Monday, November 26, 2012

Clothed in Immense Power

Sermon Text: John 18: 33-38

If you have not yet seen Steven Spielberg’s glorious film Lincoln, get up now and go to the nearest theater. 

Or try to see it soon. That movie has inhabited my soul these last few days and will for days to come.  It is a love poem to America, a prophetic call to be who we can be. The events of those divisive times and the words of that iconic president open up many themes.  But on Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday, a day we might dedicate to contemplating Christ’s power, I can’t help contemplating how Lincoln understood and used power. And I wonder how Lincoln’s power resembles and differs from the power of the Christ—and of ordinary folks like us.

At a pivotal moment in the film and in U.S. history, when hope for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment was waning, Lincoln fiercely wills his supporters to fight on for slavery’s abolition.  He roars with uncharacteristic imperiousness: “I am the president of the United States . . . clothed in immense power!” 

The humble Lincoln we’ve come to love through history books and folklore wore the privileges of his office lightly but wore the power of the presidency as a heavy care. In Spielberg’s current portrayal, the president drinks from a tin cup, eschews fancy gloves for his rough hands, strategizes in a kitchen scullery, kneels on the hearth to build his own fire, and walks a drafty White House draped in a rough blanket.  We’ve always believed his power was not about pomp but about the power of his convictions, though the film shows us clearly how those convictions evolved and then were tempered by necessary compromises. We’ve always appreciated his powers of persuasion with words and wit, and the current movie indeed sends those words soaring and helps us love again the dream that is our country.  We see lawyer Lincoln’s confidence in the power of the U.S. Constitution—as well as his awareness of its potential for competing interpretations and manipulations. We have followed the arc of history that one particular leader set in motion through his intellect and character and sacrificial devotion to saving his riven country and that empowered us to be better, freer citizens of a united nation.  But how did he specifically conceive of his own authority when he thundered that he was “clothed in immense power”?  

Apparently he saw his power as coming from the people.  The movie reminds the audience that the vote on the 13th amendment occurred shortly after Lincoln’s reelection, underscoring the people’s mandate. The people who had invested him with power had then reinvested him with that power.  Mary Todd Lincoln urged her husband not to squander this power on the impossible task of eradicating slavery. “The people love you,” she tells him. “You have great power. Why waste it upon this futile effort?” But that is the very reason Lincoln dared the impossible.  Throughout the film—in brief encounters with a soldier here, a young engineer there—the people’s love and trust and insight clothed Lincoln in immense power that shaped his strategies and confirmed his resolve and made possible a freer nation—of the people, by the people, for the people.

In some sense you and I must agree to grant power to Christ. Christ has only our hands and feet to bring justice and peace to this world. Likewise, the historical Jesus’ authority depended on the people, even in a political setting far different from a modern democracy. Certainly Jesus changed lives with a power that he said came from “the Father who sent me,” but that power had to be transmitted through his followers as he sent them out into the world. Bear in mind that you and I can follow Jesus's powerful way while honoring the spiritual paths that others take toward God.  Sadly, Christian scriptures show people again and again refusing to use their power. 

According to John’s Gospel, in a passage that precedes today’s verses, Pilate at first refused custody of the arrested Jesus, telling the temple authorities it was up to them to convict Jesus.  They, in turn, tossed the case back to Pilate again.  He reluctantly interrogated the prisoner but found no evidence against Jesus (v. 38) so, in the verses following today’s reading, Pilate offered the gathered crowd the option of releasing Jesus.  The people at that moment could have enacted justice. They had the power. But they relinquished it.

Not only did the people fail to recognize their own power.  They—even his closest disciples—also misunderstood the nature of the power Jesus, preacher of peace, exercised.  Because he liberated and healed, exposed injustice and shamed those misusing power, his enemies taunted him with sarcastic title King of the Jews. But Jesus was the un-king, the one whose power was based on compassion, not might. When soldiers had earlier come to arrest Jesus, Peter had drawn his sword, severing the ear of one soldier.  But Jesus repudiated the violence and healed the soldier.  Jesus ruled with creative nonviolence. His power came as the Lord of Love, not a Commander of Armies.

