Preached by Will Brown, October 18, 2015
Taken from Hebrews 5:1-10
We begin today with a piece of wisdom that I learned from our youth… Do you know how Moses makes his coffee? He brews it! Get it? Hebrews!
That’s a pretty terrible joke—or a pretty awesome joke—but in any case, today we are continuing our sermon series walking through the book of Hebrews. We’ve seen how God stoops down to us, and we’ve considered how the Word of God reads us like a book. Today we enter chapter 5, which considers the High Priest.
Now, if you find yourself beginning to tune out when we get to the subject of the high priest offering ritual sacrifices, that’s all right. True enough, this language can sometimes feel dated and foreign to us in our modern society, but this morning, let’s enter that world for a few minutes.
How is the priest described? I find it striking that we don’t hear about a lofty, honored official, wearing fancy clothes in an elite religious institution. Instead, the priest is presented as someone who can relate to us. Listen again to verse two, which is the verse where we’re going to focus today: “He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness.” The priest understands that nobody is perfect—not even the priest! If God ever seemed too distant, too grand for us to live up to—here instead was the priest, flawed like the rest of us. In very tangible ways, the office of priest was a bridge between a flawed, messy real world, and the purity, perfection, and holiness of God. That was the beauty of this religious system, and the reason that it worked? The priest was flawed, so he understood people’s struggles and dealt gently with them. The priest’s greatest strength was that he was weak.
Have you ever been in a job interview where the infamous question was asked: what is your biggest weakness? Interviewers often ask about strengths as well, but the question that always gets our attention is this one: what are your weaknesses?
I consulted a few websites to get some advice on how to answer this question.
- monster.com suggests, “Handle it by minimizing your weakness and emphasizing your strengths.”
- job-hunt.org advises you to “include that you already have a plan to overcome this weakness through training or practice”
- biginterview.com agrees: “Describe how you are already working to improve” and then “Move on!”
Each website offers some strategies for getting out of this question, but most agree that this is a trap! Give an answer that paints you in a positive light and pivot to something else. Granted, if you want to actually get a job, this is probably good advice. You probably don’t want to use this as a launching point into every shortcoming you see in yourself: “I’m so glad you asked! You know, I’m pretty disorganized, I’m usually late to things, and I really don’t work very well with other people, and I’m not very productive working independently…” This is not a good strategy; it’s much wiser to spend your job interview detailing your strengths, not your flaws.
But I wonder: when the interview is over, are we willing to take a closer look at those weaknesses? And today I don’t mean in the way that the career websites suggest, finding a way to “fix” them. Instead, I’d like for us today to consider something else: how might those weaknesses themselves, just as they are, be an advantage for us? Like the High Priest in our passage, who is able to “deal gently” with people because he relates to their struggles, are there ways that each of our unique weaknesses equip us in powerful ways?
Let me give you an example. When I was working as a chaplain at the hospital, one of my coworkers—I’ll call him Mark—might best be described as “scatterbrained.” Do you know anyone like that? You would always find his reading glasses and notebook on the table, or his coat left hanging on the chair (complete with coffee stains down the front). His office desk was, well, a jungle of paper—not the kind of person one would ever accuse of being organized. And yet… when it came to interacting with people as a chaplain, Mark was able to enter instantly and completely into another person’s situation. Unencumbered by any internal clock nagging him to get to his next meeting on time, he always seemed completely committed to whoever was in the room with him. He was always available, forever on-call. Sure, he sometimes missed deadlines and arrived late to meetings, not really the guy you want running your business, but when you talked to him, the rest of the world seemed to disappear. You felt like you were the only person in the world who mattered to him. On the one hand, his disorganization was a “weakness,” but on the other hand, what did that enable him to do and to be? Might his weakness also be a strength? Full disclosure: my office desktop is currently a bit of a disaster, so perhaps I am finding rose-colored glasses for Mark and for me. But I also think there’s an important truth here.
I’ve heard it said that our weaknesses are the shadow side of our strengths. They are interconnected, two sides of the same coin. For every flaw we identify about ourselves, there is a positive attached on the same pole. Just think about the words we use. Is someone pushy, or assertive? Are we obsessive, or determined? Arrogant, or confident? Lazy, or peaceful? It depends on how you look at it. And when it comes to our individual personality traits, it depends on how we look at ourselves. My purpose in saying all of this is not to give some sort of “self-help” motivational speech. I’m not saying “look on the bright side,” or “we’re all perfect just the way we are.” All of us know we have ways we could be better. My friend Mark should probably work on his time-management skills, and all that job interview advice about showing progress on our weaknesses makes good sense.
But what I’m getting at today is that sometimes God has given us gifts of weakness. Our flaws may be the very things God is using to equip us for the unique ministry set before each one of us. Just like the high priest in Hebrews chapter 5, our greatest strength may be our weakness.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor in Colorado, was recently interviewed by Terry Gross on the radio program “Fresh Air.” The interview came to the subject of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, which often meet in church basements, and I found Nadia Bolz-Weber’s observation to be fascinating. She said that in many churches more people are talking honestly about their lives and their trust in God in the basements than in the sanctuaries. Too often, church can become a place where people put on a happy face and pretend everything is fine, when what so many people are desperately longing for is a place where they can be understood, accepted, and loved for who they are. For many, the only person who can give them that is someone else who’s been in their shoes: perhaps an AA sponsor who relates to their struggles, someone who discovered that their own “weaknesses” could be leveraged as a “strength,” putting them in a unique place to help someone only they could reach.
