Saturday, July 7, 2012
Pentecost 6 - Power In Weakness
Any friends who received my Christmas letter at the end of 1975 would’ve sensed that something was up. The whole letter contains only about 25 sentences in a rather terse month-by-month report on our family’s activities. Few, however, could ever know the emotional depths of discouragement and darkness from which the letter’s closing words came: “...We hope that the New Year will bring you and us a fresh vision and a sense of hope that will help us appreciate the patterns our lives take...”
February and March that year saw our 3-month old son hospitalized with severe pneumonia, and my wife herself hospitalized with exhaustion, hemorrhaging and anemia. As Silver Burdett’s Catholic Division book sales representative for virtually the Western 1/3 of the U.S., this was an increasingly impossible situation, so I decided to get out of it.
In April I applied for a cathedral school principal’s job in a Catholic diocese, and was called to interview with the Superintendent of Schools, and with the Assistant Superintendent, whose sister was the school’s outgoing principal. Some 18 others had applied for the job at the K-8 school, so it seemed a long shot for me to be hired, since I had little administrative training and no experience as a principal. I interviewed with the School Board, and spent quite some time with the school faculty and the current principal. Before month’s end, I was chosen for the job and signed a one-year contract, effective August 1.
On my own initiative and expense, I took extension courses in school administration during June and July, through Holy Names College, Oakland, all of which were held elsewhere at the Diocesan Office. Luckily, several others and I commuted together to the classes, until my family could get moved.
I’d met the school secretary briefly at the interview, but knew nothing about her. She was older than I, divorced, very intense, somewhat brusque, though at times she could be charming, very efficient, and she went rigidly by-the-book. There was no question that the school office was her domain. She’d gone to grade school and high school there, and had worked as secretary, without a written contract, for nine previous principals: all female. One of her closest crones was an ex-nun, the 6th grade math and religion teacher, who reminded me of a classic spinster. “Severe” is the word that comes to mind in describing her, as her sort of pinched and rarely smiling face conveyed. She generally seemed impatient with the students, as well as with some of the other teachers. Another of the secretary’s cohorts was an equally humorless and tense aide, who worked in my daughter’s Kindergarten class. It didn’t take long to realize that my being a male principal, and an “ex-priest” at that, amounted to “invading” their sacred territory, and wasn’t in the least appreciated. It’d be impossible to relate all the details of the disagreement which eventually erupted. The bottom line is, “they took offense” at me and I was ousted.
My first three months, as for any first-time administrator, was a mixture of successes and mistakes. I was apparently liked by the parents and students. My failures, as the professional evaluating team later told me, were no more nor less than would have been expected by anyone in the situation as it existed. Nevertheless, the secretary’s and her cohorts’ ability to put a negative spin on the least mistake and to sway others’ opinions blew everything entirely out of proportion. Without even the courtesy of bringing complaints directly to me, or notifying me of their intentions, a group of five teachers, two aides, and the secretary complained to the School Board in mid-November. The Board met and, taking the complaints at face value, appointed a Grievance Committee, noting that I had the right to know specifically the grievances and also to know by name those who submitted them. I then responded in writing, quite lengthily and courteously, to each complaint.
In early December, without ever meeting face to face, the secretary of the School Board wrote and simply informed me that the Grievance Committee had recommended that the Board ask for and accept my resignation under terms and conditions acceptable to me and the Board and that I was expected to attend a Board meeting in two days to discuss the recommendation.
“Shock and awe” would be a mild term to describe the School Board’s reaction when I walked confidently into the meeting with my lawyer, Richard, a quietly forceful personality with wide experience in union negotiations! Though I was still under contract, they may have figured that I’d simply feel outnumbered, cave in, and quietly go away with the one month’s severance which they were offering. The Board President immediately adjourned the meeting.
Between then and the end of December, my lawyer met with the pastor, a personal friend (I thought!) who’d also signed the resignation recommendation, and the Board’s lawyer (husband of the Board secretary) and made it clear that I had every intention of honoring my contract for the full year, and that their terms were totally unacceptable.
Many more things happened between November and February which challenged my family and I almost to the limit. The only people who would talk to me at the school, except when they absolutely had to, were two new teachers whom I’d hired only a week before school began. When I’d walk into the faculty lounge, usually the secretary and her group was there in a huddle. As I’d arrive, greeting everyone normally, there might be a perfunctory “Hello”, followed by a deafening, uncomfortable silence, then a rapid clearing out of the room. I was so isolated during that time, and I’ve often related this in talks, that when I’d come into the office in the morning before school I’d dial the message on the phone giving the time of day, when they still did that, because it was about the only happy voice I’d hear all day.
It took until February before Richard called me to say that, except for tying up loose ends at the school, I no longer had to continue as of that day. He’d worked out a settlement with the Board, by which I’d immediately take a leave of absence through May, then resign as principal on June 1, and until that time I’d continue to receive my salary and my family would be covered by medical insurance.
