Sermon October 20 – Luke 18:1-8, Why Jesus Matters: Power Rev. Betsy Hogan
Have you ever sort of enjoyed something for all the wrong reasons?
It was an enormous relief, for me and everyone else in Halifax, when it was confirmed that the crane that crashed down on South Park Street during Hurricane Dorian in September hadn’t either hurt or killed anyone in its falling.
Not just because no one was hurt or killed – though obviously that was everyone’s primary concern – but also because it meant that the VIDEO of it crashing down could be watched without its being an actual record of horror.
Because the process of that crane falling, captured on that video, was really quite beautiful. It was almost balletic, like it had been planned. As an art installation. Wrapping itself gracefully around the building like a vine or ribbon, and absolutely breath-taking – though only because no one had been hurt.
All these weeks later, of course, there’s nothing left to enjoy about it. The people and businesses that had to be evacuated have suffered immensely in the meantime and will still be feeling repercussions far into the future.
But I am fully ready to confess that every day for the past week after week after week that that crane was ridiculously ludicrously unacceptably not being removed in a swift and timely fashion as it absolutely should have been, state of emergency and all – I am fully ready to confess as the minister of the church that lives in this building, off of which things fall with alarming regularity, that a tiny little piece of me has enjoyed the Crane Debacle making it clear to all and sundry…
…how frustratingly infuriatingly SLOWLY these building-fixing-checking-repairing ‘things’ happen, here. That it’s not just us. That it’s not that we’re not doing it right. That this slowness is actually a thing.
I’m not saying that feeling a teensy bit vindicated by this is admirable or attractive in any way, just that it’s a little bit real. Though I’d trade it in a second for those people and businesses not to still be dealing with the mess it’s left behind.
It is awful to feel powerless. Like there's nothing you can do to make something happen, to make something move, to make something change. For humans, I think it’s honestly our worst thing, whether in relation to great and mighty systems or the incremental losses, say, of illness or aging. Our instinct, always, is to grasp for some measure of control. To assert, however we can, that we actually possess some measure of power, jurisdiction, agency, over whatever’s going on.
And if part of that is physiological – inherent in how we’re created as human beings – part of it, I think, is also learned. Because there ARE cultures and societies and faith expressions that have actually developed quite specifically and intentionally away from this notion of that we have control. That emphasize instead living not just as though we don’t but also that we can’t. The Eastern religions and worldviews of Buddhism and Taoism, for example, lean with intent into the idea of just ‘riding the wave’. Recognizing, acknowledging, owning human powerlessness in relation to fate or the universe or the grand scheme of things, and so just ‘riding that wave’ of up and down as best we can. There being no alternative.
And there’s some value in that. Because if instead we locate ourselves in a camp completely opposite to that, in which control is ALWAYS somehow possible, then crashing into any situation in which we figure out it isn’t is a recipe for either incoherent fury… or despair.
Wisdom, of course, is finding the sweet spot of balance. In which we know how to recognize when there IS something we can do – some active exercise of power we can undertake to gain control -- but ALSO learn how to recognize when that ‘something we can do’ is actually just nothing. And so the “power” that we have is on purpose “choosing” to do that nothing. And instead just… let it be, let it go, ride the wave.
In the parable that Jesus tells his disciples, in this passage that Brenda read for us earlier, the judge who neither fears God nor respects people absolutely wishes that the seriously annoying widow who keeps turning up in his courtroom yowling about how she wants justice would decide instead to just “let it go”.
He could hardly have made this more clear to her, in tossing her out of his courtroom over and over and over again, but she just will not take the hint. Or, in fact, the actually quite loud and clear message and not a ‘hint’ at all, that he literally does not care about what she’s asking for because he literally does not care about her. At all. And really he just wishes she’d go away.
Which of course she won’t. Because she knows that God is a God of justice, even if this judge is clearly not a judge-of-justice, and so she knows that eventually… somehow… either with this judge or without him… justice will be achieved. Because God is a God of justice.
And she’s right. Eventually she does get justice, this widow. And in fact it’s WITH this judge. Who changes. Though this is one place where the fact that our Bible is a translation into English actually matters. Because our English translation makes it sound like she finally gets justice only because the judge gets tired of being “bothered” by her, like the point is her persistence.
But the word in the original Greek implies not just that she’s ‘bothering’ him, but that she’s actually kind of wrecking his reputation at the same time. She’s not just ‘annoying’ in a sort of vague but persistent way, in other words, but she’s specifically starting to wreck his reputation by calling him out publicly for not being a fair judge. In a very specific persistent way. Not just annoying, but truth-telling. And that’s what matters here. Not just the fact of her persistence, but its content. That truth-telling.
We have a tendency, as human beings, to think about power and strength and might in very physical terms. We think about them manifesting in terms of personal safety and personal space and personal autonomy and personal authority.
