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The power over power

    Aug 13, 2017

    Passage: Genesis 37:1-28

    Preacher: Rob Donehue

    Summary:

    In response to what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend, we Christians need to speak out against white supremacy, naziism, fascism, and hatred. But we need to go farther than just rousing up our anger at the sins of racism. We need to begin thinking about how to use our own power and privilege to help end the cycle of despair, blame, and violence that were on display in Charlottesville.

    Detail:

    Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14, Year A
    August 13th, 2017
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28             Romans 10:5-15 Matthew 14:22-33

     

    I’m not going to talk about the pilgrimage this morning. Those conversations will happen in due course, and I certainly will be looking forward to sharing some of our stories with you. But there’s something else that I think is far more important for us to talk about this morning. It has to do with power. False notions of power. False uses of power. 

    And what I’d like to say about power begins at a small motel in Memphis. The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, to be specific. Some of you might know that the Lorraine Motel was where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Some of you might also know that that motel has become part of the National Civil Rights Museum. What might not be so well known is the words written on the plaque that stands on the sight. The words are taken from Genesis chapter 37, verses 19-20, and we just heard them because they are from the reading assigned for this morning. The words are those spoken by Joseph’s brothers: “They said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him…and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” What will become of his dreams.

    In the lesson from Genesis, what’s going on is that Joseph’s brothers resent Joseph for telling them about a dream he had in which he, their younger brother, seems to have power over them. And they come to dislike him so much that they decide that they are going to kill him to prove that they are the ones who really have power. This story about Joseph gets to the heart of the human condition. It was the condition that prevailed thousands of years ago when that story was written, and it still applies today. 

    And it all boils down to power. The basic thought process that I think we all go through at some point or other sounds like this: We are afraid of death. We want the power to control our own lives. But we don’t have the power we think we should have. We are not in control. So whose fault is it? Who can we blame? The Jews! The Liberals! The Conservatives! The government! The media! The police! Brown People! White people! Gay people! Refugees! Southerners! Yankees! Name your group. Then demonize your group. Get enough people to agree with you, and you can try to overpower the other and claim power for yourself. And usually this struggle for power means someone or some group has to die. Only it doesn’t work. It never has worked. There is no final solution. The fear of death and the desire to control our own lives is always there to goad us into finding a new “other” to blame for the fact that we aren’t really in control. And we see how this plays out time and time again.    

    What is taking place in Charlottesville is yet another tragic chapter in humanity’s distorted pursuit of power. 

    I don't think you all need me stand up here and say that what nazis and fascists and white supremacists and anarchists stand for is evil. Even though that is true, I think it is tempting to stop there, and ultimately that does nothing more than rouse up the kinds of emotions that nazis and fascists and white supremacists and anarchists rely on to spread their message of fear and struggle for power. What we need is something more. What we need is to realize that our fear of death and the pursuit of power over death has only ever led to more fear, more blaming of the other, and more death. Whether it be Auschwitz, or Memphis, or Charlottesville. What we need is to realize that the fear of death and even death itself do not have power over us. And that may help us get out of the tangled mess we are currently in. 

    Which brings us back to the dreamers. The dream that Joseph had was not really about him stealing power from his brothers or lording power over them in the threatening way that they so feared. The dream that Joseph had was about the power he would one day have to lift his brothers up when they found themselves powerless. In essence, his dream was about the ability he would have to share power. In much the same way, MLK’s dream was not a dream about one group displacing another or lording power over another. It was a dream in which the power structures of this world that depend upon fear and death are thrown down so that room can be made for a new world in which all of God’s children use their power to build each other up.

    Sadly, from what is so easy to see in the world around us, these dreams are still only dreams. They have not become the day to day reality in which we live. We are still beset by the frenzied struggle for power and the desperate fear of death. And those who dare to dream of a different world are often seen as a threat by those who are afraid of losing their imagined power. And the sarcastic words of Joseph’s brothers are repeated time and time again: Come, let us kill…then we shall see what becomes of these dreams.

    But I think it worth pointing out that the dream never really goes away. It’s curious, isn't it, that no matter how many times humanity has done its best to prove that the struggle for power is all that there is, that dream still persists? The reason I think the dream persists is that it is grounded in the very desire God has to save us from ourselves; from our fear of death and from our twisted desire for power. 

    And in the person of Jesus, we Christians believe that the power of death has been destroyed. In Jesus, we believe that the distinctions we make about who should be blamed for our own lack of power are rendered meaningless. St. Paul is right. There is neither Jew nor Greek. For all have the power to be dreamers. And no matter how many times we try to kill the dreamers, we believe that the resurrected Jesus holds them in life. The dream will never die. 

    If you recall from the Gospel lesson, Jesus walked on water and was willing to share that power with Peter. Lingering fear may have caused Peter to sink, but that so often is the case with those who are given power but don’t know how to use it. The point is that Jesus was not afraid of sharing his power with the powerless. Much of Jesus’ ministry can be understood in this same way. He was willing to share the power of God with a human race sunk in fear and the futile struggle for control over life.  

    And that, for us, is the great challenge of following him. If we have power - and I do believe we here all have it - we should not be afraid to share it with those who have none. We should not be afraid to use the power we have to help those who have none. I don’t know if that will solve all of the world’s problems or prevent the kind of ugliness on display in Charlottesville. But I do know that by letting go of our fear and putting our trust in the God who raised Jesus from the dead, we are liberated from the vicious cycle of blame and violence that characterize much of the world’s interactions. And as followers of Jesus, we have the power to help others find a way out of that nightmarish cycle of blame and violence and instead, show them that we all can be dreamers.