Leading with Fragility
There is a thing we call the Prosperity Gospel. You know it, maybe not by that name, but you know it. It’s a brand of Christianity that sells the idea that if you do the right things, pray the right way, and worship God… you will be rewarded with material success… you will “prosper”. The Prosperity Gospel arose out of the ashes of WWII as an off-shoot of the revival movements, but truly came to fame with the Televangelists of the 1980s who were really good at having very white teeth, good hair, and telling people what they were hoping to hear. And this tradition is alive and well in many guises of American religious culture today.
You have seen the story recently of a gentleman down south asking the supporters of his ministry to fund a new 54M dollar private jet to replace the third one they bought that their ministries have worn out preaching the gospel. And I’m imagining that he will succeed one way or the other… because we buy-in for prosperity.
Peter Rollins, a favorite theologian, once remarked that we talk about the downturn of Christianity in the 21st century. But that is a misnomer. Christianity is still a billion dollar a year best-selling business. At least… a certain type of Christianity is the type that gives people what they want and tells them what they want to hear. They want a faith of absolute certainties given them from a strong righteous exemplary leader who promises them that faith is rewarded with material blessings and hard-working, Bible-believing, God-fearing people will become financially successful and live “blessed lives”.
That idea? That idea can still fill football stadiums.
So, what’s the problem with that? Jesus for one. And today? Paul for another.
In fact, the problem is actual bible reading Christianity.
Look closely with me at this description of our Christian lives from (slightly paraphrased) Paul’s letter to Corinth (2 Corinthians 4:6-12):
We are afflicted in every way… just short of being crushed;
Perplexed… but not driven all the way to despair;
Persecuted… but not left to rot alone;
struck down… but not out for the count;
always tangibly carrying in ourselves the death of Jesus,
so that the abundant life of Jesus may be visible in through us.
Paul makes this out to be of divine purpose… because God has chosen not to put God’s power in the strong and mighty – the palpably prospering – but in earthenware vessels, in that which markedly common and easily broken. Mainly? Us.
God did this literally in the incarnation as God revealed God’s self in the fully human (and very fragile infant) Jesus… God did this literally in turning Paul’s zeal to destroy the church into a passion for spreading it. God continues to do this – literally – as God uses us to share God’s power and vitality in the world. Not through our strength, but in fact, through our fragility… our struggles… our doubts. God provides perseverance, not prosperity. The gospel is not about overwhelming might – but persistent grit. A light that won’t go out… but plenty of darkness it has to shine through.
This becomes, for Paul, more than simply a promise of gritty faith, but nothing less than the call to be willing to let our fragility be seen. That we are willing to let God’s light shine forth from our brokenness… our failures… our struggles… our weakness… our doubt.
I mean its bad enough God won’t take that all away. God wants us to show people how messed up we are?? This is not filling football stadiums. It’s not marketable… it’s a not a growth strategy. This is foolishness.
But that’s how God has always worked… from Abraham to Moses… from Rahab to David facing Goliath…. From Jesus to fisherman disciples… God has always chosen the least and the lost not simply as the people to be saved (though surely we are all that)… but as the LEADERS of God’s saving power through the Gospel. God’s transforming, gritty, freedom-granting gospel isn’t stored in mighty vaults and thick safes – or even 54 million dollar jets – its stored.. in us! Its made known through us. We house the very power of God and it spills out daily from the cracks in clay lives.
And while it’s easy to point fingers at TV evangelists and jet-strutting millionaires… this is also very much contrary to how we want to live. We still want to put on our Sunday best. We put on our Sunday best because then you don’t know that I didn’t make my bed this morning… and that at my house if you go around the side yard, out of the sight lines of the street, my grass goes from being 3 inches long to 13 inches… you don’t know that yesterday I took a two-hour nap in the afternoon so my kids didn’t end up getting to go to the park like they wanted. If I put on my Sunday best I can cover up all that and I’m not perplexed, crushed, afflicted… barely keeping my head above water. I look good. And that is how we want to be seen by each other.
We preachers struggle mightily with this… we get caught in the trap of believing you need us to have it all together! We are contractually obligated to be solid in our faith. We imagine that our strength is necessary to keep other people strong. Strong and unshaken. We too are scared to model fragility. And we excuse ourselves that struggle by claiming our leadership requires it. We hide behind robes and liturgical furniture… and the office they represent, to keep from leading out of the very fragility Paul calls us to model.
So what would it this kind of leadership from fragility look like? How do we take this kind of fragility from being a nice concept to something we can actually do???
I heard a great example of this during the past week. I attended a training on how to work with children when someone they know is dying or very sick. The trainer who works in family counseling told us not to “teach the kids” how to respond.
You need to work with the kids by modeling how to respond. So you might say to the kids, ‘I keep getting emotional and find myself crying and I don’t even know why? Why do I keep crying? And I thought about it and realized its because I’m sad about what is happening with my dad and I don’t know if he is going to be ok.’ You don’t tell them how to respond, but lead with your fragility that gives them permission to be fragile as well.
And that, friends, is the gospel at work. Strength through vulnerability. Because when we are all fragile together we are very beautiful, and become very strong, and we can change the world. One fragile risk after another, thanks be to God.
This post is an abridged version of a sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church, Boise, Idaho on June 3, 2018. A video of the full sermon can be viewed here.