Real talk on vulnerability (2 Corinthians 4.1-15; Matthew 5.13) [Sermon 06-05-2016]

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June 3, 2016 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday, June 5, 2016. Scriptures are 2 Corinthians 4.1-15; and Matthew 5.13.

For those who would rather listen, an audio link is embedded below:

The salt that saves the world

Well, we heard in our Gospel reading a few moments ago that classic word of calling from Jesus: You are the salt of the earth. We know that technically this word is supposed to apply to us—the church. It means we’re the people the good Lord has scattered throughout the world to keep it from getting too rotten. Well, I don’t know about you, but a lot of days, I just don’t feel up to that. I don’t particularly care to be poured into the wounds of the world. They’re rather nasty, after all. Anyway, I’m not altogether certain that my presence is even necessary for the healing of those wounds. What good am I? I am, after all, only a single grain of salt. Rather insignificant, really.

Of course, when Jesus first said these words, he said them to the people who had gathered to listen to his Sermon on the Mount. A bunch of poor folk with chronic illnesses, and a few smelly fishermen fresh off the boat. When Jesus got up on that mountain and announced, You are the salt of the earth, I bet some of them thought: Who, me? He must mean somebody else! I bet the disciples looked at each other; down at the crowds; and then back up at Jesus. You’re kidding. Right, Jesus?

These were, after all, the same people he’d just blessed in the Beatitudes. Blessed are the hopeless. The hurting. The helpless. The hungry. The harassed. They were happy for the blessing, of course. Glad someone was thinking about them. But now he’s telling these same hapless and haggard folks: You are the salt of the earth. A bunch of perpetual losers who’d got the short end of every stick they’d ever laid their hands on. Some of these people had never had a good day in their life. But Jesus insists: You are the salt of the earth.

Jesus looked at the most vulnerable people in his world and said: God’s counting on y’all to help him save the world! That’s what the salt of the earth does, after all.

Paul told the same story in our reading from 2 Corinthians. How God has chosen to do his work in the world through vulnerable people. We just heard Paul say that: God said that light should shine out of the darkness. He is the same one who shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure—the powerful presence of God through Christ—in clay pots—that is, our fragile, precarious lives.

In ancient Corinth, people made lanterns out of disposable clay pots. Because these earthenware vessels were so thin, they let out more light. Those cheap clay pots were perfect vessels for carrying light! No one would ever think the clay pots were making their own light. Obviously, the light came from another source. [1] Paul says the same thing about himself, and about us: we have this treasure in clay pots so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us.

Just like those clay pots, our vulnerability—our weakness, our limits, the tender spots in our lives—makes us the perfect vessels for God to work through in the world.

How the light gets in—and out!

Let’s be honest; we are not completely comfortable with the idea of being vulnerable. Vulnerable such a helpless, needy-sounding word, isn’t it? Probably most of us don’t really like to put it on. Vulnerability is an article of clothing that doesn’t fit us; or looks silly on us; or clashes with our complexion. Whatever.

Think about it. Somebody brings up vulnerability. I bet hardly any of us hears that word, and the first image that pops into our mind is ourself. No. We think of small children who might wander off with strangers, or fall into gorilla enclosures. We think about elderly widows who aren’t very tech savvy; imagine them falling for that rich Nigerian who emails them begging for a place to park his money. We think of some homeless person on a wet winter evening. We think about refugees and sweatshop workers. We think about people in nursing homes. We think about girls who’ve been trafficked. But I strongly suspect that most of us don’t hear the word vulnerable, and immediately picture ourselves. Vulnerability is a word about other people. It looks great on widows and orphans and beggars. But you and me? Not so much. Right?

Of course, vulnerability isn’t something that only happens to other people. Deep down we all know this; we just don’t like to admit it. But being vulnerable just means having limitations. It means that we are not invincible. We can be hurt. We get sick. We have emotions that can overwhelm us. We grow old. We wear out. Our bodies have expiration dates. Vulnerability is the cost of being human.

So we are all vulnerable somehow. Like Superman, each of us has our Kryptonite. Some structural deficiency in our character. Some chink in our emotional armor. Some cracks in our moral foundation. Somewhere somebody can poke us—whether it’s intentional or not—that’s going to set us to growling or howling because it never quite healed. Some button that never fails to get a reaction from us when it is pushed.

