June 28, 2021
The Proper 9B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 6:1-13 from the Lectionary Gospel; 2 Samuel 5:1-10 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 123 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 30 (Lord’s Day 11)
Author: Scott Hoezee
This lection from Mark 6 provides a curious set of contrasts as well as a wonderful irony.
First, we twice read the word “amazed” here: first in verse 2 and then again in verse 6. Jesus is doing what he’s been doing ever since Mark 1 and 2 when he began his public ministry of authoritative teaching and wondrous miracles. This time, however, he’s doing this work back home among people who “knew him when.” And so although we are told that they were “amazed” at his work, this is a different Greek word than the one used in verse 6.
The people are, in Greek, ekplesso, a word that contains more than a hint of incredulity. This kind of amazement is not the fall back in awe sense of wonder you have when something amazes you in a delightful way but more the astonishment you feel at something you’re not 100% is even real. Sometimes people amaze me by what they say but a good portion of the amazement I feel stems from my disbelief that ANYONE could ever think in so odd or illogical a way! (The Greek word here explesso may have no linguistic connection to “perplexed” but part of this word reminds me of “perplexed”.)
For his part in verse 6, Jesus’ amazement is from the more common Greek word thaumazo, which is the kind of astonishment that contains little doubt but that bowls you over with power. When a gifted violinist whizzes through a series of arpeggios in a Bach violin solo, I am amazed, blown away, simply left speechless at the wonderful thing I just experienced. That’s how Jesus felt: he had no doubts as to what he was seeing before his eyes, it just took his breath away that the situation was what it was.
Jesus’ amazement stems from their dubious amazement as to what Jesus was saying and doing in their midst. The reason is that the crowd can’t quite believe what they are witnessing. This has to be some sort of conceit, some trick, some chimera that is not what it appears to be at first glance. Notice how they move themselves from dubious astonishment to a wholesale impeaching of what arrested their attention in the first place.
Literally translated, here are the people’s collective comments in verse 2: “What’s all this now? Who gave this fellow such wisdom? What kind of (miraculous) power is this that flows through his hand?” These comments are peppered with vague words of the “how now?” and “wassup?” variety. The Greek is littered with tiny particles and interrogatives of a general and generic nature.
But precisely by stating and framing things just this way, the people are implying that the obvious conclusion—viz., this is all from God himself—cannot be the right conclusion. SOMEthing is up, but who can say just what it is? All their “whither” and “whence” queries darkly hint at the possibility that the source for all this is something shady, something underhanded, maybe even something evil. It’s almost as though they are sputtering, casting about for some explanation, ANY explanation, other than the obvious one.
They then further back this up by mentioning Jesus’ pedestrian origins in a simple family from their community. Who does he think he is anyway? He’s parading himself around as someone great, but everyone in his hometown knew better than to accept that at face value! And so they rather quickly manage to transform their initial (albeit dubious) astonishment at Jesus’ words and deeds into a scandal—a hometown scandal. In verse 4 the Greek skandalizo—literally to be tripped up by someone—is the word translated as “offense” in some versions of Mark 6. They found Jesus to be a stumbling block, a cause of falling down instead of a source of inspiration that could lift them up.
Jesus could not do much for or with people who viewed him that way. Doubtless there was a little envy going on here, and as we all know (and see the Illustration Idea on this text) once you are the target of envy, there is little you can do to defuse that envy. You’re rendered powerless by those who envy you—anything you do to try to get around their envy merely deepens their suspicion.
In a wonderful twist, however, Mark shows us that Jesus turns right around and far from being undone by the treatment he received at the hands of his fellow townsfolk, he actually EXPANDS the mission by sending out the disciples (who will soon be referred to as “apostles” for the first time ever in verse 17 of this same chapter) armed with more power over disease and demons than they ever had before. That’s the great irony here. The more the world tries to tamp Jesus down, impugn his character, hinder his ministry, the more the Holy Spirit responds by sending out more workers to do even more miraculous teachings and deeds!
