In 1132 twelve monks from the Clairvaux Abbey in northeast France made their way to northern England to begin the Rievaulx Abbey. Their dream was for an abbey that would practice by the strict teachings of St. Benedict. At its peak it would have been home to over 140 monks, a large number of lay-brothers, totaling a working group of over 650 men. The grounds would grow from one building to a campus of 72 buildings. On Sundays, several hundred would have gathered for worship, with perhaps totals peaking at over a thousand. It would have also have been an impressive pilgrimage point for the faithful from all across England. It was one of the most significant English abbeys of the Middle Ages. But my experience with Rievaulx Abbey was very different than the image of a thriving community. With the sweep of the black plague and King Henry VIII”s dissolution of all of the Catholic abbeys, Rievaulx now stands in ruins, a mere shell of the one grand facility. The picture of from within the constructs of its once impressive sanctuary graces the front cover of our worship guide.
You might be tempted to think that seeing the ruins of this once grand facility of faith might be sad or disappointing. This simply could not be more untrue. My time at the Rievaulx Abbey was powerful – even faith changing. The roof is gone and many of the walls have been broken away. But instead of feeling like a place in tatters, it becomes a sanctuary where the trees you see through the arches act as the stained glass windows – the flower growing from the broken walls become the grand works of art – the open sky above seems to invite God into the scene. There was no choir but the laughter of children and the songs of birds took their place nicely. There was no one to preach and nowhere to preach from, but the voice of God spoke with clarity in my heart. I was stopped and stilled in my tracks. This place became a very powerful reminder that God make a habit of creating beauty from brokenness.
Our passage for this morning invites us to a moment when Paul makes a very similar discovery. To be honest, there are moments when I am reading through the New Testament when I become pretty sure that I would not have liked Paul. He was brash. He tended to be a bit arrogant. He seemed to believe that what he believed was the only way you could rightly believe – and the way he thought things should be done were the only right way to do them. Just when I feel that I cannot stand Paul’s arrogance and stubbornness another moment, I come to this passage. In brokenness Paul offers: Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. For centuries scholars have debated on what Paul’s thorn in the flesh might be. Some have guessed a physically infirmity. Others have suggested that it was an issue with his speech. Still others have suggested that it might have been a social challenge or maybe it was the Judiazers that battled him over the course of his whole ministry. There are some many possibilities but, after all of the articles written on the topic none of us can be clear on what Paul’s thorn might be. Perhaps its mystery allows each of us to fill in the blank with that part of our lives where we continue to stumble and fall and find ourselves at God’s feet over and over and over again.
So Paul tells us that he pleaded with the Lord to take the thorn away from him but God’s answer was very different than the one he had prayed for. God answered his prayer; 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” The New Living Translation words it this way; “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” This sounds counterintuitive to everything we heard much of our lives. We are told to work from our strengths. We are told to maximize our potential. We are told give it all of our might. We are told to hide, compensate for, or make our weaknesses go way. But here we hear that God’s power works best in weakness. I have to confess this has always been a struggle me to come to terms with this idea. I have always been able to do everything in my power to help make this or that ministry initiative successful. I have always tried to have a plan and strategy in place that could predict every twist or turn. To be completely honest, I think I become so comfortable working out of my strength, my own physical power, and my own capacities I left little room to allow God to work in my weakness. For God to work in and through my weakness I must be willing to allow them to be on display. It is not that I do not have a laundry list of personal and spiritual weaknesses, I am just not used to the idea of having them exposed to the world. But, if I am not careful I discover that in my effort to excel from depth of my own strengths I cheat God from the credit and the glory of working in and through my life.
Over the course of my sabbatical I had the opportunity to take a close look at my life, my walk with God and my ministry journey. I spent time with this passage, and a number of others, each calling me to a fresh encounter with God’s grace and a fresh season where God might speak into and demonstrate His power in my weakness. There, in that midst of the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey I started to understand, in the midst of brokenness God stirs beauty; in the midst of weakness God stirs power.
I have a tendency to try to fix things so that they look “right.” Perhaps one of the lessons God had for me is to let his wonder and his beauty shine in our brokenness – to embrace and celebrate God's work in broken lives, broken hearts, and broken spirits – to embrace and celebrate God’s work in my brokenness and weaknesses. When we make room for God's work and God's work alone – God can and will do things that will amaze us.
So, now, with no hesitation I come to acknowledge that I come to the task of pastor with a broken body, a voice shaped by a catastrophic illness, and a walk that still carries a bit of a wobble. I acknowledge that I am still working to understand what it means to be an urban church in the twenty-first century. I am still striving to put my hands around what it means to be a church filled with people of a diversity of languages and an array of cultures – to be so different but to be one family, one in God together. But, I can tell you with absolute confidence that I know that God will work with power in my weakness and will move beyond what we dream possible in our uncertainties. Only when we are ready to admit that we have reached our end that will be the moment that God’s power will be unleashed. In that moment we will see the unthinkable and the amazing becoming our reality and our only response can be praise to God.
I join Paul in his grand pronouncement; Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. As unnatural as it seems, I have come to embrace my weaknesses so that Christ’s power might be unleashed in my life. I celebrate that in my weakness God’s strength is on display. I sing songs of joy that where I am weak that God is making me strong for His glory. I believe that is God’s way for all of us who seek to walk in his way.
My story is not unique. While the specifics may be different, we all come to this moment with parts of our lives that are broken and other parts of our lives where we know we are weak. Hear that God is ready to show his work in your brokenness and show His power in your weakness.
When you came into the sanctuary this morning each of you were given a slip of white paper. I want to ask you to pull that slip of paper out and have it in your hands. I invite you to look into your life and see where are you broken and ready for God to step in and work in your life? What weaknesses in you keep you from being who God has called you to be? Or doing what God is asking you to do? Would you ask God to take that brokenness, that weakness, and make something beautiful out of it that only HE can do? Where God might speak into your weakness and move in your life as never before?
As we pray, let me encourage you to write down the name of the weakness or place of brokenness and then give it away for God to respond. At the time of commitment I invite you to come and lay it down at these steps as a gesture of laying at an altar for God. You can also fold it and drop it in the offering plate as a part of this morning’s offering or place it in your Bible as a point of daily reminder to you. I encourage you to choose the way that will prove most meaningful to you and will best offer it to God in heart and spirit. I believe that in offering our brokenness and weakness to God, we will see God work in our lives in new and powerful ways. God transforms brokenness into beauty and weakness into places of strength. God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. Thanks be to God. Let us pray.