Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Power and Control

I don't typically share my sermon's like this on the blog, but this is the one I preached two days ago in Chestertown, Maryland. It's timliness is obvious, I suppose. The only comment I'll make is that I'm aware of the position I'm in even addressing such things as a well-educated, straight, white male - that comes with its own problems and blind-spots. I apologize in advance for how that colors my response. I agonized over this, far longer and with more prayer than any other sermon I think I've ever preached - but at some point, you have to say what you have to say - and this is it. The sermon text is Romans 12.

I was asked to preach today the weekend of the violence in Charlottesville. I imagine I’ll associate that event with this passage for a while. The whole thing is troubling, obviously, for a number of reasons, but I’ve been haunted these last few weeks by one line I heard in an interview with one of the participants. The man said, “These people are worthless; they’re making the country worse and they should go back where they came from.”

I want to be careful here. I don’t want to get into the “both sides” game that’s become so problematic. However, I do think this quote is a good illustration of where this passage is going today. When it comes to the ideology of race – there is a clear right and wrong – it’s because this is an issue with such a clear distinction between opinions that I think it makes a good illustration.

You see, that quote above – “these worthless people should go back where they came from,” – is the kind of hate we might associate with racists and bigots, but it came from one of the leaders of the counter-protest, the defenders of equality.

Now, let’s be clear, being the subject of hate and scorn does not give any credence whatsoever to this “alt-right” movement or whatever they’re calling themselves. We are all human beings. There is just one race: the human race – and we should, collectively, be lamenting the thousands of years we’ve spent acting otherwise and the terrible toll it’s taken on people around the world. We, especially we, should be working to heal and repair that damage as much as we’re able.

But, as much as there is a right and wrong ideologically, it pains me to see how often those in the right have used hate to condemn hate. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I am a student of non-violence – many of my personal heroes are leaders of the civil rights movement, not just because of their cause, but because of their commitment to non-violence and the belief that love wins.

It’s troubling, mournful, to see how this generation – my generation – seems to be abandoning those ideals. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard language not just advocating the destruction of racism, but the racists as well. I’ve been seriously conflicted with how to affirm that the cause of justice and equality is righteous, while also rejecting the means by which it is so often delivered.

This is a timely and difficult example of a much larger problem. It might not be what you expected when we read that familiar verse from Romans – Be not conformed to the pattern of this world – but this is what I think of immediately, at least in our current context and reality. The pattern of this world so ingrained in us we don’t even know there’s an alternative, the pattern that we’ve largely come to think of it as part of our faith, when it is the exact opposite:

Power and control.

These are weapons of strength, rooted in fear. White supremacists fear the loss of power and privilege that’s long been the purview of white men. It’s a real and justified fear, even if it is completely lacking in perspective. White men do have less power, even if we’re still, by far, the most powerful group on the planet. But the fear is real. In fact, it’s basically the same fear that sparked the counter-protests: people with a real vision of justice and equality who are afraid that whatever progress has been made on those fronts will be turned back or snatched away. That’s a real fear, too.

When we are afraid, our first reaction is to recover control. That’s human nature. If someone is mugged on the street one night, they might respond by taking self-defense classes, or they might respond by never leaving home again – both responses are attempts to take back power they lost at the hand of another. They are fear reactions. It’s the pattern of this world.

It’s this notion that we should be in control that really gets us in trouble. And this is at the heart of Jesus’ gospel message: the actions of others are not your responsibility. That might sound strange, since Jesus didn’t say any of those actual words, but perhaps it’s more familiar this way:

Do not be afraid.

Our fear is entirely based on our inability to control other people. Even when we’re afraid we can’t do something – I’m not strong enough to be a good parent, I can’t do this assignment the boss just gave me, I don’t have enough money to make rent this month – the fear is not about our inability, but about how other people will respond. We’re afraid of being judged; we’re afraid of being fired; we’re afraid of being left alone and abandoned and exposed.

Even those existential fears, about food or money or shelter, are really fears that no one will provide for us if we can’t provide for ourselves. It’s not about our actions, but about how other people respond to them. We’re afraid of losing control.

So Jesus comes in and says, “You aren’t in control, and you never will be.” And that’s supposed to be our hallelujah moment for today, our good news. You aren’t in control and never will be; Praise the Lord! I know it sounds terrible, but that’s because we’ve spent so long being conformed to the patterns of this world. We’ve been so ingrained with the idea that we need to be in control of as much as possible as often as possible that we don’t see the good news when it’s right in front of our face.

We never look at it from the other side of the equation. Even if we control everything in our lives we could possibly conceive of controlling, it’ll never be enough. People will still die. We still argue with spouses and kids. Jobs are lost. Mistakes are made. Control is just an illusion.

