You may listen to Father Mullen's sermon here.
The story is old of a boy, whose parents are killed in a plane crash. The boy is taken in by his father’s elder brother and his wife, who love him as though he is their own son. As an adolescent, the boy became bookish and nerdy, self-conscious about his limitations: his eyeglasses, his fear of heights, his clumsiness, and his lack of athletic ability. The death of his parents haunted him, and the reticence of his aunt and uncle on the topic of the boy’s natural parents left him feeling guilty for reasons he couldn’t quite explain. In a tragic twist of fate, the boy’s uncle is murdered in a robbery, making him a sort of orphan twice-over, and compounding his gnawing sense of guilt and inadequacy.
Not far away, another boy’s life is similarly shaped by the death of his parents at gunpoint in a robbery. This boy – a child of privilege - is raised by a trusted family friend. As he grows up, he transforms the deep resentment he harbors about his parents’ murder into a conviction to avenge their death, and dreams of ways to turn his yearning for justice into action. Despite his inherited wealth, he shares with the first boy, the deep sense of loss that is accompanied by a kind of survivor’s guilt, a child’s longing for his parents, and an inner wound that can never really be healed.
The boys’ stories are tragic and unique. Their suffering and loss are not commonplace. And yet their stories have been told and retold for decades, because they tap into a sense of loss, injustice, guilt, and despair that is shared by many others. Their stories are also told because of how the boys channel that loss, injustice, guilt, and despair as they grow up; how they harness it to shape their adult lives, to become men of power with a mission to do good in the world.
We could imagine such children being ruined by their loss, by their fate. We could imagine them wallowing in their grief and never learning to grow beyond it. Or, we could imagine that their grief would shape them in other, twisted ways, and we would forgive them for it because of their suffering.
The boys’ stories are told because they are fundamentally stories of weakness – the unfair weakness of cruel loss, loneliness, and irrational guilt – and because almost everyone knows these feelings at some point in their lives. The boys are archetypes of hopelessness transformed, of strength forged out of weakness, and of justice struggling to prevail in a world that seethes with corruption.
And you know who these boys grew up to become, because their stories became famous about fifty years or so ago, when they first were told. And lately their stories have enjoyed a resurgence of popularity, being re-told over and over again in new and ever-more dramatic ways so that new generations can tap into their message of weakness, guilt, and despair overcome by strength, resourcefulness and hope.
Do you recognize the stories of these two boys, whose names you know? Do you know who they grew up to become? The first boy’s name was Peter, the second was Bruce. They grew up to become, respectively, Spiderman and Batman. And this summer their stories are being re-told again with new cinematic sophistication, bringing new audiences in touch with these archetypes of weakness transformed.
There is a much older story of such weakness told in the New Testament, part of which we heard this morning when St. Paul tells us that a “messenger of Satan” was sent to torment him, to “keep [him] from being too elated.” We don’t know how exactly the messenger of doom manifested itself to Paul – he only calls it a “thorn” in his flesh. But we know that it leaves him praying desperately for God’s help. He wasn’t a boy at the time – he was already an adult – but I think he had something in common with those two other boys who must have lain in their childhood beds and prayed for their own thorns to be taken from their flesh, who must have begged God to give them their parents back, who must have stained their pillows with tears at the persistent thought of their own helplessness to save their parents, to protect them, and at the permanence and finality of their deaths.
The boys’ stories are so powerful because we all fear such tears, such weakness, such powerlessness, and we are all subject to them. We all harbor a secret dread of the messenger of Satan who can ruin everything in our lives. The death of a parent – the murder of a parent (or of a child) – is surely brought by such an awful messenger.
Superheroes like Spiderman and Batman represent one kind of hope – that something magnificent can be wrought from such loss. Even if you are bookish, nerdy, clumsy, and afraid of heights, you could end up swinging from rooftop to rooftop in pursuit of justice and all that’s right in the world, if only you are lucky enough to be bitten by the right spider!
But most of us are not so lucky.
Most of us are stuck with our normal, human limitations. Most of us are not given super powers, and most of us are not as well funded as Bruce Wayne, most of us don’t even have an Alfred waiting to assist us as required! Most of us are stuck with the limitations of our fears, our inadequacies, our guilts, and our losses. Most of us are more like Saint Paul than we are like Batman or Spiderman. Most of us pray for the thorn in our flesh to be taken away, and most of us know what it feels like when that prayer seems to go un-answered.
