Sent in Weakness

Proper 14   July 5, 2015

2 Corinthians 12:2-10   /   Mark 6:1-13

We hear it said so often these days that we must learn to be a more missional church. You will remember the report I gave from our diocesan synod a few weeks back, about the bishop’s charge that challenged us to break down the wall separating us from the community around us, to go out and connect with our neighbours in service and evangelization, bringing them the good news of the love of God in Jesus Christ. We hear this so often nowadays – and lets face it, it remains an intimidating challenge for us.

I think the story of the sending of the twelve disciples in today’s gospel reading illustrates for us how scary and strange this whole missional challenge is.  It is not an easy story to connect with our experience of being church. The disciples are sent out two by two, in extreme poverty, taking nothing with them for the journey. They go to proclaim repentance to those around them. They are given power over unclean spirits, and drive out demons and heal the sick. So, are you ready to sign up for this?  Probably you might have some doubts as to how well this would work in our situation. More than inspiring us, this story is likely to make us feel like failures.  We cannot, most of us, heal the sick; we are not aware that we have been given power over unclean spirits; we can’t imagine that we could live without money; and we know we couldn’t proclaim repentance without sounding like a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites. This will not work at all.

This story sounds like a recipe for failure to us.  It is interesting, then, when we look more closely at it, that the possibility of failure is built into the story. Jesus seems to reckon with it: If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’  Moreover, the reading begins with a story of a failed mission: Jesus himself, come to his home town of Nazareth, mostly fails: he encounters scepticism and ridicule as a local boy who is getting too big for his britches, “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.”  What a remarkable story this is for Mark to include in his gospel – a story of Jesus failing. It might just give us courage to know that it is okay to fail, if it even happened to Jesus once in a while.

And indeed, when we look more closely at the story of the sending of the disciples, look past the exotic powers of driving out demons that seem so strange to us, we can see that this is a story about vulnerability.  Jesus is not really sending them out with power and self-sufficiency to knock down all resistance that they meet.  He is not giving them all the answers to dazzle the poor benighted souls they will meet. He is very deliberating sending them out not in invincible strength, but in a weak position: He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts. Without food, or a bag, or money to buy food, they are dependent on the hospitality of others. They come not in strength, but in weakness.

What a difference that makes – and how different from the way in which we tend to think of mission. Because I suppose we tend to think that mission should be a process where we hold all the cards. We have the knowledge that leads to eternal life; and so other people should just listen to us with bated breath, and then give their lives over to Jesus and join our church. The Billy Graham model. And the more resources we bring to bear on mission, the better to dazzle and wow the people.  But we, of course, don’t feel we have a lot of resources; we don’t think we have been given special powers; and we certainly don’t experience people as listening with bated breath for the wisdom we have to dispense – not much, anyway. And so we feel like failures.

How different Jesus’s program seems to be. Rather than heaping on the resources, he strips them away from his disciples. He sends them out, not as self-sufficient and self-confident missioners prepared to explain everything to others, leaving others no role except to accept our wisdom and our kindness. Jesus sends them on the contrary to be dependent on the kindness of others. And so the people they are sent to are respected; they find themselves called to be the best they can be. And so begins mission that is an act of equal relationship, each person receiving from and giving to the other, and not an act of one-sided condescension.

Jesus sends out his disciples the same way he himself chose to come to us: not with dazzling power, but in weakness. It is a lesson St. Paul learned as well.  No doubt he too longed to come to others in strength, as someone who had it all together, who could wow and dazzle the people he was sent to. And yet, he tells us, he was given what he calls “a thorn in the flesh”, some kind of weakness or debility that bothered him. We have no idea what this is: people have speculated all kinds of things, from depression to haemorrhoids to a speech impediment. Doesn’t matter. It does seem to have been public; the Corinthians presumably know what he is talking about – and indeed some may have despised him for it, claimed he couldn’t be a real apostle like the slick televangelists they had started following. Three times, Paul says, he entreated God to remove his handicap, but the answer he got was negative.  ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ When we are strong and confidant and have it all together, we are acting out of our own power; but when we are afraid and vulnerable and dependent, then we can be sure that any power at work in us in the power of God.  At least, that is how Paul understands it: “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”

‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ I am convinced that this is the key to all Christian action and mission; that God’s work is most effectively done, not by the powerful and confident and well-resourced, but by ordinary people muddling through with their fear and inadequacy.

I have been thinking this week about the story of Nicolas Winton, who died this past week at the age of 106.  Most of you are probably asking, who was Nicolas Winton, and that is my point. Nicolas Winton was a young English stockbroker who was embarking upon a skiing holiday in Switzerland in 1938, when he made a last minute change in plans. He got a call from a friend living in Prague, telling him about the dire situation there. Czechoslovakia had just been occupied by Nazi Germany, and the deportation of Jews to the camps was beginning in earnest. When Winton arrived, he set to work to do what he could. He collected lists of Jewish children, arranged trains, and visas, and foster homes for them in England. He negotiated with the Gestapo, paid bribes, forged visas, did whatever was necessary. By the time the outbreak of war put an end to his efforts, he had saved over 600 children. You can find a video on the internet of a TV show from a few years back where Nicolas Winton is being honoured. He is sitting in the front row of the audience, and when the host asked anyone who owed their lives to him to stand, the entire rest of the audience, several hundred people get to their feet.

Now sure, Nicolas Winton was exceptional, clearly a gifted organizer as well as a man of integrity. But I have a strong conviction that if you could have spoken to him at the time about what he was doing, he could have told you about failure: about his inadequacy for the task, about his powerlessness in the face of the overwhelming power of the evil he was up against, about his despair about the thousands he couldn’t rescue. Failure. It is interesting that he never talked about what he had done. His story remained unknown until some 50 years later, when his wife found a box of documents in the attic, and began to ask him about them.

My power is made perfect in weakness. God is not calling us to be Billy Grahams for the community around us. But he is calling us to reach out to others: with all our weakness, all our conviction of our own inadequacy, all our fear of failure. He is calling us to take the risk of entering into relationships. To be good neighbours and good friends to those around us, to listen to them, receive from them what they have to offer – but also to have the confidence to share what we have seen of the power of God in our lives. And I know, that is what you are doing already in this community. So take heart, don’t be afraid to take risks, to try to do the right thing even when it feels like failure, and to allow the power of God to work through your weakness. Amen.