Homily for Lent 3, Year A, 2011
Sunday, March 26th, 2011
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Romans 5:1-11
“For while we were still weak, at the right time God died for the ungodly.”-Romans 5:6
Strength, fortitude, self-assuredness – In the coming days as the electioneering gets under way for our upcoming federal election, we will hear much from our politicians about how strong they are, about the fortitude they have, and political statements will be uttered with such self-assured self-confidence that we will be led to believe that not one single one of our candidates has a weak, vulnerable bone in their bodies. All the while, in Libya, we witness horrifying displays of strength and power layered upon rhetorical utterances of strength that either side shall fight to the last man, woman and child. Yet, we only need to cast our gaze toward Japan, or to Christchurch New Zealand, to realize that human strength is but a phantasm and our utterances but bravado when faced by far greater forces that shake the ground upon which we walk and raise the seas upon which we sail. What is human strength when the “earth withdraws its consent”, as author and chronicler of earthquakes, Simon Winchester, has so aptly put it?
Fundamentally, we know that we are fragile creatures. Fundamentally, we know that our lives are fleeting in the cosmic scheme. Fundamentally, I believe all of us know deep down that we are indeed dust, and to dust we shall return. Yet, we continue in our bravado, in our displays of strength, and we continue to seek to “one-up” each other in the rhetoric of strength. Why do we do this?
I believe that it is because we know that deep down that we are not strong, that we vulnerable and fragile creatures, and so we fight against our vulnerability and fragility with words of strength and displays of power. However, the more we claim false strength and fortitude, the more we realize that we are hiding behind a façade. What happens when our self-proclaimed fortitude fails? What happens when we are unmasked? What happens when the curtain is drawn and the wizard is revealed as the diminutive little man masking his vulnerability behind a curtain and the projection of the face of the great and powerful OZ?
Most of us fear the moment of unmasking, and yet we know that it is inevitable. Sooner or later, we shall be found out, whether someone else unmasks us or when our lives spin out of control and we stand unmasked in front of the mirror. When we are faced with our own vulnerability, we are prone to feel like failures, unable to muster the appropriate strength to hold our lives together, unable to be strong enough to hold the lives of others together. At the core of our being we are frightened by something that is intrinsic to all of us as human beings, something from which none of us are immune – our fragility and vulnerability. Because we fear this so much, we create façades of strength to hide behind, but sooner or later we must face the fact that we are mortal, we are vulnerable, and that if you prick us, we will bleed.
The great mystery of our faith, though, is that this is precisely the place that God confronts us, that God meets us, and that God leads us into newness of life. It is not in our moments of strength, nor in our moments of rhetorical bravado that we encounter the loving God, but rather in moments in which we feel the weakest. It is in our moments of suffering, both physical and spiritual. It is in our moments of sadness. It is in our moments of failure. It is the moments in which the wounds of our lives lay open. It is in the moments when human resources are exhausted. It is in the moments when we feel the farthest from God that we meet the Christ: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” When we feel weak, when we feel distant from God, the Christ seeks us out.
St. Paul reminds us that it is not in our perfection, in our strength, or in our righteousness that God died for us, but rather in our imperfection, in our weakness, and in our sinfulness that he goes to the cross. He goes to his death not out of disappointment in us or to punish us with guilt for all the ways in which we have failed; rather, he goes out of deep love and because his heart, the heart that is big enough to eclipse the cosmos, seeks to draw us into its loving compass. In his vulnerability, his vulnerable people are made strong. In his brokenness, his broken people are made whole. In his unjust and death, his unjust people are made right in body, mind and spirit.
Thus, the world’s understanding of strength is turned on its head. No matter how many powerful words I may choose to use, no matter how often a politician may preface words of strength with rhetorical flourishes such as “Let there be no mistake…”, no matter how loud we shout about our strength, strength is not something to be manufactured, but will only be known in the embracing our weakness, in touching our pain, in acknowledging our brokenness, that the Christ might give us his strength, the true strength that comes from God, in the midst of our vulnerability.
This is how St. Paul characterizes strength. It is not a strength rooted in bravado or rhetoric that masks vulnerability, but a strength that embraces its vulnerability in order that the power of God might be made known. This is why he says that contrary to the false boasts of strength of the world, we boast in our suffering , because we know that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.
What then is strength, true strength? Strength begins with an admission of our weakness and an open heart to let the Spirit of God work upon us. It is our endurance in allowing God to work through our weakness that character is formed. It is only then that true character, not false strength, shall be formed within us. And with such character we have hope, for we have witnessed the strength of God, we know what God can do for us and for this broken world. With such hope we need not shout. With such hope we need not raise arms against others. We need only to witness to his love by loving, and journeying together in our weakness and vulnerability, for this is the place where he meets us. This is where his heart touches ours. It is where his authenticity touches our authenticity, and it is in this life of shared authenticity and honesty that the strength of God will be known in Jesus Christ.
c.2011, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves