February 5, 2017 // Narr 25 // Epiph 5 // First Congregational UCC, Ashland, OR //
Rev. Christina Grace Kukuk // “Power Restored” // Luke 7:1-10; Luke 7:11-17
Late last Fall, some of the women of this church gathered at Suncrest to retreat together. There was dancing and singing and eating and sharing, and conversations about death (because we like to wrestle with the big things here). In addition to all of this, on that stormy day, the political calendar suspended us there in an ever-stranger political climate — between the summer conventions and the election still a month off — one of our groups talked about power.
Power. What does that word make you think or feel? (Pause) The women in the room in October felt a whole range of feelings – negative, positive and neutral – as many different kinds of feelings about power and its exercise as you may be feeling about that word now, in here. Perhaps because it is so much easier to talk about other people’s power than our own, we started with Jesus. I asked, “Where does Jesus’ power come from?” [show poster: internal charisma, knowledge, ability to quote scripture, communication skills (parables and stories), recognition from other powerful people, authenticity (internal sense of who he was and what he was about in the world), intimate connection with God, women supporters, including the women who financially supported his ministry, and of course there were “the crowds” all those people who followed and rallied to the vision of the Kin-dom that he was preaching.] Where did Jesus’ power come from? (Pause)
We could dismiss the stories Luke tells us this morning as simple examples of showing off Jesus’ power. An ailing servant gets healed by a word spoken long-distance, and a widow’s only son is resurrected from the funeral bier – in a story parallel to the story we heard in the Fall of Elijah raising a widow’s son. But in these two stories we hear this morning, we might see something more. Every character in Luke’s story today has some power. The Centurion is the easiest to talk about. As a commanding officer in the Roman army, he holds the most obvious power by virtue of his position and the laws of the Roman Empire, not to mention it’s unlikely he ever left the house unarmed. But the centurion also holds other kinds of power, there’s the power that comes from his financial support of the Jewish community, and the coalitional power that comes from making friends and good relationships built on the strength of his character. The centurion obviously has a lot of power. Jesus holds power, too, the power to heal, evidently, but also the reputational power that comes from the crowd that follows him and calls him teacher. Even the widow holds some power in this story, even if her primary power is her voice, wailing, in the street, so that no passerby may escape or ignore her devastating loss. She has the power to ensure others see and hear her grief. She is exercising the power of communication. Every character in Luke’s stories this morning has some power. (Pause)
Power. Power is an interesting thing. It’s neutral really. Like one of the folks at the retreat last fall said, it’s like a current. It’s simply the ability to do, to be able. We all have power, to greater and lesser degrees. Some of our power is internal – our experiences, our sense of identity, the centeredness that comes from spiritual practice. Some of our power is external – the authority given in our job description, the people we know, who happens to be in our contact list, the information to which we have access or the pulpits from which we can speak. We all have power. Power is simple the ability to get something done. Sometimes that power is simply the ability to get out of bed in the morning. Sometimes we have it and sometimes we don’t. So I asked that group in October, where does our power come from? [new poster: compassion, experience, resources (even beginning with Nature), our position, our self-confidence, ritual, good strong relationship, other people believing in us, community, knowledge, connection to Source.] All of those things are sources of power for us. Of course Jesus has power. We all do. And followers are going to portray their leaders as powerful, so it’s no surprise that is part of what Luke is up to in this morning’s stories. More intriguing for us in this still-strange political climate is what Luke shows his audience about how and why and for what Jesus uses his power. (Pause)
I don’t believe Kirk W. Johnson felt powerful when he first received a message from an colleague he had worked with in Iraq. Kirk Johnson is a white man and a Fulbright Scholar, who worked a year for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Baghdad and then Fallujah, in Iraq. (U.S. government’s agency works to “end extreme global poverty, and enable resilient, democratic societies to realize their potential.”) They are the civilians who often work alongside our military in places of tremendous conflict and turmoil. He clearly possesses power to get some things done. But when his Iraqi colleague’s message came, Johnson was not in a place of great power. He’d just spent almost a year recovering from an accident. Having taken a week of vacation from that intense work, in the middle of the night, he walked through a hotel window to fall two floors to the concrete below because of a PTSD-induced night-time terror. It took him almost a year to recover from the broken bones and the lacerations from that accident, and it was toward the end of that year that Johnson’s colleague needed help. Local militia had seen him leaving the green zone, marked his house, and left a pretty grotesque message on his front step threatening his life. Johnson didn’t know what to do. He knew next to nothing about refugee resettlement, but he wrote an op-ed about the Iraqi refugee crisis. It started to get passed around, and as people started contacting him, he did what he could do. He opened Excel and started a list. He founded The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. Since its founding, through hundreds of hours of pro bono legal assistance, 2,500 of those who helped American service men and women have made it safely to the United States, though many others are still languishing in Iraq and elsewhere. So it was last week, Johnson took to Twitter to broadcast 53 short notes in the wake of President Trump’s temporary ban on refugees and immigrants from seven Middle Eastern countries. Very respectfully, he proclaimed different American values. He told the story of people for whom friendship with the United States can be fatal. He asked people to listen and act to help. Johnson used his power for the purposes of reconciliation and restoration. He used what power he had to try to give others to life.
Jesus exercises power in the Gospels not simply for celebrity appeal. He’s not orchestrating flashy miracles to elicit the “oohs” and “aaahs” of crowds. Jesus uses power to restore others to wholeness, to community, to shalom. Christ’s power is the power to reconcile and restore. Over and over again, Luke is showing us that through the stories he tells. Christ’s power reconciles and restores. And the crazy thing is Christ is always giving away that power to us. The baptismal covenant for the United Methodist Church asks people, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” Do you accept the freedom and the power to be part of God’s redeeming work in this world? Do you accept the freedom and the power?
The biggest lie the Deceiver can tell – Satan, if you want to personify evil, or simply those false tapes in our heads – is that we are powerless. We are not powerless. Around this table this morning, we receive power for life, power to live in the kin-dom of God, power to be citizens of the commonwealth of heaven, power to include others in that Realm, too. So come to this table whether you feel powerless this morning or full of strength. Come to this table this morning to be empowered by the God who came to give life to all. Amen.
 Kirk W. Johnson, author website for To Be a Friend is Fatal and The List Project, http://kirkwjohnson.com/the-list/