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How many of you bought a lottery ticket for the recent record $1 billion Powerball payoff? It’s OK, you’re in church. Confession is allowed here. I did not, but that is no example of my piety, I just didn’t take the time. But I sure thought about it every time I passed by a QT. Why not? That’s an awful lot of free money staring at you, enough to shake off the totally astronomical odds that you would actually win it – odds that start at somewhere like 1 in 195 million, which is not even as good as the odds of being struck by lightning while you’re being attacked by a shark.
Still – 1.3 billion! I mean someone had to win it, right? So off we go. And it is really satisfying to think about the things that we would do with that money. And just like when we head into the restaurant thinking we’ll order the salad and end up ordering the double cheeseburger, our plans are always about helping people and never about buying the custom Hummer.
We know the odds, but we also love a good escapist fantasy where 6 numbers change our lives. And we love the idea of having what we think is power...in the form of money, which is a good form of power in a land of capitalism. It’s the same thing usually that drives people to run for office, instead of actually caring about the heavy sledding of public policy or the “common good”. It’s the same thing that tempts us towards a “superman complex” where we place our hopes in a single ticket or a charismatic leader or a certain outcome, because we think that power comes to rescue us. And at least some of that complex comes from our understanding of power…or, more to my point, our misunderstanding of it.
Because we have a twisted sense of power right now. Just look around, from American Idol to what passes for an electorial process to lottery fever to see that our warped definitions of power are not only abundant, they are celebrated. But I don’t just want to throw the word out, to define ourselves away from power, because power is like money, it’s how you use it that matters. Money and power are amoral. But we are not. So, it’s good to have a Sunday morning to check ourselves, to think about how we define power and then about how Jesus defines it.
In our segment of the gospel this morning, Jesus comes waltzing back into Galilee, full of it. The Holy Spirit, that is. Full of the power of the Spirit, the text says. In Greek the word is dunamis, and it forms the root for words in English like dynamic, dynamo or dynamite. It means power as in ability, but it also means power as in the inherent power someone or something has…like the power residing in someone by the virtue of who they are.
When we hear power, I’m afraid that we think of specific things. We think of someone with great wealth, or powerful armies. We think of heads of state or celebrities or the front line of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Perhaps we even think of a big, hulking bully, full of rage and belligerence. So when we hear that Jesus has come back to his hometown full of power, what is it that we imagine? For Luke, this is an important feature of the story, this power. And it sets the stage for what is to come, for Jesus headed into synagogue for sabbath, for the eyes to be upon him and the whispers pointed in his direction, like little birds circling around his head. It is this power that fills him as he stands to read…and he chooses Isaiah.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
With all that power, the ability, the inherency, the dynamite of the Spirit that is in him, with all eyes looking his direction and all ears open to hear, Jesus points immediately and directly to the poor, the captive, the blind, and oppressed. Not the powerful, but the outcasts, the ones we may pity, but not the ones that we are taught to admire. Jesus says he comes for them.
I think of this every time that I hear a politician evoke the name of Jesus, or a televangelist or a CEO, or the times I hear those words come out of my mouth. For the power that Jesus displays, the “good news” kind of power, it challenges our typical notions of power. The power of the Spirit is demonstrated not by acquisition or conquest or greed but only through what it accomplishes for others. As David Lose says in his commentary on this passage – “Power is power (of the Spirit) only when it sets others free, only when it builds up others, only when used for the betterment of those around you.”
That’s a game changer, friends. An embrace of that concept of power, a dedication to following a Jesus who’s inherent power is that kind of power…well, that is nothing short of anarchy. It is contradictory, counter-cultural rebellion. And there is no better time than in the midst of an election to see how our inherent notions of power are being sold to us, reinforced, if you will. Is power being the biggest baddest dude on the planet or is it having the most resources? Is it experience, is it being the outsider with the “new ideas”? Is it being the person who can deliver the answer to the problem? Is it found in the person who can give us the simplest solution to the most complex problem? Is it having the most money? It is something to be taken and then wielded, like a sword?
