Posts Tagged ‘power’

Power

November 6, 2016

More questions for Jesus – this time, about a point of ancient law.

“Whose wife will she be?”; a dispute designed to draw attention away from the real question here.  But more on that in a moment.

First – to be clear; this is not a condemnation of re-marriage, nor is this episode an argument for some kind of “holy celibacy” because of the notion that “those who are considered worthy of a place… neither marry nor are they given in marriage.”  Jesus words are meant to challenge the image of resurrection life that these Sadducees present with their hypothetical case.  These people “say there is no resurrection”, and they try to prove their case using the law.  The law makes provision for righteousness in this life that would make for utter confusion in the “next” life.  Take that, Jesus…

‘The way we’ve always done things’, here becomes an argument against the reign of God;  these learned, faithful people are suggesting that the rules of life make the reign of God next to impossible; what you propose is too complicated, too hard to understand, too far-fetched.  Take that, Jesus…

But the real question here – the question behind this little scenario is, very familiar to us:  What is it like?  How does it work?  Explain this resurrection – this new life –  to us, Jesus, because the very idea makes no sense.

Jesus teaching, if we’re honest, is an offence to the natural order as we have come to understand it; the last shall be first – the weak shall be strong – inconceivable!  What’s more, this ‘kingdom’ that he proclaims, seems to be everywhere and no where – it is both a promise for the future and an immanent event.  God’s kingdom is one that shall never end, but it is also very near to us.   Can it be both?  What if it’s neither?  Jesus words challenge our concept of history, of tradition, of time and space.  We need something we can cling to – something concrete.  So, in Luke, an appeal is made to the law.

It doesn’t go well for the lawyers…

But this is not about divorce law…it is about power; who has it and who doesn’t; what are the limits of human power?  What are the limits of the power of the law?  What about the power of God…?

In this seemingly practical discussion, Jesus presents the utter impracticability of God; “God is God, not of the dead but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.” (Luke 20: 38) – God, it seems, does not approach these questions from an human perspective (of course not!) so human solutions draw disdain (at best) from Jesus.

The  woman in question could easily represent every woman of the time – indeed, she might represent all those who find themselves powerless; without identity unless accompanied by a husband or son; without rights because of their perceived differences; denied education, or vote; cheated by the invader, whose power is evident in force of arms and the determination to conquer.

We see this struggle far too often; at Standing Rock North Dakota; in the residue of our own Residential school atrocities.  We see it when the established culture lashes out against immigrants when jobs are scarce and political capital is at stake.  The struggle to define power and legitimize it – through cultural narrative or for political gain – is very much alive in the current American election (and in recent Canadian political maneuvering).  No one is immune from the lure of power and the desire for influence – and that includes people of faith.

In the Sadducees’ question is the troubling suggestion that powerlessness and inequality are eternal; in the resurrection, whose wife will she be?  Who will give her legitimacy in the presence of God, whose kingdom spans time…?  Jesus argues from an odd angle, but his is an argument for equality – because if God sees no difference between the living and the dead; if time cannot change God’s perception of us, then neither can gender, or race, or political affiliation, or…anything.
God’s reign – this resurrection that arouses our curiosity and causes us to act out in strange and faithful ways – is terribly impractical when considered by our limited understanding of things.  We imagine that God organizes the universe just as we do – indeed there is diversity and opposition in much of what we observe around us; male and female – strength and weakness – light and dark – good and evil  living and dead: this binary sorting comes naturally to us, and we assume that is how God works.  But God is not bound by such crude distinctions.

God’s reign, when considered from our current chaos, seems like something to be achieved only once the troubles and trials of mortal life are past.  But the resurrection of Jesus shocks us to a different awareness – the limits of time and space – life and death – have no effect on the love, mercy, justice and grace of God.  The distinctions and divisions we make for (and amongst) ourselves are not part of God’s vision for creation.

Jesus doesn’t say that we must be feminists, or freedom fighters, or social democrats, or fiscal conservatives to experience resurrection and enjoy the reign of God, but Jesus does ask us to consider the source and use of power and privilege in the world around us – to imagine what that would be like if all power and privilege was rooted in God’s own self – and then he calls us to live out the consequences of a world – a society – differently imagined.

“Who’s wife will she be?”  What will it look like?  How will power and influence be recognized?  Well, since with God, there is no distinction of time and space, between life and death, “…they neither marry nor are given in marriage…” – our crude divisions of power are eliminated; the power of God – the power of love, mercy, grace and peace – these are the things that matter.  This is the key to the kingdom

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This is not an act of God.

