Sunday, July 22, 2012

“The Comers and Goers”


Mark 6:  30-46
July 22, 2012
Ordinary Time
First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

Here’s something that I’m sure will shock you: I was better at taking care of myself before I had kids.

If you asked me to describe parenthood in one word, that word would be relentless.

Once it starts, you never shut it off. When I’m with my children I am constantly aware of their every need. I can be making dinner, talking on the phone, shooing the dog out of the kitchen, letting my mind wander to the e-mail I need to send after I get off the phone, and still – STILL! – acutely aware that my two year old is opening up a box of crayons in the other room and that the baby will need to be picked up soon because he’s getting bored with his stuffed elephant.

When I’m away from my children it’s a bit of a break, to be sure. But you still can’t “shut it off.” They never leave my mind. When I go to a social event without them it takes me a solid 30 minutes to realize that I can stop straining my ears for the sound of the baby monitor because they’re not with me.

Parenting is relentless. Day after day after day.

In all of the wiping runny noses, preparing meals, changing diapers, kissing boo boos, doing laundry, playing games, planning outings, and buckling the carseat there is a rhythm to parenting which makes it exceedingly difficult to remember yourself. You become so incredibly involved in the lives of these tiny people that you focus all your energies there.

This is why parents who are new at it look a bit like the walking dead, I think. And it’s why parents who have just emptied their nest look slightly elated and lost all at the same time. And for those of you who have walked the road of elder care or who have nursed a partner through a significant illness, I can only imagine it’s very much the same. Your life is consumed with caring for someone else.

When you become entirely consumed with caring for someone else, you start to lose touch with what it means to take care of yourself.  Can I get an Amen?

And yet, as we wear these relentless hats of caregiving, we still find brief moments of respite.

At the end of a long day, I crash into bed with my baby and nurse him. He drifts off to sleep and I have absolutely nothing to do but be there with him and rest. For twenty or thirty blissful minutes my role of caregiver allows me to simultaneously care for myself. I allow my mind to wander, to empty. I pray. I rest. I do nothing. It’s a beautiful thing.

“Rest. Come away and rest,” Jesus says to his disciples in today’s passage from Mark. These words beckon to us from the page like a summer rain in a drought-parched land.

Surely nothing is more soothing than the idea of rest. Peace. Restoration.

Now some of you might be thinking, “Ugh. All I do is rest. My days march by, one after the other and they are all the same. How I long for the days when I was busy. When there were people who depended on me. I’ve had all the rest I need right now. What I could use today is a little action. A little distraction. Something new and interesting.”

To you I say, hang with me. Because I believe today’s passage from Mark speaks to those of us who suffer from all kinds of busy-ness and those who would love to have something to fill their days.

Jesus calls out to those of us who are weary from caring for others and themselves.

Jesus speaks to those who aimlessly fill their lives with nonsense because they don’t know how to quiet themselves.

And Jesus speaks to those who long for finding meaning through restorative work – the kind that leaves you feeling replenished, not broken down. The kind that reminds you that who you are and what you do in this world matters.

**********************

One of the things I love about the Bible is how it reminds me that people are people are people – no matter the era or location. Mark’s disciples are a favorite of many Christians because they are such a bumbling lot. Constantly messing up. Constantly missing out. Constantly endearing themselves to us because – hey, if they can follow Jesus, surely we can, too, right?

They’re endearing in this passage, too. Just back from their most impressive tour yet, they are tired. They’ve been healing the sick, traveling with nothing on their back, relying on the hospitality of strangers, scared to death about their growing notoriety.

And they return to Jesus like small children clamoring for their parent’s approval at the end of a long day at school – Mark says they gathered around him and told them all they had done and taught.

Was Jesus proud of him? Surely he was. Notice, for example, that this is the only place in Mark where the author of the gospel refers to them as “apostles” – a clear promotion over disciples. Disciples are those who follow Jesus and learn from him. Apostles are those who are sent out to work on behalf of Jesus.

So I’m pretty sure Jesus was proud of them. But does he tell them this when they come running home, bragging about all their accomplishments? No.

What he says is this, “ Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

Jesus knows that what theses apostles need, more than having their egos stroked, is rest. They need to go somewhere deserted where they can refuel. The word used here for rest is a passive verb – to be restored – and it’s the same verb used to describe Sabbath rest in other parts of the Bible. This is not just any old break from their duties. It’s a pause that restores. A break that builds them up for the next journey.

Mark continues on – describing the state of these exhausted apostles. “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.”

One of the commentators I read this week said a better translation would be, “For many were the comers and goers…” because these are nouns in the Greek, not verbs.[1] The comers and goers. Those that can’t stay in one place.

Our world is filled with comers and goers. Just like Jesus’s world, I suppose.

I read an opinion column in the New York Times a few weeks ago called “The Busy Trap” by Tim Krieder.[2] He laments the culture of busy-ness that we seem to worship in our culture. I laughed aloud at this story he shared,

I recently wrote a friend to ask if he wanted to do something this week, and he answered that he didn’t have a lot of time but if something was going on to let him know and maybe he could ditch work for a few hours. I wanted to clarify that my question had not been a preliminary heads-up to some future invitation; this was the invitation. But his busyness was like some vast churning noise through which he was shouting out at me, and I gave up trying to shout back over it.”

