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When I Am Weak, Then I Am Strong

When I Am Weak, Then I Am Strong

II Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City

5 July 2009

    One of the great characters in our literature is King Lear, as conceived by William Shakespeare in his great tragi-comic play.

    Lear decides he wants to retire from ruling and hand his kingdom over to his daughters. He wants them to demonstrate their love and reverence for him, and thus a trap is set. His daughter Cordelia, who really does love her father, refuses to faun over him. But her two sisters, Goneril and Regan, who do not love their father but who will sacrifice anything to their own personal ambitions, are willing to say and do anything to win their father's prize. And so Lear banishes Cordelia and divides his kingdom between Goneril and Regan. What follows is madness and tragedy.

    One of the significant characters in King Lear appears only briefly on stage. That is the Fool, the court jester. The Fool has an esteemed place within our culture. Jesters, fools, and clowns played important roles in European courts, where free speech was limited. Often they could openly criticize the monarch through the use of humour, satire, and irony. The idea was that the fool was "touched" in some way. Meaning they were a little crazy, a little mad. Tradition said it was because they were touched by God. But sometimes the fool may have been the only sane person, as he is presented in Shakespeare's King Lear.

    The Fool realizes Lear's mistake in surrendering his kingdom to Goneril and Regan and banishing Cordelia. He tries to warn the King, who is too blinded by his stubbornness and pride to grasp what he is being told. The Fool bemoans his situation of knowing the truth and not being heard,

I had rather be any
kind o' thing than a fool

he says.

    Almost immediately after that utterance Goneril reappears to begin what will become her reign of terror against her father. Upon her appearance the Fool says to the King,

I am better than thou art now; I am a fool,
thou art nothing.

     The popular religious writer Frederick Buechner has written on the religious significance of this play and in particular the character of the Fool. Citing St. Paul in the first letter to the church at Corinth, "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise," Buechner then writes of Shakespeare's King Lear:

Not only are the foolish wise in his play and the wise foolish, just as the weak are strong in it and the strong weak, but what seems to be nothing [Cordelia's love] . . . turns out to be something of surpassing importance . . . . It is almost possible to think of Shakespeare as having written the entire play as a gloss on St. Paul, adding to it such other paradoxes of his own, as that it is the sane who are mad and the mad sane, just as it is also the blind who see and the seeing who are blind.

    What is madness and what is sanity? What is rational and what is irrational? What is true love and what is merely dissembling speech and action? What is foolish and what is truth?

    These questions can be interestingly relevant for us. For example, this week some of our state legislators engaged in a little political theatre with their "Proclamation of Morality." They used a handful of quotes from the Founding Fathers in order to support their idea of a Christian evangelical nation. At best these quotes are taken out of context, and some of them, research has demonstrated, do not appear anywhere in the known writings of the person to which they are attributed. To distort history in the service of a "Proclamation of Morality" is something one could expect from a Shakespearean villain, or comedian.

    I think you have to love irony if you are going to live in the State of Oklahoma, because our public life is filled with it.


    Paul himself engages in some of it here in our lectionary text from II Corinthians, part of what scholars call "the fool's speech."

    Paul is boasting. And in the process he is making a fool of himself. It's intentional. He wants the Corinthinas to think he's a fool. He wants them to laugh and mock him.

    You see, Paul has been deeply hurt by his critics in Corinth, these "super-apostles" who have been boasting of their knowledge and experience and greater ability. Compared with them, he appears weak and cowardly. Some of Paul's rhetoric in chapters ten to thirteen is troubling. He has been so deeply hurt that in places he lashes out at the Corinthians and even demonizes his opponents, calling them "false apostles" and comparing them to Satan.

    His pain, disappointment, and anger are evident, but he tries to cover them up by using humour to break the tension. That's an old tried and true method that I'm sure many of you use, I know I sure do.    

    And so the humour Paul uses is what is called "fool's speech." Paul decides to go along with his critics--he too is going to boast. But the kind of boasting he is doing is intentionally exaggerating and playing it over-the-top. In 11:23:

Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters . . .

And he keeps going on.

You see, Paul's playing a character. He's kind of like Ralph Cramden, the great Jackie Gleason character in the Honeymooners. Ralph, you'll remember, was so poor that there weren't curtains on the kitchen window. Yet Ralph had such an oversized sense of entitlement and his own glory that he'd puff out his chest and bellow. Imagine Ralph Cramden reading this section of II Corinthians and you get the kind of humour that Paul was using. And in another way it is like Ralph, in that Paul too is using the boasting to cover up his own hurt and insecurities.

    Did you notice something else about that list of boasts? They aren't the sorts of things that one would normally boast about. Oh, the caught up into Paradise might be, but the stoning, beatings, shipwrecks, etc. aren't the sorts of things anyone but a masochist would boast about. In fact, if Paul's opponents are boasting about their courage, their strength, their brilliance, then Paul boasting about his weakness and suffering will only reinforce his opponents, right?

