Today’s excerpt from Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth is perhaps one of the most remarkable messages in his entire body of work. This passage finishes the end of our sermon series, “The Unexpected Gifts of the Spirit” and leaves us with a summary of sorts to Paul’s provocative message to this primarily Gentile congregation. It gives us an intensely personal glimpse into his own leadership experience and is a striking statement of theology that is a major theme in his ministry. It’s been known by many Pauline theologians as his “Fool’s Speech.”
In this letter Paul continues his passionate apologetic for his apostolic ministry in the face of criticism by his Corinthian opponents. In the previous chapter he says, “Let no one think me foolish. But even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I may too boast a little.” (2 Corinthians 11:16) In effect he is acting just like his opponents, exposing their foolishness by parodying their methods. And he concludes with a shocking statement at the end of our reading today, “I have been a fool! You forced me to it. Indeed you should have been the ones commending me, for I am not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing.” Paul continues the defense of his own ministry in the context of the many other teachers and preachers that seemed to have won over the Corinthian congregation. These self-professed “super-apostles” had captured the imagination of many in the church with tales of their own personal supernatural experiences of the heavenly realm. Yet Paul seems to suggest that even though he has had such experiences himself, he doesn’t boast about it. And even focuses on his own weaknesses as evidence that the work he is doing is more in line with the ministry of Christ.
It reminds me of some TV Evangelists who say that God gives them special revelations, or has told them to raise money for outlandish homes and modes of transportation. In fact, Louisiana televangelist Jesse Duplantis just proclaimed this past May that God wants his followers to help him purchase a $54 million private jet so he can spread the gospel around the world without having to refuel—even though he already has three planes. Duplantis went as far to say that if Jesus were on earth today he wouldn’t be riding a donkey.
Instead Paul raises the issue that it’s his weakness that makes him worthy to be their spiritual leader. “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Paul’s final argument confirms the overarching message he has been writing to the Corinthian church, reminding them over and over that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men.” (I Corinthians 1:25). Yet this theological truth applies not only to Paul’s life but also to the life of the Christian church throughout the ages, and it is a truth that has all too often been forgotten. The Christian community forgets that Christ’s grace is sufficient for it, every time it tries to maintain its existence in the world by its own strength and influence, every time it allies itself with worldly powers rather than allowing Christ to be revealed in weakness. Even the ancient church, once it was no longer persecuted quickly succumbed to the temptation of power, presenting itself as spiritually superior to other religions. Even after 500 years of the Reformation, Protestant churches seem to now be yielding to earthly power and government—forsaking the gospel of Jesus for secular teachings of prosperity and consumerism, and ignoring the dangers of false prophets.
This experience of Christ, as related to us by Paul’s message of strength in weakness, was drawn from the core of Jesus’ teachings. The Sermon on the Mount holds the key to this provocative idea. In Jesus’s famous Beatitudes statements, he offers examples of people who find deep blessing in this world. Jesus tells us that those who will inherit the kingdom of heaven are those who:
- are poor in spirit
- mourn for the loss of a loved one
- hunger and thirst for righteousness
- make peace in the midst of conflict
- are persecuted
- are slandered and discredited
What Jesus says is antithetical to the “dog eat dog” business of the world that so many have become numb to. These statements include the need to love our enemies, pray for our persecutors, and to acknowledge that “the kingdom of God is within you.” And if heaven may be found here and now, then heaven cannot merely be found in the absence of struggle as most of us assume, but in the very heart of your struggle.
If Jesus’ message is true, then our deepest challenges may offer our most profound opportunities. Heaven is found in the dark wood! Our journey into the Dark Wood initially begins as individuals when we awaken to our life’s path. While we walk our paths as individuals, the lone seeker is more likely to get lost or to give up than the one who travels in company. Sometimes we misinterpret the signals along our path. Other times we lack courage to go forward. It’s easy to get lost or give up without the aid of companions. And it is often through these companions that we receive our clearest glimpses of ourselves and Heaven. Making the journey with a few wise companions on your side can keep you from getting lost and make the journey less lonely, even fun. The importance of traveling with companions becomes more apparent when you consider what forces you’re up against. The author of our book study for this series, “The Gifts of the Dark Wood” calls these companions “misfits.”