And THAT, very properly, should evoke amazement from us all!
As noted above, the Greek of this text contains some interesting clues as to how to interpret what is going on here. First, there are two different verbs in verses 2 and 6, even though in many English translations both get rendered “amazed.” But the people’s amazement in verse 2 (Gk: ekplesso) contains a whiff of incredulity and doubt. Jesus’s amazement in verse 6 (Gk: thaumazo), on the other hand, is the more usual sense of being surprised at the situation before him. Speaking of the people’s doubt-tinged amazement, the “offense” that the people take at Jesus as reported on in verse 4 is in the Greek skandalizo, which is literally a stumbling block. This could even give you a title for this sermon: “Hometown Scandal.”
In his story “Abel Sanchez,” writer Miguel deUnamuno nicely highlights the nature of envy and why it that the envied person is often trapped. In this retelling of the Cain and Abel story from Genesis 4, the Cain character is played by a skilled surgeon who has for years secretly envied his friend, Abel Sanchez, a skilled artist. At one point in the story, the doctor is scrutinizing one of Abel’s paintings. This particular painting is a depiction of the Cain and Abel story from the Bible. At first, the doctor is convinced that the face of Cain in the painting is modeled on his own face. And he becomes furious! How dare Abel Sanchez use HIM as a model for envy? The gall! The nerve! The implied accusation!
But then, upon closer inspection, the doctor decides it’s not his face after all. Does this defuse his anger, however? By no means! Instead the surgeon becomes irate that Abel Sanchez did NOT deign to use him in one of his famous paintings! How dare Abel NOT use his face!
DeUnamuno’s point is clear: when you are the object of envy, you cannot do a blessed thing to make the situation any better. Try to be extra kind to the one who envies you, and this kindness will get written off as condescension and charity. Try to rise above things by ignoring the one torn up with envy and you will be written off as arrogant and rude, thereby merely confirming the envier’s low opinion of you. Neither approach nor avoidance can help the envied one.
It’s difficult to know how much of a role envy plays in Mark 6 but surely the sneering attitude of Jesus’ fellow townsfolk revealed at least a smidgen of envy-driven sentiments. Maybe this had something to do with his inability/unwillingness to do miracles there. He was doomed no matter what he did. Do more miracles, and the people write him off as a showboat (and/or as someone drawing off power from dubious sources). If he refused to do miracles, maybe a few would say, “What now?! We’re not good enough for ya, not WORTHY of your wonder-working power!?”
Perhaps the only thing left to do was leave town and go to other villages, from which Jesus sent forth his disciples-cum-apostles to do wonderful work in places where it could be unalloyedly appreciated.
2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
Author: Stan Mast
This is a little text, but it is the exclamation point of the whole David story. He gets everything God promised him, and then some. The boy whom we first met when he was shepherding his father’s flock becomes the King of Israel, the shepherd of God’s flock. And he establishes Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel. It will become the locus of God’s saving activity and the focus of the biblical hope.
But it wasn’t easy getting here. After the deaths of David’s worst enemy, the mad king Saul, and David’s closest friend, the beloved Jonathan, there were 7 and ½ years of bloodshed and treachery and sorrow. When Saul and Jonathan were killed in battle, a fierce civil war broke out between David and the house of Saul, that is, between Judah in the south and the rest of Israel in the north, as represented by the generals Joab and Abner. The house of Saul refused to cede the throne to its God anointed successor and instead put Saul’s son, Ish-bosheth, on the throne. It was not a peaceful transfer of power, but, as the ensuing chapters point out, that wasn’t David’s fault.
Oh, yes, David was involved in the civil war, but he never shed innocent blood. That is, he was innocent of bloodguilt. The writer of the story takes great pains to establish David’s innocence in this respect. As the war progressed, David’s side got stronger, while Saul’s got weaker. Finally, the great general Abner (on Saul’s side) defected to David’s side after being falsely accused of sexual misconduct by Ish-Bosheth. Abner brought much of the northern kingdom with him.
