This past week two movies have been on my mind.
Each year Minjing and I enjoy attending the Seattle International Film Festival. This year our favorite film was from Poland. It’s called Life Feels Good. The film is based on the true story of Mateusz, a man who was born with cerebral palsy, which meant he had little control over his body. Many of his basic bodily functions needed to be taken care of by others.
This was back in the middle of the 20th century when people didn’t know much about cerebral palsy and Poland didn’t have access to the latest research. Because Mateusz was unable to speak his family and everyone around him assumed that he was developmentally disabled. In fact, his whole life people had called him a “vegetable.” He was placed in an institution with mentally disabled residents. Nothing in his life changed until one day a woman who was able to look beyond outer appearances came to work at the institution. Before long, Mateusz was able to communicate with her by blinking his eyes “yes” or “no” in a way that allowed him to form sentences. The first message to his family: I am not a vegetable.
This film reminded me of another story. Some of you might remember the 1980 film The Elephant Man. This is another true story, this time of John Merrick, a man living in London during the 1800s who was born with a different disease: elephantitis. This disease, too, made him terribly disfigured. His whole life he is mocked and abused by others and at one point in the movie, in what was perhaps its most memorable line, he says to his tormentors, I am not an animal. I am a human being!
Both of these films tell a painful truth of human life. We all know, sometimes from personal experience, that human nature leads us to make judgments on the basis of appearances rather than taking time to see the person inside. In today’s second reading Paul writes to Christians in Rome: Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Most of us haven’t been born with some disfiguring disease. Still, probably all of us know what it’s like to be judged on appearances. For example, with age comes declining physical and mental abilities so maybe over time some of you who are older have noticed that people begin to relate to you differently. But inside you’re saying, Stop treating me like a child! I am not 90 years old. My body might be; but the person inside this body is still 20 years old!
Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Disease and aging can leave a person feeling out of control, but there are other challenges of human life that can leave us feeling trapped in our own bodies. This past week some of you were telling me how you watch helplessly as smoking takes a toll on the health of loved ones, but the craving is powerful and they’re not able to quit, even if they want to. In today’s reading Paul writes: I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do… Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Paul has an answer to that question: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! But wait a minute—what does experience teach you? Does trust in Jesus suddenly free us from aging and disease? No. Does trust in Jesus suddenly free us from addictions? Well, in some cases, maybe. But Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!—how do we make sense of that statement in our own lives?
In 2 Corinthians 12:9, Paul writes these words: [The Lord said to me] My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
What do you think? Do you buy that? Can disease, aging, or even addiction be channels of God’s grace and God’s power?
Paul says he boasts in his weakness but who among us is able to do that? It is easy to get wrapped up in and discouraged by our own weakness, distracted and preoccupied with our own needs when we feel trapped within bodies and circumstances beyond our control. But Paul is right that God’s power is made perfect in weakness, because the weakness of individual members calls forth the gifts of the community. Our weaknesses remind those of us who are relatively strong that none of us is independent, none of us is self-sufficient, none of us is a self-made person. It is through human compassion and courage and service in response to human weakness that God’s power is made perfect in the world. My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
In the two films I mentioned earlier, God’s power was made perfect in weakness. In Life Feels Good, a disabled man’s life was transformed by a woman who cared enough to see beyond the crudeness of his physical appearance to the person within. Likewise, in the story of The Elephant Man, the kindness and care of just a few people who saw the luminous being within his broken body—these people transformed his life. In response to human weakness, God’s power can be made perfect through the care and compassion of just a few people.
In today’s first reading the prophet proclaims: Because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.
Where in your life do you feel trapped inside your body, due to age, or illness or addiction? Where in your life do you feel trapped by circumstances that feel beyond your control? Dear friends in Christ, we are not prisoners of our bodies. We are not prisoners of circumstances. Instead we are, as the prophet proclaims, prisoners of hope. Our hope is in a God whose power is made perfect in weakness. Our hope is in a God who has formed a people, a people whose gifts are discovered and drawn out in response to human need and human weakness.
Let us be that people! Let us not be trapped in the “waterless pit” of believing that we are only weak and helpless. Let us not be trapped in the “waterless pit” of believing ourselves to be only strong and independent. Let us instead be “prisoners of hope.” Let our weaknesses be the occasion for God’s power to be called forth through the gifts and strengths of others. Let our strengths be called out in service to the world and to one another.
(sung) Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so, little ones to him belong, they are weak….but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me, Yes, Jesus loves me, Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.