6th Sunday after Pentecost — July 4, 2021

2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Pentecost 6B; Proper 9

There have been times over this past pandemic year, when I’ve found myself wishing we would give our national leaders more grace — understanding that the response to COVID-19 was difficult, the situation so unprecedented, the conditions constantly changing, the science new and evolving.

Teri McDowell Ott’s lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook’s email list every Monday.

There have also been times when I’ve wished our national leaders would show more grace to others, to those on the front lines, to those who could not afford to stay home and self-isolate, to those directly affected by policy decisions. I also wish leadership felt less like a competition and more like a calling. That it wasn’t about who was better, who appeared stronger, who was the most charismatic and eloquent in speech, but about who would best serve, whose talents and experience would best meet the challenges and the needs.

2 Corinthians reflects the growing pains of a pastoral leader who has moved beyond the “honeymoon” stage. The Corinthians have come to recognize that Paul cannot be all things to all people. He’s a good writer, his letters are strong, but he’s not that impressive in person. He could benefit from a masterclass in public speaking. These critiques are hard for Paul to swallow. When a group of eloquent, rival missionaries arrive on the scene, boasting of their visions and revelations, Paul gets defensive. He derisively refers to these newcomers as “super-apostles” as if they comically arrived dressed in red capes and blue tights.

At the beginning of the passage, Paul deflects attention away from himself, referring to “a person he knows” who had an out-of-body spiritual experience, a “person” who “heard things” in Paradise, things that “no mortal is permitted to repeat.” This sounds so much like Paul is “asking for a friend” we assume he’s referring to himself. But he’s trying to be self-deferential. Trying to be humble. Even though, reading between the lines, Paul would prefer to be screaming, “I’m better than those super-apostles!”

I appreciate Paul’s struggle. As a leader, it’s hard not to compare myself to others. It’s harder still when others compare me to those who have different gifts. Maybe such comparisons are natural and necessary when we are trying to decide who to vote for or who to choose as our leader. But no leader checks all the boxes all the time.

In 2 Corinthians 12:7-9, Paul refers to a thorn in his flesh, a “messenger of Satan,” given to him to keep him from “being too elated.” We don’t know specifics about Paul’s thorn. But it’s bad enough that he appeals to the Lord three times to be rid of it. God’s response? Nope. “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” The thorn remains as Paul’s constant reminder that he is not God, that he has weaknesses, that he is dependent upon the power of Christ.

There is power in knowing who you are as a leader and acknowledging your weaknesses. Anyone who has worked with a narcissist knows how maddening and futile it is to try to work with someone who can never admit to being wrong or confess a mistake. The more effective leader will listen to diverse perspectives, build bridges and create collaborative partnerships, finding ways to balance their weaknesses with the gifts of others.

Leadership is difficult. When called, we don’t always rise to the task. But those leaders who can be honest with themselves, with their people and with God will find themselves with the most power to do the most good.

Questions for reflection:

  1. How did this passage intrigue, disturb, challenge, comfort, encourage or inspire you?
  2. Consider a leader you admire. What strengths or weaknesses do they possess? How do they acknowledge and balance these strengths and weaknesses?
  3. To what leadership roles do you feel called? At home? At school? In your community? In your church? How can you show yourself and others grace in these leadership roles?

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