Jesus, with his power, immediately seeks to re-orient us to the basic idea of power. He seeks to teach us what God does with power. He teaches us that the creator of all things, the original energy present before the big bang and spread throughout the universe in every single things sees us…all of us, not just the ones who are “powerful” enough to garner Her attention, or special enough to be set aside. The Holy reaches out for those on the edges, placed there not by the power inherent in creation, but by our own misuse of power, our own twisted principles. In this his first sermon, Jesus speaks about the “least of these” and claims God’s hold on them, giving attention to the ones the world refuses to see.
In this action we see Jesus modeling for us the ways that we will have to re-define power, for it isn’t the ability to get our way, or the capacity even to make things happen. The power that is infused in Jesus is witnessed in his acts of solidarity, it is a power that moves us away from our tendencies towards self-absorption, an antidote to the ways that we label and divide ourselves into isolation. Power for Jesus is only power when it acts as the force of liberation, setting loose people who are literally in chains, those who are metaphorically in chains and those who are psychologically in chains. In our day and age, movements like #blacklivesmatter or #translivesmatter are calling attention to the fact that our culture often makes some lives more important than others, which Jesus reminds us that we must confess is our system, not God’s system. Those movements call us to repentance, to turn away from what we are pursuing in so many parts of our lives.
We must bear in mind what happens in the part of this story from Luke that we will hear next week…the part after this sermon, after he tells them that this scripture is fulfilled in him. That doesn’t cause much of a shock, just some giggles and incredulous stares. It’s when Jesus tells them that this power isn’t just for them, that the messianic arrival is for “the other”, the Syrians and the Samaritans. It’s when he announces that God doesn’t have our labels, and that God loves that person on the other side of the artificial border that we created, the one on the other side of the wall we want to build, just as much as us. That’s when all hell breaks loose and they try to throw him off a cliff.
I’m quite sure that all of the candidates in this election cycle are people of principle. That’s not the question for me. The question is what principles? It’s not enough to have principles. Greed is a principle. Might makes right is a principle. And military superiority is a kind of power. So is overwhelming wealth. So is dogmatic orthodoxy. But this is not just any ability that Jesus is filled with, not just any power that is inherent in him.
I am not afraid of power. In fact, power is necessary. I’m not afraid of you winning the lottery, especially if you tithe. I am afraid of the misuse of power, or money, just as I fear a gun in the hand of someone who is mentally ill, but not nay more than someone with a grudge, or something to prove, or a mixed-up sense of ego. As we seek to build power in this community, by organizing, I want to emphasize what that kind of power is all about. It isn’t power to just “turn the tables”, to get back at those people who are to blame for the things we see as wrong. And it certainly isn’t in re-enforcing the traditional models of power that only work when a few on top keep the rest down. Many of our deepest problems are caused by the way that we see and structure ourselves as a society, coupled with the rampant presence of greed and fear. And we organize because the way to address such things is not by creating more charity. Charity is fine and well, but it does nothing to address inequality. We organize to build power by creating dynamics that help us to understand that sustaining our own self-interest requires us to be concerned with the self-interest of others. Community organizing follows one iron rule – never do for someone what he or she can do for him or herself. Its not social Darwinism – everyone for themselves – but instead challenges us to the claims of our own faith, to see power the way that Jesus sees it and to create institutions that enable people to develop the capacity for effective advocacy in their own voice, to foster a sense of their own ability to challenge existing structures so that justice can pour forth.
There are no quick fixes. There is no justice lottery. It is a constant struggle, a discipline with which we live our lives, especially those of us who have lived in some form of privilege our whole lives. Jesus knows that we often disregard some people, or that we make justice so conditional that it is hardly the same thing anymore. But he reminds us that God is not waiting for us to be this or that, to improve to some particular level. He reminds us that God is not seeking our personal piety, God is seeking our solidarity with one another. God sees us as we are, even the parts we deem ugly or unlovable, and loves us anyway. God sees all, loves all and wants wholeness for all. And the Good News, the power that really counts, is that grace which fills us, ready to be given away…for the final act of grace is to make one graceful. That’s how we wield a power that matters.