A reflection on the readings for Proper 21A: Philippians 2:1-13 by The Rev. Margaret Rose
This week the UN General Assembly has been meeting in New York. Heads of State are arriving from all over the world. There are speeches and accolades, hopes and plans for peace, all the trappings of power. For those of us who work near the UN, the power shows itself primarily in giant traffic jams and motorcades with darkened car windows. As I write, there are plans for a vote on Palestinian statehood which is almost guaranteed not to go well. And there is jockeying for power about whose voice really freed the young American hikers or who really made a difference in Libya. As I watch the dramas on the news and read the paper and maneuver in and around the jersey sand barriers and security men, I reflected on the notion of power. What is it really? We hear about power in lots of different contexts. Americans are citizens of the most powerful nation in the world. We want our machines to have the power to do the job with lots of volts or watts or horsepower. We don’t have to be rich if at least we have power. On cartoons or video games when someone gets punched out that is often signified by a fist and a word in all caps beside it, “POW”, meaning punching with power.
Then there is God Power, preachers speaking of it: softly by the more timid among us, but forcefully by the true believers: Trust in the MIGHTY POWER OF GOD. The implication here of course is that God is bigger and stronger than all of us. We describe that bigger and stronger in the very same way we represent power in worldly terms. You have power if you are richer or stronger or smarter or have a bigger arsenal or more of something that someone else wants or have influence or know certain people. Power is big not small. God is big not small.
Yet, for the last weeks and today our scripture readings tell of a God whose power is shown in forgiveness and mercy rather than in judgment. Forgive. Don’t hold a grudge. Bless those who persecute. Give food to your enemies. It is easy to pass these off as pious religious platitudes. But in fact, I believe it is the heart of the Gospel. Today’s collect says it clearly. The opening Collects are meant to set the theme for the scriptures which follow. This one is clear: “O God you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity.” Mercy and Pity-- NOT by creating the universe in one big bang. NOT by parting the Red Sea, or many other might acts, all of which are indeed of God and noteworthy. But the true mark of God’s power is in mercy and pity. Imagine.
I suspect that, in spite of the world’s standards and even our own successes in it, we know that this God is so powerful precisely because of the seeming contradiction. Real power is found in the measure of forgiveness, in the depth of mercy and compassion; not in domination but in mutuality and common love.
Jesus of course was always trying to tell this to his followers: Bless those who persecute you, give food to your enemies, or your cloak to one who has none. The disciples had as hard a time as we do understanding this. They always wanted to put Jesus up on a pedestal, build a booth for him, help him start building up an army. Any hint from Jesus that his call was to lose his life, offer good news to those who had nothing, freedom for the captives, often fell on deaf ears. Finally, he was called “King of the Jews”. And the ultimate expression of his “kingly” power was the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, not on a great white steed, but on a donkey.
If the disciples wanted Jesus to build an army to overthrow the government, so too do some in our 21st century religious context yearn for a “Christian America”. Others tend to privatize God. We spiritualize, imagining Jesus is talking of other worldly power. God will rule when we die “up in heaven”. Or Jesus helps us in our private spiritual world of personal need or care.
Attention to the scriptures we have read each week and the collect for today offers a view of power here and now quite different from either the spiritualized private view or that of the head of state. Paul’s letter to the Philippians today describes the nature of God in the incarnate Jesus in poetic beauty: “Jesus, who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” We, disciples of Jesus are to act in the same way. Here is an expression of power that claims the self , yet gives it away.
The danger here, especially for women, is to believe that “taking the form of a servant” means that we are to deny ourselves. But in Jesus and by extension for us, Paul describes a kind of self-emptying which does not deny the beauty and worthiness of the self, but which calls us to offer ourselves for others, to offer the gifts we have been given for the good of all, not in order to dominate and rule, but to love and to live in community--in right relationship with one another.
Power in mercy, power in unselfish acts, not in domination--that is the power of God. I think we know this. Yet practically speaking it is not always what comes naturally, not our default position. Yet, when we do let go of ourselves, of our own need to be right, or best or dominant, when we empty ourselves entirely for another, there is a glimpse of the power of mercy and of great freedom. True power sometimes comes in giving it up or offering it to another. In small way and in the larger context—privately and personally. And we should call on our leaders to do the same.
Some years ago I heard Colonel Collins, first woman commander of the space shuttle give a speech. She was asked how it felt to be in charge, to be the first woman commander. How did it feel to have so much power? She did not respond by saying “Great! How nice it is to be able to l everyone what to do.” She didn’t even speak “modestly of the awesome responsibility, but rather that it was the team that mattered and all were called to use their gifts to the fullest. I was reminded recently of two instances where gunman handed over a pistol when someone called them name and looked them in the eye and asked them for the gun. I am not naïve enough to think this happens often. But it can.
We all know the story of the sun and the wind who bargained to get the man’s coat off. The wind blew and blew and the man pulled his coat tighter. But the warmth of the sun caused him to remove his coat to enjoy the day.
A special ed teacher I knew once told me the story of her student, a boy named Devon. Among other problems, Devon constantly yelled at himself, “Devon is a bad boy” he would say over and over among other things. One day the teacher decided to quit trying to yell over Devon’s racket and spoke directly to him , first in a normal voice, then softer and softer. Devon followed along and finally stopped the repetitive talking altogether. Something about power and the process of emptying seems relevant here.
Desmond Tutu does that too when he speaks. On a couple of occasions I have heard him on a variety of topics. He is always a joyful unprepossessing presence. His demeanor and his words are always merciful even as he recounts the horrors of the apartheid days in South Africa. But at the end in response to a question about what God may be calling us to, he did something extraordinary. To a room of a thousand people, he whispered. Here and everyone God is asking for our help. “Help me!” he whispered as if the voice of God.
Imagine the picture: Desmond Tutu, leaning over a podium, whispering. And all thousand of us leaning our ears to hear what God was calling us to do. It was an amazing and empowering moment.
These are small examples of power in mercy, not much but a beginning. When we come to larger issues there is no guarantee, and maybe even not a good track record. I am wishing today that there had been some merciful power by the state of Georgia before Troy Davis was executed this week. But it was not to be. I am not naive about the safety of our actions in attempting this more merciful way. Jesus wasn’t either. And it got him killed. Yet in following this way of God’s call to us -of exchange in relationship, of power in mercy we live into the baptismal mandate, respecting the dignity of every human being. that is what mercy and pity are about anyway, I think. Amen.