Probably more than at any other time in my life, the reality of what St. Paul says in the Epistle -- “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” -- got me through those days from late November through the time until I resigned in February. The upside was that because we were no longer welcome at the Catholic parish, we “tried out” the local Episcopal Church, whose rector, Fr. Doug Thompson, his wife, Nellie, and their family & congregation, took us in. This led us directly into the Episcopal Church, and led me back into active ministry as a priest in 1982.
Todays’ Scriptures demonstrate vividly that neither Ezekiel (2:1-5), nor St. Paul (2 Corinthians 12:2-10), nor Jesus himself (Mark 6:1-13) were immune from being called by God to bring a message to people, who then resisted that message, “took offense” at the messenger, and ultimately rejected and/or threw them out.
Ezekiel gets his call in July, 593 B.C.E. as he sits with the exiles by the river Chebar, a canal off the Euphrates River, southeast of Babylon in Chaldean territory. He sees visions of heavenly beings, then hears a voice from a humanlike form, appearing as amber and fire and like a rainbow on a rainy day: full of splendor all around. It was the “glory of the Lord” who, reminding him of his powerless state as “Mortal”, nevertheless entrusts Ezekiel with a challenging task: to go to the people of Israel, “a nation of rebels”, who along with their ancestors had a long history of infidelity, transgressing God’s will and of being “impudent and stubborn”. Yet, when God commands, God empowers. God tells Ezekiel, “...you shall say ‘Thus says the Lord God.‘ Whether they hear or refuse to hear...they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.” And Ezekiel carries out that ministry, enduring all that God had warned him about, and then some. I urge you to take some time to read the particularly moving passage in Ezekiel 24:15-27. “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
The Corinthian Christian community, for all its manifold gifts, spiritual and otherwise, wasn’t an easy one for Paul to deal with. He was constantly being challenged by slanderers and by those calling his credentials into question, not to mention the Corinthians’ general squirreliness. In today’s passage Paul is open and honest in recording his incredible spiritual experience 14 years earlier, in addition to his dramatic conversion experience. Nevertheless, as he did throughout his answering of God’s call to minister to the people of Asia Minor, Paul insists that for one called by God, visions and experiences aren’t the important things. Two others, however, are critical: 1) to teach and to lead by “what is seen in me [and] heard from me”; and 2) to rely entirely on God’s utterly effective power to work even in the midst of one’s own human insufficiency and weakness.
Then there’s Jesus: the hometown boy, made good. The people of Nazareth know this man. Many grew up with him. Some probably worked in the carpenter trade with him. Many of his own family, including sisters and brothers, were still living there. All of a sudden, here’s Jesus traipsing around the countryside, preaching about the reign of God, teaching, doing “deeds of power...by his own hands”. Wow! What’s come over him? Where did he get all this? They surely didn’t remember him as a “prophet”, as someone speaking for God. Was he getting a little too big for his britches? After all, they say, “Is not this the carpenter, son of Mary?..” You’d expect that to read: “son of Joseph”, even if Joseph had already died, because it was through Joseph’s line, not Mary’s, that Jesus was descended from David. We generally don’t recognize that this is actually a subtle slur on Jesus‘ legitimacy. The tide has suddenly turned, and “...they took offense at him”, i.e., they were “scandalized”, according to the Greek. He’d become a scandalon to them, a stone of stumbling, a rock of offense.
Jesus instantly recognized that he couldn’t effectively do anything here, other than to lay hands on and cure a few sick folks, in his own hometown! The unbelief of those closest to him caught him off-guard. He was “amazed”. Knowing from the Gospels the close relation which Jesus had with his Father, it doesn’t surprise us that the Father empowered him to move on, despite the deep disillusionment and hurt he must’ve felt from his own people. He continues the missionary circuit among the other villages with his disciples.
Each of the three major sections of Mark’s Gospel, Chapters 1-3; 3-6; and 6-8, begins with a commissioning of the disciples. In the 1st section he calls Simon, Andrew, James and John, promising to make them “fish for people”. In the 2nd section Jesus calls to himself “those whom he wanted”, a rag-tag group of twelve who were to be sent out with the message. In this 3rd section, the second half of today’s Gospel, Jesus actually sends them out, two-by-two, giving them authority: to teach, to heal, to drive out demons. He also establishes some missionary guidelines: take only a staff, handy for walking on rough terrain as well as for warding off animals or bandits, etc.; no bread, no provision bag, no money, just basic clothing and sandals, a symbol of readiness for departure. The point was to rely on God alone, to simply be the bearer of God’s word, and to let the results be what they will be. As missionaries they’re to rely on the communities to whom they go to provide the necessities of life. Wherever they end up staying, they’re to stay put, probably for some time, until the Christian community is established. They’re sent with the understanding that, as in Ezekiel’s case, some people will probably resist, some will not extend a welcome, some will defiantly close their ears to the Apostles’ message. Some may persecute, even try to murder them.
Mark, within one line, assures us that the mission went well: “They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” In fact, Mark implies that the Apostles outdid Jesus who failed in his own community. Jesus is quite realistic about this, because later he says: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these...” (John 14:12) “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
It would seem that Ezekiel, Paul, the Apostles, and I myself were comfortable with this, and, like Paul could and can say: “...I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities” -- and even failure -- “for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”