When Joab learned that Abner had visited David, he suspected treachery and set out to stop the supposed plot against David. But he had an ulterior motive. Abner had inadvertently killed Joab’s younger brother, Asahel, and Joab wanted revenge. When Joab killed Abner, Ish-Bosheth was left without his greatest defender. Two of his war lords took advantage of the situation, murdering their king and taking his severed head to David in hopes of a reward. What they got instead was exactly the same reward David gave the Amalekite who claimed to have killed Saul—a brutal execution.
Thus, David has blood on his hands; he is “a man of blood.” But he had comported himself honorably through the whole bloody mess– mourning the death of his chief opponent and his general, as he had mourned Saul; visiting justice on those who laid their hands on his enemies; and refusing to seize the throne that God had promised him. When he finally gets that throne in our text, it wasn’t because David had grasped it; it was a gift from God. David’s honor is intact, so far. We will see him lose it in a few chapters.
But for now, David is the rightful and righteous claimant to the throne. The leaders of the northern coalition see that. So, when they find themselves without a leader, they come, hat in hand, to the man they had fiercely battled. David has been king of Judah for those 7 and ½ years, ruling from the southern city of Hebron.
That’s where the elders of Israel come to David, to invite/implore him to become their king. They have three reasons. First, he is their “flesh and blood.” He is family, a cousin, one of the covenant people composed of the descendants of the 12 sons of Jacob. Second, he had been their de facto military leader even when Saul was king; Saul may have slain his thousands, but David had slain his tens of thousands. Third, they somehow knew that God had promised David this kingship. “And the Lord said to you, ‘You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler.’”
David is persuaded by their reasoning, even though he knew very well that God had given him this position. Here the human and the divine come together; the leaders plead and God keeps his promises. Thus, the one whom God had anointed by the hand of Samuel all those years ago is now anointed by the leaders of Israel. But first he makes a compact, a covenant, with them. His reign would not be based on power, but on mutually agreed upon responsibilities and promises, that is, on covenant.
The order of words here is significant. David “made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord.” He was the primary partner in the covenant, the sovereign who dictated the terms. Although he was not a typical Middle Eastern strong man, he was in charge. But he was in charge because the Lord was with him. Thus, this covenant was signed and sealed “before the Lord.” It was, in other words, not merely a political and military agreement; it was a theological agreement. Then, before the Lord, David was anointed “king over all Israel.” He was the new Messiach. Exclamation point! God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. This is David’s crowning achievement, the beginning of Israel’s Golden Age.
The next verses (4-5) summarize that Golden Age using a regnal formula found throughout the Old Testament. Beginning to reign in the south at Hebron at the age of 30, he reigned 7 and ½ years down there. Then he reigned for 33 years over all Israel in Jerusalem. Can the number 40 here be an historical accident, when Israel wandered 40 years and Jesus was tempted for 40 days in the wilderness?
But wait? How did David come to reign in Jerusalem? Well, that’s another story, and our reading for today inexplicably excises that part of II Samuel 5. And that’s inexcusable, given how Jerusalem looms literally and theologically in the Bible. Verses 6-8 give us a brief account of how David conquered it by stealth rather than sword.
Our text picks up the story with a sentence that foreshadows centuries of history. “David took up residence in the fortress and called it the City of David.” There is more in those words than we might guess at first. It was the City of David, not the city of Judah or Israel. Indeed, it was located more or less at the midpoint of the Promised Land, between Judah and Israel. Thus, it was a neutral site, an ancient Geneva, where David could reign in a place that was uniquely his own. What’s more, he let the former residents, the Jebusites, stay in town; one scholar suggests that he kept them around to become the urban officials that the tribal Israelites were not equipped to be. David was not only a sweet singer and a mighty warrior; he was also a wise leader.
