Sermon for Sexagesima

“If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities”

How weird (or at least how strange)! Don’t we all want to call attention to our accomplishments and talents, to our abilities and qualities of character and action? Or even better to have others celebrate such things so that we can bask in the glow of their affirmation and attention? Look at  me! Look at me! How great am I! So what can it mean to glory in the things which concern our weaknesses? Yet, Paul, once again, is on to something of fundamental significance with respect to the journey of our souls to God. It is not about us but about God in us and that makes all the difference. The ‘Gesima’ Sundays recall us to some basic features of our life with God understood cosmically and not just narcissistically. It is about being grounded in God. It is not simply about you, impossible as that may seem. You may recall the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where the father says to Calvin ‘it’s not all about you’ to which he says, ‘How is that even remotely possible?’

He is not alone. We do tend, I am sorry to say, to want to reduce everything to ourselves and reduce others to ourselves. Such is a kind of incurvatus in se, a turning in upon ourselves. To think that we are the centre of the universe is utterly delusional. Yet our culture caters to that concept constantly and completely. We manage even  to turn good works or its pretence into self-serving promotional selfies.

So Paul’s words are saving grace, a necessary corrective but also an instructional gold-mine. He is hinting at a profound religious understanding that belongs to our Christian faith. To glory in the things which concern our infirmities is nothing less than to glory in the grace of God who alone can make something good out of our follies and failures, even out of our sins and wickedness. That is pretty powerful and speaks to a whole other understanding of human activity and human character. It is profoundly freeing and life transforming. Our highest activity is found in our working with the grace of God alive in us and knowing that his grace is the moving principle which redeems and perfects our humanity. Wow!

As we have seen, the virtues of the soul become forms of love, forms of our participation in God’s love. The ‘Gesima’ Sundays remind us of the love of God manifest in Jesus and indicate how that love is to live in us.

Today, Paul, in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, shows us the transformation that courage or fortitude (strength of character, we might say) undergoes. He speaks, even boasts, of all the struggles and hardships that he has endured in his life and witness as a minister of Christ. It looks like he is calling attention to himself. But no. He makes it clear that these endeavours are not about himself but about his “care for the churches,” a care that is borne out of his witness to Christ. It is not his courage or strength that matters but the grace of Christ in him overcoming all the weaknesses that belong to our fallen humanity, sin-wracked and wounded as we are. It is not I, but Christ in me, that enables the witness and the mission, he is saying.

The theological virtues do not extinguish the natural virtues but perfect them. The transformation of the virtues into forms of love belongs to the redemption of our humanity. Left to our own devices, however good our intentions, we can only discover that we hurt others and even ourselves. We do not know clearly what we should know or what we should do. Our reason and our will are incomplete, fallen and disordered. We need what comes from God to us – the grace that does not destroy nature but perfects it. Paul’s words seem rash and extreme and yet he shows us that courage is nothing without an understanding of what it is directed towards and nothing without that principle moving in our actions.

The Gospel shows us prudence – practical wisdom – as transformed by love in the parable of the sower and the seed. In the parable we are the ground; at issue is what kind of ground? The ground of the wayside, the rocky ground, the thorn-infested ground or the good ground? Prudence is about being “the good ground” but what is that good ground? “They which in an honest and good heart having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.” It is all about our taking hold of God’s word, the seed planted in the ground of our souls by which in turn we are grounded in God. But to be the good ground requires our recognition of the good order of creation and the good of our humanity within that order. That is an activity of our minds. Once again, it will not do to be passive. We are called to be active.

Luke gives us the parable and the interpretation. Why? Precisely so that we can activelytake hold of the radical teaching here. “The seed is the word of God,” we are told, but what are we? We are the ground in which the word is sown. But what kind of ground are we, the parable asks, and explains the different possibilities. Are we shallow and superficial, the ground of the wayside? Or are we hard-hearted, like the rocky ground? Or are we distracted and preoccupied with ourselves and the world, like the thorn-infested ground? Or are we the good ground which is about our hearts as open and honest and good? The teaching challenges us to think about what we seek and who we are.

The image of the ground recalls us to creation itself. Only by the grace of God can God’s word take root in us and bring forth fruit. That requires our activity. That activity is not simply on the strength of our own wisdom, our own power of knowing, prudence, as it were, but only through our wisdom being ordered and governed to our end in God. That requires our openness to what comes from God to us; our working with all that God gives to us; our souls as the ground in which he sows the seed of his word so that word can grow in us in all wisdom and truth. And it takes courage in the face of all our adversities.

There is nothing static about Christian life. It is all about the grace of God at work in us. Left to ourselves, as Paul suggests, we can really only discover our shortcomings, our weaknesses and vices. “If I must needs glory,” he says, he will “glory in those things which concern [his] infirmities,” his weaknesses. Yet that is to know the greater and perfecting power of God’s love, the love which seeks our good in his truth. For without that love all our doings are nothing worth.

“If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities”

Fr. David Curry
Sexagesima 2019

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