Although the Gospels make this point clear—that Jesus stood beside the lowly, served instead of being served, turned the other cheek, exposed injustice —over the centuries many who claim to follow Jesus have continued to miss this essential point.  In fact, this particular feast day on the Christian calendar challenges each of us to resist the temptation to image Jesus as a king lest we create religious empires out of Jesus’ simple way, support systems of hierarchy instead of joining Jesus’s egalitarian movement, sound a note of triumphalism rather than sing Jesus’s song of peace.  Christian art is stocked with images of Jesus crowned like a European monarch, proof of our tendency to turn Jesus into a totem for our side.  Christian hymnody, too, reveals our eagerness to make Jesus into a crusader or colonialist.

Remember the hymn we sang earlier that described Jesus as one who rules by “keeping company with pain,” by “enduring ridicule,” by “dying”? That hymn rightly describes Christ’s reign within our hearts.[i]

In contrast, hear these words to a well-known hymn written during the colonialism of the early 18th century and still sung by many today.  Notice how Jesus is cast as an emperor exacting tribute from the conquered tribes:

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Does his successive journeys run;
His kingdom spread from shore to shore,
‘Till moons shall wax and wane no more.

From north to south the princes meet
To pay their homage at his feet;
While western empires own their Lord,
And savage tribes attend his word.

People and realms of every tongue
Dwell on his love with sweetest song,
And infant voices shall proclaim
Their early blessings on his name.[ii]

Jesus Christ, King of the Jews, was an ironic title for a man executed by the state.  Jesus as King is utter irony. Irony. Jesus was, in fact, the un-king. “Call me what you will,” Jesus responded when Pilate asked if he were King of the Jews. Jesus had no power to defeat the religious and political systems of his day.  He had only the power to forgive, to care, to die if necessary while indicting the power of violence.

“Are you king of the Jews?” Pilate asked. 

“If you say so,” Jesus answered.

If we say so.  We have the power to declare Jesus to be our leader, our guide, our teacher, our lord.  We have the power to treat one another as equals and thus, by our actions, turn slaves into citizens, even into sisters and brothers.

Pilate had the power to do justice.  But he vacillated. “What is truth?” he asked, as his half-hearted interrogation of Jesus devolved into personal introspection. What is the truest, realest kingdom? he may have wondered.

         Jesus was subverting the notion of empire when he announced the coming of the kingdom of God.  God’s power can never be wielded with sword or scepter, can only be maintained if we have “malice toward none and charity for all.” The Greek words interpreted as “kingdom of God” in the King James Version of the Bible, basileia tou theou, is a phrase better translated as “the reign of God” or “the rule of God” or “God’s domain” or even, more loosely “Love’s reign.”  Jesus was not trying to establish a kingdom. There was no territory to rule or a political movement to lead or a future apocalyptic event to endure.  Instead, the basileia tou theou was an encounter with the transforming presence of God, with a cosmic power greater than even Rome’s empire, a reality in which the first are last and the last are first, a realm in which God’s shalom holds sway, a way to live that Jesus followers could already begin to glimpse and live into in the here and now, not the there and then.[iii]

To enter this experience of God is within our power.  Which means this upside-down kingdom depends on our ability to give up notions about power as domination.  So that we live by love alone.  So that we can be clothed in a more “immense power.”

Even in Lincoln’s mouth, that claim to power sounds more spiritual than imperial. His phrase puts me in mind of the metaphor Paul developed. Writing to the Galatians, he explained, “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal 3:27).  Paul believed those who dedicated themselves to the Way of Jesus were clothed with and sharing in his authority.  We do not need to wear Superhero costumes or stovepipe hats to wield power; instead, we wear the power of compassion within. 

Power hungry though humanity may be, many of us fail to admit our capacity for using our power for God’s purposes. We abdicate our power. We convince ourselves that our voice isn’t needed or our actions won’t count for much.  But the 13th amendment to the US Constitution that ended the scourge of slavery in this country was passed by a margin of only two votes.  Our voice, our actions can be used to usher in not a political theocracy, but a spiritual basileia.

Jesus had no aspirations to rule an empire.  He was pointing us to a way of life in which we are united in God’s love. His way, though peaceful, is powerful. But we can misunderstand Jesus’s power of love and instead fall in love with power.

