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Power Doesn’t Bring Victory (June 25, 2017)

Matthew 10:24-39

“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25 it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! 26 “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32 “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. 34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

I was one of those kids who got bullied a lot in elementary and middle school. I was the shy, passive, skinny, band geek who wore big glasses and got good grades and wasn’t good in sports. In those days, that was a perfect recipe for being picked on. I believed, at the time, that I had two choices: either fight back, fighting power with more power, or run away, avoiding the power altogether. I rarely did the first, and became very good at the second.

Jesus is talking to me in this text. Because both of my choices in response to the power of bullies were responses to their power. Either I got more power (learn how to beat them up) or be frightened by their power (run away). But what Jesus is actually saying here is that power isn’t relevant. In the kingdom of heaven, power doesn’t bring victory. Only love and compassion do.

He’s been pretty clear with his disciples up until now. You have the authority, he says as he’s sending them out, to love with God’s love and to show God’s compassion to those you meet. Start with your neighbors, and show them what the kingdom of heaven looks like. It looks like healing, like kindness, like removing obstacles in their lives, like lifting them up. You have the authority to do that. So go do it.

He continues today by recognizing that showing the compassion of God in the face of those who use power has consequences. Don’t worry about that, he says. When you follow me, you love your enemies and you show compassion to those around you. This won’t be easy. Those who use power to win may not respond well. Follow me in love anyway. Some may turn against you. Even if they’re in your own family. Follow me to show compassion anyway. In the kingdom of heaven, power doesn’t bring victory. Only love and compassion do.

You don’t have to be afraid of those who use power, he says. They cannot affect your soul, he says. You don’t have to be afraid, because God, who knows every sparrow that falls, loves you. God knows how many hairs are on your head, and says you are valuable to God. So it’s God you pay attention to. It’s God’s kingdom you reveal in the world. Because God, who created the heavens and the earth, is with you and loves you and knows how valuable you actually are. So we don’t have to be afraid of those who use power to win. Because their power doesn’t matter to God. In the kingdom of heaven, power doesn’t bring victory. Only love and compassion do.

We may understand that, but it doesn’t make it easy. And, if we’re honest, I think most of us would admit that following Jesus in into the pits of power armed only with love is not the kind of Christianity we signed up for. Very few of us are Jesus “activists,” marching in Jesus rallies and risking alienation from our loved ones for Jesus’ sake.

This discipleship work is hard stuff, and we can’t afford to start kicking ourselves if we don’t measure up to some arbitrary (and false!) standard we’ve created in our heads. Instead of running away in fear because those who use power might use it against us, we need to lift each other up, and encourage each other, because there will be another opportunity to show compassion. And another one after that. And then another. We aren’t going to follow Jesus to stand with every person in every situation where compassion is called for, but we can follow him into some of them, even though we’ll miss the mark in others.

Rather than feeling bad about the ones we miss, or defending ourselves when we miss them, we need to encourage each other for the next opportunity. Instead of fighting those who use power with more power, we need to remind each other what love looks like. As we do that, the ways in which we follow Jesus become clearer. We can see more opportunities to follow Jesus in love and compassion, and we venture a little further than we did the last time we tried.

What this looks like for me is that I’ve become more vocal about the racism in our culture. Sometimes I can bring compassion into the midst of racists without fighting to win a racist argument. I’m clearer about calling out my own white privilege. I’m more bold in being an outspoken advocate for the LGTBQ community. And I’ve appreciated the support when I am “unfriended” on social media or hear disparaging remarks as a result. I’ve needed the forgiveness offered when I haven’t stood up with love for those who need a voice and a friend. As a result, I’m more likely to follow Jesus further the next time.

Following Jesus isn’t about winning, or being right, defeating those in power, or even using power for good things. It’s about being Christ’s love and Christ’s compassion in the face of those who use power to win. Following Jesus makes for very bad politics but very good discipleship. Because it is love and compassion. In fact, following Jesus, cross and all, is the only way to reveal to the world what the kingdom of heaven looks like. Jesus is pretty clear with us. We have the authority, he says, to love with God’s love and to show God’s compassion to those we meet. No matter the consequences. In the kingdom of heaven, power doesn’t bring victory. Only love and compassion do.

