Homily for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, preached at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Sun Prairie, WI. These are the the lectionary readings assigned to the day: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22.
Good morning! My name is Jonathan Melton; I develop ministry at the University of Wisconsin, at the Episcopal student center called St. Francis House. I don’t know know all of you, but I do know many of you, and I look forward to meeting more of you. I am profoundly grateful for the friendship St. Francis House shares with Good Shepherd, and I’m delighted Fr. Mike invites me to join you here from time to time. Many of you, also, have spent a Sunday evening with us on campus at some point along the way. If you’ve never been by, please know you are always welcome. It’s a blessing to be with you this morning and, together, to worship the living God.
Today we are reminded that it is not always easy to worship. It was going to be hard enough, with the daylight savings time adjustment (congratulations, you made it!), but now our communities have been confronted with an extraordinary grief: Tony Robinson, shot and killed in an altercation with police, this past Friday. The incident happened on the same street where, about ten hours earlier, my son and I had been buying groceries for this coming week.
Tragedy is the word for it. We don’t know yet what happened, but we do know that one citizen of our city lost his life in the efforts of an officer of our city to protect the people and the law entrusted to his office. We know this death is especially painful for our sisters and brothers who notice its resemblance to others like it in recent months, across the country, in which young African-Americans have died. We know we would have rather had this thing not happen. It did.
I realize that this tragedy is of great importance to some, less importance to others, and that it’s brand new news to still others. We are, this morning, in both the same place and lots of places just now. I won’t preach this tragic incident, at once raw and unknown. Not directly. I do name it this morning, because each of us will find ourselves carrying especially heavy burdens at difficult moments in this life, and I do not want to leave you with the wrong impression that this holy space is not big enough for what burdens you. For this Christ died. You who are burdened are in the right place. And, who knows, maybe this old, good Book has some Good News, yet, even for our most difficult burdens.
So. Meanwhile. This morning. Paul was rattling on - of course he was - in his letter to the church in Corinth. And, if it wasn’t already, now my head is really filling up. Go ahead and glance down at your reading a second to refresh yourself. Don’t re-read it, exactly, but skim it enough to jog your memory, get it back in your head.
So here’s my first set of questions:
If God’s weakness is stronger than our strength, should we be trying to be weak, like God? Is that what Paul is saying? What would that even mean? Since when does being God-like involve being weak? God-like abilities are things like stopping time and raining fire - smiting the undeserving. God-like weakness sounds like my Granny, who used to say to my brothers and me as were leaving her house, “Have fun! Stay safe!” We would always yell back, “Make up your mind!” How can God-like and weakness be essentially the same thing?
A second set of questions:
What standards are we holding God to, when weakness becomes a word we use for God? On what grounds do we say God is weak? Shouldn’t we come out and say that those standards, whatever they are, are really our gods, instead of the God we measure by those standards?
I always thought being God-like took effort. But I am weak, Paul says, even when I fail to be weak. My strength is outmatched, exposed, by God’s weakness.
And it feels to me like there is this game of tug of war going on, for Paul: a push and pull for a new imagination of what it means to live a good life, a godly life, a life that leads to God.
If God’s strength is made known in our weakness, does that mean the good lives, the godly lives, the lives that lead to God, are the lives who know their weakness? Do you know your weakness?
And I don’t mean in your head, where weaknesses twirl on perpetual spin cycle, drenched in some mix of guilt and regret. Do you know and love your weakness? What I’m really asking, I guess, is have you seen God meet you in there, in weakness? Have you been able to love it for God’s presence to it? After all, we worship the God who promised, “My strength is made known in your weakness.”
Recently, the UW Episcopal community, St. Francis House, and UW’s Catholic community started talking to one another. It turns out, being right with God is a hard thing to do by yourself. So this Lent, community members from St. Francis House and St. Paul’s have arranged to attend some of each other’s prayer services, as a way of appreciating the gifts of one another’s traditions - things we think the other guys do better than we do - things we can learn from each other. So we found ourselves all together a couple of weeks ago, over dinner, a small group of us, talking about Lenten disciplines and bemoaning the fact that we Christians don’t - by and large - make a bigger deal out of Easter - you know, the whole fifty days of it. We talked about needing, well, you wouldn’t call them “Easter disciplines,” like in Lent, but joyful actions or something. Fifty days of enjoying resurrection in concrete ways, with real practices. “Why don’t we do more of that?” someone asks.
