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Isaiah 42.1-4

I Corinthians 1.18-25

Superpowerless

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

          In The Gathering Storm, the first volume of his history of World War II, Winston Churchill describes how Joseph Stalin was once advised to encourage the practice of Catholicism in Russia as a way of placating and conciliating the Pope.  Most of us are familiar with Stalin’s scornful reply: “The Pope!” he asked sarcastically, “How many divisions has he got?”  And while it is true that the Vatican has no standing army to send to war, it nevertheless possesses a power which has not only outlasted Stalin’s beloved communist state, it has also outlasted the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, its Eastern European empire, and most of Stalin’s disciples.  Stalin believed what Mao Zedong later expressed, that “power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” but the Pope’s quiet way of doing things turned out to be more powerful than an entire division of guns.

          If we need any further demonstration of the powerlessness of power, we only need to look across Connecticut’s western border to witness what is transpiring in the Empire State.  It was only a year ago that Governor Andrew Cuomo was one of the most respected politicians in the country.  His daily coronavirus briefings were must-see-TV, and rumors were already circulating about his being a presidential hopeful in 2024.  Fast forward to the summer of 2021 and the picture looks remarkably different.  Cuomo behaved as though his political power and prestige could excuse his repellent treatment of women, and could protect him from professional and personal accountability.  Turns out he was profoundly mistaken.   Whatever power he was able to accrue to himself in his years as governor proved powerless keep him in office.  The words and the wounds of the women he assaulted proved to be stronger than he had ever imagined.

          Both Stalin and Cuomo believed that what the world perceives as power - guns and armies, allies and adulation – could shelter them from setback.  But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the way the world works.  The Bible comes much closer to the mark, I believe, when it comes to who and what are truly powerful in this world.  Let me ask you, who held the power, the soldiers at the cross with their spears and helmets and armor, or the man who hung directly above them, bleeding to death?  Who held the power, the Roman authorities who tried to squash that small band of followers in the church’s infancy, or the peasants who for a long time had to gather in secret simply to worship God?

          The apostle Paul recognized that what the world considers powerful is in fact the diametric opposite of what is actually the case.  “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.”  This is like saying the criminal strapped to the electric chair, or who already feels the lethal injection coursing through his veins, is mightier than the executioner.  It certainly doesn’t look that way to the naked eye, but the questionable morality of capital punishment turns the accustomed way of the world on its head.  “Christ was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God,” Paul wrote near the end of II Corinthians.  “We are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him, by the power of God.”

          Finding our power in the apparent powerlessness of Jesus is not just a consistent theme in the living out of our faith, it is a dominant theme.  What the world calls power is illusory and mortal, and eventually proves enervating; authentic power is something that cannot be legislated, adjudicated or executed:  it can only come from that which stands over and above mortality.  We can find it in the reading from Isaiah Deb brought to us this morning:  “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street’ a bruised reed he will not break and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”  This is hardly a picture of a conquering hero, but it is no less accurate.  What did Jesus say about the poor, the mournful, the persecuted and the meek in the Sermon on the Mount?  He said these are the blessed, who have found shelter in the arms of God.  Or the song of Mary, Jesus’ mother in the opening pages of Luke’s gospel, singing of her as-yet-unborn son who would “exalt those of low degree and fill the hungry with good things.”

          Alan is a good friend of mine from high school who went on from college to a career in writing.  His early work was mostly fiction, short stories and the like, published in places like The New Yorker and Yankee Magazine.  As with many writers, Alan’s initial work grew out of his own experiences, the people and places he knew best: his friends through high school and college.  Which meant that his first stories contained characters based on people he knew.  Do you know how unnerving it is to open the latest New Yorker and find a thinly-veiled version of yourself in the fiction pages?   Whether because of this, or in spite of it, he went on to a successful career in writing, and I have always enjoyed reading his work.  One memorable story, which has stayed with me since I first read it, is the one from which I borrowed this morning’s sermon title:  Superpowerless.  It is about an eleven year old boy who spends his summers at his grandparents’ lake house, pretending he was one of his favorite comic book heroes, Thor, the God of thunder.  “At night I tended to lurk like a bat in the branches,” the boy remembers, “holding a wooden replica of Thor’s hammer, and spouting Norse wisdom.”  It was his way of escape, of finding his own heroes, because he didn’t think very much of his grandfather and he knew the feeling was somewhat mutual.  “Mostly the vacation had boiled down to getting on my grandfather’s nerves, and to hanging around with the cows,” he admits.  But as the summer progressed, and his parents began to experience marital turmoil, he came to see his old grandfather in a different light, a mutually sympathetic light, until at the story’s end he recognized that while his comic book heroes are but paper and ink, the real hero of his life was, in fact, his grandfather.  And how many of us grew up thinking that our grandparents were simply old people to be visited, whose stories of the old days were to be tolerated, until we came to realize that not only were they smarter than our parents, but that we would be wise to pay close attention to their wisdom and experience?  Power does not issue from the hammer of the thunder god, Alan wrote, but from the sometimes peculiar but most of the time unexceptional expressions of affection between a grandparent and grandchild.

          These are the kinds of relationships which express what is truly powerful, those that are built on love and affection, on commitment and mutuality.  The games of one-upmanship, the daily grabs for control which seem to consume so many are in reality more expressions of weakness and insecurity than anything else.  You and I surely know people who try to jockey for position at work or in other organizations who won’t hesitate to let you know how important they are, how valuable their opinions are.  And the irony is that when we see folks who feel like they need to aggrandize themselves at the expense of those around them, it’s easy to see what’s going on.  As that little voice in our heads struggles not to say out loud, “I know how important you are, you don’t have to tell me… you are as important as the person next to you; you are as important as the least of all your brothers and sisters; you are as important as I am.  No less; no more.”  There is no power in puffery.  There is no influence in inflating yourself, only a tacit admission of weakness and uncertainty.

          After all, isn’t it the quiet people who are often the most influential, the folks who don’t call attention to themselves, but unobtrusively go about their lives and their work, whose soft-spokenness reveals their wisdom and capability?  How many times have we sat in a group or on a committee, and after nearly everybody has had their say, the person who has said little cuts through the jabber and makes the most sense of all?  I have seen it happen more times than I can count – and after more than 40 years of ministry, I’ve been to a few committee meetings.  There is strength in reserve; there is power in humility.  It isn’t the kind of strength and power the world seems to advertise or admire, but it is the kind of strength and power that endure.  “How many divisions has the Pope?”  It really doesn’t matter in the end; sometimes a division of one possesses more real power and authority that a hundred armies.  When Jimmy Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize years after his presidency was over, one astute news reporter was heard to observe, “It is the man without power who [really] has power.”

          It is the man without power who really has power.  Whether the reporter knew it or not, this was a profoundly theological thing to say.  I can think of few more appropriate phrases to describe the relationship of Christ to the world, than to know him as the man without power, who possesses real power.  The prophet Zechariah saw this coming when he said the word of the Lord will come, “not by might, nor by power, but by [the] Spirit.”  This is how people of faith are called to order and live their lives, not by might, nor by power, but by the Spirit.  It was, and continues to be his commitment to the spirit of humanity, and the depth of his faith, that helped bring Carter’s post-Presidential success; it is surely by the reality of the Spirit that the Pope has outlasted his fiercest critics; and it is by our own solidarity with the poor, the mournful the meek and the persecuted that we know that we too have been blessed by the power of the crucified, superpowerless God.

          Amen.

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