 
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Posted by on June 26, 2017 in Sermon

 

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A Tale of Two Visions (Palm Sunday) March 13, 2016

Luke 19:29-40

When [Jesus] had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”34They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

One of the hardest things about this Palm Sunday is the contrast between Jesus and Pilate.

1 - Copy Slide 1  Because it’s more than that. It’s a contrast between God’s vision for the world and our vision for the world. Palm Sunday reveals the difference—the gap—that still exists between God’s ways and our ways.

Look at Pilate’s arrival in Jerusalem next to Jesus’. Both have to do with the entrance of a king/power, yet drastically different.

Pilate comes on horseback, in strength, in a mighty parade, surrounded by glamour and armor and legions of Roman troops.

Jesus comes on a colt, in simplicity, surrounded by the poor and the sinners in Jerusalem.

These are not just differences in parade planning. They reveal a deep, core perspective on the way we live, on what it is we truly trust.

We say we believe that Jesus reveals God’s ways, which the Bible refers to as the kingdom of God, right? So what does this contrast on Palm Sunday say about this?2 - Copy

Slide 2 In real life, who would we rather trust, someone armed with incredible strength and power, who (we hope) wields it for good, or someone armed with humility, who’s biggest weapon is a command to love one another?

You see? This day is more than waving palm branches and calling Jesus a king. Palm Sunday goes way deeper than that. Palm Sunday exposes the reality of God’s reign, right here among us, that we have a hard time with.

When you look at 3 - CopyJesus’ message and life and teachings as a whole, it becomes clear that God’s ways still aren’t our ways all the time. We have difficulty with God’s ways because they contrast with some aspects of our preferred culture and lifestyle. For instance:

Slide 3 Which way would we rather live? And yet, Jesus continuously tells us to quit worrying about what we have or don’t have. But it’s hard to trust God’s ways, isn’t it?

Slide 4 Sometimes we eve4 - Copyn try to make our priorities look like God’s priorities. But on Palm Sunday Jesus makes it pretty clear that we’re fooling ourselves. Jesus exposes the difference between the way God actually works and the way we wish God worked. God’s ways are the ways of generosity.

But more than philosophical differences, Jesus calls us to actually follow him. He says that his ways are the ways of truth and life. If Jesus is about God’s reign, and we are disciples of Jesus, then our lives are called to reflect God’s ways in the world. Easier said than done.

Slide 5  God’s ways are the w5 - Copyays of humility, of lifting up the other person. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem reveals God’s vision that has no room for revenge.

6 - CopySlide 6  Following Jesus means we seek to care for others more than we seek to control our lives and our future and our surroundings.

 

Slide 77 - Copy  Jesus reveals that the way of God is the way of reconciliation. There is no room in God’s vision for aggression and violence.8 - Copy

Slide 8  As disciples of Jesus we follow him into the ways of peace, trusting Jesus when he says “Blessed are the peacemakers.” We work with him in moving toward a future when the wolf and the lamb lie down together. This isn’t easy, nor is it simple. Sometimes we are left with only bad options. And we have to choose the least bad one.

 

Slide 9 The way Jesus chooses to enter Jerusalem reveals that God’s ways are found in meekness rather than might. We stand with those who are pushed aside rather than seek 9our own advantage.

Slide 10 As disciples we do this not because we understand it or even think it’s better. Rather, we are aligned with Jesus in God’s ways because Jesus reveals that God’s ways really do lead to life.

10As we grow in our realization that God’s vision for creation is our call, our identity, our core as people created in God’s image, we contribute to life in the world. To do anything else, no matter how much sense the world around us says it makes, does not reveal God. It does not show love to the world. It does not move us forward in the ways of God. God’s ways, revealed in Jesus this Palm Sunday, reveal God.

God’s love, revealed by Jesus, reveals God.

God’s vision, revealed by Jesus, reveals God.

God’s life, revealed in Jesus, reveals God.

And we, who are surrounded by, immersed in, and filled up with the love and grace of God revealed through Jesus, are even now being changed by it. And today, on Palm Sunday, we have the chance to see our life in Christ even more clearly. To follow him more closely. To reveal the ways of God more fully.

