EPISTLE LESSON Psalm 48
GOSPEL LESSON II Corinthians 12:2-10
SERMON: “Stand Out or Fit In ?”
Studies show that everyone wants to fit in – well, almost everyone. There are always exceptions. For our children, that “fit in” phenomenon begins as early as Kindergarten. When my son was a toddler and when he was in nursery school, he had a wardrobe, mostly sewn by my mother-in-law. She was a good seamstress. And she found the cutest materials. I remember with great fondness the fireman shirt, the crayon shirt, the tennis shoe shirt and yes, even the “I love my shirt” shirt. And he had many, many pairs of corduroy pants to go with the shirts. All was well until he started kindergarten. Suddenly those clothes were no good. The corduroy pants had to go – it had to be blue jeans. The shirts had to go -- no one else had anything like them. This was 1980-81 – he had to have a Steelers sweatshirt and a Cowboys sweatshirt to fit it.
Everyone wants to fit in. Paul was 5 when he was in kindergarten. When I was 5, my family went to live for a year and a half in London. It took my sister Peg, who was almost 12 years old at the time a little more than a month to pick up a British accent. Judy was about 8. They say it took her a couple of weeks. At the tender age of 5, family history says it only took me about 2 days. The speed with which I picked up a British accent was one of the few things I ever did quicker or sooner than my sisters. It says more about the facility of young children for language than about my skill. Bottom line: We all wanted to fit in.
Everyone wants to fit in. The desire to blend in with the crowd hits a peak in those awkward middle school and high-school years, but it never seems to go away completely.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanted to fit in. There’s no harm in wanting to wear the same style of clothing as our classmates or co-workers. Most of the time it doesn’t hurt to adopt speech patterns and idioms of our companions. One I catch myself doing often is what is known as the “quotable like.” “I’m like, “Who left that there?” or I’m like, so glad I went to see that movie.” I mean really --- where did we get that? I’m like that is so not good English grammar.
We fit in without even noticing that’s what we’re doing.
But what happens when ‘fitting in’ means we do or say things that are contrary to living the life that Christ calls us to embrace. While our human nature struggles to find the right clothes for our wardrobe and the words for our speech, what we hear in Paul’s letter today suggests something very different. Instead of seeing his differences as defeating, he acknowledges his difference may indicate weakness, but our weaknesses simply make the power of Christ shine more brightly and clearly.
This is definitely one of those passages where you want to have read what comes before. In Chapter 11, Paul writes of the things he has in common with his audience. Like them he is a Hebrew, and Israelite, a descendant of Abraham. Like many of them he has suffered for his faith – He has been whipped and beaten, stoned and shipwrecked. He has worked and worked – hard – and yet known the pain of hunger and thirst, of cold and homelessness.
Who would brag that they had experienced beatings, hunger, homelessness? That doesn’t fit in with the crowd to which we want to belong. Our first instinct is to hide shameful truths about ourselves.
Says Bob Kaylor, Senior Minister of the Park City United Methodist Church in Park City, Utah, “Today Paul encourages us, through his own example, to reject the instinctual idea that we must downplay that which makes us weak and emphasizes what pop culture models as fashionable and strong. Instead, Paul urges us toward the opposite: not to cover our weaknesses with too much bragging, but to let our unique sins, struggles and scars shine.”
It’s one thing to stand out of the crowd for something admirable. To be recognized as a star athlete, a distinguished writer, a great humanitarian, a talented performer – to stand out in such ways is more than okay, for many people it is highly desirable. But when the thing that sets us apart is a weakness, a fault, even a sin, our first instinct is to cover it up. When I was taking painting lessons, our teacher frequently said to us, “It’s not how many mistakes you make – it’s how well you cover them up that counts.” That may be true if you’re painting with oils on wood or metal, but it doesn’t work with watercolors. Once watercolor paint hits the paper – it’s there to stay. And it doesn’t work in life.
“The problem,” says Kaylor, “with covering things up is that the struggle we’re hiding from others is still very real and doing great harm to us. And though others might be marveling at how we fit in, the fact that we’re hiding something typically only increases a sense of shame and a fear of being found out, which pushes us deeper into deception. In essence, we repeat the sin of Adam and Eve. Confused by the things we know about ourselves, we seek to cover ourselves, running from those who can actually give us relief.”
Covering up our flaws is not a good choice. Neither is celebrating our weakness(es). If we can’t hide our faults, then for some people the next best option is to embrace them, to indulge ourselves, to find uncritical company in our troublesome places. We can always surround ourselves with people who struggle with the same difficulties and tell each other it’s okay – it’s not a big deal. It’s called rationalization.
Unfortunately covering up our struggles doesn’t help. Celebrating, indulging and excusing our weaknesses can lead to destruction.
Hiding and indulging are the pitfalls. But Paul models for us a promise that if instead of denying, covering up, hiding our weaknesses, instead of swinging the other way and claiming that our troubles are not troubles at all, but something that fits in well with the world around us, excusing ourselves from responsibility, instead we can choose to expose our weaknesses and so experience the power of Christ at work within and around us.
No one in the first century had better credentials than Paul – as a Jew, as a scholar, as a man of the Law, as a person who had encountered and been transformed by the living Lord. And yet even Paul had a weakness – his ‘thorn in the flesh.’ We don’t know what that was. Scholars have speculated. I suspect that Paul is intentionally vague here because it’s not the particular “thorn” that matters. What matters is that it was enough to remind him consistently and constantly of his reliance upon the grace of Jesus Christ. In spite of Paul’s pleading with the Lord to removed the “thorn” Christ’s answer was that his grace was sufficient, his power was made perfect in Paul’s weakness.
The bad news is that each and every one of us has flaws, areas of weakness that prevent us from becoming and being everything that we want to be, or even that God hopes for us to be. The bad news is that we cannot hide our flaws and we dare not embrace our flaws.
The GOOD news is that when we get past both hiding and embracing our flaws, the power of Christ can heal our brokenness – as individuals, as a community, as a nation, as a church.