But what we get here, inside this parable in which Jesus reminds his disciples and us that the arc of history is long but it bends toward justice, because God is a God of justice –
What we get here, inside this parable, is also a glimpse into the very different way from “the usual” that Jesus wants us to understand power and strength and might.
It’s another piece of Why Jesus Matters, as what theologian Marcus Borg calls our ‘decisive disclosure’ in the church of what God is like and what God is passionate about.
Because what we get here in this parable is a situation in which all the ‘usual’ kinds of power, that we think of when we think about power – from physical strength to social status to official authority to capacity for violence – turn out ultimately not to be powerful at all. When a different kind of power gets wielded instead.
Because when the disciples hear this parable – it’s a set-up. Here’s a man in a patriarchal society, a judge who enjoys the highest status of wealth and influence, a judge who literally has authority over who does and doesn’t get to speak in his courtroom, a judge who only has to say the word …
And this woman, this widow, who oughtn’t to even be speaking directly to him, who has only the status of a dependent in this society, whom he could probably physically crush like a bug, but he doesn’t even have to, because he only has to say the word… and this woman, this widow, could be clapped into prison or worse at the hands of the guards.
It’s a set-up. For all the obvious usual ways the story will end. And then it all gets turned over. The power of gender, the power of status, the power of authority, the power of violent capacity – none of them wind up standing in the face of the power of simple truth-telling.
Persistent truth-telling, to be sure, but not just persistence on its own. What matters is the content. What matters is the truth-telling. “You’re not giving me justice, you’re not giving me justice, you’re not giving me justice,” the widow says to the judge. “I deserve justice.”
It’s that truth-telling that has power in this parable, and Jesus locates it in someone who in that society is pretty much the epitome of ‘not powerful’. This widow. And that matters for us, when in the church HIS is the story and the witness that we hold uniquely here as showing us what God is like and what God is passionate about.
Because it gives us, here, a very different picture from the usual picture of the kind of power that God values and wants us to value too. NOT the kind of power that can squash like a bug, NOT the kind of power that measures its worth in wealth or influence or status or how much space it can occupy physically –
But instead a power that manifests in simply but persistently not letting wrongness stand unchecked. Which, if it’s being done the way the widow does it, or if it’s being done the way Jesus does it throughout his ministry – just firmly and calmly but unwaveringly and without violence –
Is actually incredibly strong. It’s incredibly courageous. The power of not using fists, of not using cruelty, of not leveraging one’s status because it’s easy and it’ll shut people down – it’s much harder to muster up. It’s even harder to sustain. But it’s actually stronger and it’s actually more courageous than the kind of power that the world tends to value.
And so Jesus matters, it matters that his is the story that we hold here uniquely as being specifically meaningful for us, because it’s literally this kind of power of quietness and calmness and steadfastness and self-control that he embodies.
We’re not meant, as Christians, to either seek or be impressed by the power of wealth: either as simple accumulation or to purchase influence. We’re not meant, as Christians, to either seek or be impressed by the power of status: whether to shut people down or to simply ignore them. And we’re not meant, as Christians, to either seek or be impressed by the power of violent capacity: either to destroy by attrition or terrify into submission.
What’s revealed to us in Jesus who leans in to listen to the beggar by the side of the road, who gets furious when all a poor widow has to put in the collection plate is two small coins, who says No, don’t punch back, who wonders how we can possibly not care about that one lost sheep just because we have ninety-nine more – what’s revealed to us in this Jesus is a God who identifies REAL power, GOOD power, STRONG power in worrying about the weakest first and aligning ourselves with them in that weakness as their allies. Listening to that truth-telling. Taking it on board.
Which can sometimes mean for us as Christians, as it does with the judge in the parable, looking at our own selves when the truth-telling happens and thinking “yikes, I think I might be kind of part of the problem here”. And changing. What our perspective is and what we get impressed by and what we seek.
I do think that one of the hardest things for us as a human family is feeling powerless. When obviously something needs to change, obviously that crane needs to come down, and why isn’t anything happening?? And there’s absolutely wisdom in cultivating the capacity to choose when we need to – as an act of personal power – to let it be, let it go, ride the wave. That’s exactly, just as one example, what making the decision to enter palliative care is. It’s actually an act of personal power in a situation in which it feels like we have no control.
But what’s revealed to us in Jesus – what he shows us about what God is like and what God values – isn’t just the HOW of claiming our power. With doggedness, with persistence. It’s also the content.
It’s rejecting power’s usual manifestations of capacity to smush or silence or overlook or ignore, and choosing instead the power of gentle, firm, calm, absolute unwillingness to yield. Demanding what’s right, demanding justice. Because God is a God of justice, and that’s where the arc of history, though long, does bend.
It is what we’re called to. God being our helper. Amen.