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The Unbelievable, Paradoxical Power of Jesus

July 7, 2024 - The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost



 

My friends, I speak to you today in the name of one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


Please be seated.

 

Good morning, Epiphany. I see most of you have made it through another Fourth of July week in South Haven... where the vacationing hoards descend upon our small town; some of them might even still be with us this morning... welcome, hoards. Really, we’re glad you’re here. Our family spent Wednesday night in Janet MacKenzie’s front yard watching the fireworks and Thursday morning here in front of the red doors watching the Independence Day parade, and we all had a bit too much ice cream this week too. Celebrations are pretty great, especially when they involve the community. I could not have enjoyed our week more.

 

But I wanted to say all that at the start of this sermon in part because what I’m about to say might wrinkle a few noses, or even turn some noses up, or make you question my sanity... or whether you still want me to be your rector when I present what I believe the scriptures have for us this morning. You see, our three passages of scripture, with David in 2 Samuel, from Paul in 2 Corinthians, and with Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, they all touch on the concept of power, which always colors nationalistic holidays a bit...


In all three of the texts this week, we see power redefined in a way that we just cannot seem to come to understand in 21st-century America, nor did they in Jesus’ time either, to be fair. And on a week where we celebrate the power of our current Roman empire with explosive fireworks and victory parades, at least in part, well, I figured the Spirit might be pushing me and us to dive into what sort of power Christians actually believe in.


Buckle up. 


The story about the newly crowned King David starts us off, a story which, if you’ve been following along with us over the last few weeks was admittedly a little hard to follow. In the Episcopal Church, the lectionary takes us through nearly all of the Bible over the course of three years, so we follow stories, but it’s easy to lose the details. Here’s a quick recap then of David’s rise to power: A few weeks ago, we read that a young shepherd named David, around 15 years old, was anointed as king of Israel by the prophet Samuel while Israel already had a king named Saul. Two kings. Kind of. The next week, we read that the young and anointed David went and fought Goliath for King Saul, proving that he had outstanding faith while others had completely justifiable fear, remember this sermon? And then last week, we read that Saul died, and David sang a dirge, a lament for him. David, then, had been anointed as the new king of Israel when he was a teenager... and we read today that he was thirty years old when he began to reign. That means David was a king lonnng in waiting, and especially after the Goliath story, he could have asserted his right to a throne promised to him by God. But instead, he waited fifteen years before taking power, and then he went on to be one of the key (but flawed) characters in the history of Judaism and Christianity. More on him in a bit.

 

In our second reading, we have an initially confusing story about another Saul, who we now know as Paul. Paul is answering some of the Corinthians’ critiques in this second biblical letter, as we’ve covered in recent weeks, and one of those critiques is that Paul isn’t leading the church in the way they expected him to lead. He’s making them uncomfortable with the way he’s calling them to live out their love, sacrificially, putting others first. Paul then leans into an out-of-body experience that “someone” had, going to “the third heaven;” most commentators agree that he is referencing his own life-changing encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. You see, Saul was a Pharisee with power, persecuting Christians until he met the crucified and risen Lord in Acts 9... and then he was renamed Paul. St. Luke’s book of Acts says that Paul is God’s “chosen instrument to proclaim God’s name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel,” a first-century prophet.

 

Now, Paul could have used this new heavenly authority to rally and create a new establishment on earth, to build a political force to counter the forces of the Pharisees... to create and defend a new Christian nation-state in a combined image of Jesus and Rome.... but instead, Paul gives us these lines, memorable still today: “Power is made perfect in weakness” and “whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” Like David who faced Goliath without armor, but with a sling and stones and with God on his side, Paul’s understanding of power was different from the cultural norm. It did not seek authority but service, it found strength in weakness. It was risky to his own comfort, it was not always popular, and it always put others above himself. Selflessness was power, as God would define it.

 

With the framework of David and Paul provided for us in today’s lectionary, the Gospel story might take on a different but Gospel-appropriate color. Admittedly, I first read this passage and was most struck that a person of the all-powerful Trinity, the Son of God himself, God from God, light from light, begotten not made, of one being with the Father... Jesus “could do no deed of power” in his hometown. What? Jesus is returning to his hometown of Nazareth with his disciples in Mark 6, teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, and people who grew up with him “were astounded,” unable themselves (or perhaps unwilling) to process what Jesus was up to. Imagine the scene, if you can, someone returns home and stands up amid people he once knew and preaches something new, something vibrant, something that’s changing lives elsewhere, something revolutionary, something based in overwhelming love. Sounds good to us. But the Nazarenes respond with questions meant to demean him, “Where did this man get all this? Is not this the carpenter?” And they take offense at him, leaving Jesus amazed at their unbelief. He performs a few miracles on his way out of town, and then lets them be.

