Mistakes and what they teach us about God's Grace - 2) Alfred and the Cakes
Hespeler, 21 March 2016 © Scott McAndless
Matthew 11:25-30, 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, Psalm 6
ing Alfred, the ancestor (35 generations ago) of our present monarch Elizabeth II, is famous for many things. He is the only ruler of England ever to be called “the Great.” Indeed, most would say, if it weren’t for Alfred, there would never have been an England at all. But for all the “great” things that Alfred ever did, he is probably most famous for one little mistake.
Alfred became the king of Wessex, one of the seven ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, at the young age of 22. It was not a good time to become a king. These were the days when the Vikings were invading England and things were not going well. When Alfred came to power all of the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had already fallen under Viking rule. Only Wessex, in what is now southwestern England, was left as an independent English kingdom. And the Vikings were coming for Wessex.
Alfred and his lords held them off for a while, but eventually the Vikings just got too strong and the king and his lords had to flee abandoning most of the kingdom into the hands of the invaders. They hid out in some low, marshy land in the region of Somerset where they were relatively safe because the land was almost impassable unless you were very familiar with the marshes.
At one point, during those dark times, the king was taking shelter in a house on the Island of Athelney in the m
arshes. He was staying with an old woman who, I
suspect, didn’t even know who she was sheltering. One day when she was alone
with the king, she made some cakes and put them on the fire to bake. She told
Alfred that she was going out and asked him to watch the cakes and take them
off the fire before they burned. He agreed and she left.
But Alfred, as you can imagine, had a lot on his mind. He was thinking about his problems and his challenges. He was wondering, perhaps, whether he had completely failed as a king. He was also desperately trying to come up with a strategy to get out of his dead-end. So, for all kinds of reasons, Alfred was rather preoccupied with his troubles. Can you guess what happened? That’s right, Alfred let the cakes burn and, when the old woman returned, boy, did she let him have it! And Alfred, according to the account, accepted her criticism with grace and humility, though I suppose he could have had her put to death.
It is a famous story because, of course, it is the only time in all the history of the world that a leader ever made a mistake, right? No? You don’t think that is why people remembered it? Then why?
I think this story stuck because it is a reminder that, no matter who you are – no matter how “great” you are – we all have our weaknesses. Alfred actually had a lot of them. For one thing, he was often very sick. A lot of historians think that he suffered from Crohn’s disease – a particularly nasty chronic condition. Put that together with his Viking troubles, it is maybe not too surprising that he was rather distracted from his duty to watch cakes.
There are, I think, two ways of dealing with our weaknesses. Most often, we tried to hide them and pretend like they are not there. In fact, a lot of people assume that that is what leadership is: not showing weakness. That is why people in leadership positions are often so obsessed with avoiding mistakes and with covering them up when they do happen. “Sure, I can watch the cakes. I’m totally in control here. I don’t have any problems.” But that often doesn’t work. We end up in the same mess that Alfred did. We pretend that we’ve got it all under control when we really don’t and that is when cakes get burned.
But there is another way to think about our weaknesses. The Apostle Paul tells us about something that was clearly a weakness for him. He doesn’t say exactly what it was. He simply refers to it as a thorn in his flesh, but it was clearly distressing to him – so much so that he says, “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me.”
So, like any of us would, Paul didn’t like his weakness and he wanted to get rid of it. If his weakness caused him to make any mistakes, I’m sure he would have liked to cover them up. But Paul received a surprising and powerful answer that made him think about his weaknesses and his mistakes in a whole new way. “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” And that answer, that he obviously received from Christ in some unmistakable way, led him to a stunning new way to think of his own weaknesses and to say, “whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
I know that such a statement doesn’t really make any sense in the way that our world understands such things. How could somebody’s weaknesses actually become a foundation of strength for them? The short answer is that it is only possible because of God’s grace.
This was obviously a lesson that Paul only learned through hard experience and by earnestly seeking God in prayer. But other wise people have also found certain echoes of this same truth down through history. One person who comes to mind is Carl Jung, one of the great fathers of modern Psychology. Jung was a man who felt a real vocation to be a healer in the life of people by developing his methods and approaches to psychotherapy.
One of the key insights that Jung had had to do with his own weaknesses and woundedness. He had had a very difficult early life particularly because his mother had suffered from mental illness and it left deep scars in him. As a result Carl’s natural impulse may have been to hide or ignore his weaknesses and his scars but, as he began to help other people, he discovered something amazing. The more he ignored or downplayed his faults, the less help he was to his patients. But the more he got in touch with his own weaknesses and woundedness – the more he understood these things about himself – he was able to help his patients in ways that he could never have thought possible.
