Sunday, October 27, 2019
Lectionary 30, Year C
Prayer of the Day
Holy God, our righteous judge, daily your mercy surprises us with everlasting forgiveness. Strengthen our hope in you, and grant that all the peoples of the earth may find their glory in you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Sirach 35:12-17 God is impartial in justice and hears the powerless
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 The good fight of faith
Luke 18:9-14 A Pharisee and tax collector pray together
Title: Beastly Absolute Power
No doubt, many have heard the adage – Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Any student of history knows it to be true. Any watcher of the news hopes against hope that it is not.
This past Wednesday I had an experience that caused me to work some variations on this phrase. Absolute power intimidates absolutely. Absolute power humiliates absolutely. Absolute power shames absolutely.
You see, on Wednesday, I again had the opportunity to put our decision into action to be counted as a sanctuary church and part of the new sanctuary movement. There were two detained immigrants – friends, as the New Sanctuary movement likes to call them – who needed to have their bond posted so that they could be free while they await their hearings in immigration court. As we understand the law, organizations are not permitted to post bond. It must be done by individual citizens. And so, the folks at New Sanctuary have asked faith leaders to volunteer for this task. I had volunteered awhile back and performed this service once before. They called on Tuesday and said they had two that needed to be posted.
As if played out in some movie of intrigue and secrecy, we met at my bank on Tuesday, they transferred $10,000 into my bank account and then the bank drew up two cashier’s checks made out to the Department of Homeland Security. On Wednesday, I took them down to 26 Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan, and started the long process of posting bond.
No surprise in our world of today, you have to go through airport style security to get into the building – including removing shoes and belts. I put my shoes in a bin like I do at the airport and the guard quickly barked at me not to do that because it puts dirt in the bin. “Just put them on the belt.” He said harshly. Fully knowing the absolute power that he and his cohort held over those of us who were coming into this place where so much is at stake for so many. So many who are so much more vulnerable and powerless that his white, citizen, pastor who doesn’t like to be barked at.
A young woman and her very young daughter got off the elevator on the ninth floor with me. We all stepped up to the next guard position that must be passed in order to be about our business. A tall male guard started asking the woman what she was there to do. So as to determine which stark room she needed to go to. She did not speak English. He pressed her to try to explain herself. He threw in the couple of Spanish words that he had picked up from his daily encounters. Finally, unable to get the answers he needed from her, he looked to the other uniformed man who was sitting at a desk not three feet away who approached her speaking perfect Spanish. Why didn’t he step in right away? Absolute power intimidates, humiliates, and shames. And they, like their comrade downstairs, knew in this place, they hold absolute power.
The man at the window in the room that I am assigned to was nice enough, pleasant enough. I can’t complain. He asked me if I have ever posted bond for someone before. I said “Yes, last year.” He goes on to explain that he asks because each person can only do this five times. News to me. I ask: “A year?” He says, no. Totally. Later, during a fire drill. I bump into the lawyer who I worked with on my last bond posting. I asked him about the five times rule. News to him. He tells me, as do the people at New Sanctuary Movement when I report in later, that those who hold the power are constantly changing the rules. And rules are inconsistent. One person will tell you one thing and someone else will tell you something else. Always keeping us guessing, confused and frustrated. Its all part of what absolute power does – it intimidates, humiliates, and shames.
It is no wonder that earthly empires, institutions, and other power brokers are represented by the Beast (capital B) in the book of Revelation. The Beast that is at war with the reign of God.
Today, Reformation Sunday, we are reminded that the church is not exempt from acting the role of the Beast, of exercising what it imagines as absolute power over its subjects. For the medieval church truly saw itself as the holder of absolute power. Where as, kings of Western Europe wore one crown to symbolize their power, the pope wore a tiara that was made of three crowns – the Triregnum. It represented the understanding that the pope was the father of kings, the governor of the world, and the vicar of Christ. So, with Jesus safely in heaven, no one had more power than the pope. He could intimidate kings, humble the peoples of the world, and shame whoever he judged unworthy – all in the name of Jesus who showed compassion, mercy, and limitless welcome while on earth.
But this is not just a look back at the abuse of power in the past. Look around you today and see that the reformation cannot be a movement won and done. The Holy Spirit continues to work in us, tries to work in us and through us as the reforming continues. It must continue, because the intimidation, humiliation and shame continues.
American Christianity is in crisis as leaders and bodies, seeking their own dreams of power and prestige, supporting practices and policies that are as antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ, as was the practice and policies of the medieval church regarding indulgences and the propagation of the lie that one could buy God’s mercy and forgiveness. Like the leaders of 500 years ago, there are too many who speak words of intimidation to control their followers, humiliation to those who disagree, and shame to those they judge outside the embrace of God.
The ironic thing is, the church of every age should know better than anyone, know better than any king, any government or institution, know better than any power hungry individual; the people of God should know without a shadow of a doubt that the only holder of absolute power is God. And in God’s reign and realm, there is no intimidation, no humiliation, no shaming. We see it clearly in the story that Jesus tells in today’s gospel reading.
The Pharisee is standing by himself. He is his own absolute power. He has it all covered. He is the best kind of person one can be. He does all the right things. He is so absolutely good that he can even judge others. Who needs God? That tax collector sure does and he knows it. And Jesus doesn’t rub his face in it. He doesn’t kick him when he’s down. He doesn’t ridicule. Rather it is promised that someone who understands the absolute power of God – based in love and mercy – will be lifted up, will be exalted. Not just head lifted in his kneeling position, but exalt, as in to elevate, boost, praise, acclaim, applaud, lionize, revere. There is no intimidation, humiliation, or shame there, or here, or anywhere that the reign of God is honored and embraced, practiced, and praised.
From our worldly experience, we think power is defeated by greater power. But going back to that Beast in Revelation, we see that the Beast is defeated by the lamb. A lamb. Oh, how God makes mockery of what we think is absolute power. Friends in Christ, we stand with the lamb, because like that tax collector, unworthy though we may be, we have been lifted up, exalted. So, join in the power of the lamb and lift up those who are intimidated, who are humiliated and who are shamed by the powers of this world, and tell them that they have nothing to fear. For our God of true power is love, Jesus the Lamb, who shares his life-giving power with us, lives, and the Holy Spirit whose power changes the world, is still working, reforming, and leading us forward – in the absolute power of the lamb.
The Rev. Mark Erson,