A more subtle mistake, however, is to fail to use our power.  Like Mary Todd Lincoln, we might fear our power—of influence and ingenuity, of persuasion and sheer presence—will be wasted on a hopeless cause, forgetting we are the very ones needed to bring a just dream to reality.  Or like Pilate, we sometimes wash our hands of messy situations and let someone else figure it out.  Like the fickle crowd gathered before Pilate, we pretend we have no power and miss the chance to defend the very one—the scapegoat, the child, the marginalized group, the endangered piece of our planet—that can in fact be part of our own saving. You and I can tell ourselves that the world’s problems are too complex and someone else has all the power while forgetting that each of us has some role in addressing complex crises.  At home, at church, on the job, in society . . . we forget that we are clothed in immense power.  That is not arrogance. It is challenge. To pretend otherwise only means our true power will dissipate or will be appropriated without our consent. 

We are “clothed in immense power,” bound together as we are in a spiritual enterprise of love and care. We, across all national borders, are united, indivisible, under God.

Hear as a prayer the closing and deeply empowering words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, spoken one month before the Civil War—and his own life—ended:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

May it be so, O God. Amen

[i] “Eternal Christ, You Rule” in the New Century Hymnal.  Hymnwriter Dan Damon credits a sermon by UCC minister Ansley Coe Throckmorton as inspiration for this text.  To the question, “How does Christ rule?” Throckmorton replied, “By keeping company with pain.”  Note also how the New Century Hymnal alters another hymn traditionally sung on Christ the King Sunday.  In “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” we do not “crown Him Lord of All” but “crown Christ servant of all.”
[ii] “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun” in the Baptist Hymnal (1975 edition). Words: Isaac Watts, 1719.  (verses 1, 2, 4).
[iii] Jenks, Gregory C.  The Once and Future Bible: An Introduction to the Bible for Religious Progressives.  Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011 (147-149).

Monday, November 19, 2012


Texts: 1 Samuel 2: 1-4; Mark 13: 1-8

Hubble captures the birthpangs of an enormous new star


On third Sundays I offer commentary on the scriptures
 and a guided meditation instead of a sermon.  Yesterday's meditation led to thoughtful sharing by the congregation.  We celebrated, for instance, recent progress states have made toward marriage equality.
COMMENTARY on 1 Samuel 2: 1-4
Today’s stories are about birth pangs.  The Hebrew Bible reading points back to a story that is mainly about birth pangs that did NOT happen, not for a long time.  The book of Samuel opens with the plight of poor Hannah, the better loved of Elkanah’s two wives but the wife who had mothered no children.  Perhaps more charming or more dutiful, more tender or beautiful or wise, Elkanah’s favorite wife had nevertheless failed to produce a child. Elkanah did not seem to hold Hannah’s barrenness against her.  But apparently her desperate dream of a child made him feel peripheral.  “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” he wanted to know.  Apparently not.  To make Hannah’s life more miserable, as Elkanah sulked, Hannah’s fertile sisterwife taunted her.  

So Hannah stopped eating.  She wept bitterly.  Each year Hannah made proper sacrifices at the Temple and prayed and prayed and prayed for a son.  She even promised God she would dedicate a future son to the service of God.  One day, Eli, the Temple priest, assured her that God would give her a baby.  As soon as the child was born and the birth pangs ended, Hannah named the boy Samuel, which may mean something like “God listens.”  And as soon as the child was weaned, Hannah made good on her pledge and took the boy to the Temple and left him there, to be trained by Eli the priest in the service of God. Late Samuel became the great judge, prophet, leader of Israel.

This story troubles me.  How unfair to long for something desperately—only to have to give it away upon receiving it.  How unfair if life has only brief periods of fulfillment in between the longing for something and the losing of it. 

I want to ask Hannah, mother to mother: “Was it worth it, Hannah?  Was it worth it to give your whole heart to that child whom you held so briefly? Was it worth the tortuous years of waiting, the dangerous months of pregnancy, the agonizing hours of labor pangs—only to deliver that child to the Lord’s priest as soon as little Samuel was weaned?  How could you bear to do that, Hannah?  Did your God really agree to that kind of deal with you?  Or did you create in your mind that kind of God?”

Of course, I realize all parents have to do what Hannah had to do: acknowledge that our children are really NOT our own.  The parent’s role is to love in such a freeing way that separation can eventually happen.  Strangely, in a story that emphasizes Hannah’s distress at her barrenness, there is no reportage of any sorrow she felt for being parted so soon from her son. Maybe that’s owing to a patriarchal bias of those writing this story.  At any rate, after giving Samuel to Eli’s care, we hear the song of Hannah praising the God who heard her prayer. “My heart exults in the Lord,” she sang somehow.

