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Power made perfect in weakness.

What are the things you are proud of?  Your career or your accomplishments?  Maybe your home or something you created?  Your cultural heritage, your ancestors, maybe your children?  Are you more proud of the things you did—a result of actions taken—or proud of belonging to something—which maybe you had no control over? 

 

Paul says he’s not going to brag about himself or anything he has done.  He’s not going to brag about his privilege, about being a free Roman citizen, or about his educational provenance.  Imagine, not leading with the things in your life that might make someone else look up to you! 

 

Imagine bragging about your weaknesses, as Paul says.  And not in that annoying, one-upping kind of way, like “Oh, you broke your leg?  Yeah, I broke both my legs a few years ago, whew, that was hard.”  Paul says he’s content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities because he heard these words from God: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”[1] 

 

I wonder if God’s grace would have made a difference in Nazareth on that weekend when Jesus was there in his hometown.  Would God’s power-made-perfect-in-weakness have changed the perspectives of the people living there?  Was it pride that kept them from recognizing Jesus’s power to teach and to heal?  Or could it have been internalized oppression and a fear of what might happen to the community if the Romans find out Jesus is from Nazareth? 

 

Raj Nadella, professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, wrote about this in Sojourners magazine.  He writes,

“From the perspective of the Nazarenes, someone from such an impoverished town, someone who looks like them and shares their history of marginalization, could not secure liberation from the Roman Empire.  In questioning [Jesus’s] credentials and worth, they are questioning their own.  …Postcolonial scholar Frantz Fanon (frahns FANnin) explained how communities subjected to colonial aggression internalize colonial narratives about themselves.  Internalized oppression undermines one’s sense of self-worth and impairs one’s ability to imagine a different reality, in which oppression is overthrown.”[2]

 

This is where many of us struggle to understand what this is like, when many of us belong to a dominant culture.  We live our lives expecting that things will just work for us, that we’ll work for fair pay and we’ll receive our wages in a timely manner, that if we are wronged we can appeal to various authorities to make things right, that we will be treated with respect. 

 

It may be easy for us to judge these folks from Nazareth—why can’t they just believe what Jesus is teaching, or believe in God, or believe just enough to get a few works of healing?  Professor Nadella writes,

“Their internalized oppressive narratives become stumbling blocks, preventing them from escaping oppression.  The culprit here is empire, not the people—even if their ability to perceive the liberative imagination of Jesus is impaired.  Progress and liberation are often impeded by oppressive colonial narratives, but liberation is possible when communities refuse to be ensnared by the narratives of empire and actively imagine new realities together.”[3]

 

The culprit is empire—among other things, the glorification of strength and power at any cost, even at the cost of healing and relationships, which brings pain to everyone involved, those who are oppressed as well as those who seem to benefit from the system. 

 

Can you imagine refusing to be ensnared by the narratives that lock you into ways of being?  Can you imagine being liberated from oppression? 

 

Reverend Tiffany Chaney is an ELCA pastor, a mission developer now serving in Alabama.  Several years ago at a ministry conference, she was invited to speak to laypeople about discovering diversity in their own neighborhoods, but she decided instead to tell her own story about being a Black woman in the Lutheran church. 

 

She grew up the child of an organist, baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran church as a child, finding Lutheran communities as a college student and as a young adult, serving in leadership and on synod committees before starting Lutheran seminary.  Reverend Chaney writes:

“I have done tough things before – I’ve been to graduate school twice. My final semester in seminary, I simultaneously took 5 classes and worked 3 jobs. I’ve started a congregation from scratch. Yet, the difficulty of those experiences pale in comparison to my experience being both black and Lutheran.”[4]

 

Now why would Reverend Chaney say the toughest thing she has ever tried to be is both Black and Lutheran?  She says her identity is regularly questioned.  She writes:

“I cannot count the number of times I have been asked by Lutherans what it was like when I became Lutheran… or the better, sister question: of what it was like when I converted from being Baptist.

 

“When asked this question, I wonder why it never occurred to the person that maybe I was baptized at 2 months old in the Lutheran Church and confirmed at 12, just like them. I wonder if they could ever even imagine my grandparents were a part of a group of families who began a Lutheran church 70 years ago.”[5]

 

She says she is also questioned about the cultural representation of worship that is familiar to her, and she has felt the criticism of her seminary classmates and later her pastoral colleagues who didn’t appreciate the music or the preaching cadences that speak to her heart.  Reverend Chaney is invited to speak and to preach among Lutheran communities all around the country, and she writes:

“Someone said to me once, after the first time I preached at their church, I didn’t know

what to think when I heard you were black…but you’re good!

