In the Name of the Living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness.”
Victor Austin wrote a book not too long ago called Losing Susan. It’s about his wife’s long battle with brain disease, and I commend it to you. Victor is a priest and theologian (he served at St. Thomas Fifth Avenue, and is now working in Dallas, Texas). He was supposed to be our guest preacher during Lent, but you may have heard about this little thing called COVID, which prevented his visit.
Anyway, I’ve been trying to finish his book, but he has the habit of quoting so many other wonderful books that I’m now reading his book while I’m reading from at least six of the books he quotes. I may never finish any of them!
At one point, Fr. Austin quotes the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides who wrote a short novel about ten years ago called The Marriage Plot. I’m about ¾ thru it now, and it’s great.
Set in 1982, it’s basically about three Brown University seniors who’ve just reached their senior year and realized they still haven’t “found themselves” (that’s not just a senior in college kind of issue, by the way).
Mitchel Grammaticus, a heretofore theology major who’s fed up with what he sees as the extravagances and hypocrisy of the first world, decides the only solution – the only way to find himself – is to become the altruist extraordinaire. So, he moves to Calcutta to work for Mother Theresa, tending to the poorest of the poor.
The novel is not a Christian novel, or even a religious novel, per se, but what Mitchel Grammaticus fails to realize in one particular scene has everything to do with the tragedy of missing one of the most essential and life-giving truths of the gospel.
One day, after many, many, hard days loving the least in a setting of unbearable filth and heat, Mitchel is confronted with a man who has defecated all over himself but is too weak and exhausted to clean himself.
The scene is worse than you’re already picturing in your mind; it’s putrid squalor. Faced with the task at hand, what does Mitchell do? Believe it or not, he flees the scene, buys a plane ticket home, and never returns! Later in the novel he is tortured by his decision to flee – that he was unable to do what he thought he had the strength to do.
Our first impulse is to chastise Mitchell – to say he should’ve gone back to finish what he started. That’s the nagging feeling that terrorizes him, after all.
What really happened is that Mitchell reached the end of his own strength, which – news flash – all of us already have or will do at some point. But, that’s not the heartbreak at all. The catastrophe is that nobody ever told him what a place of freedom and comfort that can be.
Nobody ever told him that the gospel of Jesus Christ has never been about our strength; it’s about His strength. Nobody ever told him that the good news of Jesus isn’t for people who see themselves in the theme song from “Rocky.”
Nobody ever told him the gospel is for people that face things well beyond their own strength all the time – folks who are “all shook up,” to quote Elvis. Nobody ever told him the gospel is for people who face pandemics, legal problems, loneliness, divorce, substance abuse, broken relationships, and so forth – people who wake up singing “Tragedy” by the Bee Gees: “When the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on, it’s tragedy.”
Nobody ever told him that the Spirit helps us in our weakness.
Have you ever reached the limits of your own strength? How did you handle it?
When we were on our honeymoon in Mexico about fifteen years ago, Malacy and I decided to go for a swim in the ocean. As we walked toward the ocean, I noticed red flags and signs that read: “Danger. No swimming today.” But I was a newlywed with an urge to prove I had a least a modicum of strength. Plus, I saw others swimming, and they looked fine. So, I coaxed Malacy into the water, promising I could handle it, whispering those famous words, “Honey, I would never let anything happen to you.”
Well, the next thing I knew I was totally pulled under and out to sea by one of those rip currents you see on Discovery Channel, and I couldn’t swim back to shore. Malacy was struggling, too, so she grabbed hold of me, which just made the situation worse. With the last bit of strength I had, I pushed her off of me, casting her into the sea to save herself, which is a topic she still brings up.
Then, in what was probably a period of less than two seconds the current shifted and sped up, depositing me back up on that shoreline at about twenty knots like a beached whale! Malacy was already safe ashore bent over laughing at me as I was picking barnacle and shells out of my swim trunks that had almost come off on the trip ashore. It turns out that I lack the strength to be her knight in shining armor!
Mother Teresa once wrote, “I don’t think there is anyone who needs God’s help and grace as much as I do. Sometimes I feel so helpless and weak, [and] because I cannot depend on my own strength, I rely on Him twenty-four hours a day. If the day had even more hours, then I would need His help and grace during those as well.”
St. Paul put it this way Corinthians:
I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities…for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
Discovering the circumstances and moments in life that truly lie beyond our strength – beyond our limits – is actually and paradoxically a wonderful place to be.
Far from despairing, Christians rejoice – we literally brag – that He is our sufficiency, He is our righteousness, He is our strength.
The old song we all learned in Sunday School still says it all:
Jesus loves me, this I know
For the Bible tells me so
Little ones to Him belong
They are weak, but He is strong
Yes, Jesus loves me
Yes, Jesus loves me
Yes, Jesus loves me
The Bible tells me so
Sermon preached by the Rev. Charleston D. Wilson
Church of the Redeemer
8th Sunday after Pentecost