Messages, Meditations, and Musings on the Life of Faith by Rev. Dr. Scott E. Olson, Pastor, Grace Lutheran Church, Mankato, MN

Sunday, June 14, 2015

"Singing Our Faith: Just a Closer Walk with Thee" - Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

Singing Our Faith: Just a Closer Walk with Thee
Pentecost 3 – Summer Series
June 14, 2015
Sibley Park, Mankato, MN
2 Corinthians 12.2-10

It’s been about 10 years now since I was getting signals to enter a doctoral program at Luther. I pretty much dismissed them, partly because I was a bit snobbish, thinking the Doctor of Ministry (DMin) degree was inferior to the gold standard PhD. Also, it was not a good time. I had a daughter in college and one in the wings. Plus, I was going through a rough patch in ministry. But, some colleagues were putting heavy duty pressure on me and brochures kept showing up, even after I threw them away.

But, the biggest hurdle was financial. Tuition alone was $10K, all needed to be paid in the first 2.5 years. I figured the total tab would be closer to $15K and didn’t see how I could do it. Cindy and I discussed it and she said we’d find a way, but I wasn’t sure how. So, I had this conversation with God: “God, if you want me to do this program, then you have to help me pay for it.” Believe it or not, God answered and said to me, “Fine, but you’re going to have to learn how to ask for money.” Crap. And so I did. I did one of the hardest things I’ve done, swallowed my pride and asked for help. You know what? People responded. It was one of the most humbling experiences I have ever had.

Today we explore our third song in the “Singing Our Faith” series, Just a Closer Walk with Thee. In this series, we put the beloved songs of our faith, both old and new, in conversation with scripture and our lives. Although “Walk” is more of a golden oldie, it is still relatively new. It is also different this week because author of both the text and tune are unknown. In fact, we don’t even know when it was written.

Walk” became popular in the 1930s and 1940s among African Americans in the South and spread from there. Interestingly, some consider it to be more of a performance piece than one suited for congregational singing. Yet, it appears in 80 hymnals, including our own Evangelical Lutheran Worship. As we’ll discover in a few minutes, it lends itself well to bluesy and jazzy accompaniments. Indeed, Just a Closer Walk with Thee was chosen for today because of the jazz quartet’s presence.

What makes “Walk” powerful is that it expresses an acceptance of our weaknesses that leads us to admit our utter dependence upon God. The first line, “I am weak but Thou art strong” reflects the Apostle Paul’s sentiment in 2 Corinthians 12. He is writing to a church he founded and cares for deeply, but is in turmoil. It seems that there have been some rival missionaries who have come to town and have been boasting about how much God is working through them. In other words, they are trotting out their résumés and flashing their credentials in an effort to bolster their message. But Paul, in a counter-cultural response, says that he will only boast in his weaknesses, not his strengths. He does so because he wants to argue that it is precisely in our weaknesses and vulnerabilities that God’s power and grace are made manifest.

Paul shares this lesson he learned by describing a “thorn in the flesh,” an unspecified affliction that has had theologians fixated on making educated guesses for two millennia. Yet, for Paul, it’s not important what it is, how he received it or even that God didn’t take it away. What is important is how God made his grace fully present in, with and under Paul’s weakness. That’s what Paul means by God’s power being made perfect in his weakness: God’s power is fully present or complete. It’s like fully tuning into a radio station and being able to hear your program clearly. Paul responds to this affliction by accepting his vulnerability, which allows him to open himself to God’s powerful presence.

Brené Brown is a sociologist and self-described researcher-storyteller who has explored vulnerability in TED Talks. She studied connections among people and found that those who were better connected in order to be better connected decided they needed to be seen as vulnerable and willing to open themselves up to others. She found that they had the courage to be imperfect, willing to let go of who they thought they should be and accept who they were, warts and all.

Just like Paul, Brown’s message is counter-cultural, because we live in a time where the message is to not show weakness. We have an almost pathological need to make certain what is uncertain. And we spend billions of dollars trying to numb the pain of life. She notes that we are the most obese, medicated and addicted society that has ever lived. The problem is, she says, is that we can’t selectively numb emotion. For if we numb the hard stuff of life, we also numb the joy and blessings that come our way, often in the midst of the hard stuff.

Paul tells us that weakness (or vulnerability) is the distinguishing mark of a follower of Jesus. We have the courage to be vulnerable, to open ourselves up, because we follow a vulnerable God. For it was Jesus who humbled himself by taking on human flesh and becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. This God is so committed to connecting with us he meets us on our life journeys and walks with us. In so doing, he invites us to be vulnerable with him and with one another, to live the authentic life in him. Don’t let my experience with my DMin program think I’m some kind of hero; I’m not. Being vulnerable and asking for help are ongoing struggles for me. But I keep trying, because being vulnerable has huge implications about our life together. For I am weak, but God is strong and God’s power is made fully present in my vulnerability. So we keep on trusting in God’s grace. Amen.

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