When Paul says here, “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,” he’s saying, “stop trying to control everything – in fact, stop trying to control anything at all.”

Why are we challenged to give sacrificially? Most of the world, if they’re generous, is taught to make a budget, figure out what you need to live, and then spend a sizeable portion of the rest on others. That’s sort of the worldly principle of generosity. Christians are different, though – Jesus calls us to give everything, even, quite literally the shirt off our back, if need be. We’re called to give until it hurts and then give some more. We’re called to figure out what others need to live and then budget for ourselves with what’s leftover. Why? Why do we do this?

I’m sure there are a lot of reasons, but one big one is simply to remind ourselves that our bank balance does not equal control. No matter what’s in the investment fund, our future is more dependent on the grace of God than the sweat of our brow. We have a different motivating factor than mere survival or even personal happiness. And that is foolishness to the world around us.

We are living into the Kingdom of God and this vision of the world in which there is no fear. Attempting to shout down an angry, hateful mob does not eliminate fear, it heightens it. God has instilled within us a greater creativity than that – we have the ability to respond to hatred with love and to violence with peace, if we’re willing to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

I struggled for the longest time trying to figure out why verses three through eight are where they are in this chapter. If you skip from verse two to verse nine, it makes total sense with what I’ve been trying to say. “Honor one another above yourselves” is exactly the kind of outrageous thing Jesus calls us to. The world tells us to secure our oxygen mask before assisting others – because it makes sense – but Jesus has a different way of life in mind. “Be joyful in hope and patient in affliction. Bless those who persecute you. Be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not repay evil with evil. If your enemy is hungry, feed him.”

You can move from verse two to verse nine seamlessly, yet Paul puts this thing in between – something we’ve seen him write in many other letters as well – we are part of one body with many members; we’re all different, but important. He talks about spiritual gifts and contributing to the people of God through your strengths. But why is that here, in this position?

Well, after some time pondering, I think it’s about fear again. We’re afraid because we don’t know how other people will react to us. We’re afraid of what they’ll do – or not do –so we try to gain and maintain control. We try to wall ourselves off, if not from people, than from needing people. We love having friends, but we hate to depend on them.

This is precisely what Paul is telling us we have to do in verses three through eight. He says, You can’t do it all yourself. No matter how hard you try, how much you work, all the effort in the world, you do not have everything you need. We need each other. In fact, you’re not even ‘you’ without me.

We forget this sometimes, because in English “you” is both plural and singular, but 99% of the time we see “you” in scripture, it’s plural. “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.” It’s something we do collectively. We’re in this together.

So ,what does that mean when it comes to Charlottesville? In that case, you’ve got a group of people saying exactly the opposite. “If you’re not white or male, we don’t need you.” It’s a message of hate spawned from fear – it might even be a universal fear, that we’re not needed, that we are worthless – and out of that fear, we attempt to grab power by making those around us worthless and lesser. Hate flows naturally from fear – that is the pattern of this world.

Too often our response to hatred and fear is doubling down, is meeting hatred and fear with more of the same. Christians are called to end that cycle – to be not afraid – and we show our trust, our lack of fear, not by acting powerful and in control, but by responding in love. When someone comes at us with hatred and violence, the Christian response just might be, “You may not need us, but we still need you.”

This doesn't mean we allow hatred and violence and evil to go unopposed, but we must not oppose them with power and control, but with love. It’s a dangerous position, for sure, but it’s not weak and it’s not backing down – it is the turning of our actual bodies into a quite literal living sacrifice. It is putting our money where our faith is, believing that sacrificial love, in imitation of Christ, can really change the world. It is showing, with our bodies, that we are not in control, and breaking the cycle of hatred and fear.

It sounds impossible, but it starts here, folks. We aren’t just transformed into living sacrifices at the drop of a hat. The whole purpose of the Church is to be a place where the Kingdom of God is lived out as an example to the world. We have to love each other, before we can love our enemies. We have to reach across whatever divides exist here – class, race, gender, income, age – as a means of training ourselves to take this good news to the world around us.

The people of Jesus Christ do life differently. We are not conformed to the pattern of this world. We remind ourselves of this every week as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. This is a small scale enactment of what Paul calls our true and proper worship, which is to live our lives like we really believe what we’re doing here today. We come to the table together, one body, one family, united – everyone is welcome and everyone is equal – then we have to live like it, even when it hurts.

1 comment:

Alan Scott said...

Outstanding sermon! The fruit of your agonizing and prayer is a great and clear message. A wonderful holiness message in a timely context.