Goodness Is Stronger than Evil

The quotation comes from South African Bishop Desmond Tutu; the tune from Scotsman John Bell; the singing from Plymouth Congregational Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. In this moment, it serves as a good reminder for the weary.

Divine Folly and Human Wisdom

A sermon at the Olivet Congregational Church in Saint Paul, Minnesota, March, 2003.

Texts: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; I Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

“For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, 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, to reduce to nothing the things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”

Author Frederick Buechner reminds us that as the curtain falls on the final tragic scene of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the final words are uttered: “The weight of this sad time we must obey, Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

We cannot help but speak what we feel and if what I say this morning misses the mark of preaching the gospel, perhaps by God’s grace you will hear nonetheless a Word for your life and the world’s. For the Spirit takes our words and uses them in the hearing of the listener at least as much as in the speaking of the speaker.

I speak to you this morning – in the weight of this sad time of war – as a child of wartime. I was born 1942. When I was a year old my father enlisted as an Army chaplain. When I was one-and-a-half I waved goodbye from a dock in Los Angeles as the tears streamed down my mother’s face. Although too young to understand the reason for the tears, I was not too young to inhabit the sorrow, the dread and the grief. I grew up with air raid sirens ringing in my ears. Several years after my father returned safely from the South Pacific – from Guam, Saipan, and Tinian, the island from which the “Enola Gay” made its run at Hiroshima – the sound of the fire siren would wake me with the horror of impending death.

Though the bombs never fell near my house or on my city, I grew up as a child of Baghdad, and I will be forevermore.

And so these days I awaken very early. I can’t sleep. I get up, make the coffee, turn on the reading lamp in the living room and read to still the storm. In the dark of night I feel like Alice in Wonderland. I plummet down one rabbit hole after another, trying to get my bearings in a world that seems to have lost its sanity – no north or south, no east or west, only a whirring gyroscope of confusion and nonsense. I feel sick over the bombs, sick over the lies and disinformation. Sick with a sense of impending doom.

But I also know that the Christian should not be surprised by this. “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.’”

The cross of Jesus refutes all human wisdom that confuses might with right. The cross – the Roman means of State execution, the first century equivalent of an electric chair – stands empty. In the light of Easter, the might of the mighty is powerless. The cleverness of the clever is thwarted. The wisdom of the wise is destroyed. The cross exposes the vanity of power. It judges every act of ethnic cleansing, every assassination, every torture, every death committed in the name of national security. It exposes the untruth of every clever piece of propaganda and disinformation that twists the truth to shiver our knees in fear. The cross of Jesus exposes the foolishness of the wise, the powerlessness of the powerful, the folly of the clever.

As I sit in the pre-dawn darkness with my morning paper and a cup of coffee, the dawn slowly lights the horizon ‘til the sun lights the eastern sky and floods the porch with morning light. With the rising of the sun on the far horizon there rises within me the psalmist’s psalm of joyful praise, an awareness of a larger providence:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork…
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes forth like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit
to the end of them. (Ps. 19:1-1,4b-5)

I am suddenly keenly aware that the sun rises on my neighbor, as well as on me, and that it rises every morning on Iraq and North Korea, on Afghanistan and China, on Venezuela and Timbuktu…without discrimination. It rises on Muslims and Christians and Jews, on Sikhs and Buddhists, on atheists and agnostics, capitalists, communists and anarchists. “The foolishness of God” – this expansive, inclusive providence and generosity of God – is wiser than human wisdom.” It is in that spirit that our Lord said to all would-be disciples:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. If you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your neighbors, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt. 5:43-48)

God’s care is like that. To be perfected in God’s image is to love like that – ubiquitously! If it were up to us, there would be sunshine fences everywhere. “Send a little sun over here, God, and ominous clouds over there! Send a few spring showers over here, God, and torrents of rain over there! A little warmth over here, a blizzard over there.” God’s providence does not create sunshine fences. God plays no favorites. There is no such division in God’s care.

So, when Paul writes to the Corinthians about the divine folly being wiser than human wisdom – when he says that “to those who are being saved (notice that Paul does not say “To those who are saved, but to those who are being saved”), “it (the cross) is the power of God” – it cannot be a division between the saved and the damned. No war of the children of light against the children of darkness. No sunshine fences. All such constructs are of human origin. Salvation (healing) is a work in progress. And it’s a work of God, not us. It’s not a done deal. It’s a daily process of transformation day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute. There can be no boasting except to boast of the man on the cross, no definition of human perfection other than this extravagant love of God.

Several years ago I was blessed by the friendship of Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama, former John D. Rockefeller Professor of Ecumenical Theology at Union Theology Seminary in the City of New York, who now lives here in the Twin Cities with his American wife, Lois.

Dr. Koyama vividly remembers being baptized as a teenager. He was baptized during the bombing of Tokyo. As the bombs rained down on his city, Kosuke’s pastor told him that those who are baptized in Christ must love their enemies. “Kosuke, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. You must love your enemies. Even the Americans.” The planes that were bombing Kosuke’s city were sent off from my father’s airstrips!

