I want to thank Reverend Julia for inviting me here to preach in this special church on this very special occasion. It’s a great personal pleasure to be here because Julia is the daughter of one of my first graduate students and oldest friends, with whom I share a love of philosophy, baseball and south Jersey beaches. And it is a very great honor to be part of this exceptional moment, the 350th anniversary – which, if my Latin holds up, is its “trecento-quinquagintal anniversary” – of this historic “First Church of Middletown,” and of its commitment to being an “ONA,” an “open and affirming Church,” which welcomes everyone into the full life of its community. That open hand of radical hospitality, as opposed to the closed fist of the radical hostility all around us today, is the deepest and most venerable of all the Biblical virtues, and nowadays it is the most endangered. It’s the “reign of God” in the NT in a nutshell!
Reverend Julia gave a sermon just about a year ago today on the Feast of Christ the King, which takes place 3 weeks from now just before advent. So the Church puts the feast of a great King right before the season in which a little baby is born: Are we preparing for the birth of a great King – or of a little baby? Of course it’s both, it’s a child-King, but the trick is to see how. Do we mean that this little baby is going to grow up to be the King, which is not a paradox – or do we mean that we will be led by a child?
Reverend Julia quotes Delores Williams, a distinguished “womanist” theologian, who is speaking about growing up in the south in the 1940s.
Delores Williams, “Rituals of resistance in womanist worship,” in Women at Worship: Interpretations of North American Diversity, Eds. Marjorie Procter-Smith and Janet R. Walton (Louisville, Ky. : Westminster/J. Knox Press, 1993), 215-23, 216-17.
The dilemma is that advent marks the coming of a child who bears the mark of God. The child has a special power over us, not the power of brute force, of course, but rather what I will call here the power of a “weak force.” The child is weak in force but strong in true power. We do not want to give up on power, on the basileia, the “rule” or “reign” of God, which means what the world would look like if God ruled, not the powers and principalities, which is the reign of force. We want hospitality to be stronger, more powerful, than hostility. We don’t want to be weak about true power. So this child emblematizes for us the divinity of true power, the power of the truly divine, from the profanity of mere force. The mark of the divine, the mark of God, of the true power of God, of what is going on in the name of God, is found in what for all the world is weakness, in what St. Paul calls the weakness of God. The weakness of God, I think, is the hallmark of the story of Jesus. It is the decisively, characteristically Jesus-thing – from the first time he appears to us as a baby in the infancy narratives, throughout his life, in his teachings, and finally even in his death, the whole course of his life, which we honor throughout the liturgical cycle.
In today’s epistle, St. Paul wrote:
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength…But God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not (ta me onta), to reduce to nothing the things that are (ta onta).
The gospels paint a striking portrait of Jesus full of amazing reversals like this that make the Kingdom of God look like Alice in Wonderland, like a divine topsy-turvy. Luther said that the revelation that occurs in the New Testament is made sub specie contraria, under the appearance of the opposite, where what is foolish is wise and what is weak is strong. Jesus said his mission meant good news to the poor and the imprisoned, namely, the very sort of people Paul here calls “ta me onta,” the non-beings, the “nothings and nobodies,” a word that would have made any Greek philosopher who heard it faint dead away, which is evidently what Paul was trying to do. Paul was getting in the face of the Greek philosophers in Corinth. Jesus mixes among the lowest and most despised social stratum in an obscure corner of a vast empire. He took the side of sinners—but we should remember that these “sinners” were at least as much sinned against by the Romans, driven as they were by their poverty into collaboration with the Empire and prostitution. He stood by the woman accused of adultery, not because he stood for adultery, but because he stood against hypocrisy and oppression. He really did not like hypocrisy. He took on the religious authorities of the day fearlessly, calling them out at every turn. So when Delores Williams’ speaks of “poor little Mary’s boy” we should take that seriously, desperately poor people living on the edge, living from day to day, praying very literally for their “daily bread.”