I happen to believe that, even if Jung was only using a scientific approach, his vulnerability and courage in dealing with his own woundedness was actually opening the door to God’s grace and healing power.
Thus it was that Carl Jung introduced to the world the idea of the wounded healer, which he based on a number of ancient myths that featured a figure who was a powerful healer and yet also carried a grievous wound. But, while this figure of the wounded healer was indeed to be found in many ancient belief systems, the main reason for that, I think, is that there is a universal truth behind it. And that truth that is to be found in the Bible as well – like in this morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
The truth of the matter is, my friends, that we are all like King Alfred. We all make mistakes. We all get things wrong. Even worse, we are all like Carl Jung. We have all been wounded and shaped by the bad things that have happened to us. We may not have suffered, like he did because of a parent who is mentally ill, but we have all had to deal with disappointment or insult or loss. And how often have I had people tell me that they are not eligible for any kind of leadership role because of their faults or wounds or their fear of making mistakes?
I am not saying that God intentionally gives us flaws or that God wants bad things to happen to us. To tell the truth, I don’t really have a great explanation for why the bad things happen in this world. Maybe it’s something that we will understand someday; I don’t pretend to know now. But I do know this: God has this incredible way of taking all of the bad, all of the flaws and all of the weaknesses that we carry around with us and of turning them into blessing. That power is called grace.
We see that in the story of Alfred and his cakes. Yes, Alfred had his faults and one of those faults was apparently that he had some trouble focussing on minor details like how long the cakes had been in the oven. But that weakness of Alfred was actually one of the things that made him great. His mind was always focusing on the big picture, and that focus on the big picture was actually the thing that got him out of the marshes and on the offensive against the Vikings. It was what allowed him to come up with an overall strategy to build his kingdom in such a way that it could weather the storm that was created by the Vikings. As a result, we have Alfred to thank for the fact that England survived at all. We have Alfred to thank for the fact that we speak English and not a Scandinavian language today.
Alfred’s weaknesses and his strengths were unbreakably tied to each other. And I think that is probably true of all of us. When we flee from our weaknesses or hide from our mistakes, we may be cutting ourselves off from our greatest strengths as well.
But even more important than that, when we’re not afraid to face our weaknesses and mistakes, when we can acknowledge them and even embrace them, God is able to take them and use them to bring about extraordinary healing and blessing. That is what Paul was saying to the church in Corinth. One of the reasons for that is that when we are weak or when we fall short, it is like we’re getting out of the way. And when we get out of the way – especially when we get our egos out of the way – that allows God the opening that he needs to let his grace shine through.
But here is the really amazing part. We assume that God will use us and bring blessing to us in spite of our weaknesses and our mistakes. But that is not how God likes to do it at all. No, God loves to use us and bless through us because of our weaknesses and errors. That was what Carl Jung discovered in his therapeutic work and theories – though, of course, he would not have spoken about it as something that God did.
That is why, for example, people who struggle with alcoholism or other addictions can often only find a way to break free of the cycles of using with the help of people who struggle with the same issues. The real secret of the success of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous is that they create a community of people who understand each other’s struggles because they are part of their own weakness and brokenness. They are able to come to terms with their own addiction by getting to know others who share the weakness. They are able to bring about healing for themselves and others by directly helping other people who share their brokenness. That’s not just how it works with addiction, that is how it works with almost every form of healing and renewal.
Many of us have been called to be leaders in this church in various capacities. The temptation, when you are put into that kind of position in the church or anywhere is to run away from your weaknesses, to hide from them. I mean, we think of all the great leaders that were there in the past – gigantic figures who seemed to have no flaws – and we think that we have to be like them. But you know what? Those famous leaders of the past had their flaws too. It is just that we have largely forgotten them over time as we forget the things that went wrong and just recall the things that we loved about them.
And consider this: God is calling you to be a leader in his kingdom – wherever and however that might be – God is calling you to be a leader and he’s not doing it in spite of your weaknesses, your faults or your mistakes. He is doing it because of them – because of everything that makes you who you are. Think about what that does to your excuses.
I think that our challenge as leaders is to be who we are – to be strong enough to be vulnerable about our weaknesses and our failures – to share those things in the appropriate situations. God promises that, when we do that, it allows his grace to shine through. Alfred was a flawed person who made mistakes. None of that prevented him from being hailed by all as “the great.” Your greatness – and many of you have much greatness – will only be enhanced by you coming to terms with your own faults and weaknesses. Stop running away from them. Stop hiding them. Let God’s power be made perfect in your weakness.