Homily, July 7, 2024

Today the lectionary brings us three lessons about power. 

What is power? Well, my background before becoming a priest is in the field of anthropology, and anthropologists think a lot about power. Here are a few elements of a definition.  Power is a measure of someone’s ability to control the environment and people around them, including the ability to make people think or act in certain ways. Power can take many forms: Coercive power – the power to make people do things. Persuasive power – the power to convince people to do things. Normative power – the power to get people to think that’s just the way things are…  

There’s economic power, institutional power, social power, and much more. Power is not something we only find at work in the realm of institutional politics but is woven through every aspect of life. Even the spaces where we intentionally set aside power and inequality are are formed and chosen over against the backdrop of the established power and status relations of our lives. 

Our first lesson today, from the second book of Samuel, is about political power.  We see David ascending to the kingship of all of Israel, all the tribes and territories of God’s people, after having already been king over Judah – one of the territories – for seven years. As soon as his kingship is established, David calls for an attack on what will become Jerusalem, which was inhabited by a neighboring people, the Jebusites. 

Why conquer and claim Jerusalem as the City of David, instead of naming a city within the existing territory of the people Israel? Conquering a new city to be his stronghold and capital was probably intended as a way to show boldly that David’s was a kingship of all Israel, not beholden to any of the existing tribes or territories. 

The next step will be bringing the Ark of the Covenant, the greatest symbol of God’s presence and favor, to David’s capitol city – as a sign of the divine rightness of his kingship. 

David’s ultimate project, here, is elevating what it means to be a king, in Israel, from basically being the biggest baddest tribal chief, to a settled institution with a capital city, a palace, a temple (eventually), the ability to command armies and levy taxes, and all that good stuff. Reading between the lines, we can see that the scope of political power itself is changing, in these chapters of second Samuel. 

We can ponder, too, the politics embedded in the way this story was written down and passed on to us. Last Sunday I gestured towards the fascinating paradox of the saga of David as found in Scripture: Much of it presents David as God’s chosen king, righteous and holy. But there are these cracks in the story that show us something darker and more complex – leaving us to wonder what we are to make of David. 

This particular chunk of the story, though, is sheer propaganda, legitimating David’s rule and lineage. The people flattered him, and begged him to be their king; how could he say no? How could anyone question his reign? … 

Next, we have the apostle Paul, author of our reading from the second letter to the church in Corinth, also talking about power. There’s a real contrast between the Paul we know from his letters preserved in Scripture, and the Paul of real life. In the letters, Paul comes across as strong, bold, and eloquent. But evidently – by his own testimony! – he was not very impressive in person, neither charismatic or compelling. 

People have speculated extensively over the centuries about the “thorn in the flesh” that he mentions here – presumably some chronic illness or disability, something that set him back and limited him. If people were drawn to Paul – and many were not! – they were drawn to him by the depth of his commitment to Jesus and by the hardships he endured because of that commitment. 

This passage contains of Paul’s deep learnings: that sometimes his weakness makes room for God’s strength, God’s power. This is an important truth, and one that I am on my own long-term journey with! 

I take a lot of delight in offering my capacities and capabilities to God for the service of God’s church. I don’t much like not being good at something, or not being able to do something, because it’s beyond my skill or capacity. 

Paul’s hard-won insight here reminds me of what I know to be true: that sometimes our weaknesses, failures, and inadequacies leave room for God to do something else with that situation. To unfold some other possibility that I would not have thought of. To let someone else step in and use their gifts. To let something not happen, which is also, sometimes, a necessary grace. 

Maybe some of you also need to sit with – to wrestle with – this truth.

Finally, our Gospel today is another story about another kind of power – the divine power of God at work in and through Jesus, fully human and fully God. 

Mark’s Gospel offers us fascinating glimpses of how Jesus’ power might have worked. Last week we heard about the woman who approached Jesus in the crowd, seeking healing. She touched the hem of his cloak and was immediately healed. The text says that the power goes out from Jesus – without his even seeing the woman; the holy, healing power within him just responds to her need. 

Today, we hear about the complaints and resistance of the people of his hometown. This passage has a life beyond the Biblical text because it’s such a familiar and human dynamic. Many of us know about going back to your hometown, literal or metaphorical, and having folks just be unable to see who you are now. 

Instead they see you through the lens of your family, or of who you were, or who they expected you to become, when you left town at 18.

God help you if you haven’t lived up to your perceived potential. 

And God help you if you’ve gone farther than expected – laying you open to the criticism of “getting above your raising.” These folks definitely think Jesus is getting above his raising. Who does he think he is??? 

These Gospel stories suggest to me that God’s power is eager to do good in us and for us; but seems to need some openness from us. We have our own power to block or deny. Which is not – I hasten to say – to suggest that if we’re not receiving healing or grace, it’s because we’re not thinking good enough thoughts. But it is, I think, an invitation to examine our own openness – and our own resistance – to the possibility that God might want to be at work in us and in our lives. 

Political power, personal power, divine power. The forces that shape our daily lives and our larger, common life … for the worse, or the better. 

We’ll continue now with our usual readings from American history – some familiar, some new this year. These, too, are readings about power. I invite you to notice that, as you listen. I invite you, too, if you like, to underline or note any word or phrase that particularly stands out to you…