July 1, 2012
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE MOST POWERFUL NATION
“With great power comes great responsibility.” If I asked where that line comes from, some of you would say, it’s from the first Spiderman movie. And you would be right. But it also comes from the Bible. The wording is a little different, but the point is the same. Jesus said, “Every one to whom much is given, of him, will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more” (Lk 12:48).
On this Fourth of July Sunday, I’m sure we will agree that the United States of America fits that teaching of Jesus. Much has been given to this nation. We have great power. We’re still the most powerful nation on earth. But with great power comes great responsibility. Have we responsibly used our power?
In many ways, yes we have. Sometimes there’s a tendency to dwell on what’s wrong with America and to forget what’s right. A few years ago a Canadian named Gurda Sinclair had this to say about his neighbor to the south:
This Canadian thinks it is time to speak up for the Americans as the most generous and possible the least appreciated people of all the earth. Germany, Japan and, to a lesser extent, Britain and Italy were lifted out of the debris of war by the Americans who poured in billions of dollars and forgave other billions in debts. None of these countries is today paying even the interest on its remaining debts to the United States. When the franc was in danger of collapsing, it was the Americans who propped it up, and their reward was to be insulted and swindled on the streets of Paris. I was there. I saw it. When earthquakes hit distant cities, it is the United States that hurries to help. This spring, 59 American communities were flattened by tornadoes. Nobody helped. The Marshal Plan and Truman Policy pumped billions of dollars into discouraged countries. Now newspapers in those countries are writing about the decadent, warmongering Americans. I’d like to see just one of those countries that is gloating over the erosion of the United States dollar build its own airplane. Does any other country in the world have a plane to equal the Boeing Jumbo Jet, the Lockheed Tri-Star, or the Douglas 10? If so, why don’t they fly them? Why do all the international lines except Russia fly American planes? I can name you 5,000 times when the Americans raced to the help of other people in trouble. Can you name me even one time when someone else raced to the Americans in trouble? Our neighbors have faced it alone, and I’m one Canadian who is tired of hearing them get kicked around.
I think we all get tired of hearing our country get kicked around. This little essay barely scratches the surface of all the good things we could say about our country. But it’s important to remind ourselves on this Sunday before our national holiday that our country is not God. As Christians, we worship God. We don’t worship America. And it really isn’t “kicking America around” to acknowledge that great as this country is, it could be better. We could more responsibly use the power that has been entrusted to us.
Paul is writing to the Christians at Ephesus about power. Specifically he says that power God has given to Jesus is available to us. “The immeasurable greatness of his power” is “in us”. He made a point of telling this to the Ephesians because they didn’t feel very powerful. They were not the movers and shakers of their world. Far from it. Most of them were poor. Many of them were slaves. They were not upper class people at all. I’m sure they thought of themselves as powerless. And now Paul is telling them that they have power.
He means political power. Oh I know, talking about politics in church makes some of you uncomfortable. But political power is not as sinister as you may think. It’s just the ability to make things happen. When Paul says that Jesus has been exalted high above all “rule and authority” and has been given all “power and dominion”, he is making a political announcement. It’s an announcement of who’s in charge, who has the power. And now Paul continues this political statement by announcing that Jesus is sharing this power with his disciples.
This wasn’t just talk. This wasn’t just theory. Let me offer a couple of examples.
In Philippi, Paul was walking down the street and an emotionally disturbed slave girl approached him. We’re told Paul was annoyed. Maybe he was annoyed at her, but I like to think he was annoyed at those who were using her. Because of her hallucinations, people thought she had the power of divination. They thought she was a sorceress. So they could charge people to have her see them and tell them these strange, nonsensical things that came into her mind. There was a market for fortune tellers even back then. But Paul put an end to all this by healing her. Now that she was sane she was of no use to her owners. Paul ended the exploitation of a young person. He was thanked by being thrown in jail. The charge? “These men are disturbing our city”. (Acts 16:20).
The same thing happened in Ephesus. The main business of Ephesus was the Temple of Artemis. Artemis was the goddess of fertility. In Rome she was known as Diana. Artemis kept the economy of Ephesus going. Ephesus was filled with prostitutes who were connected with the Temple of Artemis. There were also merchants who sold little statues of Artemis to pilgrims who visited the city. And then Paul showed up. He timed his visit to coincide with the Festival of Artemis. He began converting the Ephesians. He told them that followers of Jesus can’t participate in idolatry or immorality. The result was a riot and Paul was blamed (Acts 19:23-40).