Life is full of longing, loving, and then turning loose. Any deep relationship has developed through losses, by which I mean through changes in the relationship.  We have to give up some things we want if a relationship is to grow.  We must shed some superficial roles in order to take on deeper ones.

I invite you to think about a strong, enduring relationship in your life: a relationship you have with a parent, perhaps, or sibling, or partner, or close friend.  This is a complex relationship that has changed and deepened over the years.


Consider to what extent, over the years, some aspect of that relationship had to be discarded.  Maybe you used to do something together that you no longer do.   To offer a simple example, maybe you used to read bedtime stories to your child, and that part of your relationship is over.   Any mature relationship has undergone change, has required you to let go of some earlier ways of relating, to change some pattern of communicating, for instance, to do things differently and feel about one another differently.  How has the loss of an old way of relating given way to some different and possibly deeper way of being in relationship? 


Thank God for the way that you’ve been able to turn loose of the old in order to be open to something new and perhaps deeper.  


Consider now how your relationship to God has perhaps involved periods of longing—and periods of loss. Perhaps you used to experience God in a way that you do not today.  Maybe you had to give up some earlier conception of God. That may have felt like a loss at the time. But has that loss enabled you to find some new depth in that relationship?  Why or why not?


Let me guide you through this body prayer to express what words cannot.  
1.     Stretch out your arms in front of you, like a child reaching out to be picked up and taken into a parent’s arms. Take a moment to long for God, to yearn for a sense of God’s presence.  Don’t try to decide if you are experiencing God in this moment.  Just let yourself desire God’s presence.  Long for God. 
2.     Place your hands on your heart.  Silently let this simple gesture express love for God.  Maybe there is no real emotion in this moment.  But this gesture might express a prayer to love God more deeply. 
3.     Finally, extend your arms with hands held as if you are holding something in them. Let your hands appear to drop something from them.  If you dare, pray that you might turn loose of the parts of God that may have served a younger you but no longer do.  Give up the false God to keep the true God. Give up aspects you have attributed to God that are keeping you from growing.  Thank God there are great depths to plumb in this relationship with the Ultimate One.  

COMMENTARY on Mark 13: 1-8

The Gospel reading is about a figurative birthpang.

Jesus and his disciples had arrived in Jerusalem and had visited the Temple.  Unlike Hannah, who intentionally journeyed to the Temple to leave her son as a living sacrifice to God, the clueless disciples had traveled to the Temple unaware that Jesus would soon make of himself a sacrifice.  Instead of intuiting the loss they’d soon experience and the change that is always a part of transforming lives and systems, the disciples remarked instead on the seemingly permanent foundation stones of the Temple.  How solid those enormous stones must have seemed.  How reassuring, in periods of change, are the old structures and institutions.  Yet Mark’s first readers were probably hearing these words just after the Temple had been destroyed.

This story told Mark’s first readers that Jesus’s prophecy came true.  And I hear Jesus saying today what he said then: All that you assume is permanent can topple.  Your economic, political, social, or religious systems are changing drastically.  You see these great institutions you take for granted?  They will soon be gone.  You see that cliff?  You may be driving off it.  “Not one stone will be left upon another.”

Mark’s Jesus, who has been critiquing the religious and political powers of the day, reminds us that the old has to be cleared away before the new can move in.  “Do not be alarmed,” Jesus told Peter, James, John, and Andrew.  “This seems like the end of something; it’s the beginning.”

In this post-election season, many perceive increasingly obvious shifts in the foundations of our community and country and culture.  Which frightens many people.  They see old ways and values dying.  Some want to secede from the union to avoid coming changes!  Some think a return to a romanticized mythic era is possible.

One major announcement this past week might have spelled “apocalypse” for some folks.  You heard this very week the news reports of the latest sign of the end of life as we know it.  You know the latest portent of the last days:  Hostess, the snack maker, that purveyor of sugar and artificial preservatives and early onset diabetes, is going out of business.  Twinkies will be no more.  The end is surely near.

Or maybe our world will survive, might even have a better chance to thrive, without Ho Hos and Ding Dongs.