March 25, 2016

Jesus, has been preaching of the approaching reign of God; living and teaching and healing and loving in a way that brings God into the midst of people’s suffering and struggles.  Jesus want’s no glory for himself – no sympathy, either.  Luke reports that along the route taken by the condemned prisoners, the soldiers enlist the help of one Simon of Cyrene to  carry Jesus’ cross.  Luke describes the scene: a stranger – a pilgrim – forced into this grim parade.  Jesus in front; Simon, following, carrying the beam on which Jesus will be killed; and a great number of people following, wailing and beating their breasts in grief for Jesus.  But Jesus tells them not to cry for him, but for themselves.

This is not an act of God.  Human ignorance and human pride drive this spectacle to its grisly conclusion.  Human authority, afraid of the truth.  Human wisdom, so certain that it can admit no competition.  Human power, which will be revealed as a sham by the compassion and miraculous love of Jesus.

We killed Jesus, and we continue to find ways to dismiss the power of God; the wisdom of God; the authority of God – all of which Jesus revealed as sacred and desirable.

Crucifixion is the easy way out – and those who would prefer their own power to the power of God can always raise another cross – their power resides in fear, and the cross is a fearful object.  But Jesus, who still weeps for us; who would have us turn from the false hope of human power and turn toward the power of God; Jesus turns the cross into a demonstration of God’s power.  The sin of our arrogance and pride – that is what kills Jesus.  But Jesus resolute commitment to the things of God – God’s love, justice, mercy and grace – Jesus complete devotion to those things is an act of faith almost impossible to imagine.  And that faith will bring his story to an earth-shattering conclusion.

Palm-less Sunday (as reported in Luke 19: 28-40)

March 20, 2016

This doesn’t have to happen.  There is no reason for Jesus to make such a fuss.  Go to Jerusalem; celebrate the festival; lose yourself in the crowds; honour God with the worship that is required, then get the heck out of town.  That option was always open – that’s how everyone else dealt with the horrifying political reality in this once proud capital city; the city that symbolized all that was great about this nation of God’s chosen people…  though any illusion of being special in the eyes of God has faded for this generation.

But Jesus has spent most of his adult life reminding people of God’s claim on them.  He declares that a kingdom is coming; his intriguing use of parables relates God’s ancient covenant promise in new ways; he is bold to suggest that the promised kingdom may be almost upon them.  Peace, justice, compassion, and above all, a new understanding of power and order – these things sound too good to be true to a people whose earliest memories are of Roman occupation and foreign rule.  The Promised Land seemed void of promise…until Jesus started talking.

Still, for all his attractive ideas, this decision to steal a donkey – well okay, borrow, but it’s a near thing – and tumble in to town along one of the main roads…that’s just crazy!  If you are representing a power other than Roman power, and claiming a heritage that suggests you have historic rights to a land that is (once again) under foreign occupation, then someone is going to notice; questions will be asked, and if you’re not careful, somebody could get hurt

And that’s what happens, of course – predictable as the tide, here come the authorities; fellow citizens and co-religionists who do not want to make waves.  They covet their positions; they seek the safety offered by Roman indifference.  “Teacher, control your students!  Keep them quiet!”  No one want’s attention drawn to the promise of God’s redemption, especially when that redemption looks like self-rule.  This is no time for ‘kingdom’ talk.  Jesus has his answer ready: “If these were quiet, the stones would shout out.”  This promise of redemption is not limited to any one nation.  God has promised nothing less than the liberation of the earth itself.  How will Rome react to that?  We’ll know soon enough.

The troubling thing is that Rome’s reaction will be aided by those who are afraid of real freedom.  Jesus will be betrayed by a friend, denied by one who was like a brother to him, rejected by fellow scholars and religious experts – all these were (are) threatened by the suggestion that God is on the verge of offering something different.  Those who call for silence are the ones who cannot face the truth.

Jesus is not a guide to a new kind of morality – there is nothing new about a morality guided by love of God and neighbour – Jesus destroys our ideas about power and success; Jesus puts God at the heart of his every action, and dares his opponents to find fault – and of course they do, because the Divine power Jesus honours had been gradually assumed by human agents, religious and political.  They fear the loss of their authority – an authority that was never properly theirs.

