Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Way of Vulnerable Power

Sermon preached on the First Sunday in Lent at the Church ofSt. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Luke 4:1-13

I have said that this Lent we are going to be talking about justice, so here we go. We always start our Lenten Sundays with the story of Jesus’ temptation. How is this a story about justice?

It is a story about justice because it is a story about power. Wherever questions of power can be found, questions of justice are never far away.

The temptations of Jesus are not so much questions of right and wrong for him. Doing any of those things could have resulted in a right. Turn a stone to bread: Bread to feed the masses, much less himself. Jump off the pinnacle of the Temple: A show of God’s protection to prove to the crowds that he is who he says he is. Receive authority over the kingdoms of the world: make things right in human relationships.

Any of these things could have resulted in a right. But Jesus’ said, “no.” This is not the way to use the power of God. I don’t want to use God’s power in these ways and God, I am sure, does not want me to either.

The temptations of Jesus were questions of power: what it is for, and how to use it. They are vitally important questions, because how you use power can make all the difference. It can make for justice or it can be used for quite the opposite. Jesus was wise enough to know this and did not fall into the devil’s trap.

So what does a right use of power look like? It’s important that we know this as well as Jesus did, because each one of us has power, power of our own and power we participate in—communal power.

Power begins with the individual. It is rooted in the dignity with which each of us were born. Our power is about our uniqueness and giftedness and it is enhanced by our freedom. There are many different ways I can use my individuality and my gifts. Each of those ways is also a use of power.

As the poet John Donne said, “No man is an island.” At the same time I am claiming my own dignity and using my giftedness in exercising my power, so are you, and you, and you, and several billion other people. And sooner as later, as sure as the day follows the night, my power clashes against your power. We want different things, or we want the same thing only we want to use different ways to get it, or we want something and we don’t want another person to have it.

How do we sort out the right way to use power? As Christians we look to Jesus. How did Jesus use his power?

We see in the story this morning that he didn’t use it for show. Our God given power is too important for magic tricks. He also didn’t use it to help himself in that immediate context. We are told he was famished. But he didn’t turn a stone into bread—just one, who would have blamed him, he hadn’t eaten for forty days! No, he chose to remain vulnerable.

There was a certain vulnerability he chose in saying “no” to the gift of the kingdoms of the world. He had to know already that those kingdoms were going to cause him trouble, and it’s quite possible he had seen a vision in the desert of his own death. Again, he chose to remain vulnerable.

That word “vulnerable” or “vulnerability” ends up being of key importance in understanding the right use of power from God’s perspective.

For God and for Jesus to be vulnerable does not mean to give up your power. It does not mean to lie down and let the world walk over you. It does mean always to use your power over other people—which you are bound to have from time to time—lightly, with compassion, with mercy. That often leaves you in a vulnerable spot, but I believe Jesus would say that is the place to be.

It sounds like an oxymoron, two words that most definitely do not belong together: vulnerable power. But it is the power of God, the power of Jesus, ultimately shown to us on the cross.

We all have a lot of work to do. Vulnerable power is not how the world works. Name any facet of life, and vulnerable power is not how the world works. It goes against most of what we were taught by the people we love the most. And they weren’t teaching us “wrong,” they were just teaching us what they knew.

But we are now, as we say, in a “school for justice,” and part of what that means—a very large part of what that means—is that we have to learn a different way to use our power. We have to learn Jesus’ radical way of vulnerable power. I have to learn it also because a lot of how I get treated as an ordained person leads me to behave in ways that use my power unhelpfully.

No one much likes to be vulnerable. Jesus, for better or worse, pretty much made a religion out of it. It is probably why his followers have been so awful at following him over the centuries.

God bless you this Lent as you struggle with your own relationship to your power and that of others. Seek the way of vulnerability and you will be seeking the way of Christ.

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