Sermon for July 4, 2021

Pentecost 6/Lectionary 14B, Mark 6:1-13

That Independence Day falls on a Sunday gives us occasion to think about the meaning of this day, with special attention perhaps to the nature of power in our nation these days.

Alas, for many today, it seems, the theme of independence can be reduced to rugged individualism, that I as a lone individual am independent from anybody else and can press my advantage and exercise my own power over any and all others at will.

Moreover, as we reflect on the state of our nation, and that of other nations in the world, we see a rise in a kind of populism that seems to prefer leaders to be radical individualist strongmen (and they almost always are men…) who exercise power by sheer force.

Furthermore, there is a tendency these days to rely on military approaches to dilemmas sometimes to the exclusion of diplomatic solutions.

Today is a national holiday, but it’s also Sunday, the Lord’s Day, the day of assembly for God’s people – and thanks be to God that we are doing it in person indoors in our more usual ways in our beloved church building!

Thus, we are beckoned also to turn our attention to the approach to power exhibited by Jesus as seen in today’s readings which bear witness to Christ and his ways.

To be sure, there is generally a human tendency to attempt to create Jesus in our own image. Even Jesus’ closest followers wanted him to be someone he wasn’t, that is, a political revolutionary who would assume power in traditional human ways, namely, by force.

Some Christians in our own day call for a muscular Jesus who reflects the mores of our current socio-political culture more than traits of a prince of peace.

Hence the importance of looking at the scriptures closely and carefully to see what they in fact suggest about Jesus’ approach to power.

The story about Jesus’ visit to his hometown and its synagogue is telling. Some of the hometown crowds took offense at Jesus’ teaching. They were astounded that Jesus, son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and his sisters, was doing deeds of power. “Where did this man get all this?” they asked.

The result of all of this skepticism, as Mark reports, is that Jesus “could do no deed of power there, except he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.”

Why was Jesus able to do few deeds of power in his hometown? In short, Jesus’ power in relation to people is a power with people, not a power over them. Jesus’ approach to power centers on cultivating trust, not coercion.

Thus, the power of Jesus also relates to belief, to faith, faith conceived as trust. Willingness is another important theme here and related to trust. Or to put it in more familiar political terms of our day, Jesus’ approach to power is one that rests on the consent of the governed, as it were.

Jesus was amazed at the unbelief of those in his hometown. Unbelief might also be translated absence of faith, a lack of trust in Jesus. This unbelief inhibited what otherwise would have been the release of Jesus’ power

We also see Jesus’ approach to power reflected in today’s reading from Mark in his instruction to the twelve whom he sent out two by two: “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”

Here, the power of the disciples doing deeds in Jesus’ name is all about welcome, an approach to power, again, that is about the willingness of the other to receive the power and not to be coerced by others to receive it unwillingly.

Furthermore, the apostle Paul reveals much about the kind of Christly power followers of Jesus pursue when he concludes in today’s reading from 2 Corinthians which centers on a word he received from the Lord: “‘My grace is sufficient for you, [the Lord said] for power is made perfect in weakness.’ [Paul continues in his own words] So, I will boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

In short, in today’s New Testament readings, we see nothing of so-called toxic masculinity in Christly approaches to power.

Rather, it’s all about power centered in the cross, a symbol of weakness for those on the receiving end of crucifixion, but a sign of violent, imperial power by those doing the crucifying.

But from a divine vantage point and perspective, the cross is all about the ultimate power of almighty, omnipotent God, and the paradox that God is as God’s most powerful, in fact, in the humiliation of execution by crucifixion.

For on the cross, God turns the logic of the world upside down by making the cross a tree of life for the healing and salvation of the world.

Cruciform power confronts the world’s law’s or rules concerning power with a power rooted in vulnerability and perceived weakness, a witness to the transgressive, rebellious, impudent, and stubborn, not unlike those spoken of in today’s first reading from Ezekiel.

Cruciform power is a witness that can turn stubborn hearts and minds into willing hearts and minds and result in faith.

Again, this paradoxical kind of sacred power embodied by Jesus on the tree of life intimately involves the willing trust of those who look to the cross for salvation. We apprehend the cross’ wisdom by faith. The witness of the cross can generate faith in the power of the Spirit.

And all of this resonates deeply with the Lutheran emphasis on faith, on trust in Christ Jesus. Sola fide. Faith alone, along with grace alone, Christ alone, scripture alone.

This faith-oriented, faith-centered, faith-derived power is exemplified also in our Christian life together, our sacramental practices.

Think about Lutheran understandings of the efficacy of baptism. Luther writes in the Small Catechism: “How can water do such great things? Clearly the water does not do it, but the word of God, which is with and alongside the water, and faith, which trusts this word of God with water.” Word, water, faith work together and release the power of the Holy Spirit to do great things in the sacrament.

Likewise, the efficacy of the sacrament of the altar. Again, Luther writes in the Small Catechism: “Who, then, receives this sacrament worthily? Fasting and bodily preparation are in fact a fine external discipline, but a person who has faith in these words, ‘given for you’ and ‘shed for you for the forgiveness of sin,’ is really worthy and well prepared. However, a person who does not believe these words or doubts them in unworthy and unprepared, because the words ‘for you’ require truly believing hearts.” Here again, faith is part of the dynamic of Christ being made known to us in the breaking of the bread.

In short, sacramental power involves the dimension of faith, of trust, of the willingness of those partaking consistent with the scriptural witness about Jesus’ approach to power. On this day of return to our usual place of assembly, it’s important to state again the basics of our life together.

The power of Christ enacted in his earthly ministry, and the power of Christ evident in our life together contrasts so sharply with ordinary notions of power, especially today when our world is bathed in the violence of coercive power of one sort or another.

Here’s a concluding observation: The faith-focused power of Jesus made perfect in weakness has been operative, I believe, in our whole approach as a congregation to the pandemic, the fact that we are only now returning to worshiping in person in doors.

For the sake of neighbor love in protecting those most vulnerable among us in the congregation and in the wider community, we have refrained from exercising our individual and independent power and freedom to assemble in person indoors.

Indeed, some Christian groups early in the pandemic asserted themselves to meet in person indoors as a demonstration of their powers for free religious assembly.

Not so among us in our congregation. Even now we restrain some of our freedom, independence and individual power by asking that we all continue to wear masks – again, out of solidarity with those not yet vaccinated, especially young children.

May such a witness in Jesus’ name be leaven in the loaf of our wider society, victimized as it is, as we are, by violent, coercive powers of all kinds. May our Christian witness continue Christ’s power made perfect in weakness that heals the nations. Amen.