Just then in the conversation, my Catholic brother pipes up: “I don’t know about you, but I enjoy the hot showers.”
I ask him to explain: “Well, I take cold showers the rest of the time. Except for Sundays and in Easter season. It’s my way of reminding myself at the start of the day that my sense of right relationship with God doesn’t depend on my controlling the day or getting it right. Things will go wrong, some things might go right, but I’m not trying to win the day or impress the world. I’m not the star of the show. I’m trying to walk with God. That’s the most important thing.” (1)
So - let's get this straight - my friend gives up perfection to start his day, because he sees how pride in even his desires to please God can get in the way of his attention to God. He gets out of bed and hits the first swing off the tee into the rough, on purpose, to get the temptation out of the way. Because my friend desires to be a friend of God, my friend desires to be a friend of weakness.
Weakness, at its best, is another word for knowing one’s need of God and one another. It’s a reminder the people of Corinth needed to hear, because some of the Christians in Corinth had started to wonder if they couldn’t get farther down the road if they weren’t always waiting for the ones who slowed them down. They had started to say to one another with their lives, “I have no need of you.” So it is not surprising that Paul would remind the Christians in Corinth of their need of God and one another, of their need to be friends of weakness.
The surprising and remarkable thing, says St. Paul, is that God has become a friend of weakness, for us. Thus, Paul reminds the Corinthians that “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Paul doesn’t leave the conversation about weakness abstractly hanging in the air. Paul is pointing the Corinthians, and us, to the particular weakness of the cross. In a slightly more flowery way, Paul is revisiting, today, Jesus’ dispute, from last week - the "Get behind me, Satan!" episode - with Peter, where Peter refused to believe that the way of the cross was a way worth following. Peter was stubborn, not stupid. And the cross seemed like a stupid place to go for new and unending life. But this, says Paul, is exactly where God in Christ has gone. If we would follow Christ, the cross is where we will go.
Foolishness is Paul’s word for it. Worth it, adds Paul. Still not without its costs. Foolish and worth it. So every Lent the people called Church count the costs again and take on this impossible dare one more time: will we find the way of the cross be the way of life and peace, after all?
It’s more than cold showers, though it may begin there. Surely, the element of daily surrender is an integral part of the long walk with Jesus, toward Jerusalem. Equally, the costs we count include the question that Paul first spoke to the people of Corinth: the question of the weakness of others, their sisters and brothers, the neighbor and stranger, the person who always sat in their pew. As the question found them, so now it finds us, as we think of our weaker sisters and brothers: in whom have we given up finding God? We have learned in our baptisms that Christ is there to be sought and served in all persons. But that's in the book that was written way back in 1979! There are new persons now! What about the slower ones? Or those so fast we suspect they’re up to something? In whom have you given up finding God? Maybe they’re older. Or younger. Poorer or richer or forgetting their memories or from other countries. Maybe they don’t know as much as you do. Or, equally, maybe they’re too smart for their own stinkin’ good. Maybe you think you know what they think already, and it’s a waste of your time to go there. Foolishness.
But Christ is a friend of weakness! It is never a waste of your time to go there.
By the end of this Lent, we will have arrived at the cross. Whether we travel the road to Golgotha alone or with friends, by the end, we will find one another, there, at the cross. We will find one another and all of the others outside of these walls for whom Christ became a friend of weakness.
Since the cross is where we are going, and we are learning our own nervous trust of God’s weakness, I invite you, in one of the still and silent cracks that hold our worship together this morning, to ask God to help us live our need of the friends we will find there, on Good Friday, and certainly of the Christ who will die and open new life there. Ask God to steady your hand and anchor your heart as the cross turns upside down the imagination we once had for what it means to live a good life, a godly life, the life that leads to God.
(1) I'm clearly paraphrasing my friend here, but that was the gist of it.