In Thessalonica the classic charge was brought against the Christians. “They are turning the world upside down” (Acts17:6). Now think about that for a moment. This little ragtag band of believers, people with zero power as power is usually measured, turning the world upside down!
How did they do it? Our text contains the answer. They did it with “power from on high.” They made things happen. Which means they had political power. But it was not worldly power. It was spiritual power.
Now here’s the interesting thing. The spiritual power of the church was highest when its worldly power was lowest. When Constantine, emperor of Rome, became a Christian, the Christians had all the worldly power they could ever want. But that’s when their spiritual power hit a low water mark.
It’s a lesson often repeated whenever religious people try to get organized to gain worldly power. The more they succeed, the more they fail. The more they elect the believers who believe as they believe, the more they lose trust and respect and even the ability to make good things happen.
Look at what the early Christians did with nothing more than “power from on high”! They took care of the poor. They housed the homeless. They fed the hungry. They rescued abandoned children. They cared for the sick. They were hospitable to strangers. They were forgiving of enemies. They were advocates of peace. They refused to participate in activities that dehumanize life. They were faithful in activities like worship that enrich life. Through their worship they proclaimed that God is real. God loves, and God calls us to lead a life worthy of our birthright as heirs of eternal life through Jesus Christ.
That’s how they did it. Just a handful of Christians who received the power to live a different kind of life and who attracted others to join them. I have a question. It is possible for that to happen again? Do you think it will ever again be said of Christians “They are turning the world upside down?”
And how about the power that has been entrusted to the United States of America? Political power, the ability to make things happen, is still spiritual in nature. What is true for our church is true for our nation. It’s housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, taking care of the children, welcoming the stranger, protecting the vulnerable, standing for all that enriches life, and standing against all that dehumanizes life. These are the highest expressions of our power. These are the truest measures of whether we are being faithful to those challenging words of Jesus: “To whom much is given, much will be required.”
William Sloane Coffin, Jr. was pastor for many years at the famous Riverside Church in New York City. He was one of those clergy who would frequently challenge his country to live up to its ideals. I’ve saved a prayer he wrote that includes these words:
Give us the vision to see that those nations that gave the most to their generals and the least to their poor were, throughout history, the first to fall. Most of all, give us the vision to see that the world is now too dangerous for anything but truth, too small for anything but love.
It started 2,000 years ago with simple acts of love and decency. No nation functions very well without the simple virtues, like civility and good manners and treating each other with respect. Saying hello to a stranger. Driving with courtesy. Being generous to those who disagree with you and allowing that they are as well intentioned as you. Forgiving those who have offended you. It can be as simple as noticing people who cross our path – not looking past them but seeing them and treating them with kindness.
A nurse in training was sitting in her classroom when the professor announced that there was going to be a pop quiz that day. It was actually a very easy quiz. She breezed through the questions, until she got to the last one. The last question was this: “What is the first name of the woman who cleans this building?”
She thought it was a joke. Whoever heard of that kind of a question on a test? She knew who the cleaning woman was. She had seen her. She could describe her. But she had no idea what her name was.
So when she turned in the quiz she left the last question blank. She asked to professor if he was really going to grade the last question. He said, “Absolutely. In your careers you are going to meet many people. Each one is significant. Each one deserves your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say hello.”
It’s a powerful thing. A smile. A hello. A kind word. And it’s a patriotic thing. We build a better nation by being better people.
Will it ever again be said of Christians, “They are turning the world upside down”? If so, it won’t be because we achieve “power” and start throwing our weight around. That kind of power doesn’t get things done. Not in the long run. It takes the power of love, spiritual power, power from on high. That the power that gets results. That’s the power that changes the world. That’s the power we need in our lives, in our church, in our nation, in our world.
Omnipotent, all powerful God, whose greatest display of power was in a Bethlehem manger, help us see Jesus in the way you want us to live. Not lording it over others, but stooping and serving. And as this national holiday approaches, this is our prayer for the United States of America: May our power be seen not in the destruction we are able to inflict but in the bridges we are able to build. Bridges between people, your precious children. In Jesus’ name. Amen.