 

“I wonder if they know I don’t receive that as a compliment. I take no pride in being a good Black…good enough to measure up to their standards set for a black preacher.”[6]

 

Now, we might think to ourselves, here in St. Louis, we would never do that!  We would never reject someone because of their skin color!  We would never say that another cultural heritage must not be Lutheran, as though we own the Lutheran trademark! 

 

Well.  I wonder if Jesus’s hometown folks in Nazareth thought this, too, that they would never miss out on the reign of God. 

 

Reverend Chaney said that her goal in speaking about her experience is not to make people feel guilty but to move people to action, to be the church God is calling us to be.  Jesus calls us as children of God and as disciples and sends us out to share the gospel, to heal and to cast out unclean spirits, and wherever the message is not welcomed, to shake off the dust on our feet as we go. 

 

What we—especially white-skinned Lutherans—need to realize is how fortunate we are to have leaders like Reverend Chaney, who bring a message of God’s grace and are bold enough to stick around and keep proclaiming. 

 

She says that when people get angry because talking about race is too political, she wants to shout that this isn’t about politics, it’s about love.  But she says then she remembers that she can’t shout because then she might fit the “angry Black woman stereotype” that gets Black women uninvited from the table and she knows she can’t affect change if she’s not at the table. 

 

She says that the hardest thing she’s ever done is build a Lutheran church for people of color when she knows the institutional church is not yet for them.  She wonders if she is breaking her ordination vow to “not give illusory hope.”  So why does she stay?  What keeps her going?  Here’s Reverend Chaney in her own words:

 

“So, why do I keep doing the toughest thing I have ever done?  Because I believe God and I believe in the theology of this church. I believe Jesus comes to the places where people can’t breathe. Jesus comes to the people whose necks are being crushed and Jesus lays right there beside us, pushing against the weight, too. Jesus continues to come to broken people in broken churches and continues to fight to put us together and mold us into the church we are becoming.

 

“I believe that I am saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. I believe you are too. And, so are all the people who are on the margins in this world…I am called to share the good news with them that the Lord meets them there on the margins and…I want to tell them that there are those who are willing to fight to help them breathe.  If I did not believe this, I could not be both black and Lutheran.

 

“But, I do, so I continue to work to help create the church I hope we are becoming.  A church where we stop questioning whether a person is Lutheran enough and instead start reframing that question to expand Lutheran identity to include lived experiences beyond those rooted in only certain cultural expressions. 

 

“A church where we understand Lutheran worship as Gathering, Word, Meal, Sending expressed in culturally relevant ways. A church that realizes one can be Lutheran and not sing ELW setting 3 every week. A church where we check ourselves on this whole idea of what it means to be “Lutheran enough” because the vast majority of what I hear people call “not Lutheran” has absolutely nothing to do with Lutheran theology and everything to do with whether the way someone else worships matches the way they worship in their own congregation.

 

“The church I hope we are becoming is a church that is willing to work inside out to dismantle racism in the systems closest to us…A church that will go into the places and spaces unfamiliar and uncomfortable to us because we love the people there enough to go, even at risk of making ourselves uncomfortable.”[7]

 

Are you willing to risk discomfort for the sake of proclaiming God’s word and God’s enduring love for all creation?  Are you willing to find contentment with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities, alongside Paul?  Are you willing to submit to God’s power so that you might heal others and even cast out unclean spirits like racism? 

 

Will you listen for God’s call, guiding you to dismantle the oppression that ensnares us in unhealthy patterns of relationship, and can you yourself be liberated and also set others free?  Is God’s grace enough for you?  Can you let your own weakness be a witness to God’s great strength made perfect? 

 

Reverend Chaney, the mission developer, has no words of condemnation but mercifully sends us out with a blessing:

“Go, hear the stories of the people in your community. Go, observe their lived experiences. Go, show up and just be with people. And, when you do, you will figure out how to serve them. When you hear their stories, you’ll come up with creative ways to do ministry alongside them. Ways to join what God is already doing in and among them. Because, let’s be clear, God is already in your neighborhood with them. You don’t need to save them. Jesus did.”[8]

 

Amen. 


Pastor Cheryl


[1] 2 Corinthians 12: 9

[2] Raj Nadella, “Scandalous Wealth,” “Living the Word” column in Sojourners magazine, commentary for July 7, 2024, page 48, July 2024. 

[3] Ibid 49.

[4] Reverend Tiffany Chaney, “Living Lutheran: My Story,” https://revtifc.wordpress.com/?s=living+lutheran

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.



 


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