But we have just heard Paul speak the good news about our vulnerability: we have this treasure in clay pots so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us. Just like fragile clay pots make perfect lamps; our fragile lives turn out to be perfect vessels for God’s power to do its work. Not just for us and in us; but in the world and for the world.

Paul had learned that lesson by experience. Later on in 2 Cor. 12.7-8, Paul will mention that he has a thorn in my body. And he calls this thorn a messenger from Satan sent to torment me. We can’t rightly say what this messenger from Satan was. But whatever or whomever it was, it made Paul vulnerable. So Paul says: I pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me alone. He said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” Literally, what God told Paul was: Your weakness is the beginning of my power. My power begins where yours ends. [2]

That means the vulnerable places in our lives don’t have to be places of shame or blame or anxiety or endless frustration. They can be the very places where God’s awesome power pours into our lives, and baptizes every bit of us in his transforming grace.

A wise old rabbi named Bob Dylan once said: Ain’t no use jiving, ain’t no use joking: everything is broken.

A few years later, another wise old rabbi named Leonard Cohen answered: There is a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in!

According to Paul, that’s how the light gets out, too.

“Paul’s not a winner”

Paul wrote 2 Corinthians during a time when many in that church had forgotten that they were clay pots who carried God’s light. Some of the Corinthians had started to think that they could produce their own light. They forgot that Christ had chosen those who are vulnerable in this world to be the vessels for God’s love, grace, mercy, and wisdom.

What had happened was, a pack of SuperChristians had infiltrated the church at Corinth. With their $300 haircuts. Fancy suits. Perfect teeth. All their wives were a ten. Their children were all above-average. Their dogs pooped gold bullion. Their cakes never fell. Their houses were always immaculate. And they’d say that all of their good fortune and success was a sign of God’s anointing.

These SuperChristians were able to gain influence in the Corinthian church partly because Corinthian culture worshiped visible signs of success. And as is often the case, some in the church were only about half-converted. That is, they hadn’t quite figured out that their culture and the gospel weren’t telling the same story.

Everywhere you went in Corinth, there was some plaque or statue or billboard celebrating someone’s victory or achievement. Thank God those people didn’t have Facebook! Why, you might even go to throw away some trash, and there’d be a sign under the trashcan lid: So-and-so paid for this garbage pail with his own money. If you see him, say, ‘Thank you.’

Corinthians only liked winners. They had no room for weakness or struggle or vulnerability in their lives, or yours.

So here come these SuperChristians. They swooped in with a new church-growth strategy to make the gospel more “relevant” to the Corinthian culture. They boasted of their success. Their breakthroughs. Their innovations. All the megachurches they had planted. How cutting edge they were.

By contrast, look at Paul. Paul’s not a winner, they’d say. Paul was financially insecure. Shabbily dressed. Not sure how he’s going to pay the rent month to moth. Going days at a time without a proper meal. Always in trouble with the law. The police are letting the dogs and the water cannons loose on him. There he goes, sneaking out of town in the middle of the night with the sheriff’s posse on his trail. Paul cops to all these things himself later on in the letter. Who is weak, and I am not weak?, he asks (2 Cor. 11.29).

Paul wore his vulnerability—the chips and cracks in his clay pot—like a medal. But the SuperChristians weren’t impressed, and some of the Corinthians bought into their ideas about success. They had decided that Paul was a loser. They were embarrassed that their teacher was always in some scrape or another. Some of them probably even whispered that Paul’s ongoing troubles were a sign that God was angry at him.

It’s almost like those SuperChristians had straight up forgotten that this whole thing started when Jesus gathered a handful of fishermen and a crowd of the biggest losers in Galilee and told them: You are the salt of the earth. It’s almost like they’d forgotten—or at least wanted everyone else to forget—that their Messiah had been rejected, abandoned, and executed on a cross.