Safely and securely enthroned in the fortress of his own city, David expanded the city. It was only 12 acres big when he conquered it, but he took advantage of the steep slopes and cliffs that surround Jerusalem in 3 sides and made it stronger and larger. Thus, by his own ambition and wisdom, David became more and more powerful.
But then comes the concluding sentence of our reading, which puts things back in perspective; “because the Lord God Almighty, Yahweh, God of hosts, was with him.” That is the secret of David’s story. He had a brilliant career because he was always attended by the covenantal Lord of Israel, the commander of the heavenly hosts. Even as Yahweh would take up residence in the temple in Jerusalem, God was with David in person, a foreshadowing of that Son of David who would be called Immanuel.
This is the exclamation point of the great story of covenant faithfulness by both the man David and the God of Israel. David was a man after God’s own heart who remained faithful to God through all the vagaries and depredations of his bloody history (until that awful affair with Bathsheba, which would have dreadful consequences for David’s family and for all Israel). And the God of Israel was faithful to his promises to David. That mixture of human responsibility and divine sovereignty, of performance and promise, of sin and grace is the story of God’s people throughout history. From this we are reminded that our faithfulness matters, but God’s faithfulness matters more, because in the end, it’s all grace.
That theme of grace is underlined in this little text by the confluence of such crucial biblical themes as King, Messiah, and Jerusalem. The stage is now set for the role of Jerusalem in Israel’s subsequent history, climaxing in the crucifixion and resurrection of David’s greatest Son in Jerusalem, and climaxing again when that Son shall return again with the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven on the last day. “Of the increase of his kingdom there shall be no end.”
The image of human responsibility and divine sovereignty being interwoven through history and our story reminded me of the poem written by Corrie ten Boom, the brave Dutch Christian who suffered so much under the Nazis.
My life is but a weaving
Between my God and me.
I cannot choose the colors
he weaveth steadily.
Oft’ times he weaveth sorrow;
And I in foolish pride
Forget he sees the upper
And I the underside
Not ‘til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly
Will God unroll the canvass
And reveal the reason why.
The dark threads are as needful
In the weaver’s skillful hand
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern he has planned.
He knows, he loves, he cares;
Nothing this truth can dim.
He gives the very best to those
Who leave the choice to him.
Author: Scott Hoezee
If the entirety of this short psalm were embedded inside a larger psalm, then at least verse 2 is the kind of verse I would expect the Lectionary to leapfrog over. As I have noted often in these sermon commentaries here on the Center for Excellence in Preaching, the Lectionary likes to skip over words of judgment or invectives against enemies and other unpleasantries. Psalm 123 does not really contain too much of that but verse 2’s slavery images are unsettling in their own way. It’s not an analogy that sits very well with us in the modern world. Nor should it.
It’s a little hard to know just how to parse the duel images of the male slave looking to his master’s hand and the female slave’s looking to the hand of her mistress. Is this an image that indicates the slave in question is waiting for the master/mistress to beat them? Strike them? Or perhaps more positively do they hope to see the master/mistress open their hands to the slave so as to indicate things are OK? Since this double image is followed up by a hope to see some mercy coming from God, it surely looks like the fear would be the opposite of mercy, which would almost have to be punishment of some kind. Is God’s hand going to smite me or bless me?
And that’s unpleasant as images or analogies go. Surely no pastor would get away with using such an image today. Not only is the very institution of slavery one we properly find offensive, the implied fear behind this image seems to accord better with a Marcionite conception of the God of the Old Testament than the God of lovingkindness and mercy we associate with the God Jesus instructed us to call “Our Father.”
So there is that wrinkle in Psalm 123.
Then there is the reason that stands behind the plea for divine mercy: because we are sick and tired of our opponents beating up on us. The proud have contempt for God’s people, this psalm says. The arrogant ridicule us. So now it’s up to God to come through for us, to be nice to us, to lift us up and all of that presumably because that will heap scorn on our opponents by showing them who is who. “Boo-Yah! Look who’s on top of the world now, you snarky snipes and mean-spirited critics!”
