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"Vulnerable Power" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church - July 5, 2015

posted Jul 8, 2015, 4:29 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

Over the last year or two the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about character, a lead up to his recently published book on the subject.  I’ve found helpful a distinction he makes between resume virtues and eulogy virtues.  

Our resumes - or our linked-in profiles - name and list all of the things we’ve accomplished: our skills, training, experiences; the successes we want people to know about, lay out our ambitions under the thin guise of career objectives.  Our culture focuses a lot on resume virtues.  We network around them.  We take self-help classes to improve them.  We focus on our careers and feel a tremendous loss if we don’t have the one we want.  Screen-shot-2012-08-09-at-9.21.01-AM.png

But at our end, eulogies mention few of the things on our resume.  The eulogy virtues are more interior and transcendent, more about how we acted instead of what we achieved, our loves instead of our awards.  

Years ago a woman named Cheryl Johnson died after a long struggle with cancer.  There were many ways Cheryl distinguished herself in life, a top lawyer in our community, achieving success at Northwestern Mutual and other companies as corporate counsel.  One could speak of her life in terms of her resume virtues, the way she grew up in the poverty of an all-black Chicago neighborhood, succeeded at school, achieved material security.  

But at her funeral no one mentioned any of the things which could have been on her resume.  Instead, the eulogy virtues came out.  Her brother talked of the way Cheryl always believed in him and how her faith got him through difficult times to make him the man he became.  Her daughter Bailey - a middle schooler - played her violin, just as she had played while Cheryl lay dying, the sound of love between mother and daughter.  In the end, what we celebrated in Cheryl was not the grit and determination which fueled her professional life but the profound love she shared with those close to her.

Brooks, in making a distinction between resume virtues and eulogy virtues observed, “To nurture your [resume virtues] it makes sense to cultivate your strengths.  To nurture your [eulogy virtues] it is necessary to confront your weaknesses.”  One path makes a career; the other develops a life.

This distinction between resumes and eulogies came back to me this week as I thought of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, and in particular this great observation, “power is made perfect in weakness.”

Paul wrote to a church concerned with all the trappings of success as it was measured in the Roman world.  And, of course, the measurements were not all that different from our own: wealth, influence, power, fame.  The Corinthians cared about resumes and resume virtues.

Within the Corinthian Church many had come to follow the “super-apostles,” people who claimed authority on the basis of their resume.  The super-apostles had the best religious visions, the most compelling faith stories, the most entertaining ways of speaking.  We never learn the identity of these super-apostles but Paul’s contempt for them comes out.  Earlier in the letter he complained, “For such boasters are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as disciples of Christ.”

In our reading today Paul builds on this contrast between those who boast and those who don’t.  First he tells of a man he knows - one wonders if it was himself - whose spiritual resume was beyond doubt the best.  “I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.”  

But spiritual elitism doesn’t matter, Paul said; a lesson he learned through praying about his own vulnerabilities, facing his own “thorn in the flesh.”  Paul never named the thorn, leaving commentators ever since ample room to imagine everything from sexual temptations and even homosexuality to mental illness and physical ailments.  

Whatever the nature of the thorn, Paul prayed for relief without success.  Instead he heard in the stillness of prayer, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  Cultivating our eulogy virtues comes when we tend to our vulnerabilities, find strength in our weakness, grace in our thorns.

The power of vulnerability comes out in an old story about George Washington.  Washington had nearly won our War of Independence; Cornwallis had surrendered but the formal peace treaty had not been negotiated.  The troops grew restless.  Months in camp gave them time to ruminate on unmet promises of pay and pensions offered by the Continental Congress.  Discontent turned towards mutiny at Fort Newburgh in New York.  Some soldiers wanted to send a demand for pay to Congress, others to march on Congress itself.  