Still, Christians are not just saying that Jesus was a great man, a courageous truth-teller, and a martyr for the truth. We already have Socrates for that. The distinctly Christian claim is that apart from his human qualities, there is something qualitatively different about Jesus, the qualitative difference between the human and divine. The Christian claim is that in Jesus we are given an intuition of the divine – “Who Do You Say God is? – that Jesus is an ikon of the invisible God. An ikon is not an idol. With an idol, our gaze only gets as far as the sensible thing and we are distracted by its beauty or glamour; we are stopped by its sparkle, we luxuriate in its splendor. Or we are distracted by its ugliness, the abjection, the sign of rejection – of a public execution, which was Saul/Paul’s first reaction. But an ikon has no splendor to distract us, no glamour to bedazzle us; our gaze continues on past it to what it incarnates or announces in an incongruous, even an uncomely form. He was despised among men, an outcast—those are the makings of a perfect ikon.
So what is the qualitative difference made by Jesus? Unlike standard form heroes in antiquity, Jesus does not crush his enemies with his might or lead a mighty army to victory but is instead born in poverty and at the end of his life he is nailed to a tree – arrested, tortured and subjected to a humiliating and particularly cruel public execution. His body is itself one of the me onta that Paul is describing here. If Jesus is the distinctive way that the invisible God is made visible to us, then the God that is thus revealed reverses our expectations: a God not of sovereign power but of weakness, where “the weakness of God” is stronger than human strength, a stunning reversal, a hard saying, very hard to swallow.
If we want to see the figure of God in the ikon which is Jesus, get ready to be turned upside down:
Faced with an armed enemy, he tell us to lay down our sword.
Faced with hatred, he responds with love.
Faced with an offense, he tell us to forgive, up to and including the act of forgiveness that is issued from the cross.
He greets the enemy with a kiss, the uninvited visitor with hospitality.
If there is power here then it is the power of powerlessness, a force without force. Jesus does not lead an army or have an official headquarters. If Christianity dares to follow in his name, in the name of this outsider and outcast, who represents the upside-down reversal of what the world expects, then it has paradox on its hands—of being an institution, which means power, that exists in the name of a power without power.
Who do you say God is?
Forget the top down schema of one Sovereign God in heaven – “God of gods, King of kings, Father Almighty – to rule the land (another father), in favor of a God who dwells among everything that the world despises, not a powerful king but a street person, one of the nothings and nobodies, the me onta, pitching his tent among the shanty towns of the world, with no place on which to lay his head.
Forget the power of God of omnipotence and imagine a more powerless power who confronts the established human order, the human all too human way of doing business, the authority of “man” other men and women and animals and the earth itself, one that confounds human possessiveness and dominion, posing, in short, the contradiction of the “world”?
Suppose “God” stands for an event that scandalizes the upper crusts of power and privilege, not, I hasten to add, in order to level institutions and structures – like the First Church of Middletown – but precisely in order to keep them porous, to open them up, to keep them just, hospitable, to let justice reign?
No wonder Richard Holloway, one of my favorite Anglican theologians, describes the Sermon on the Mount as the most compromised text the western world has ever produced.
How then is a weak God still “God?” I locate the Godhead of God in the “unconditional,” in an unconditional appeal or call or claim that is unconditional but without force or coercive power. The name of God is the name of something that lays claim to us, that draws us out of ourselves and calls upon us, calling us not from on high but from down below, from among the nothings and nobodies, to what is beyond, summoning up what is best in us.
And maybe God/it has other names? Maybe it doesn’t care what name we use?
The “world” in the NT means the “powers and principalities,” the holding sway of the real power of this world, the closed fists, the strong force of the power of the present age, to which is opposed a completely paradoxical and ironic “rule,” the “reign” of a weak force, of call to make the kingdom come true.
The “kingdom” or “rule” of God is a poem to what the world would look like if God ruled, not the world, and Jesus is its poet. “Theology” must weaken into theopoetics and strengthen into theopraxis. If we press the question of exactly what the world look like if God ruled, the answer is found in the poem to the reign of God in Isaiah, 11, which the Church takes to be a pre-figuring of Jesus:
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. (Isaiah 11:6)
The true power of the Kingdom is not found in a different world but in making the world different, in the qualitative difference we are supposed to make in the world, we who dare assemble in this name. That I think is what the First Church of Middletown has been trying to do for its first 350 years – we’ll hear more about that this afternoon – and our prayer for this church this morning is that it may, in the spirit of this divinely topsy-turvy logic, image the weakness of God with all its strength in the next 350 years!
Let it be so, Amen.