The church-growth experts who were stirring up the Corinthians against Paul may have thought of themselves as SuperChristians. But they had rejected the real Jesus. Real Jesus was vulnerable to and for other people. Real Jesus welcomed people that everyone else had written off as weak and worthless. Real Jesus revealed the glory of God in the weakness of his cross. They wanted to kick real Jesus to the curb—along with Paul, who reminded them too much of real Jesus. And they wanted to replace real Jesus with a Corinthian-friendly Jesus. A Jesus who taught a gospel of success and winning. And they wanted a church with no room in it for losers.

Real talk, y’all. When someone despises any sign of weakness or vulnerability, that’s not strength. It’s not power. It’s shame. It’s fear. It’s a pose that insecure people adopt to hide their own feelings of inadequacy. And it’s toxic.

The gift of vulnerability

Mr. Rogers used to say that, “The greatest gift you ever give is your honest self.” [3] This is what Paul had learned following Jesus. This is what Paul learned ministering to people in all their weaknesses. We are all vulnerable, whether we admit to it or not. This had been true even for Jesus during his earthly ministry. But Jesus leaned into his vulnerability: for the sake of his followers and friends; for the sake of those he met who were in need; and for the sake of those who’d follow after. That includes you and me. And because Jesus embraced vulnerability, God worked powerfully through his life. And we are still experiencing the good that comes from God’s power working through Jesus’ vulnerability. Paul discovered that what was true for Jesus could also be true for him and for all of us. That’s why, later on in 2 Corinthians, he wrote that Jesus was crucified because of weakness, but he lives by the power of God. Certainly we also are weak in him, but we will live together with him, because of God’s power that is directed toward you (2 Cor. 13.4). God worked powerfully through the vulnerability of his Son, Jesus. And he continues to work through the vulnerability of all his sons and daughters.

You just can’t live well without leaning into vulnerability. Trying new things requires vulnerability, because you open yourself to the possibility of failure. Creativity requires vulnerability, because people might not see your vision. You might look foolish. Befriending someone requires vulnerability, because you might be rejected. Loving requires vulnerability, because we can be deeply wounded through whomever or whatever we love. So vulnerability is at the heart of anything worth having or being or doing.

Vulnerability means that we can be hurt, frustrated, betrayed, taken advantage of, and our hearts broken. But it’s also what allows us to relate. To be moved. To have compassion. To empathize. To be creative. To take a stand. It enables and animates fellowship and friendship and community. All of these become possible only when, as Mr. Rogers said, we are willing to give the gift of our honest selves. Becoming vulnerable sounds scary; but this is really all it is. Giving the gift of our honest selves.

Paul had learned from the crucified-and-resurrected Jesus the gift of being vulnerable. And when he received that gift, and learned to use it well, he found courage. He found the courage to accept who he was, even with his regrets, his hurts, his hangups, and his limitations. He learned to tell his story truthfully—even the unflattering parts. So he was able to say, I am just a clay pot. He was able just to be who he was; not who he thought he should be; and not who anybody else told him he should be. That takes real courage. And the courage that allowed him to accept himself with flaws and limits also gave him compassion for others. To give them the freedom and forgiveness and understanding to be who they were. Not who he thought they should be; but who they were right then; and who they were becoming in Christ. And because Paul had the courage to be his vulnerable self; and the compassion to accept others with their vulnerabilities; that made time and space for God to create connection and community between them.[4]

The SuperChristians in Corinth rejected vulnerability. They preached strength and success and winning. Paul embraced vulnerability: his own, and others’. Two thousand years later, no one remembers the names of the SuperChristians of Corinth. No one is preaching from anything they wrote. But we remember Paul. We are grateful for Paul. And people from every tribe and tongue are still talking about what Paul wrote.


Because courage wins. Compassion wins. Connection wins. Every time. They aren’t the easy way. They aren’t the comfortable way. They aren’t the quickest way. They aren’t the most popular way. But they always win.

[1] See Ben Witherington III, Conflict & Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1995), 386-87.

[2] On this, see Marva J. Dawn, Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 37-41.

[3] Fred Rogers, The World According to Mr. Rogers: Important Things to Remember (New York: Hyperion, 2003), 81.

[4] This paragraph is more or less owed to The Power of Vulnerability. Performed by Brene Brown. June 2010. Accessed June 3, 2016.


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