Happy Palm Sunday.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2016 in Sermon

 

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Where is God? Last, Least, Servant, Slave (Mark 10:35-45)

If you’ve been here any Sunday during any of the last several weeks, you’ve heard this theme in Mark repeatedly: the greatest are servants, the last are first, whoever wishes to be first of all must be slave of all.

Everytime Jesus tells them this, the disciples never get it. This time James and John are wanting glory for themselves. And when the others hear about it they’re angry because they didn’t think of it first.

Why is it in Mark’s gospel, Jesus gives us this same emphasis over and over? Welcome the kingdom like a little child instead of a powerful person. Give all your money to the poor and then you’ll have treasure in heaven. If you want to save your life lose it. If you want to be first, then be last. If you want to be the greatest, be the servant.

Last, least, servant, slave. Over and over, Jesus, we get it! We’ll take serving others more seriously! We won’t seek our own glory! We won’t abuse power over others! We’ll be humble and meek and generous and helpful to everyone!

Sort of.

What we mean is that we’ll serve others when we have time to do it. We’ll put others ahead of ourselves until they start getting credit for our work. We’ll be generous with all of our extra money and time. We won’t seek glory for ourselves unless someone else starts getting recognized. We’ll consider ourselves last until others start thinking we actually are last.

Let’s be honest, it seems that what Jesus is proposing–over and over and over–doesn’t really work in our world. You start putting everyone else ahead of you and pretty soon everyone else is ahead of you.

You start being the servant of all and it isn’t too long before all people start thinking of you that way.

You keep being last and soon you are last.

If you don’t shine at least a small spotlight on yourself and tout your own abilities somehow, who will ever notice your abilities? Then, even when you have gifts to offer no one will take them seriously because you won’t be seen as credible. Your strengths won’t be recognized after a while. If you do a good job of being last of all and servant of all and least of all, that’s exactly where you end up.

We get what Jesus is saying, and we try to live it, I think. Up to a point. Is that enough? Is that what Jesus really wants from us? Just do what he commands–to a point? Just follow him–partway?

Our Estmate of Giving cards for 2016 are coming in today. We’ll give generously–kind of.

How do we reconcile these constant demands of Jesus to be last and least and servant and slave with the reality of how our world actually works?

At some point, don’t we have to recognize what we’re good at–maybe even great at—and call attention to that aspect of ourselve in order to be seen as having something worth offering? In order to contribute with our gifts?

Jesus seems pretty clear, over and over. I’m not as clear as to how that works out. But here’s how I’m wrestling with it–at least today.

I believe Jesus means what he’s saying here. As his disciples, we are to be least, last, servant, slave. We know he means it, because he does it himself. From birth through life and even into death, Jesus is last, least, servant, and slave. Doing this may mean we don’t get ahead at work. We may not maximize our earning potential. It might result in those who glorify themselves not taking us seriously. It’s humbling, even humiliating at times.

But what happens when we are last, least, servant, and slave is that we look at people differently. We connect to them differently. Or relationship with them changes. We notice what’s going on in their lives. We recognize needs we never would have noticed before. The whole barometer of measuring success is dramatically different.

One by one, little by little, we affect people’s lives in ways we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. We may not even notice, they may not either. What happens when we are last, least, servant, and slave is that we embody the compassion of Jesus. We become Christ in the world. We change the world in God’s image from the bottom up rather than contribute more of what the world already knows, from the top down.

I’m beginning to think that the only way to save the world is from the bottom up, not the top down. We reveal Jesus more significantly from below, not from above. We affect people’s lives in more important ways as the least rather than as the best.

Most people around us, even many in the church, will disagree. Because the prevailing understanding is that power changes the world, not slavery. Jesus challenges that. And then calls us to join him at the bottom. Last, least, servant, slave. That’s how the world is saved. That’s where we’re called to be. That’s where we join Jesus.

 
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Posted by on October 19, 2015 in Sermon

 

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Faith: When We Actually Need God (2 Corinthians 12:2-10)

 

One of the problems in this Corinthian congregation is that some of the people there are lifting themselves up as super-pastors who have all credentials and are super spiritual. They assert that their list of credentials make them trustworthy–superior to Paul.

Yet Paul has credentials of his own: a vision of Paradise, the third heaven; hearing and seeing things he can never speak of. If they want to get into a spiritual credentials battle, Paul can certainly compete. Since he is claiming to be an Apostle, shouldn’t his credentials be better than his opposition?

