. It’s called the Serenity Prayer.
But I’d like to share with you the original version as Niebuhr actually wrote it.

And what’s going to surprise you isn’t that the first few famous lines are slightly different in the original – but that there’s another whole portion to the prayer that most people have never heard. And it’s a shame because it’s really great stuff!

Here it is:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things which should be changed,
And the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

Living one day at a time – enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it,
Trusting that you will make all things right, if I surrender to your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with you forever in the next.

Humility means accepting that there are some things that can’t be changed, no matter how hard you try.

Humility means saying ‘not my will but thy will be done.’

Humility means knowing that your strength is probably not enough – but God’s power is sufficient, and it is made perfect and full and mature in you through surrender.

Humility means knowing that even though you are truly awesome – and you are! – that there are many things in this life that are beyond you.

Humility means knowing that despite all your gifts and skills and wherewithal that the most powerful and effective and necessary strength in life comes from love – which can only be known through being vulnerable.

O Lord, it’s hard to be humble.
But if we can lean into that we can know the truth of the forgotten part of Niebuhr’s prayer:

Living one day at a time – enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it,
Trusting that you will make all things right, if I surrender to your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with you forever in the next.