But here, Paul has something to say to us – a secret that neither Batman nor Spiderman knows. For while he is clear that the thorn in his flesh – whatever it is – is never removed, he tells us that a very clear answer to his prayer was given to him. He hears the voice of Jesus speak to him: “My grace is sufficient for you; for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Now, you might say that St. Paul is one of the superheroes of the New Testament. His story is perfectly suited to a comic book or graphic novel format. He starts out with a career as a persecutor of the church, then he has a dramatic conversion complete with amazing visuals, he is taken in by a mysterious mentor to instruct and prepare him for his work, then his ministry carries him to the ends of the known world - with shipwrecks, prison breaks, heavenly visions, and all manner of excitement. But, importantly, Paul is given no superpowers. In fact, he doesn’t even get a uniform or a cape. Indeed, while he is earning his title of Apostleship, he is the recipient of the visits from the messenger of Satan. His blessings are confounded by his own limitations. The right spider does not bite him. He has no inheritance to fund his work, and no Alfred to support him in it.
Paul has only his appeals to his Lord, only his prayers. He yearns for strength where he finds only weakness, which he cannot overcome. Perhaps he still harbors guilt about his persecutions. He knows he is inadequate to the task at had. So he prays and he prays and he prays.
And an answer, at last, is given to his prayer: “My grace is sufficient for you; for power is made perfect in weakness.”
And here, in a sense, is the Christian spider-bite. Here is the secret that transforms our weakness into an unstoppable, super power: the amazing gift of grace that knows its perfection in weakness and that proved itself in the weakness of the death on the Cross, by which God proved that love conquers death, because it is willing to die for the sake of others and able to rise from the grave.
No one thought that Jesus was a superhero for very long. His miracles seemed to run out when he was forced to carry his own Cross. And even the good news of his resurrection was slow to spread. He was supposed to be the Messiah but he did not conquer the Roman emperor, he didn’t even own a sword, he couldn’t muster an army, and was followed by sinners, tax-collectors, and women of questionable repute.
If Jesus is archetypal of anything, he is an archetype of weakness. The persistent image of his collapsed, drained, and lifeless body still affixed to the instrument of its torture and death is put ever before our eyes, as if to say, “You think you suffer? You think you have a thorn in your flesh? You think you feel weak and helpless? How do you think I feel?”
But this is not what he says to us when we feel weak – although he would be justified in saying it. Instead he says, “My grace is sufficient for you.”
You are lonely and you feel unloved – my grace is sufficient for you.
You are sick and frightened about the future – my grace is sufficient for you.
You have lost your job and don’t know how you will survive – my grace is sufficient for you.
Your child is hurt and may not survive – my grace is sufficient for you.
War is raging all around you – my grace is sufficient for you.
What kind of an answer is that?!?!? you want to ask. What is grace in the face of murder, in the face of a messenger from Satan!?!?!? What is grace when I am still left feeling weak and helpless, and not so much as a spider web to swing from to lift me from my despair?
“My child,” the voice says, “power is made perfect in weakness.”
Here is the spider that bit tax collectors and sinners, that made Mary Magdalene a household name, and that transformed the vision of prisoners and slaves, who delighted to sing about it from the depth of their weakness, their powerlessness, their desperation.
You want to see power at work? Look at the weakness of the Cross? Has it not changed the world?
This is the marvelous message being touted at the moment by American nuns – who have deliberately chosen lives defined by the weakness of poverty, but who will not, cannot be silenced by bishops who live in palaces. Christ’s grace is sufficient for them. The power of their defiance – in the name of those who are too powerless to speak up for themselves – is as though they were rolling back their sleeves to show us the spider-bite of grace that makes them strong.
This, too, is the work being done at the only Episcopal school in the City of Philadelphia – a school whose only entrance requirement is that students be sufficiently poor. We started this school because Christ’s grace is sufficient.
If you want to see heroes transformed by grace, come to the Saturday Soup Bowl where volunteers feed hungry people every Saturday morning in the Parish House. There you will see that Christ’s grace is sufficient, because of the people who have been bitten, and delight to see God’s power in them perfected in weakness.
Go to the Welcome Center – a ministry for homeless people that we helped establish – and see how Christ’s grace is sufficient in the ministry of care and love there.
If you want to see Christ at work, look for weakness and you will find his power being perfected there – wherever people are willing to rely on his grace. As St. Paul says, “whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
Chances are, you and I are not going to be bitten by a spider that gives us super powers. Chances are that if we put on a spider suit, people will only laugh at us, and if we try to swing from rooftops, we will probably fall. Chances are that you and I are not superheroes… even though we suffer the same sadnesses, doubts, griefs, injuries, injustices, indignities, sorrows, and weaknesses that everyone suffers.
I hope you never feel that you suffer something so horrible that it feels like it was brought to you by a messenger of Satan, but I know that life brings such sufferings to those who don’t deserve them. And should that day come that you wish you could be a superhero, but discover that you are stuck being your same, old, limited, human self. I hope you will look up at a Cross and see the Man of Sorrows hanging there, and take note of how weak and pathetic and lifeless he looks hanging there…
…and then remember how he changed the world when he came to save it. Remember that his life could not be buried by the grave…
… and remember the sound of his voice reassuring you in your moment of pain and sorrow: “My grace is sufficient for you; for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
8 July 2012
Saint Mark’s Church, Phialdelphia