Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12)
Today we are going to rehabilitate the word “weak.” It is a word, like a number of others, which has had a lot of use as of late. In previous sermons, we have already revisited truth, and lying, and human dignity (that was Easter Sunday), and a couple of weeks ago, bullying (in reference to David and Goliath). But today’s topic is weakness.
The word is suggested to us, of course, by the epistle lesson, one of those rather inscrutable passages in Paul where it’s not clear at all what he’s talking about. But his point comes pretty clear in the end: for a Christian, strength comes from the realization that we are in and of ourselves weak, and know that we rely on God for our strength.
The context is this: Paul is describing “a person in Christ” who was caught up into the third heaven (not the blue sky, not the realm beyond the sky, but into heaven itself), where he had a vision of the strength of God’s mercy and grace. Now, although Paul uses the third person here, he actually seems to be talking about himself. He is the one who has been granted the sight of the glory of God, and it is comparison with that vision, that he realizes how weak he is in himself.
He muses that there are two possible responses: one is to boast of how great it was to have had this experience, placing the emphasis on his own privilege. Or the other response, is to use it as a means of self-knowledge, seeing clearly his own need for what has been disclosed to him. He chooses the latter, and so comes to his conclusion, which is the point of what he trying to get across to his readers: when we know that we are weak, then it opens us up to know the strength of God. Or, as the great nineteenth century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon put it, “We can know that God’s grace is sufficient, only when we know that our strength is insufficient.”
Weakness, it turns out, is not the opposite of strength, but rather an honesty that we cannot be fully who we are meant to be, except by relying on something greater than ourselves—on friends, allies, communities, civilities, traditions, and ultimately, on God. Even Jesus seems to have to learn this lesson in today’s gospel, when he realizes that he can do no miracle in his hometown, but must turn to his disciples and send them out to carry on his work. Weakness is a willingness and openness to seek help, to engage the world, to look outside of ourselves, to realize that we are not at the center of our own universe. Weakness is what makes us strong.
Now, that is Paul’s point, but it may all still seem a bit abstract. So let me try to bring it a bit closer to home by turning to that old gospel song, “Precious Lord, take my hand,” which we are going to sing together at the end of this sermon.
The song was written in 1932 by Thomas Dorsey (his picture is in the bulletin, if you want to look at it). Dorsey was a minister and blues singer who was living in Chicago and struggling to make ends meet for himself and his young wife Nettie. Reflecting on his troubles, he once remarked that, “The trouble with singin’ the blues, is that when you’re done you’ve still got ’em.”
While he was at one of his out of town gigs, he received word that his wife had died in childbirth, and he rushed home only to have his newborn son die in his arms shortly thereafter. Heartbroken, Dorsey was inconsolable. The women of his church, however, rallied round him, and flooded him with letters of condolence and encouragement which planted the seed in his mind for what emerged as his most famous song: Precious Lord. Perhaps you remember the words:
Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand;
I am tired, I am weak, through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the night.
In the song, he pours out his grief, his sense of helplessness, his weakness—and then, unable to anything else, he reaches out his hand to the Lord, asking for help.
And out of this lament of weakness, strength has come indeed. It has of course comforted many a person in grief, and is sung at countless funerals and memorials. But it also became a well to which the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement returned again and again, seeking the strength to carry on in the face of violence and brutality that they faced, and so in a very real sense this song helped to change the course of our nation’s history.
It was Martin Luther King’s favorite hymn. In the movie Selma, when he is at a particularly low point, he calls up his friend and colleague Mahalia Jackson seeking some word of encouragement. Her response is to sing Precious Lord softly to him over the phone line. Whether that call ever really happened we don’t know, but we do know that he asked her to sing Precious Lord at his funeral, anticipating that he would die young. And the song is closely associated with his last hours—in some tellings, it was sung at the rally the night before he died where he gave his Mountain Top sermon, or in other tellings, the last words he uttered before being cut down by an assassin’s bullet were a request that it be sung that night at the meeting he was preparing to attend.
In any case, the key is that out of the naked weakness that Precious Lord gives expression to, has come towering strength and resilience. But it is a strength that has had its roots in community—the consoling women of Dorsey’s church, the fellowship shared among civil rights leaders, the mourning of a nation after King’s death. So when you go home today, perhaps you will want to listen to just a few of the recordings that have been made of it, and you’ll hear what I mean: Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, B. B. King, Tennessee Ernie Ford, even Elvis Presley. Each, in his or her own way, pours out a soulful lament that touches us at some place deep within, where we know the true neediness of our inner selves, but find God’s strength therein.
For you see, the lesson that we human beings have to learn—and sometimes have to learn over and over again—is that we are not sufficient unto ourselves, not as individuals, not as races, and not as nations. We try to pretend that we can put ourselves first, and come out ahead. But all we really do when we do that is to break down those bonds of community and affection that hold us up and challenge us to be more and to be better than we are in isolation. Without the other, we are diminished. Without the stranger and the foreigner, we are impoverished. Without the poor, we are grudging. Without the grieving, we are arrogant. Without the weak, we are shallow.
So if you will, take out the Gather Hymnal, and turn to number 955, and remaining seated, let’s pray together the words of Precious Lord, hearing in them the assurance that whenever we are weak, then we are strong.