Mark’s Gospel recognizes these pains for what they are:  birthpangs.  Not death throes.  Birthpangs are the beginning of life, newness.   

What mother would say that her baby was not worth the pain of childbirth? Certainly not every change is life giving.  Not every ending leads to a better tomorrow.  But much of the pain and change we fear has potential to help us mature, evolve, grow, give birth to something new and good. 

The chorus of Kate Campbell’s song “Crazy in Alabama” recalls a time when folks in our racially segregated state thought the world was going to end.  Today we thank God for those changes.  Kate Campbell recalls it this way:

And the train of change
Was coming fast to my hometown
We had the choice to climb on board
Or get run down

It was crazy there were grown men fights
Over segregation and civil rights
Martin Luther King and the KKK
George C. Wallace and LBJ
And when the National Guard came in
I thought the world was gonna end
It was crazy in Alabama.

Those were birthpangs, right here in Alabama.  Our parents “thought the world was gonna end.” But what had to end was segregation and inequality. 

Consider some irreversible changes taking place in our culture today: economic change, political, social.  Something decisively different is emerging—economically, politically socially, culturally.  How do YOU feel about this change?   How do your friends and family feel about this change?  If you have some fear about this change, can you find some reason for hope?


Think now about the shift in our religious life. The stones upon which Western Christianity was built are crumbling.  Which is not to say Christianity is dying.  But a tectonic shift is happening in our religious landscape.  How would you describe the changes happening in Christianity today?  How do you feel about these changes?  How do others feel?  Where is God in this time of upheaval?  Where is hope?


Monday, November 12, 2012

Hats for Homeless, Hats off to Those who Serve

At Open Table yesterday we celebrated the work of dozens of volunteers who, over many months, knitted hats for men and women in our area who are without homes.  This project was begun and organized and loved along by our own Linda Taylor and her sister, the late Rennie Taylor.  It was an emotional day for us all.  We blessed those hats (and those who made them and those who will receive them) before giving them to Lyn Walters, Executive Director of 15 Place in Mobile, who will be distributing them among the guests served by 15 Place (  Open Table also made a monetary contribution to 15 Place. Lyn Walters then shared a moving sermon with stories of the women and men who receive meals, yes, but also counseling (psychological counseling, career counseling, etc.) and hot showers and respect and help through the bureaucracy of systems.

The date of this celebration was chosen long before we realized it was Veterans' Day, but since a great percentage of Mobile's (and America's) homeless men and women are veterans, the timing was particularly fitting and poignant.  What a scandal that we as a nation have trained and sent forth soldiers to fight but have not adequately supported them in the recovery from physical and psychological wounds. 

Rather than sharing a sermon today, I'll share a song we sang in yesterday's service, a song from the inimitable Kate Campbell, who will be bringing a FREE social-justice themed concert to Mobile  on April 11, 2013, and sponsored by The Quest for Social Justice. (

This ballad shows us two faces of the homeless: a veteran (pictured as a young soldier who actually may or may not have lived to become a veteran) and a mentally ill woman on the street.  Notice that the chorus shifts from a description ("Peace comes stealing slow) to a final plea and prayer ("Peace, come stealing slow). 

peace comes stealing slow  (lyrics are from Kate's website:


Let me close by inviting nearby folks to attend Open Table's one-day retreat this Saturday.  We're extending the registration deadline.  See details below.  Email me if you want to attend:

Open Table: A Community of Faith (United Church of Christ) is holding a spiritual retreat―Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: An Embodied Prayer Retreat―from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., November 17, at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, in Mobile. Amy Bradley, leader of embodied prayer classes at Church of the Redeemer, will facilitate the retreat.

Men and women participating in the retreat will experience how involving the body in the act of prayer can deepen our connection to the Divine within ourselves, one another, and the world around us. They will explore the ways in which traditional prayer postures, mindful breathing, and gentle movement sequences can enrich our understanding of familiar prayers and scriptures, while also giving us a means of expressing our deepest yearnings and joys when words seem to fall short.

By joining body, mind, and spirit in the act of prayer, we will gain a fresh perspective on what it means to be the body of Christ. The retreat will close with Holy Communion, the quintessentially Christian means of embodied communion with the Sacred. 

All prayer exercises can be modified to suit individual needs and abilities.  All are welcome.