    For example, in chapter 11, verses 32 and 33 he tells the story of his escape from Damascus, being let over the wall to escape his pursuers. Now, when I was told this story as a kid in Sunday school it was oddly enough told as a story of bravery and cunning. But that is exactly the opposite of what Paul means by using it here. Paul knows that the audience hearing this story will think that he was a coward. Calvin Roetzel, in his commentary, writes, "Thus, we might imagine that the image of the runaway Paul sharpens the irony of the contrast with the 'braggart warrior.'"

    In boasting about things that people would not normally boast about, Paul's goal is to get the Corinthians to laugh and mock to the point that they realize that boasting itself is a ridiculous activity and no sign of apostleship.


    And then Paul makes another rhetorical turn,

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.

    Paul acted like a fool to expose the Corinthians own foolishness. But just like the Fool in King Lear, Paul's "foolishness" is really the truth. It is so often the clown who ends up saying the really profound thing. Think Gracie Allen this time. Her innocent foolishness initially deceives the audience, who ultimately recognize the wisdom she embodies.

    Paul is saying that if you really live like Jesus, then people will think you are a fool. Why, because Jesus' power was revealed on the cross, in giving of himself for others. That is why Paul lists all those moments of suffering on behalf of the gospel, because it is those which bring him into solidarity with Jesus. The "power of Christ" dwells in him precisely because of his weakness.

    This idea of the "Fool for Christ" has been taken to its extreme in the Russian Orthodox Church where a number of saints have earned the title "Fool for Christ" or yurodivi in Russian. In the Russian Orthodox Church yurodivies hold an esteemed place. Wikipedia describes the role thus:

The yurodivy is a Holy Fool, one who acts intentionally foolish in the eyes of men. He or she often goes around half-naked, is homeless, speaks in riddles, is believed to be clairvoyant and a prophet, and may occasionally be disruptive and challenging to the point of seeming immorality (though always to make a point).

    The most famous of the yurodivies is St. Basil. Basil was born around the year 1468 to serfs, the lowest social class in Czarist Russia. At the age of sixteen Basil became an ascetic. He would go around naked, weighed down with chains. Many miracles and prophecies are reported of him, including sparing Moscow from invasion and stopping a disastrous fire in the city of Novgorod. He was known to directly challenge the czar, who was none other than Ivan the Terrible, someone not known for enduring criticism. The Czar is supposed to have recognized that Basil, because of his foolishness in the eyes of humankind, was, in fact, a holy man. And so Ivan would not defy Basil. When Basil died at 88 years of age, the Czar himself was one of the pall bearers. And today that beautiful church which sits in Moscow's Red Square, one of the most recognizable buildings in the world, commemorates St. Basil, this fool-for-Christ.

    But there are less extreme examples. This week David Disbrow and I were at the DBA annual pool party (which seems to always provide a sermon illustration). We got into a conversation with one of the other members about the current economic crisis. He was upset about the bailouts of companies and the use of "his money" for those who had been greedy. I pointed out that this individualistic attitude is precisely what led to the economic crisis to begin with and even though none of us might like the bailouts, we have to change our understanding and get away from thinking individualistically about what is ours and instead think about community and society and that we all rise and fall together. When I said that the highest expression of humanity was to give of yourself on behalf of others, particularly others who did not deserve it, he looked at me like I was a fool.

    For indeed I am, because if we live as Jesus has called us to live, then we live in a such a way that often we will look foolish to others. But there is a deep theological reason for why we must live differently—the world is messed up! And only by living radically differently can we return to God's will for creation.


    In tonight's Gospel Jesus sends out his followers in pairs in order to evangelize throughout Galilee. He tells them to "take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics."

    The historical Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan transformed my thinking of the early Jesus movement because of his treatment of this very passage. He writes that because they take nothing with them, these disciples must start new every morning, by connecting intimately with people. These disciples are not sent out to cities, to large arenas, but are sent to homes. To peasant homes most likely. He writes, "They share a miracle and a Kingdom, and they receive in return a table and a house." Their very survival rests upon the hospitality of the people they meet. Therefore they must meet the peasant they encounter not as a braggart or glory-seeker, but with the humility that comes from begging for one's meal and a roof over one's head.

    The early Jesus movement rejected all forms of status and instead offered a common table where everyone could come together as equals.

    And this is made all the more poignant here in Mark 6 where the chapter opens with Nazareth dismissing Jesus because he is the bastard. No hospitality has been afforded Jesus, but he does not become bitter, instead he offers in return for his suffering a radical hospitality.

    I'm sure people thought that he and his followers were fools. But if they paid enough attention, they soon realized that these were no fools. These folk had a truth and power that others only dreamed of.

    True foolishness would be to accept this world the way it is. God has something better in store. May we be like St. Paul then and boast all the more gladly in our weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in us; for whenever we are weak, then we are strong.



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