Human vanity has, from the very beginning of the biblical record, led us to presume to act as gods.  We take liberties, we make pronouncements, we establish kingdoms that satisfy our own need for recognition; our own thirst for glory.  The problem we have with Jesus is consistent with the reaction of those who opposed him in Judea.  He asks us to imagine a different structure and to acknowledge a different power. To illustrate, he consorts with societies forgotten souls; he touches the untouchable, he treats the unfortunate poor as his equal and he dares to address God in personal (and occasionally intimate) terms.  His “triumphal entry” (so it is named in most of our memories) is very little triumph, unless you see progress in the mocking of the powerful.  That’s what it is to ride a donkey, covered in peasant cloaks and welcomed by a rough voiced choir singing the praises, not of the man on the mule, but rather praising God for all the deeds of power they had seen.

The king they bless that day was not Jesus – though we are bold to name him king.  They bless the King of Heaven; and that, of course, is trouble.  The powers that be will set this right – they cannot help themselves.  Jesus will pay for this defiant illustration.  But he will not deviate from his convictions.  He will remain obedient to the power of God to the end.  A power that will not lay waste to the opposition; a power that responds to violence with love and forgiveness; a power that will, in love, see us liberated from our deadly pride, once and for all.

The power of the cross.

July 20, 2014

1 Corinthians is a letter that sees Paul wander from the depth of his disappointment to the pinnacle of his piety – Spiritual gifts and human failings – this is a vivid snapshot of the state of the early church through the lens of one of the giants of the Christian faith. Paul is personally responsible for the content of nearly half of the New Testament, and is the subject of much of the book of Acts – yes, it’s about Jesus, but it is Jesus as described by the activities of Paul; faith articulated by Paul – he is an important figure of faith (and doubt) – he shapes much of our theology…but he is a difficult character to understand.

He offers interesting, (and to modern ears, derogatory) advice on the role of women in the church, but acknowledges female companions and sponsors (and even leaders!) in his letters. He is a single man who helped define marital relationships. He is the “Hebrew of Hebrews” – perfect in observation and zealous in application of the code of behaviour defined by Mosaic law – who takes as his mission/call the proclamation of the gospel to the gentiles; indeed he becomes (in his own words) “…all things to all people…”1 for the sake of the gospel. Paul is a puzzle, but he does offer us a way to encounter the gospel at a distance (from the person of Jesus). That was Paul’s mission, after all – to acquaint people outside the story – outside the Jewish faith – with the open invitation of Jesus.

We can’t do without Paul’s brutal honesty. We could use some of Paul’s boundless enthusiasm. He is willing to move quickly from giving thanks for their faithfulness to chastising his “friends” for their foolishness. Paul – whatever else you think of his approach, or his rhetoric – Paul keeps us honest.

First Corinthians opens with a problem in the church. Some claim to follow Paul; others Apollo; still others Cephas (Peter). Some even claim to follow Christ. There are pockets of power developing in the Corinthian ‘church’, and Paul means to put an end to that sort of foolishness…[unfortunately, he doesn’t do it – divisions = power problems to this day] Paul reminds them of the real power in this new relationship that Christ has offered the world.

Divisions around personalities are not yet so uncommon. The history (and the present mode) of church behaviour, denominational squabbling and so on offer plenty of evidence that the problem Paul sought to correct in Corinth is still a problem. Some say “I follow Luther”; others “I follow the Bishop of Rome”; still others follow “the movement of the Spirit as THEY understand it”; and then, there are Presbyterians – who follow the leading of the Spirit, but only when the Spirit speaks in committee, and then only if there is room in the budget.

Paul speaks to all of us as he slaps his forehead in frustration and points to the Cross.

It is quite a dramatic opening.

Paul, the seasoned public speaker, declares that wisdom and eloquence are nothing compared to the power of God found at the cross. He speaks to the heart of a hundred generations of preachers when he says that the words we use must not divert attention to the real wisdom and absolute power revealed in the crucifixion – our boasting in the abundance of life and love and acceptance we have found in Christ is useless without first admitting the truth about power that confronts us at the cross of Christ. It is hard to write anything – harder still to preach – if somehow the power has been vested in a person, or a denominational body, or a doctrine of the church. You can write about persons, or denominations or doctrines, but you will not be preaching the gospel. Not Paul, nor Apollos, not even Christ offers comfort without pointing to the real power of God

Paul brings attention (in all his writing) to the power of God to create and re-create; the power to heal and reveal – and realizes that if God has power to repair or remake what is broken, it is only because God first had the power to make it all – and with that comes the power to make it all go away (to destroy) Much is made of this power in the Christian religion – it is the darker side of the street; the place we don’t want to go, for if God can destroy, (and would do so in response to our faithless bumbling through the millenia) then we are left to wonder, WHY ARE WE STILL HERE ?

