Saturday, November 19, 2016

What is Power? (Sermon for Christ the King Sunday)

What is Power?
Luke 23:33-43
St. John's Episcopal Church, New Haven
Christ the King Sunday

I’m gonna come right out of the gate and ask you to put up with a little bit of foolishness with me. I’m going to share with you a lyric from the rapper, producer, fashion designer, and now 2020 presidential candidate, Kanye West. Now I know that many of you may be tempted to roll your eyes or glare, but the takeaway of this sermon (or if you’re a note taker what you’re going to want to write down) is stolen from the very end of his 2010 hit single POWER (all caps). And it goes like this, “Have you got the power to let power go?” Have you got the power to let power go?

Mmmm… Kanye not so ridiculous after all... This same idea is found in Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust masterpiece, “Schindler’s List.” If you’ve seen the movie you’ll remember there’s that powerful scene where Oskar Schindler is having a conversation with an SS officer. It’s Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes talking about the nature of power. The very drunk officer turns to Oskar and tells him that he’s on to him. That he knows why he never gets drunk. “That’s your control,” he says. “Control is power. That’s your power.” To this Oskar goes a step further. “True power, Amon, is when we have every justification to kill and we don’t. A man steals something, he’s brought in before the emperor, he throws himself down on the ground, he begs for his life, he knows that he is going to die, and the emperor pardons him. This worthless man, the emperor lets him go… That’s power, Amon. That is power.”...

In today’s gospel lesson this kind of power is taken even further. In it we read about the crucifixion of Jesus. Yes, on Christ the King Sunday we read about the utter humiliation of our Lord. You might be tempted to think that this is further evidence that the assemblers of our lectionary were totally crazy, but you’d be wrong. For once you know the literary strategy of the synoptic gospels this ironic pairing should come as no surprise. For while all four gospels are trying to get you to answer the question, “Who is Jesus?”, Matthew, Mark, and Luke do so in a very unlikely way.

You see, in each of these gospels, Jesus comes onto the scene doing incredible things. Things that get people to ask questions like, “Who is this that even the wind and seas obey him?” But whenever the characters think they understand him, whenever they’re sure that they’ve got him figured out, the gospel writers show us how they’ve actually got him all wrong. The ultimate example of this is right around the time of the transfiguration. Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” You are the King. And he’s right. More right than anyone has been up to this point. Only to get it all wrong. For once Jesus reveals that the Messiah must suffer and die, Peter won’t have any of it. He rebukes Jesus because he cannot fathom a king who would willingly suffer and die. He has no room in his paradigm for a power that lets power go...

You see the strategy of the gospel writers is to keep us guessing about Jesus’ identity until we’ve read it all. Until the picture is completely clear. Until we see him helpless on a cross of wood and we hear the centurion proclaim, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” For according to these gospels, if we do not understand him like this we do not understand him at all…

And we see this paradoxical identity of Jesus fleshed out in the passage that we read this morning. Where we see our king dying a most inhumane death. Having been betrayed, tried, and scourged, he is lumped in with the lowliest of the low at the Skull. And while being left there to breathe his last, he cries out on behalf of the people who put him there, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” With his dying words, this king chooses to pardon. These worthless men, the emperor let’s them go.

And the worst part of all of this, is that as powerful as this is, the horror doesn’t end here. As touching as his words are, they do not reach their callous hearts. For as we read, they continue to laugh. As we saw, they continue to scoff. Only in their mockery they are unknowingly declaring his identity. In their ridicule they are proclaiming his true character: “He saved others,” the religious leaders taunted, “let him save himself if he is the Messiah.” “If you are the King of the Jews,” the soldiers mocked, “save yourself.” “Are you not the Messiah,” the criminal jeered, “then save yourself.”...

You see in the midst of all this darkness, Luke’s use of repetition not only makes clear to us that Jesus is king, but also the kind of king he is. From out of the mouths of scoffers, you and I are not only shown that Jesus is lord, but that he is a lord who saves… he is a king who pardons… even at his own expense. For mercy, Shakespeare wrote, “becomes the throned monarch better than his crown… It is enthroned in the hearts of kings; It is an attribute to God himself.”

And this is the deep inversion of the gospel writers. This is their scandalous claim. A claim that only makes sense if he was, in fact, vindicated. For if he was not raised from the dead, then this is sheer sentimentalism. If he is not God in flesh, this is at best nihilistic art… But if he was vindicated, it means that the way we ordinarily think about power is completely upside-down. If he did, in fact, rise, it means that the one who was given “all authority in heaven and on earth” won this power through defeat, by letting power go.

And if you and I are willing to embrace this scandalous claim, if we don’t come to the conclusion that this is the craziest thing that we’ve ever heard, then there is a whole new way of looking at the setbacks and defeats of this life. For if it’s true that “his power is made perfect in weakness,” then there is comfort in our apparent failure. If it's true that the power of God is so often displayed in this paradoxical way, it means that true power is not in fame, wealth, winning an election, or even in control. It means that true power is shown by letting power go, by giving it away…
Now maybe you're here this morning and you feel like you’ve been defeated. Maybe you worked very hard for something good and it all came to nothing. Or maybe you gave your all for someone that you loved only to be left broken. The crucifixion story does not offer quick fixes or easy answers to life’s toughest questions. But the comforting word of this text for sufferers is that despite present loss there is still hope. And that hope is found in the One works out his purposes in the darkest of circumstances; that promise rests in Christ the king, who reveals his power in the most seemingly meaningless of situations.

And this is good news for you and me. For it means that God is up to something in the midst of our deaths. It means that despite the setbacks and defeats of this life, nothing that we’ve done has been carried out in vain. And the reason for our confidence is that we serve the One who vindicates lost causes. The reason we do not lose heart is that we have a God who “raises the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist,”... both in this life and in the life to come.

So then, my brothers and sisters, in the sure hope that nothing is wasted, do not be afraid. Let your power go.

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