 

This power of Jesus is unbelievable to the people of Nazareth.... in this text, mainly because they are too familiar with the deliverer of the good news, but also, I believe, because it is not what they expected power to look like; that’s a clear theme in the gospels, most memorably on Palm Sunday. In Mark 6, Jesus calls himself a prophet, “prophets have no honor in their hometown,” and while being a prophet is only part of who he truly is, it is an important piece: prophets provoke, they speak the truth that people often do not want to hear.

 

These three texts combine for a powerful and counter-cultural message for us today, if we are willing to hear it. You see, power is a tricky thing, one we are culturally conditioned to pursue through ambition, rising the corporate ladder, and even in the church, as many use ministry positions as stepping stones to higher offices with more power and authority. None of us are without fault. But in these readings today, we see a different take on power. It is frustrating, it is unbelievable, to imagine that the paradoxical beatitudes of Matthew 5 are really true: blessed are the poor, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers.

 

But David knew that he was not to rise to power as God’s anointed through a bloody challenge to King Saul’s throne, instead waiting 15 years to be crowned king of Israel. The apostle Paul knew he was not to be a political leader to challenge or persecute the Romans or Pharisees, as the Corinthians might have hoped for, instead being content with his weaknesses for the sake of Christ and preaching and modeling a different sort of good news. And Jesus, in today’s Gospel and plenty of places elsewhere... Jesus has a similar story. He could easily have used his power loudly, with shock and awe, and done amazing things in Nazareth and throughout the world, forcing people to believe in him. A human ego probably would have liked that. But that is not God’s way. God invites us along. These Nazarenes were both too familiar with Jesus and were uninterested in what this prophet had to say, and so Jesus, invitation rejected, leaves them to their own ways.

 

I’m curious for us this morning if we are all too much like the people of Nazareth in this story. Perhaps we are too familiar with Jesus to actually take his ways seriously, and Jesus amazed at our unbelief, will simply let us be. We say we know this message of “power in weakness” well, of laying down our life for the other, of loving our enemies, but maybe we then reserve that for Sundays while pursuing a more domineering and dominating form of power the rest of the week.... Or maybe we’re just not interested in what the prophet has to say here, that Jesus’s and Paul’s and even David’s understanding of power simply isn’t relevant in the real, modern world. It doesn’t work. We need to take power into our own hands to defeat evil, right? That’s the only way that “works”?

 

“Defeating the evil other” is certainly part of our national discourse right now, and yes, this is where the sermon might get a bit dicey for some of us... I think nearly everyone in the country, including both liberal and conservative Christians, has seen domestic politics as a very serious, if not life-threatening, team sport since maybe the mid-1990s, and in part the seriousness is very much justified. But I have also heard and seen all sides of our current political climate lose sight of the fact that all of us are made in the image of God and that Jesus came and lived and died for the supposed “evil other” too.

 

Thanks to cable news and social media, American Christians are not ignorant of the dangers of the world today, they are pumped into our brains at all hours of the day. And there are surely clear evils that must be opposed, individually and collectively as the church. I am not negating the presence of evil in the world. We should not be afraid to enter into political conversation either; political participation is one way that we “do our part” in this society we are all constantly creating together.

 

But it is my prayer for all of us here this morning that we take very seriously the Christian understanding of power modeled for us in today’s readings. We need not play the games of the world and exert our power simply because we can, nor seek power at all costs; nor should we hate the other, no matter who the other might be; nor should we try to force our beliefs on those who believe differently from us. King David, the apostle Paul, and then Jesus himself – truth and love incarnate – never did those things.

 

We must instead choose to listen, putting ourselves fully in the other’s shoes. We must invite others toward goodness, sharing what we care about openly and humbly and knowing it might very well be rejected. We must love, even when it hurts.

 

And finally we must truly believe the paradox of Jesus’s power that through sacrifice and service, when we are weak, then we are truly strong. Amen.

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