Well, Paul argues that it is because of the power of the cross. An artifact that stood for senseless destruction has become the icon of salvation – only because God has the power to shame the strong with weakness, and reduce the powerful with humility. For Paul, crucifixion is everything – the death of Jesus, in such horrible fashion, gives purpose to everything that follows; our preaching, our service, our sacraments – all take their power from the power of God revealed in the cross of Christ. Since God has redeemed so senseless an act as crucifixion; surely such power is sufficient to save us.

This gospel is the foundation of all of Paul’s work – It was the power that drew him from persecution of the church to proclamation in the first place – and that same power is at work whenever we gather at the font, or the table. The church depends on the power of God, revealed at the cross, for our future – reminded by Paul that it is “…by grace we are saved, through faith – and this is not our own doing, but the gift of God2…; And that is good news indeed. Thanks be to God, for this gift of power and grace that meets us in the cross of Christ. Amen.

11 Cor 9: 22 (NRSV)

2Ephesians 2: 8

I love a parade…

March 24, 2013

 

Parades are connected with celebrations, in our time –

happy moments marking victories, or holidays.

So we are inclined to read accounts of Jesus making his way into Jerusalem,

with the Passover celebrations looming as ‘just another occasion to celebrate.

We imagine a triumphal parade, complete with palm branches and singing crowds –

some churches will re-create that parade this morning

but the truth about this morning’s parade is more sinister.

 

Jesus is making his way toward Jerusalem motivated by terrible purpose.

He is at odds with the authorities – he has baffled even his closest friends –

and this final stage of his journey leaves no doubt that he is making a fatal statement.

Jesus has taught and told the story of this new kingdom all around the territory.

His bold proclamation – the company he keeps – and the parables he offers

all propose a wildly different way of doing things.

And because of this, trouble is coming.

 

He has said so, more than once.

“Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.’ But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” [1]

 

So let’s review – Luke has brought Jesus to the edge of the city,

telling tax collectors that they have found salvation[2], and he follows Zaccheus’ story  with a horrifying parable about a man who would be king [3].

His actions and his words have been deeply critical of the current kingdom –

a kingdom ruled by folks who are desperate

to maintain power in the region and over the people.

 

And Jesus’ entry to the city openly mocks those desires.

 

He borrows a colt – un-trained and therefore unpredictable –

and descends on the city surrounded by singing, waving and shouting.

 

It is the opposite of an impressive sight;

this parade is laughable, given the reality of the power that controls the city,

but Jesus point is apparently made.

The Pharisees are nervous.  Too much attention is being drawn to the crowd –

by the crowd.

“Teacher, order your disciples to stop”, they say.

But there is no stopping this.

“…even the stones would shout out.” Jesus famously says,

Thus endeth the lesson – but the statement made by Jesus at this moment

continues to speak across time. –

 

Only at the cross, and then at the empty tomb, will Jesus make a bolder statement.

He has, by his teaching and his mock parade, declared to all who would listen

that the kingdom he proclaims – the kingdom God has promised –

has no use for the usual symbols of power, or the ‘ordinary’ trappings of authority.

 

***(the parable that precedes Luke’s telling of the palm parade,

suggests that the man who would be king will not stand for criticism,

is a singularly greedy, demanding overseer, whose mission is only to establish – without question – his personal power and authority.

Yet Jesus, proclaimed as “the king who comes in the name of the Lord” comes in humility (on a colt) surrounded by joy, rather than those who trembled before the return of the “king” in fear [4])

 

And so Jesus’ entry really is a triumphal one –

but the celebrations are muted, for the moment.

Jesus will triumph over the prevailing ideas, the prevailing fear,

But he arrives knowing that his presence (and the manner of his coming)

will provoke a negative response –

such is the price you pay for proclaiming freedom in the midst of oppression,

and joy in the face of fear –

 

But Jesus does all of this confident in the power of God,  not to protect him from harm,

but to prevail over the power that holds all people captive.

 

Sin, in all its forms, is about to be given a fatal blow

(not swept away/banished, but robbed of its power).

That includes the sin of pride – of greed – of oppression and judgement.