Misfits are folks who are intentional about embracing the Unexpected Gifts of the Spirit and finding their place in the world. They are not absorbed by consumerism, materialism, easy answers and quick fixes. These misfits will swim against the current climate and find others like them. If you are not aware of them, then you haven’t been looking. A community of Misfits helps identify those who are as intentional about their journey and care about yours too. There are three types of misfits who may serve as powerful companions on your journey to self-revelation and God’s presence. You can find these in your bulletin:
1. The first is an interpretive guide or mentor—someone who has experience in the journey and can give you wise counsel. This may be a person who has spent a little longer on their journey than you and is therefore more familiar with the trails that lead to dead ends, or over cliffs, or into places that are not healthy for you. A mentor may be someone whose life’s path closely matches your own but not always. They may be a spiritual teacher, a learned friend, or even someone who just seems to give great advice. They always have wisdom to share. A wise guide or mentor is someone you trust implicitly, who listens to you without judging and shares their perspective feely without trying to turn you into a miniature version of themselves. I have several guides and mentors in my own spiritual journey. I meet every few weeks via FaceTime with my spiritual director, Karen Erlichman, who lives in San Francisco. She is a Jewish lesbian therapist. And our journey over the past few years together actually brought me to Holy Trinity. So some of you might want to say, Thank you Karen!
I also meet regular with other pastors in the area. I’ve become good friends with Rev. Greg Bullard, pastor of Covenant of the Cross, another LGBTQA+ affirming church in our city. Besides being the epitome of southern hospitality to me, he is just plain funny…and I love to listen and laugh with him.
My sister, Elissa, is also an important guide for me. She knows me like no other person does, and I always know she’s going to tell me the truth. So, who is that person or persons in your life that have experience on the journey and give you wise counsel? Name them today. Make it a regular habit to connect with them.
2. The next kind of misfit is a small band of traveling companions—They don’t have to be as familiar with the Dark Wood as your mentor, nor need to be on the same path as you—they simply need to be committed to finding and living out a journey of love and aliveness, and follow their own sense of call. These companions will likely be, or eventually become, close friends. These are friends that you check in with frequently. They are people with whom you can let your hair down and simply be yourself. These are friends with whom you can reveal your triumphs and tragedies, joys and fears, and can come to your aid when you need them. What brings them together is their love of great food, or activities, or fellowship, or spiritual study. But what keeps them together is their love for each other. I have several society of friends that I enjoy. Bowling on Saturdays has become one of those cherished traveling bands for me. I get exercise, I have fun, I get to compete with Leo and Leonard for a better score. But ultimately, they are a group of folks I look forward to seeing each week. This may be a small church community group that you gather with each week or it may be a group outside the church experience. Regardless of where you find them, you definitely need them. Who is this small band of traveling companions for you?
3. The third misfit gift is a bit different from the others. It is rarer and much harder to find. The third misfit gift of the Dark Wood is a community of faith—but not just any community of faith, but a misfit community of faith. Just as individuals have distinctive paths or callings, so do communities. Those who gather there are drawn by camaraderie and conversation. These are folks you don’t judge you or others for who they are. At times the whole place may break out singing—or fighting! They cater to a diverse crowd. Yet there is a spirit among them that transcends differences and embraces distinctive identities. Now I hope that Holy Trinity is that misfit community of faith for you. But even if you don’t connect to us in that way, you must find one if your journey is going to be authentic. You can’t go it alone.
As I end this sermon series there is one truth I really want you to hear and receive—and it is something that the Apostle Paul learned and wrote about to the Corinthian church. There is strength in embracing your weaknesses. Embracing our propensity for failure might seem negative to someone unfamiliar with living the way of Jesus. But the truth is, those experiences that you try so hard to avoid—hold the potential to bless you with unexpected gifts of the spirit—if you allow them. When you embrace the time spent in the Dark Wood rather than running away at the first opportunity, you discover that you are connected to a Higher Power—one who offers you clues about who you are and what you’re here for. You don’t have to be a saint to find your place in the God’s kingdom. All you really need to be is struggling