Thank you to Rev. P. Joshua Griffin for sharing these words with us this past Sunday, July 8, 2012
“Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”
On this particular Sabbath Jesus, upending all norms and expectations yet again, is teaching in the synagogue. Everyone is amazed, saying: “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!”
Just after their minds are blown this first time, their minds are blown again. “Wait a minute, wait a minute… isn’t this the carpenter Mary’s kid? What the hell is he doing here in the synagogue?” And they were offended.
A prophet is one who speaks and does the truth, one who is moved by God to enact and proclaim an integrated ethic of love and compassion, justice and hope, truth and peace. The prophetic call is a risky call originating from outside of oneself, but which one simply cannot ignore.
Even at the end of his life, Jesus would pray, “Father, take this cup from me…” Even Jesus needed to pray, to cultivate his godly disposition through active and ongoing release, “No. Father, your will, not my will, be done.”
No real prophet ever desires to be a prophet. There is a simple reason for this: to be a prophet is a dangerous and terrifying call. A prophet’s truth, God’s truth, is very often a critique of the prophet’s own community, a prophet’s life demonstrates another way is possible. The prophet exposes again and again the myths we live by, our blind spots, our fears, or the harms we perpetuate against others or our own. To point out such things is always to risk something.
Historically, in the Hebrew Bible, the prophet had a very distinctive and important role. They were the ones who, because of the Holy quaking in their bones could not stay silent in the face of maltreatment by the King or other so-called authorities. A prophet was one who simply could not tolerate idolatry, deception, or greed among the religious authorities. Very often these forces—religious idolatry and social and ecological domination—were in cahoots, as they still are today.
Many a contemporary prophet have figured out, that if you don’t want to get killed, at least not right away, you should heed the advice of the poet Emily Dickenson, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” There is a paradox among prophets. For all one’s straightforward, to the point, truth telling and truth being. For one’s resolute rejection of evil and one’s commitment to living and breathing another way, the prophet is never strong, and neither is the Christian, at least not in the conventional sense.
Paul’s second letter to the Church at Corinth offers us an ancient account of this particular paradox. “I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows.” Paul is talking about himself, but out of humility begins in the third person.
“And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows—was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.” Paul has experienced something so true, so real, that it cannot be represented by words. He has encountered a love so all-encompassing that to describe it would be to risk blaspheme.
Now, how’s this for a political campaign strategy? “On my behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.” Paul doesn’t claim to have any special knowledge or powers, he can’t brag about what has been revealed to him, for in being shown a paradoxically liberating truth about himself, he has experienced a profound and utter emptiness before the Face of God.
Paul continues, basically saying, “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I would be right to boast, this all was pretty epic. But I won’t because it’s not about me—it’s not about me at all. It’s about the truth that has been revealed to me, the message I cannot help but share, and this new way of being community on earth—of being earth community—of building the Kingdom of God.”
Here’s the rub. If you remember one thing, remember this. There’s no other way to the Kingdom, but to enter, with Paul and with Jesus, the paradox: “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
Paul continues, “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.” Was this thorn a depression, an injury, an addiction? We will never know, though many silly people have speculated.
“Three times,” Paul continues, “I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me…[f]or whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” God’s “power is made perfect in weakness.”
If you are a human being you know something of this paradox, you live and breathe it daily. Limits. Weakness. Finitude. Nevertheless, we spend a lot of time trying to eradicate weakness.
I’m not really into comic books, but this week, it being summer and all, I went to a late showing of the Amazing Spider Man. Now all these stories have a villain, but this one wasn’t the conventional evil manic. The problem to be solved by Spider Man occurred when a well-meaning scientist, obsessed with eliminating all human weakness, ended up turning himself into a giant psychopathic lizard.
Every night, having apparently rid himself of weakness, he goes on a destructive rampage terrorizing New York City—each time getting more and more drunk on his sense of invincibility. He becomes so deluded, so taken with himself, that he develops a plot to release a gaseous serum from the highest building in the city in order to turn all humanity into giant psychopathic lizards, thinking he will be doing the world a great service and giving them a great gift by helping them too, overcome their weakness.
This sort of deluded fantasy is but a slightly overstated example of something we are faced with all the time. When the dominant global culture equates strength with might, success with power over others, and glorifies abstract wealth to the exclusion of human life and ecological wellbeing, the mythology of eradicating human weakness, finitude, and limits—progress—threatens always to entrap us.
But this morning, we have one of the best distillations of the Christian Gospel in all of scripture: when I am weak then I am strong, God’s power is made perfect in weakness. If you are like me, you will need to embrace this paradox daily, moment by moment, and you will need the help of others who are embracing it as well.
We have assembled this morning because we have heard God’s call to make that paradoxical strength, which only occurs through weakness, incarnate in our world. And perhaps you have rightly discerned the call for Christians to live as prophets and this causes you perhaps to tremble. That is just fine, because you are not alone. We’re all in this together, even those of us who don’t realize it. If God hadn’t afflicted us with visions of a Paradoxical Paradise, we wouldn’t be here in the first place.
So my friends, friends who are becoming prophets, if only reluctantly, as it should be. I’ll leave you with Jesus’s own instructions, “take nothing for your journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in your belts; but wear sandals, and for goodness sake, do you really need that second tunic?”