But this also seems a tad unsettling. Should it ever be a primary motiving goal in our lives as followers of Jesus to lord our favored status from God over the heads of unbelievers or critics of the faith? I mean, in recent years the so called New Atheists have had a good time making a cottage industry out of pooh-poohing and belittling Christian faith (if not all religious faith generally). Names like Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins will ring lots of bells with anyone who has been paying attention to this sustained effort to make Christianity in particular look like a backwards, troglodyte, and retrograde way to view life and the world generally. Christians, these people say, are as daft as people who believe in the Tooth Fairy, river sprites, or who worship Druid-like the spirits inside maples and oaks. Christianity in the view of these atheists is not just wrong, it’s silly. It’s pathetic that anyone in the 21st century would give such a world and life view even a moment’s consideration, much less a lifetime of fervent devotion.
So let’s just admit that this is the kind of thing that could make one’s blood boil. Let’s admit that in the deep recesses of our hearts we would love nothing more than to see these people get a thorough trouncing and get sent away with their religio-philosophical tails between their legs. But is indulging that desire for vindication (and revenge) really our first, best impulse vis-à-vis these figures? Would not the example of Jesus lead us in a different, a better, a more compassionate direction?
Still, in the cosmic long run, we know that such vindication will come. Think of Philippians 2 and Paul’s words that one day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. Think of the image from Revelation that when Christ comes again, everyone will see him “even those who pierced him” the text says. Recognizing Jesus as the cosmic Lord of lords and King of kings is not restricted in such passages to believers only. This seems to include everybody.
But I would assume that by then, we will be finished with any desires for vindication in a way designed to shame our opponents and we will be way past having desires for revenge on our critics and cultural naysayers. If anything by that time when Christ comes again, it may be our dearest wish that Jesus will save as many as possible, even those who gave Christians the hardest time here on earth. The mercy Psalm 123 asks God to extend to God’s suffering people may well be a mercy we will hope will descend on all people.
It’s not that Psalm 123 asks for something that is wholly untoward. It’s just that in a Christian reading of this text now, we know we need not ever cower like a slave before our loving God even as we also know that the vindication we often pine for will come but in a way that will itself be gracious and full of mercy.
This may not be a fully apt illustration to accompany Psalm 123 but something about where my thinking led me in pondering this psalm and its apparent calls for vindication over critics and enemies reminded me of Frederick Buechner’s comment in one of his books concerning the character of Barabbas. As we all know, at the end of the trial and interrogation of Jesus, Pontius Pilate gave the bloodthirsty crowd a choice: should he release Jesus or the criminal thug Barabbas? The crowds cried to set the actual criminal free and let the non-criminal get crucified. Buechner noted that this was, of course, a sad commentary on the state of mind of that crowd, many of whom included Jesus’s fellow Jews. Then again, Buechner mused, if Jesus had been given the same choice, he would have elected to set Barabbas free too.
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Author: Doug Bratt
[God’s] power is made perfect in weakness might be one of the most appropriate and hopeful things the inspired Paul could say to his 2021 hearers. After all, in the past 18 months we’ve surely learned if not been reminded that we are weak.
Among the countless reasons why the COVID-19 pandemic may have proven to be so devastating is that it has challenged 21st century assumptions that we’re largely invulnerable. We in the West naturally assumed that epidemics, shortages of vaccines and medicine, hospital and mortuary spaces, as well as physical, emotional and spiritual trauma were the exclusive domain of Third and Fourth World countries. Many North Americans, at least, assumed we were strong, if not individually or relationally, at least communally and nationally.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has helped to highlight our “weakness” (9). It has shown us that even North Americans and other westerners are not “bulletproof.” North Americans’ almost countless deaths, illnesses and job losses have “tormented” (8) us. We’ve prayed far more than “three times” for the Lord to take this plague away. Yet even now, even as it begins to ebb in parts of the global North, COVID-19 continues to render countless global neighbors “weak.”
