At just over five feet tall, 75-year-old Sarah is not an imposing woman. Her silver hair, sparkling blue eyes, and glowing complexion present a disarming first impression, but in her church and community Sarah is a powerful woman. She is the Director of Religious Education for her church, administrating and teaching both children’s and adult religious education programs. She is the chief executive of a social service agency that serves aged and handicapped people in her community by connecting them with legal, health, and home care providers. Her self-effacing personality cannot mask her authority and strength.
Sarah always believed she could do anything God called her to. Her recipe for success was no secret: hard work, caring, and giving 110%. All around her she could see the fruits of her work in God’s vineyard. Then, on a trip to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, her husband, Jerry, fell. It was the beginning of a degenerative nerve disease that slowly and relentlessly took Jerry’s life away. For five years Sarah suffered with Jerry: loving, caring for him, and watching him deteriorate. Sarah’s best efforts, so effective in helping others, could not save Jerry. In addition, at the very time she most needed support, Sarah had to let go of some of the work that so gratified and sustained her. She, who had long been a counselor for others, needed therapy. Jerry’s condition steadily worsened; he would never get well. Sarah’s own prospects stretched bleakly in front of her. Her role as a leader in the church and the community seemed finished.
What is our picture of a prophet? Moses, an escaped felon, might not fit our idea of a prophet. The Bible tells us that when God called Moses at the burning bush, Moses tried to get out of it. Maybe Moses couldn’t picture himself as a prophet. He had a stutter. Having fled Egypt after killing an Egyptian taskmaster, he worked as a shepherd to support his family. Returning to Egypt to free the Hebrew people could mean the death penalty for Moses.
Jesus was not his community’s idea of a prophet. The gospel reading tells us that his neighbors took offense when they heard him teach in the synagogue and saw him heal the sick. They might have wondered, “Who does this guy think he is?” Jesus was not the king they hoped for, but only a carpenter with his father, the son of Mary and brother of James, Joses, Judas and Simon. How dare he act like a prophet?
Jesus knew what they were thinking. The gospel says that he could do no deed of power there in his hometown, except healing a few sick people. He was amazed at their unbelief. What prevented Jesus from working wonders in his own hometown? How could God’s power to work through Jesus be limited by people’s unbelief? Isn’t God omnipotent?
The reading from Ezekiel sheds some light on this enigma. God’s own spirit entered into Ezekiel and “set him on his feet.” Just as Jesus was empowered by God to a greater mission, Ezekiel was empowered by God to carry God’s message to the Israelites. Like Jesus, Ezekiel was sent to a people whom, God knew, would not be open to hearing God’s word from Ezekiel. Nevertheless, Ezekiel had to go. Was this not an exercise in futility? What could God have had in mind? He tells Ezekiel, “Whether they hear or refuse to hear, they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.” While God will not force their obedience to him, he will force on them the knowledge that a prophet from God has spoken to them. God’s word, spoken through the prophet, has power, even though the one chosen to carry God’s word seems to be powerless in the very situation that God is calling him to. We are still faced with an enigma, albeit an enigma with a pattern.
In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul tells of revelations from God that mark him as a true apostle. Apparently, there is some question among the Corinthians whether Paul was a true apostle of Christ. Paul writes, “I have been talking like a fool, but you forced me to do it; you are the ones who should have been commending me.” Perhaps the Corinthians were wondering, as the Nazareans did about Jesus, and as the people of Israel did about Ezekiel,“Why should we listen to him?”
Rather than boast of God’s favor, Paul paradoxically chooses to boast of his weaknesses. Why? It seems that along with the revelations, God has sent a torment to Paul, a “messenger from Satan,” to keep Paul from becoming too elated. Paul prays to have his torments removed, but God does not remove them. Instead he tells Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, Paul concludes that when he is weak, he is strong. What is it about this weakness that makes it a strength when used in God’s service?
Sarah, at home with a sick husband, whom she could not satisfy no matter what she did, might have felt trapped and resentful. She may have wondered: with all the people I could be helping at church and in the community, why did God call me to this? Used to seeing her hard work pay off in a tangible way, Sarah might have thought that the hard work of caring for Jerry wasn’t helping him. Frustration and anger would be understandable reactions. So would despair.
Yet Sarah never did despair. She went on, day after day, caring for Jerry. She also went on with her church and community work on a greatly reduced basis. What was the source of her strength? When her powerlessness was so evident, how was God’s power made perfect in her?
When the Lord spoke, Ezekiel felt the Spirit enter into him and he stood up. When Jesus told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness,” Paul did not resist; he accepted and experienced the truth of it, including both joy and suffering. When Jerry was diagnosed with a degenerative disease, Sarah knew that God called her to be at home with him. In accepting that call Sarah experienced the truth of Jesus’ words to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.” She did not have to give up all of the work that she found so rewarding; she was able to continue on a part-time basis, making sure that Jerry was well-cared for in her absences with the help of many “angels” as she called them: people who unexpectedly came to her aid. Sarah, who had found meaning in life and her sense of self-worth in being a giver par excellence, had to learn to receive others’ gifts of time and effort to her and Jerry. It was difficult, but she came to enjoy being a receiver of God’s bountiful love.
The Spirit entered into Sarah and she stood up. By accepting the weakness in her life she became more than a servant of God, she became a prophet. How could this unassuming woman, now 80 years old, be a prophet of God? By showing through her actions the value and even the necessity of caring for the “least” of God’s beloved when there seem to be more important things to do. Like the ancient Israelites, we are a stubborn race, and Sarah’s message from God, a call to greater vulnerability, is one we do not want to hear. But through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus has given us the means to turn our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh: Eucharist. When we come to the table of the Lord God takes our little willingness to receive Him and slowly, gently, transforms us into Jesus’ own body and blood. Through Eucharist, we gradually become more like Him who became totally vulnerable in order to show us how to be people of God, people who taste both the sufferings and joys of authentic life in God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.