a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “The Good Life: Money, Power, Health”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
October 21, 2018
35James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?”
37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
38But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
39They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized;
40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.
42So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.
43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,
44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.
45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
If you could be “King of the World” and have the power to do most anything, what would you do first? Like last week’s subject of money many answers probably come to mind. But a lot of us might shy away and so, “no thanks.” Probably most of us have mixed feelings about the subject of power. I suspect most of us don’t have an exceptionally high desire for power in the sense of wanting to rule the world. And most of us know better than to really wish we had God’s power, although there are moments… aren’t there? But to deny that we have power is false or that we don’t want any power is false, isn’t it?
I have been talking about “the Good Life,” and what defines that and the Biblical perspectives on what makes for a “good life.” When it comes to power, most of us want to have the power to make life good, don’t we? Perhaps the most frustrating thing in life is to feel powerless to make our lives better if we feel it is not good. But what defines enough power to make life better or to make life good? That is a harder measure.
This morning we heard the story of two of Jesus’ closest friends wanting to be given great power. They wanted him to guarantee them to be on Jesus’ right and left hand when he comes into his “glory.” Perhaps we roll our eyes at the “chutzpah” to ask for such a thing. Perhaps we can’t imagine expecting Jesus to grant such a wish. Whatever we think about our own power or the power of others the fact is that Jesus redefines the purpose of power for us all by his response to the two friends wanting to be his right- and left- hand men. Are you willing to use your power as Jesus defines it?
Jesus was not naïve about power. We might argue that, as the Son of God, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords – as we call him – he had all the power imaginable, but rather than use it the way most humans seem to, he chose another way. He was crucified by the power of Caesar, the power of the state, in collaboration with the religious powers who felt Jesus threatened their power and position. In the face of that we have to choose whether we believe he did not have the power to prevent this or that he had the power but chose to use his power differently from what we might, and we have to choose how we will use the power we do have.
I imagine most of us believe that Jesus had the power of almighty God to use to stop his own crucifixion and even to overthrow Caesar and install himself as Emperor of the Universe, don’t we? Why didn’t he? I imagine if most of us were facing this same threat we would have called down all the angels in heaven to take up their AK47s and their Glocks and “stand our ground” against the Roman Army and the religious leaders who sold Jesus out. But Jesus chose not to do that. In choosing not to do that he remained consistent with what he says to James and John about power. The greatest power is not that of armies or concealed carry or any of the things we associate with power. In fact it is probably the most powerless thing we can imagine. Jesus invites us to discover the power of serving. Someone put it this way, Jesus came to “free us for slavery… he gave his life to free us to freely chose to serve others. It is clear that Jesus calls us to use any power we have as the “power to serve” rather than “power over others.”
That’s a different ethic than the belief that winning is the only thing that matters. I recently read that one of our leaders said it didn’t matter if he said or did abusive, immoral, or unethical things because he won. This is the definition of what is called, “the end justifies the means.” It is the attitude that the only thing that matters is winning, no matter how you achieve it. The fact is that this isn’t true even in sports. There are rules and regulations and if you violate them to win you lose. The attitude that the only thing that matters is if I get what I want is what leads to dictatorships – in families, in work places, and in nations. It is the use of power without regard to the moral laws of the universe and often of basic human decency.
As a nation, in our use of power, we have decided that jailing children of foreigners who arrive at our borders is the thing to do. The Nazis did this to children of Jews, Hungarians, the “liberal elite” who were opposing Hitler, and homosexuals. Having the power to do something doesn’t in ANY way guarantee it is the right thing to do and more often than not it is the wrong thing to do; politics aside. To think this is our only answer to a problem is to admit our utter moral and intellectual and creative bankruptcy. As long we tolerate this as a people we are complicit in this and I will just say this with as much certainty as I have, called as I am to be prophet and pastor and priest to people – this is evil and must end or we will face the moral judgment of the universe which always has consequences – whether you call it God or fate or whatever. Using power to abuse children is never anything but evil. It is just one example of the current ways our nation abuses its power and I say this not because I am NOT patriotic, but because as a patriot I believe what makes our country great is when we live up to a greater moral and ethical standard than “winning makes it right.”
One of the reasons this is true is because it violates what I was preaching about last week: that we are meant to be in community, in relationship, with others, no matter who they are. And those relationships cannot be based on “power over” the other to be moral, ethical or Christian. The spiritual truth here is that we only fully realize our true wholeness – that is our salvation – when we join ourselves to others and join our fate and our fortunes to theirs. When we violate this principle we not only cannot enter or be part of the realm of God, the Kingdom of God, we are in fact, creating hell on earth. My friend Harold says we don’t talk about hell in our churches so people have nothing to fear and no reason to come. Perhaps he is right. Humans have a unique ability to create hell for others and for themselves. And the abuse of power is the greatest cause of it.
This is the paradox of life in Christ. Power is real, and we have power. But the power Christ calls us to use is not the power of the AK47, of war, of depriving people of the economic possibility of the God – given rights to food, shelter, health-care, and freedom from oppression – Jesus chooses the way of the cross. It is the most powerless, painful, and pathetic way. It is the way of scorn, of unimaginable suffering, of assumed sinfulness. Yet it is how Jesus, the Son of God, the Lord of Lords, the Savior of the world chooses to exercise his power. And he calls us again and again to follow his way, not the way of Caesar, Pharoah, Kings, Presidents or Princes.
As much as I believe the adage “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” I also believe we must not deny the power we have. Most of us too easily default to apathy or inaction when we actually have great power to make a difference in the world. All we have to be willing to say is what Jesus’ two friends said, when he asked if they were able to undergo his baptism and take up his cross. They said, “We are able.”
What are we able to do? We are able to serve. We are able to act. We are able to change things to more fully reflect the way God intends the world to be. One of the things we learn in our interfaith ministry for God’s justice is that there are two active kinds of power that change the world. One is “money power.” We all understand that. The other is the power of organized people to push for change that brings greater Godly justice. We organize around Biblical principles to work for Biblical righteousness. We serve others by joining together in relationships to face problems, find answers that are just, equitable, economically better, and proven to improve or solve the problem we are addressing. Together we are able to make changes that impact thousands in the name of God’s justice.
“I am able” are we? What are we able to do? Are we able to serve? Are we able to use our power for the blessing and benefit of others or are we going to claim a false powerlessness that denies our God-given abilities. I believe even those who struggle and suffer and are on the edge can use their power to bless others. This past week I saw an example of this by a young woman in the UK who literally helped save lives by her servant attitude, in spite of her own struggles.
It seems to me she was able to take her suffering and her struggle and show greater concern for others than herself and in so doing probably saved her own life. This is the problem in our current public melodrama where we hear white men whining that they are suffering from discrimination and that it is a dangerous time for them when what they are actually facing is the fair, just, and equalizing of the playing field for all people. And instead of embracing others with compassion and empathy they act as if they are being mistreated because they are losing rights they never should have had. The challenge Jesus Christ puts before us is to say each of us, when he asks are you able to be servant of all, we say, “I am able.”
So the good life, the life that Christ defines as good and calls us to live, is the life of serving others. It is choosing to use our power to bless others, not just ourselves or those just like us. It is the power, when Christ asks, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” we say, “I am able.” Are you? Will you? AMEN.