“My grace is sufficient for you,” the Lord declares to the apostle Paul, “for my power is made perfect in weakness.” These words make me think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. At the age of 39, FDR was a rising star in the Democratic party. He ran for vice president unsuccessfully, but the campaign increased his national stature.
He came from a famous and wealthy family, went to the right schools, and knew the right people. From the start, he had been given a blueprint for a successful life, an existence revolving around power and privilege. And then, in his prime, suddenly while on summer vacation with his family, he contracted polio, and in that moment, the blueprint he was holding in his hands went right out the window.
The disease robbed FDR of the ability to walk. Most of his body was paralyzed. For a man known for his vigor and independence, imagine how difficult it must have been for him to be bedridden and completely dependent on others.
FDR was on unfamiliar ground. In old maps, areas that hadn’t been charted or explored were called terra incognita. Sometimes, in these remote areas, the cartographer would even draw a picture of mythical beasts under the words: “Dragons are here.”
That’s what FDR found on terra incognita: dragons of physical suffering, beasts of mental anguish, leviathans of spiritual desertion. He was a stranger in a strange new land, a pilgrim wandering far in a place that seemed like a wasteland.
Yet, he didn’t give up. Like the jazz musicians so popular in his day, FDR improvised. He tried new forms of physical therapy and treatment. He was always willing to try something new, to see if it would improve his condition.
For example, he traveled to Warm Springs, Georgia, where soaking in the thermal mineral waters helped him regain mobility. His time there also lifted his spirits. When the word got out that FDR’s treatments in Warm Springs were effective, people with polio came from all over the country to see what the waters could do for them.
In Warm Springs, the future president of the Unites States, the blue-blooded patrician with a Harvard accent, got to know children, youth and adults from all walks of life. He delighted in playing games in the pool with the children and then inspiring them with words of encouragement. He was a like a camp director for them.
Polio changed FDR. I think it make him a better man and president. As a leader guiding a nation through the terra incognita of a severe economic Depression and the Second World War, he led with a steady hand and compassion for the vulnerable.
Every person who came to Warm Springs found themselves on unfamiliar ground, contending with the dragons of suffering, depression and loneliness. But there, surrounded by others with the disease, they found compassion, comradery and the power that comes from relying on each other for support and encouragement.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Which brings us back to Paul, who also finds himself on terra incognita. In the beginning of our reading today, Paul has been transported by God to what he calls the third heaven, a land that hasn’t been mapped or explored. There, he hears things that no mortal can repeat.
Paul feels the need to mention this extraordinary vision because he’s not the only missionary in Corinth. He has some competition, a group of missionaries he mockingly labels the “super-apostles.” The “super apostles” are eloquent, unlike Paul. They’re packing the pews while Paul’s little churches struggle. He’s frustrated, and it’s beginning to show. He begins by boasting about how he won’t stoop to boasting about his visionary experience.
But then he makes a fascinating theological move: he begins to brag about his imperfections and how they, more than anything, make it possible for the power of God to move in and through him. He won’t try to compete with the “super-apostles” at their own game. He knows that he will never match their charisma or eloquence.
And to make matters worse, God has given him a thorn in the flesh to bring him back to earth after being carried up to the third heaven. We don’t know what the thorn was—some scholars think it might have been an eye ailment—but whatever it was, it helped Paul grasp something very important: his so-called weakness was actually a strength.
It was a strength because he could never pretend that he was perfect, that he had everything figured out, that he could get close to God by virtue of his knowledge, wealth, relationships or abilities.
Like FDR, Paul’s thorn made him more compassionate with others who were contending with dragons of their own. As Paul preached the Gospel on the terra incognita of Corinth and other remote places, he learned to rely on the power of our crucified Lord alone.
By conventional standards, Jesus was anything but a success story: he had no wealth or connections. He died like a common criminal on the cross. He chose not to fight back or rally his followers; instead, he meekly went to his death.
And yet his apparent weakness was a source of the greatest strength imaginable: the power of self-giving love, the might of laying down one’s life for one’s friends.
“My grace is sufficient for you because my power is made perfect in weakness.”
These words connect to our Gospel reading. Today, when we meet Jesus, he’s on the most familiar ground possible. He would have known every inch of his hometown of Nazareth. Yet, even there he finds dragons of contempt.
You know the saying: familiarity breeds contempt. The people of Nazareth are familiar with Jesus. They know him as the carpenter, Joseph and Mary’s boy, brother to many siblings.
They cannot conceive that someone they know so well is capable of speaking with such wisdom or acting with such power. They have a blueprint for what is possible when you come from Nazareth, and Jesus is throwing those plans out the window.
The people’s disbelief is like a thorn in Jesus’ flesh; their rejection seems to weaken him. And so he decides to go out to terra incognita, to new places to proclaim the Gospel.
In a moment of apparent weakness, Jesus—think of FDR at Warm Springs—reaches out for assistance. He sends the twelve apostles out to join him in his ministry of teaching and healing. Notice how the vulnerability of the disciples becomes their strength.
Jesus tells them to take nothing for their journey except a staff. “Leave food behind,” Jesus instructs. “Don’t worry about extra clothes or any money. Your strength will be in the grace that you receive from perfect strangers.”
Yes, there will be some dragons out there, but shake the dust off your feet as you leave their lairs. Your vulnerability, your imperfection, your weakness will be a way that you can connect with others in relationships of true mutuality.
It’s in that exchange, the giving and receiving of grace and love, that you will discover true power.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
These are good words to take to heart in our own time and place because we’re standing on unfamiliar ground. We’re contending with many dragons as a country and as individuals. It’s like all of our blueprints have been thrown out of the window.
I’m wondering if this is a time for jazz, for improvisation, for having the courage and the faith to explore new lands with hope in our hearts.
From every strange land where we find ourselves, the old hymn reminds us, God’s grace—God’s sufficient grace, God’s amazing grace—will lead us home.
A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Tallahassee, Florida on July 7, 2018.