Prayer of the Day: Holy God, through your Son you have called us to live faithfully and act courageously. Keep us steadfast in your covenant of grace, and teach us the wisdom that comes only through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” John 2:19
“For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” I Corinthians 1:25.
No self respecting god would allow its temple to be destroyed. A god that cannot protect and defend its holy place is no god at all. That is why the Babylonian destruction of Israel’s temple in Jerusalem was such a traumatic blow. How could the God who brought Israel up out of Egypt and led them into the land promised to the matriarchs and patriarchs fail to defend the temple upon which God solemnly promised to place God’s name?
A similar question was raised by Saint Peter in last week’s gospel in which Jesus told his disciples that he would be rejected by the religious authorities, arrested and killed. How could such a thing happen to God’s messiah? So, too, in this Sunday’s gospel Jesus practically invites his opponents to “tear down this temple,” meaning the “temple of his body.” That does not sound reassuring. Yes, Jesus went on to say that he would “rebuild” the ruined temple in three days. But a true messiah would never allow his temple to be destroyed in the first place. The occurrence of such a sacrilege is a sure sign of divine weakness.
That, of course, brings us to Saint Paul’s odd comment in our second lesson from I Corinthians: God’s “weakness” is stronger than human strength. The cross, according to Saint Paul, stands our understanding of strength and weakness on its head. God’s strength lies in what appears to all the world as weakness and impotence. God’s strength is demonstrated in God’s resisting the temptation to employ coercive action to get what God wants. God’s strength lies in the power to forego retribution-even for the murder of the beloved Son. God is too powerful to be drawn into the vortex of tit for tat retaliation that has consumed nations, tribes and families from the dawn of time. God’s love is so deep, so respectful of its objects and so patient that it refuses to exercise force to have its own way. Instead, God’s love outlasts all resistance to it.
We have a hard time recognizing this “weakness” of God as “power.” Power, in common parlance, is the ability to make other people do what you want and make things happen in accord with your wishes. At the bottom of all my children’s “why” questions about what I told them to do was the answer “because I am the Daddy.” Nations are deemed powerful to the degree we fear their military might or depend on their economies. Your power is measured by the scope of your control. So it is not surprising that the “evangelical” god that steers the universe along an unalterable course toward the end of history, threatens to rapture its own out of the world and pound those who remain into submission through a “great tribulation” is so attractive to so many Americans. This god comports with our notions of what the “almighty” is supposed to be-like Rambo only bigger. We crave the protection of a “strong” god who is “in control.” The God who draws a resistant world toward new creation through suffering love and invites us to join in that enterprise is not attractive to a society that views “winning,” “victory” and the annihilation of enemies as the only way forward. To us, this powerful “weakness” of God looks like foolishness.
Following Jesus means submitting to the “foolishness” of God’s “weakness.” To a world fixated on “strong” militaries, “strong” economies and “strong” leaders, disciples of Jesus are called to warn all nations that the power they worship is the worst kind of impotence in the face of dangers that would destroy them. The world needs to know that there is no future in sealed borders, nationalist pride, faith in “strong men” and security through fire arms. It means telling the world that genuine power is the courage to rid our homes of weapons, break down border walls, un-gate exclusive gated communities, let go of privilege and release our death grip on wealth. When we are poor, meek, merciful, pure in heart and making peace we look foolish to a world in thrall to coercive power. But we are truly “strong” in the biblical sense. See Matthew 5:1-12.
How might such divine weakness and holy foolishness shape our lives as parents, spouses, siblings, church leaders, participants in civil government, employers, employees, business people and professionals? How does one lead without controlling? How does one resist hostility without becoming hostile? How can one be assertive without being aggressive? How can one be persuasive without being manipulative? How do we witness boldly to Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims without sounding arrogant and self-righeous? Answering these questions in any particular context always requires empathy, wisdom and integrity or, in other words, the “mind of Christ” formed within communities of faith.
Here is a poem by Edward R. Sill in which a fool speaks truth to power. Sill’s poem illustrates what looks very much like “weakness” and “foolishness,” that unleashes transformative power.
The Fool’s Prayer
The royal feast was done; the King
Sought some new sport to banish care,
And to his jester cried: “Sir Fool,
Kneel now, and make for us a prayer!”
The jester doffed his cap and bells,
And stood the mocking court before;
They could not see the bitter smile
Behind the painted grin he wore.
He bowed his head, and bent his knee
Upon the Monarch’s silken stool;
His pleading voice arose: “O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!
“No pity, Lord, could change the heart
From red with wrong to white as wool;
The rod must heal the sin: but Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!
“‘T is not by guilt the onward sweep
Of truth and right, O Lord, we stay;
‘T is by our follies that so long
We hold the earth from heaven away.
“These clumsy feet, still in the mire,
Go crushing blossoms without end;
These hard, well-meaning hands we thrust
Among the heart-strings of a friend.
“The ill-timed truth we might have kept–
Who knows how sharp it pierced and stung?
The word we had not sense to say–
Who knows how grandly it had rung!
“Our faults no tenderness should ask.
The chastening stripes must cleanse them all;
But for our blunders — oh, in shame
Before the eyes of heaven we fall.
“Earth bears no balsam for mistakes;
Men crown the knave, and scourge the tool
That did his will; but Thou, O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!”
The room was hushed; in silence rose
The King, and sought his gardens cool,
And walked apart, and murmured low,
“Be merciful to me, a fool!”
Source: This poem is in the public domain. Edward R. Sill (1841-1887) was born in Windsor, Connecticut. He graduated from Yale in 1861 where he was Class Poet and a member of Skull and Bones. He engaged in business in California and entered the Harvard Divinity School in 1867, but soon left for a position on the staff of the New York Evening Mail. He taught at Wadsworth and Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio from 1868 to 1871. Thereafter he became principal of Oakland High School in Oakland, California. From 1874 to 1882 Sill was professor of English literature at the University of California. He retired in 1883 and moved to Cleveland, Ohio. He devoted the rest of his life to literary work.