I haven’t yet met anyone who “boasts” (5, 6, 9) in this weakness. No one I know has “delighted” in the individual, relational, society and international “weakness,” “hardships” and “difficulties” (10) this pandemic has uncovered. In fact, such a reaction would seem heartless.
So this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s talk about rejoicing in misery may sound highly dissonant to 21st century ears. In it, after all, the Apostle Paul “boasts” not about himself or his strengths, but about his “weakness” (5).
The Greek word we translate as “boast” is kauchesomai. There’s not as much nuance in it as there is in many other Greek words. It means to “boast,” “brag about,” “rejoice” or “glory in.” Paul’s use of kauchesomai in 2 Corinthians 12 strongly suggests that he’s reluctant to brag about anything or anyone but his weakness. While he claims he wouldn’t be lying if he were to brag about his gifts and himself, he chooses to, instead, deflect attention away from himself in order to boast about his weaknesses.
The Greek word we translate as “weakness,” or literally, “weaknesses” is astheneais. It seems to contain a variety of potential meanings. Scholars variously translate it as “incapacity,” “illness,” “timidity,” as well as “weakness.” All of those meanings, however, contain shades of vulnerability.
2 Corinthians 12’s proclaimers won’t be able to fully unpack both its mysteries and wonders unless we somehow communicate the shocking nature of boasting about some kind of weakness. Its preachers and teachers might, in fact, look for examples of it that startle people. If I were to preach or teach about this Sunday’s Lesson, I might compare it, for example, to boasting about my own overweight status, bragging about my modest preaching skills or glorying in my failures as a spouse or father.
It’s interesting that while Paul boasts in his weakness rather than substantial gifts, he is willing to boast about a man who was “caught up in the third heaven” (2-3). No matter what that mysterious concept refers to it, it suggests that the apostle is willing to glory and rejoice in God’s gifts to other people.
While that’s largely superfluous to his emphasis on his own boasting in his weakness, 2 Corinthians’ proclaimers might find it a fruitful avenue to explore and perhaps proclaim. Verse 5 suggests that if Jesus’ friends are to rejoice in anything, it’s in about our talents or us but about our Christians brothers and sisters’ and their abilities.
The apostle links his “weakness” to what he mysteriously calls “a thorn in” his “flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment” him (7). While scholars have nearly endlessly debated the nature of that “thorn” (skolops), Paul remained, at least to his Corinthian readers, evasive about it. “Thorn” at least suggests that it caused Paul discomfort. “Flesh” seems to imply that it somehow affects his body. “Messenger of Satan” at least suggests that Paul sees it not as a random weakness, but as torment deliberately inflicted on him by the evil one.
Yet God graciously uses Satan’s activity to help shape an adopted son of God. After all, while the apostle’s thorn is what he calls a messenger of Satan, he believes that God sovereignly uses it to keep him from becoming “conceited” (7).
His thorn has proven to be persistent. Paul reports, after all, that he has begged God three times to remove it. However, the apostle at least implies that God has said “no” to each request. In fact, instead of removing the cause of Paul’s misery, God has said, “My grace is sufficient (Arkei) for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (9).
This is great, great gospel for God’s weakened adopted sons and daughters of the 21st century. God doesn’t deny the reality of weakness, illness, incapacity or vulnerability. God doesn’t even always say “yes” to prayers to remove them. Yet God does remind us that God’s grace is sufficient for God’s dearly beloved people to deal or cope with, or perhaps even rejoice in our weakness. God’s mercy and kindness are enough.
Of course, wise preachers and teachers want to be careful about how we unpack this. Some people who hear this are suffering deeply. Some may even die before they ever hear us speak again. So 2 Corinthians 12’s proclaimers don’t even imply that misery doesn’t exist or doesn’t somehow matter.
Nor should we say something like, “I learned how God’s grace is sufficient through my own experiences.” That veers, after all, dangerously close to the kind of boasting Paul so vehemently rejects in our text. No, preachers and teachers always relentless point away from ourselves and towards God.
