In Awe of Power

A sermon preached by the Rev. Christopher L. Webber at St Paul’s  Church Bantam Connecticut on June 24, 2012.


Today’s readings from the Old Testament and Gospel  have one key word in common: awe.  Saul “stood in awe” of David because he saw his success in battle and “all his undertakings”for “the Lord was with him.”The disciples were “filled with awe”and asked each other“who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?”

Each inspired awe, a sense of something beyond the ordinary.  And each of them, David and Jesus, was beyond the ordinary.  But the whole story of David is a tragedy in the Shakespearean sense: a man of enormous ability who is destroyed by his ability  .

I don’t think we ever really understood David until we got to know Bill Clinton, a man beyond the ordinary in intelligence and ability and leadership skills but without control of himself. People loved David and David loved people but there was no discipline, no self-control. He loved his  children and gave them everything they wanted, hadn’t the heart to say No. And Absalom conspired against his own father until he forced him to say No – and even then his grief was uncontrolled  .Jesus could not be more different: unlimited love, yes, and ability to inspire love and devotion, but not by command and control, rather by an inner peace.

David was unable to control the storms of emotion, inner peace escaped him entirely.  What he controlled was military power: warrior, guerilla leader, commander of armies, king. Jesus had none of that, but he was at peace with himself and therefore fearless and therefore human strength had no power over him: arrested, condemned, crucified, buried, he rose from death, unconquered

.Now there are lessons here for each of us and for our society.  Almost every day, it seems, we hear of further death in the middle east: a suicide bomber strikes in a bus or a shopping center or street corner. The bomber is killed and others as well.  Then we retaliate with sophisticated, modern weapons that may kill another Al Qaeda leader and may not but make no difference in the equation.  Leaders are replaced, the violence goes on, and nothing is settled.

The people who looked for the Son of David looked for a leader of armies but Israel has marvelous leaders of armies, as do we, with all the advantages of modern technology. We can see in the dark and guide missiles around corners, but every American soldier in Afghanistan is at risk every moment nonetheless because neither arrows nor missiles change any minds.

There’s another way laid out in the other reading this morning, a part of a letter Paul wrote to Christians in a Greek city called Corinth.  Paul had no missiles and no technology more sophisticated than a quill pen.  But he made an impact more lasting than David’s.  David’s empire stretched from the Nile to the Euphrates but lasted only a few years after his death and then was divided and overrun until all that remains is a tiny sliver of land wedged between hostile powers.  Paul, on the other hand, was a principal builder of the Christian church that has no armies or missiles but includes today the largest part of the world’s population and exists on every continent and in every country.

And what was Paul’s method? He learned it from Jesus because he himself had begun by trying to destroy the church by the age-old methods of arrest and imprisonment and armed power.  But what does Paul tell the Corinthians?  He tells them he has commended himself to them by endurance, beatings, labors, purity and patience, kindness and truthful speech, but above all “with the power of God” and “the weapons of righteousness.

It’s a whole new approach to life, and it works.  It’s worth remembering as we come towards the 4th of July that the founders of this country out of practical experience and a long history of Christian teaching had a profound distrust for human power.  Unlike the people of Jerusalem they were not looking for a second David or Barack Obama or Mitt Romney either.  They set out to construct a government in which no one individual would ever wield the kind of power that can send armies into battle and unleash the spiral of violence that is so much of the human story.  They balanced an executive and legislative and judicial branch in which – we all learned this in school – each branch of government is checked and balanced by two other branches.  People will argue, of course, that modern conditions make it impossible for executives to consult with Congress before sending armies into battle and maybe so; but if so, we need more than ever executives who are self-disciplined and whose overriding concern is patience and kindness and endurance and the weapons of righteousness which are never technological,

I think it never occurred to those who drafted the Constitution that there would be political parties capable of taking control of all three branches of government and using them to carry out a program.  They envisioned individuals rising to those positions by merit, not money, and with the self-discipline and integrity to do what they thought was best for the country regardless of money and influence.  This may be a tangent, but I think it’s worth pondering as we approach the 4th of July and as our politicians demand more and more attention for an election still months  away.  But it all begins with us, with individuals who have learned the lesson the Bible teaches.

The Bible, it’s worth saying it again and again, is a history book and those who don’t know their history are condemned to repeat it.  That’s been said again and again, and it needs to be. The Bible is a history book.  This Pentecost season we will be working our way through the so-called “history books” of the Bible, Samuel and Kings, the stories of David and Solomon, the days of empire, of human greatness, and, oh, are there lessons to be learned!  And not just lessons for politicians but for us who choose the politicians and, as well, for us as individuals in our ordinary lives – families, business, whatever we do.  Every one of us is constantly tempted to use power to get our way. None of us is as charming as David; none of us has that kind of power.  But we have other kinds, all kinds of ways of getting our way and all of them rebound, they don’t last, and for all of them there’s a price to pay inevitably, in the long run, of anger and alienation and personal loss. Some are willing to pay the price.  There’s no lack of candidates willing to do whatever it takes to gain the illusion of power but isn’t it still true that the greatest of our presidents, Abraham Lincoln, was also the humblest, and the one who saw himself most clearly, and isn’t it true that no one has ever left the mark on humanity that Jesus did and that the symbol of Christianity is not a crown but a cross?

Paul sums it up in today’s reading from that letter to the young church in Corinth.  He’s using his own experience as an example, reminding them of the weapons he used to win his war: through hardship and affliction, as dying, and yet being alive, as poor, et enriching others, as having nothing, yet owning everything.

Jesus slept in the back of the boat, calm, confident, at peace, acting only to calm the fears of others, knowing that all things are in God’s hands and that far more is accomplished by opening our hearts to that power than by any attempt to impose our will and our control.  Can we, before it’s too late, learn that lesson and let others see God’s power at work in us in our confident peaceful trust in God alone?

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