All the things that make people think they are strong

are diminished as Jesus makes his approach in humility –

and they are further frustrated by the power of God that sees Jesus raised from death.

 

 

All this is present in this morning’s parade,

though perhaps we choose not to see it.

Our celebrations will be interrupted by betrayal, abandonment and crucifixion –

The power of sin will not be overcome by waving and singing,

but the celebration is coming.

Those once ruled by sin will meet a new master,

And soon – very soon – the power of God shall be revealed

in ways that will leave the followers of Jesus speechless.

 

 


[1]  Luke 18: 31-34

[2] Luke 19: 1-10

[3] Luke 19: 11-27

[4] Luke 19:21

An end to weary wandering.

February 4, 2012

Isaiah’s song is sung at camp – it is sung by old and young with great hope:

(sing) Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength

they shall mount up on wings as eagles

they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint…

(and then follows the prayer that we add…)

help us Lord, help us Lord, in your way.

A great way to remember a small piece of Scripture

a suitable sentiment for the people of God –

but this clever little song does not instantly help us understand

the desperate plea that the prophet makes on God’s behalf.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

Here again, the people of God have driven themselves to distraction in their distress –

their fear of abandonment – their dangerous doubt –

have conspired to drive a wedge between them and their God.

Their exile (always!) results in questions.

They have (once again) lost sight of the magnificent promise of God,

that has sustained them and motivated them for centuries,

and Isaiah does what any good prophet should do –

he uses their actions (or inaction, as the case may be) against them.

It never seems to take much to distract us from God’s promise –

but a return to faith always seems tremendously difficult.

And so a Prophet sings and writes and rages against the passions of the day –

first by offering a litany of human failure

and then, a more impressive list of divine attributes –

to remind God’s people that God is passionate for them.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

The same situation exists in our time;

a time that has no use for prophetic nonsense –

a time that encourages personal indulgence –

a time of self-inflicted exile from the wonders of God / the glory of God / the presence of God.

We have accepted that a ‘look out for number one’ attitude

is considered a necessary social skill.

We have no time for God because we would rather cultivate our own god-complex –

I speak as one who knows.

We seek to make our lives perfect;

to create our own notion of ‘heaven on earth’;

we have lost faith in all but ourselves,

and since the Christian faith that we profess will not help us feel better about this sort of rebellion

it becomes optional (at best) or burdensome (more often).

The result is empty pews and frustrated congregations

(which contain people for whom faith is genuine and helpful and real…)

It is to this time – and to all people –

that Isaiah offers (again) this reminder of how things ought to be.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

The God of gods – the chaos-tamer – the One who wields the creative Word –

is better, bigger and more resourceful than we can imagine.

Our own designs and plans count for nothing,

not because God doesn’t want us to be creative,

but because we are but poor imitations of the Master when it comes to creation.

The promise that stands from before time –

a promise of relationship with God (that was the beauty of ‘the garden’) –

cannot be replaced by anything we might invent.

And so Isaiah asks us to cast our minds back over all we have done

and bids us compare that to what we know of God.

The result? Listen to the argument from earlier in the chapter (Isaiah 40: 12-17)

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand

and marked off the heavens with a span,

enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure,

and weighed the mountains in scales

and the hills in a balance?

Who has directed the spirit of the Lord,

or as his counsellor has instructed him?

Whom did he consult for his enlightenment,

and who taught him the path of justice?

Who taught him knowledge,

and showed him the way of understanding?

Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket,

and are accounted as dust on the scales;

see, he takes up the isles like fine dust.

Lebanon would not provide fuel enough,

nor are its animals enough for a burnt-offering.

All the nations are as nothing before him;

they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.

Nothing – not because our accomplishments don’t count,

but because we cannot replace the wonders of God’s creative goodness

with our own, no matter when – no matter what.

It has always been a losing game – this struggle to “leave a legacy – to make something of ourselves”

it wears us out – it brings us down – and the solution goes against our nature.

Stop it, says the prophet. Remember the pattern of your creation.

Reclaim the strength of your Redeemer –

be refreshed by the promises of God –

and become a part of the goodness God has created.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

This is the strength offered by this faith we profess.

Not just a strength of character, or resolution of purpose.

It is the strength that comes from truly knowing

that the most powerful force we could imagine –

the inspiration behind the grand panorama of creation –

the power that brought order from chaos –

and brings Christ triumphant from the grave –

the very power of God

is strength to us in all things.

Trusting this, we need only act in that power,

and nothing will be impossible for us. Amen