Washington strode into a meeting of the discontented soldiers to address them.  He gave a speech addressing each of the concerns of the soldiers, taking up each point that had been made in an anonymous letter of complaint.  But this speech only solidified the frustration of the soldiers.  Sensing this, Washington took up a letter from Congress to read to the men.  But he fumbled with it, unable to read it.  Reaching into his pocket, Washington pulled out reading glasses, saying, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”

Washington’s vulnerability in that moment changed the tenor of the meeting, moving and perhaps shaming the near-rebellious rebels back into military discipline, saving our nascent democracy as surely as any military victory.

Can we imagine using our own limitations, our own fragilities, our own weaknesses in a similar way?  Could we discover strength in our vulnerability?  

Paul, in the letter to the Corinthians, named the dynamic we can see at play in Washington: a moment when vulnerability becomes a means of grace.  Jesus picked up this same theme.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus commissioned pairs of disciples to go off into the surrounding territory to share the story of what he’s doing.  He asked his disciples to voluntarily make themselves vulnerable.  “[Jesus] ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts.”  That’s it, the disciples were to give up any economic privilege and voluntarily make themselves vulnerable.  They were to stay where they were welcomed and leave where they were not; subject to the kindness of strangers.  But they undertook this journey with another person: it gave them the assurance of company but also a kind of relational vulnerability with another disciple as they depended completely on each other.  In all these ways Jesus asked the disciples to voluntarily take on greater vulnerability in their lives.

We face moments when we can decide what to share or not share of ourselves, moments when we can make ourselves more vulnerable or more protected.  Jesus led his disciples to take the risk of vulnerability as a way to experience the grace of God.

These days the Civil Rights movement does not seem so distant with news of terrorism and arson against black churches.  I find myself returning to the history of the 60’s for lessons today; to a story of Robert Kennedy’s speech on the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination.  The 1968 campaign for President took him across the country.  He was on the stump in Indiana when word came of the assassination of King.

Kennedy’s advisors wanted to cancel his speech that evening at an African-American neighborhood.  They feared a riot might take place in Indianapolis.  But Kennedy insisted.  Many in the audience hadn’t yet heard of King’s death; and so Kennedy broke that awful news.

And then, after a pause, he said.  “In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.  For those of you who are black -- considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible -- you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.”  Kennedy continued, “I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling.  I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.”  

None of his aides had ever heard him speak publicly of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.  But there in Indianapolis, Robert Kennedy shared his vulnerable heart; and the truth, captured in a poet he quoted that, “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

Of course Kennedy was not the only one to pour grace out of his vulnerability.  The crowd who heard him responded too: not with hatred, or with fear, or with revenge, but with an equal measure of vulnerability.  Indianapolis was one of the few major cities without a riot that night in ‘68.  Vulnerability held the community together.

That moment in Indianapolis when Kennedy and a crowd in African-American community shared their grief together speaks to our own way forward.  Vulnerable hearts will lead us out of the toxicity of racism.  Vulnerable to each other’s stories, lives, pains, and hopes.  Can we find grace to hold each other in our woundedness?

On this patriotic weekend we celebrate America - our greatness, and by implication our power and strength in the world.  But I’ve always found my expression of patriotism in the poem by Langston Hughes which we read earlier.

It echoes with hope for our country:

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

But also with the pain of all the ways America never fulfills its promise; those haunting lines, “America never was America to me.”  I hear it in all the pain Hughes felt - the brunt force of racism and all the insidious ways it warped people, plus the ostracism he felt as an openly gay man, not to mention all of the economic inequality he so clearly saw.  Those lines reverberate with a raw vulnerability.

And grace.  “O yes, I say it plain.  America never was America to me.  And yet I swear this oath - America will be!”  

There’s a power in vulnerability.  It’s not the strength of a resume virtue.  It’s the deeper, interior, community changing, eulogy virtue kind of grace.  Vulnerability can turn mutinous soldiers from violence, keep a righteously angry crowd at peace, and give shape to a profound patriotism.

May you know in your hearts: there is power in weakness and grace in vulnerability.  Alleluia and Amen.