Know Thy Power
A sermon preached by the Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson
Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, MN
January 6, 2019
In a story about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this past week, The New York Times recounted her telling of a time, early in her career, when she was even then one of the most powerful individuals in the California Democratic Party and indeed the country, and she was worried she ought to share some of that power with others in the party. She confided this worry with a colleague and friend, another congresswoman. Her friend’s response? She reminded Speaker Pelosi that no man either of them knew or could think of in politics would give up his power. Why should she? Rather than give it up, this colleague admonished her, “Know thy power!”
Know thy power.
As we enter today into the season of the Epiphany, there is perhaps no better admonition for all of us. This is a season and a story with the dynamics of power at its heart. Yet, as the church, we struggle with recognizing our power, we struggle to acknowledge it, to even admit we have it. You see, power is a sticky subject – it seems to hold largely negative connotations in our public discourse. We tend to think of it as only being appropriately used in the secular and political sphere. Still, even when leaders like our Speaker or our President discuss power and its use openly and so baldly as I have just shared, we cringe a little. We cringe because even when it is gussied up in the guise of pant suits, lapel pins, and bold ties, power as we have come to define it in our culture and across cultures has, at its core, notions of strength and violence. Power is the ability to control, to suppress, to destroy, and, yes, even to fight back. And, it is this understanding that shapes our reluctance to discuss power and its use or to claim that we have it, within the church.
But, here we have a story, this morning, that invites us again, to know our power. The wise men, likely Zoroastrian priests, known for gazing at the stars to predict coming events, have been compelled by their celestial observations to come in search of a newborn king. And, in their quest, they have come to King Herod, king of Israel, a man whose political power rests tenuously on the fickle support of his subjects and the backing of an occupying empire, Rome. They come with their quest and in so doing they reveal that a potential usurper has been born, according to the prophecy they say in Bethlehem. And, Herod, desiring to retain his power and to snuff out this newborn king, sends them on to Bethlehem with instruction that they should return to him with more information and directions so that he might go and pay his respects. This, and the subsequent slaughter of innocents in Bethlehem when the wise men do not return, makes it a story that resists sentimentality. Here is a story of political might, violence, and brutality. This is not the stuff of sweet pageants and Christmas cards. And, the wise men, upon meeting the Christ child, pay him homage, bestowing kingly gifts, and then, knowing what it means to defy a tyrant in his own realm, they return home by another route. Theirs is an act of defiance and resistance. They will not be co-opted by the power and influence of the crown or the empire that backs him. They will not collaborate with violence.
As theologian Karoline Lewis writes:
“What an appropriate Epiphany text. A story that reveals our Messiah, our Savior, as one whose very presence is a kind of power that the powerful hate. A story that exposes our innate response to that which and those who might challenge our established and wished for power. A story that invites us to wonder if we would return to Herod or go God’s way.” (emphasis mine)
The response of the wise men is a response born out of bearing witness to the very revelation, the epiphany of God, to the power and glory of God present in a little child. And this response to resist Herod took courage and trust that that revelation meant something for them and for the world.
That courage is needed in our world now more than ever. It is the courage to know our power and to use it. And, we know that when the church neglects her power, not only do we leave the vulnerable and the powerless truly susceptible to further oppression and violence, we also abandon our own core identity and fail to bring the power and revelation of Jesus to light in the world.
There is no better evidence of this than in the atrocities of the Holocaust and the Church’s response to it. While we know that good people, many of them Christians, worked and fought to bring an end to the Nazi regime and its senseless slaughter of millions of Jews and others, many in the church greeted the virulent nationalism and racist identity politics of the Third Reich with open arms. Still more in the church were silent. Our witness has never fully recovered as a result. One theologian, largely unknown in the wider world today, worked in real time, as Hitler was in power, to speak up and out against the power of the Nazis. I am going to guess you have never heard of her, her name was Elisabeth Schmitz. In a church that largely remembers the names of Bonhoeffer, Niemöller, and Barth, Schmitz is an unsung hero whose practical theology made her an outspoken critic and resister to the heretical theologies the Nazi apologists and theologians used to prop up it’s aryan supremacist worldview.
Like Bonhoeffer and Barth, her better known contemporaries, Schmitz had the same pedigree and formation. All three it could be argued became in time opponents of the Nazis, risking life and limb to undermine the policies and power of Hitler and his cronies. But, alone of the three, Schmitz used her seat as a theologian, as a practicing Christian, to write and speak directly to those in power, those who used their power to corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. While Barth and Bonhoeffer often seemed to imply and assume their theology was directed at the toxic ideologies afoot in Europe in their day, not once did either speak directly to the issue of the Holocaust in their scholarly works. Schmitz on the other hand was incessant. And, when she wasn’t speaking against the Nazis and the Holocaust, she was lobbying Barth in particular to use his voice as well. He never did, arguing in his writing that the church should not let her mission or theology be influenced or directed by the political machinations of those in power or the crises they concoct. The Confessing Church, known for living its witness in resistance to the Nazi occupation, largely ignored her appeal to join her in speaking out publicly. When she died, Schmitz was largely unknown. Seven people purportedly attended her funeral. Only recently, in 2011 was her work and writing recognized with the posthumous awarding of the honorific “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Israeli Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem. Neither Barth or Bonhoeffer made the cut.
The church’s proclamation is a powerful one because it is a proclamation that is rooted in the incarnation, cross, and resurrection of Jesus. And, as we have come to know, this is a power that is deeply practical, covered as it is in real flesh and blood, resting atop the muck of the manger, and surrounded by shepherds and the livestock they tend. Yet, so few have had the courage to proclaim that power and make it known. Perhaps that is because we know all too well how the powerful respond to such a confrontation. Power as we have come to experience it in the world is not afraid to use violence and brutality. As we see in the events following the Wise Men’s departure, as Herod slays all the young boys under the age of 2 in the area surrounding Bethlehem, we know that power is most often used to destroy.
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes:
“Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be… to protect the power of tyrants. Christians are tempted to believe that the death of the children of Bethlehem can be redeemed by Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection.” But, he says, such a belief is perverse. Rather, he writes “the victory of the resurrection does not mean that these children are any less dead or their parents any less bereaved, but rather resurrection makes it possible for followers of Jesus not to lie about the world that we believe has been redeemed”.
The power of Jesus, a power that is ours for the asking, is the power to speak honestly about the atrocities of the powerful and the vulnerable they would crush underfoot. It is the power to name the truth about Black Lives and the experience of being “other” in our communities. It is the power to tell the truth about Flint, Michigan or our border and those who daily stream there, just as Jesus and his parents fled to Egypt, seeking to save their lives. It is the power to name the lies of leaders, no matter the consequence!
You see, the power of Jesus, the Resurrected One, is a power that compelled a movement. It is a power that eschews violence and resists the co-opting influence of Rome and Empire. It is a power that liberates us to speak truth in a violent world. It is not the power of politicians and presidents. It is the power to name clearly and courageously those things that could very well cost us our life. This morning the church is invited again to wonder with the Wise Men – will we go Herod’s way or God’s?
Will we know our power?