Paul writes of this vision, but says that as amazing as it was 14 years ago, that’s not what gives him credibility. What matters isn’t how many visions he’s had or how spiritual they’ve been; what matters is he sees God at work most clearly through his weaknesses—the things he can’t do.

“I will not boast, except of my weakness,” he writes. “Power is made perfect in weakness.” “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses.” “I am content with weaknesses.” “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

Where does he get this stuff? Try going into a job interview and boasting about your weaknesses. See if you get called back. It’s one thing to acknowledge your weaknesses, to try to improve them. But to boast about them? To point them out publicly, putting them in the spotlight and saying, “take a look. This is what I’m proud of!”? Really? In a congregation where his authority is already questioned, how can he think this is a viable strategy?

Because weak is a good description of Jesus. Jesus was arrested without a struggle, wore a crown of thorns without a complaint, was crucified without one protest of his innocence. Jesus is the poster child for what we would call being weak.

A Jesus who is strong or powerful would be more like the movies: beating up everyone who comes to arrest him, spitting in the face of anyone who mocks him, and never allowing himself to be killed. A powerful Jesus would find a way out of that crucifixion situation. Look out, Roman oppressors. Look out, Pontius Pilate. Super Jesus is fighting back with the power of Almighty God! That’s the Jesus we want, but it isn’t reality.

No. Power isn’t the way of Christ. Therefore, power isn’t the way of God. Those things that we consider weak and frail are actually God’s ways. Unconditional love, mercy, forgiveness. Those are God’s strengths. Paul reminds us that these weak ways of Christ are more powerful than anything we would consider strengths.

So Paul boasts of his weaknesses. Not to give himself credibility, but to recognize Go at work. If the gospel is proclaimed through Paul’s credentials, Paul gets credit and Christ is ignored. But if the gospel of life is revealed in ways that Paul can’t take credit for, then it is the power of Christ that is known; the power of forgiveness, of love, of grace. God’s strengths.

Let’s make this personal. In my work I am often required to submit a brief biography.  I say something like, “The Rev. Dr. (gotta include the “Dr.”) Robert Moss, serving as Senior Pastor of a very innovative congregation in the ELCA, has previously served the ELCA as the Interim Director for Evangelical Mission for the Rocky Mountain Synod. He is a published author (they love that) and serves on the Rocky Mountain Synod’s Mission Strategy Table. He has had 20 consecutive years of congregational growth in members and finances, including eight consecutive years of double-digit percentage growth in his current congregation.” That kind of stuff. Credentials? I’ve got them.

Paul would say, “So what? That’s all about you. Christ isn’t revealed in any of that. There’s no love shown, no forgiveness there, no compassion.” The credentials are about me, not about Christ and the mission of God.

So Paul would have me write a new bio that would say something like, “Rob Moss is an aging, balding, nearsighted, hard-of-hearing person who deals with depression and self-doubt. He shares responsibility for a nine year numerical decline in the congregation he serves. Very introverted, Rob sometimes finds it hard to connect with people, and too often keeps to himself. Oh, and he doesn’t exercise enough.”

If, like Paul, I were to appeal to the Lord about these weaknesses, that I could be stronger, God would say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Trusting God means that where we are weak and cannot accomplish God’s mission, we believe that God can. It isn’t about our power, our credentials, or our personal strengths. It is about God’s love that has no strings attached, about reconciliation, about mercy, about forgiving those who hurt us. And when our credentials don’t include these things, we have faith in the power of Christ to do them anyway. Life is found not in our strength and our power, but in God’s love and mercy. Even if that is seen as weakness.

On this 4th of July weekend, we recognize the strengths of this country. The power we have in the world. The might of our military. The freedoms we have procured. And we celebrate all that, with good reason. We rejoice in that and are thankful every day for that.

But I wonder if our emphasis on national power and strength prevents us from recognizing God’s real power of forgiveness, of loving our enemies, of doing good to those who hurt us. I wonder on this weekend when we say “God bless America,” if that’s really what we mean. Are we asking God to affirm our power, or are we asking God for the real power of unconditional love and forgiveness?

“So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, . . . for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

 
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Posted by on July 8, 2015 in Sermon

 

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