Dr. Koyama recalls being startled by the God of the Bible, as he read the Book of Isaiah. What struck him was that the God of the Bible stands not only for but also against his own people. God takes the people to task. The God of Isaiah, Amos and Jeremiah is saddened and offended by their behavior. In stark contrast, says Koyama, the Japanese god – the god of the emperor and the imperial cult, never criticized the emperor or the people. “You want to invade Manchuria? Sure. Go ahead. Good boy, good boy. Japanese. Good boy! You want to bomb Pearl Harbor? Go ahead. Good boy, good boy! Japanese. Good boy!”

At that early age, Kosuke Koyama decided that he would never again follow a god that spoke only one language. And that he would never again worship an uneducated god. The God of the Bible, he says, speaks more than one language. The God of the universe speaks many languages. The God of the Bible is a spacious God. Not the god of an imperial cult. The God of the Bible is an educated God. Not the god of the nation.
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In the early morning hours, even as my soul rises in praise of the sun’s rising, I feel sad and just a bit angry. I can feel something of that tremendous feeling of loneliness and anger that Jesus must have felt as he watched the commerce of the temple and sat there in silence, braiding a whip out of the chords they had used to tie the animals. I can see him and hear him cracking his whip to chase out the traders and the money-changers: “You shall not make of my Father’s house a house of trade!”

There is a place in the Christian faith for indignation. There is a place for anger when wrong is done, when falsehood parades as truth, when arrogance takes the place of diplomacy, when religion blesses bombs. And for the sake of the nation, if not for ourselves, we need to recover our ability to feel things deeply. All around us and within us there is fear and acquiescence. Only the power of God’s kingdom can revive in us the capacity for outrage when children anywhere shiver in fear in air raid shelters.

Terrorism is a real threat. But the greater threat to America is that we will lose our capacity to mourn unnecessary death, that we will lose our capacity for anger when a child dies or is psychologically damaged by American bullets and bombs, that we will lose our souls by placing them on the altar of what President Eisenhower chillingly described as a military-industrial complex which, one day, would be out of control, turned loose to do its job.

And when Jesus had driven out those who sold and those who bought, he taught them, and said to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers. And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and sought a way to destroy him, for they feared him.” (Mk. 17-18b)

And so Paul writes that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
And the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.’”

Why is the word of the cross the power of God?

Bishop Desmond Tutu tells the story of a visit to Rwanda after the genocide of 1994. In his book No Future Without Forgiveness, Bishop Tutu tells of visiting a church in the capitol of Rwanda where Tutsis had been mowed down and where the bodies continued to lie as they had fallen the year before during the massacre. He describes the church as a disturbing monument to the viciousness of which we as human beings are capable.

“Those who had turned against each other in this gory fashion had often lived amicably in the same villages and spoken the same language. They had frequently intermarried and most of them had espoused the same faith – most were Christians. The colonial overlords had sought to maintain their European hegemony by favoring the main ethnic group, the Tutsis, over the other, the Hutu, thus planting the seeds of what would in the end be one of the bloodiest episodes in modern African history.”

Asked to preach at the main stadium in Kigali, the capitol, the Bishop said that the history of Rwanda “was typical of a history of ‘top dog’ and ‘underdog’. The top dog wanted to cling to its privileged position and the underdog strove to topple the top dog. When that happened, the new top dog engaged in an orgy of retribution to pay back the new underdog for all the pain and suffering it had inflicted when it was top dog.

He said that the extremists among the Hutus had proven that they were quite capable of waiting thirty years for the day when they could exact revenge, and that the same could be expected of the Tutsis – unless the cycle of reprisal and counter-reprisal was broken. He told the crowd that “the only way to do this was to go beyond retributive justice to restorative justice, to move on to forgiveness, because without it there was no future.”

Human wisdom is “top dog” wisdom. Divine wisdom is the wisdom of the cross. Human wisdom is cyclical and vicious. Divine wisdom is a breakthrough – from cross to empty tomb.

Why is the word of the cross the power of God?

At the center of our crucifying behavior is fear. “The chief priests and the scribes sought a way to destroy him, because they feared him.” So do we. For the sake of this fear, we have been given a spirit of courage and boldness. We “did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but … have received the spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if, in fact, we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:15-17).

A client in deep distress, grief and sorrow, after struggling alone in anonymity with what Chaim Potok has called “the four-o’clock-in- the-morning-questions” and battening down the hatches of his psyche finally goes to a therapist for help. When he arrives, the therapist asks how it feels to be there. “Good,” says the man. “Good. If feels good to be in a safe place.” To his surprise, the therapist asks, “What makes you think this is a safe place? This isn’t a safe place. This is a very dangerous place! You didn’t come looking for safety. The only really safe place is six feet under. You didn’t come looking for safety. You came here looking for life.”

Isn’t it the same with you? We come here looking for life, not safety, not death. We come looking for wisdom, not folly. For straight talk, not double-talk. We come listening for the genuine good news of the gospel. We come because we’re tired of falling down rabbit holes. We come for truth and straight talk about a gospel that lays bare every lie and every pretense, every fleeting power – a gospel that lays us bare before God.

In our nakedness, standing before the Mercy Seat of God’s judgment, exposed in our vain substitute of safety for life, may the Spirit that cries out with our spirits for life in its fullness silence every voice but its own, free us from fear and from the tyranny of security, and grant us to enter boldly through the foolishness of the cross to the fullness and joy of life itself.

And let us remember that this world is no cheap five and dime house of trade in which life is bought and sold for nickels and dimes. This world is the House of our Father who is in Heaven! And now to the One who is able to keep us from falling, to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.