So we might perhaps consider saying to sufferers something like this, “I can’t claim to know how God will prove the sufficiency of God’s grace in the midst of your misery. I can’t speak for myself, but only for God: God’s grace is enough.”
Paul ends this Epistolary Lesson with talking a lot about God’s power and human weakness. In the middle of verse 9 he quotes God as saying, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” This too may startle our hearers. God’s power is, after all, already complete. It’s hard to imagine how human weakness could make God even more powerful.
2 Corinthians 12’s proclaimers may choose to dig around in scholarly works to explore this highly mysterious assertion more deeply. But perhaps we don’t need to say much more than this: God’s power is perfect most clearly revealed when it graciously works through human weakness.
After all, whether it’s the Apostle Paul or our text’s proclaimers and hearers, the human temptation is to glorify human strength. “Good sermon or lesson,” preachers and teachers long to hear others tell us. “Beautiful painting or delicious meal,” artists and chefs long to hear. The natural tendency is to at least quietly rejoice not in our weakness, but in our strengths.
When, however, God brings glory to God’s self and blesses people through things like mediocre messages, meals and musings, it’s very clear who should get the credit. It’s not the preacher, teachers, artist, chef or doctor, but God.
Each proclaimer will want to rummage around in his or her own vulnerabilities in this matter. I offer up my own example: I was and in some ways remain a flawed parent. While I wasn’t deliberately cruel or neglectful, I was less than an ideal dad. I especially see that in my parenthood’s contrast to the wonderful ways my sons and their wives parent their children.
And yet, by God’s amazing grace, our sons now love the Lord, their families and yes, even me. The credit for that obviously doesn’t go to my weak self. It doesn’t even all go to their far better mom. God’s power is manifest through and, sometimes, in spite of my flawed parenting.
So if this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers are going to “boast,” we want to boast in our weakness and God’s gracious might. Jesus’ friends can even learn to delight in our vulnerabilities. When, after all, we’re weak, we’re strong in our pointing away from ourselves and to our glorious God whose grace is sufficient for all things, including bringing glory to God and blessing our neighbors through our naturally weak selves.
In his marvelous book, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate (a veritable treasure trove of illustrations of human foibles and strengths), Robert A. Caro notes that President Lyndon Johnson knew a lot about human weakness. Yet while Paul boasts about weakness, Johnson often seemed to exploit others’ weaknesses.
He knew, writes one reviewer, how to get to the older men with senatorial power — the “Old Bulls” of the U.S. Senate. He would use one of the tactics that had served him well in college: e.g., he would sit below the level of a Senator who was talking in an office or cloakroom, and try physically to look up at him while also wearing a look of awed “interest and respect.” Or he would make a statement that he knew a senior senator would agree with, and make it with a look of mixed deference and enthusiasm.
In college Johnson also thanked a devoutly Baptist prof for “strengthening my faith” and, in a genius move, praised profs for their greatest weaknesses. “Instead of ignoring a trait embarrassing to his subject, Johnson’s [school paper] editorial would focus on that trait, praising it, as if, only twenty years old though he was, he possessed an instinctive understanding that his subject must be aware of his weak point, so that a word of reassurance about it would be the word that would mean the most: describing a speech by a professor whose pedantic dullness made students snicker, Johnson wrote that “he made his talk bristle with interesting facts.”
With senators, Johnson employed variants of these tactics and also did his filial piety trick: “warming to the subject, Johnson would praise his own father or mother fulsomely, and then say of the Senator: ‘You’ve been like a Daddy to me.’” As a young senator Johnson always wanted to dance with older Senators’ wives so they would introduce him to their husbands. The trouble was doubled by the fact that LBJ was “as overbearing to those beneath him, or on the same level as he, as was obsequious to those above him.” In the same day, maybe in the same hour, he could be both “bully and bootlicker.”