What are your weaknesses? Where are the broken, hurting parts of your life? Are there people your own struggles help you relate to? Might your challenges also be opportunities?
This happens all the time, here in our own congregation. Two people, each grieving the loss of a loved one, share a hug in the hallway, with a kind word that means something more coming from someone else who knows what it’s like. Parents of preschoolers, who gather on Wednesday mornings in the nursery, share stories of their (well, our) frustrations and failings and exhaustion, along with the celebrations, finding a community of friends who’ve had the same struggles. People facing the challenges of aging, or caring for an aging parent, or struggling to fit in at school or adjust to living in a new place. In so many ways, we find ourselves connecting to others through the similar struggles we have endured, or the internal demons we have had to face.
Whatever your challenges may be, might God have placed you in this situation for a reason? Might our challenges bring new opportunities? And might our weaknesses be our strengths? The high priest “is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness.” We’ll continue with this text in a moment, but before we do, allow me to take this one step further. I encourage us each to keep thinking about how our individual weakness can be strengths, but I wonder how this might also be true for us as a congregation.
UBC is not a perfect church—and I’m not even sure what it would mean to be a “perfect church”—but we have our quirks and our flaws and imperfections. Now, of course, there are many things we need to improve, and the leadership of the church is actively working on that, but I’m sure you’ll agree this sermon is not really the place to go into these details. What intrigues me today is this question: what do our church’s weaknesses allow us to be and do?
Like an individual’s personality traits, which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage, do our congregational quirks also empower us in particular ways?
This is a larger question than I can answer alone, so let’s keep this conversation going in the months ahead. But for today, here’s one thing I’ve been thinking about. One of the challenges I’ve heard a lot is that we aren’t always clear about who we are, and we can end up feeling scattered. There are so many different projects, missions, and programs coordinated by various people within congregation: WMU, Sunday Bible Study classes, young adult group, Faith and Justice Committee, the Fellowship Committee, the staff, and others. With all that we’re doing, we aren’t always sure how to describe ourselves or say where we’re going. We have so many diverse opinions, theologies, and hopes for UBC. This can be a challenge for us, even a weakness, and I agree that we can do a much better job finding a cohesive vision (in fact, the deacons are discussing this very subject tomorrow night!). But even so, this characteristic of our congregation may also be a strength for us. We have an impressive diversity of passions, ideas, and dreams, and our church makes room for all of us. People who may not find a home in another church can find a place here. Whatever your passion may be, UBC can help you to serve God in that way. At our best, the church serve as a bridge: a bridge between conservative and progressive, red and blue, old and young, spiritual and seeking—perhaps even between people and God.
In that way, our church, and each one of us who calls UBC home, can be like the high priest in Hebrews chapter 5, doing our part to span the gap between human imperfection and divine holiness, equipped for this work by our own weakness.
That is a daunting task, I’ll admit. And maybe it’s an impossible one. The trouble with “leaning in” to our weakness is that we are… weak. Our imperfections might be used for good, but they are also proof that we, like any high priest, are not perfect.
But Hebrews chapter 5 does not end with verse 2. There is another bridge between us and God, a perfect priest who knows both humanity and divinity, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who understands what it’s like to be in our world and who has mercy on us. We take heart knowing that we are not alone. What grace it is to know that in the end, our success does not depend on our strengths, or our weaknesses! And so, we can risk the vulnerability of facing our own weakness because of our faith that God truly understands what it is like to be human like us. And when we do, we see that through our imperfections and challenges, God has prepared each of us to serve in a unique way.
A week ago, in this very room, I was talking with a church member who lives a good distance outside of Charlottesville, which makes it hard to be at every event and hard to participate in certain ways. But she had an idea that perhaps she could help with writing cards for our church members and cards for staff at the hospital, to show them that we care. What could be seen as a challenge (living at a farther distance) also presents an opportunity to serve in a different way.
At the beginning of this sermon, I mentioned that talk about “priests” can be hard for us to relate to, but do you know what? As Baptists who affirm the “priesthood of all believers,” part of what we’re saying is that we are all priests, all trying to bridge that gap between broken humanity and perfect divinity, within ourselves and with everyone we encounter. Fortunately, it is not ultimately about us at all—are we good enough, do we know enough, can we do things the right way. It’s about God: recognizing the transformation God is working in us, and how God is using even our failings to equip us to serve in the ways that only we can.
So where has God called you? What gifts have you been given, yes, but not just that. What weaknesses has God given to you, and where do those enable you to serve in a unique way? Might it be that you—even imperfect you—are exactly the right person for the job?
Let us pray: Perfect God, thank you for making us imperfect and flawed. Give us the courage to face and embrace our weaknesses, that we might realize how perfectly we have been created to minister in a broken world.