I laughed because I have been on the receiving end of such an interchange with many friends. And I cringed because I have been the annoying, noncommittal friend, too.

Krider talks about how we all love to be busy. You know the conversation, “Hey, how are you?” “Busy, man. Crazy busy!” because that’s a good thing to be in our culture.

But Krider also talks about another kind of busy-ness:

Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs  who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet.”

This is the kind of busy-ness the apostles were experiencing. This was not some kind of frantic, need-to-fill-the-emptiness busy that has surely afflicted people in every age and place. This was another kind of busy-ness. The busy-ness that belongs to those who give care.

The busy-ness of a parent caring for a child, a child caring for a aging parent, a nurse emptying the bedpan one more time, a scientist closing down her lab at midnight yet again because she knows that her work matters, a social worker closing his door and weeping for the brokenness of a system that makes him feel like he is always, always banging his fists against locked doors.

Tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet.

That’s what they were. And Jesus told them to rest. Come away and rest.

And if the Bible weren’t so darn complicated, what I would love to do is stand here and tell you the same. Come away and rest, friends…all you who are weary and heavy-laden and Jesus will give you rest.

But the problem with that lovely image is this: the disciples don’t actually get much rest in this passage. They quickly get on the boat and start hauling their tired selves away from the crowds. But the crowds – those pesky crowds! – follow them. They arrive at the other side of the shore before the disciples can get there. And Jesus – the same guy who just told the disciples to take a break – had compassion on the crowds and began to teach them many things.

Well, it stated to get late and the disciples started to get annoyed. They said, “Um, excuse me, Jesus? Yeah, so we’re trying to rest here – you know, like you told us to do? And it’s late. And these people are loud. Can you get them out of here? Send them away to the next town so they can go eat some dinner.”

And Jesus responds, “You feed them.”

Wait. Say what? We’re trying to rest here, Jesus. You sent us here to take a break, remember?

The social worker lifts his head off his desk and blots his eyes with a tissue as his phone rings for the 18th time that afternoon.

The scientist drags her weary body to the lab at 6am, cup of coffee in hand. She knows she won’t see the sky again until it’s dark that evening.

The nurse checks her watch. Her shift ended 5 minutes ago, but there’s one more patient she needs to see before she goes home.

The grown child calls her husband to say she’ll be home in the morning, “Mom needs me to stay with her tonight.”

The father wakes in the night with a start. The baby is crying. He groans and pulls himself from his warm bed to change yet another diaper.

You see – Jesus understood.

Jesus understood this constant struggle between busy-ness and rest. Between caring for the other and caring for ourselves. Did he know that you’re supposed to put the air mask on yourself before you help the person next to you? Yes, he did. Did he always do that? No, he did not.

As much as I want to say you’re always supposed to rest and take care of yourself, it’s just more complicated than that. There are occasions that simply require us to go past our breaking point to the place where we are lifted up by a force we cannot understand. There are places and times where we will push ourselves to care for others when we thought we had nothing left to give. And in those places and times there will be something of Christ in each of us.

I’m not talking about busy-ness for the sake of busy-ness, friends. There is no true joy or meaning to be found there.

And I’m not encouraging you to be a martyr or to continually deplete yourselves for the sake of the other. God created you to enjoy life and God needs you to find a way to care for yourself.

There is a give and take. After Jesus told them to rest, he told them to feed the 5,000, and after they had done that he made them get back into the boat to seek more rest. And then he went onto the mountain himself to pray and find his own restoration. It comes and goes in waves, you see.

And so to all of you my challenge and deepest hopes for you are these:

I pray that you will find restoration when you need it. I hope that you will hear Jesus’s voice coming to you in the midst of your care saying, “Come and rest.”

I pray that you will find the strength to go on caring when you thought you had nothing left to give. And, when you do, I hope your realize it is the energy of our Holy Friend holding you aloft.

I pray that you will find meaningful and restorative work in the days ahead. I hope that you will end each day knowing you did your best to heed Christ’s call to “give them something to eat.”

I pray that you will notice the waves of busy-ness and restoration that pass over each of us as our days flow by. It is my sincere hope that mindfulness will help steady your boat in the rough seas of life.

For all of you comers and goers – may you be open to both the challenge and comfort of Christ in the days ahead.





[1] http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2012/07/from-he-to-they-then-back-again.html
[2] http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/

Monday, July 16, 2012

“The Resurrection of John"


July 15, 2012
Ordinary Time
First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

We’re about a third of the way through the Gospel of Mark and it’s starting to get real.

If you have a chance sometime, get out Mark’s Gospel and just sit down and start reading it. It’s almost impossible to find a decent resting place once you get going. The action is just nonstop – miracle after miracle, long day after long day, and everyone is always and everywhere scared, scared, scared. Thus far, Jesus has been on a whirlwind tour of power – healing the sick, curing lepers, casting out demons, raising the dead, and this train feels like it’s moving full-speed ahead.

And then, suddenly, in the midst of all this action – the engine falters and we lurch to a stop.

Today’s lection from Mark just doesn’t fit. It’s detailed, drawn-out. It’s about something that already happened in the past. And it’s the only story in Mark where Jesus is not present for the action.

If you were here last week you’ll remember that we worked with the story of Jesus going to his hometown of Nazareth, in Galilee. The folks back home weren’t too impressed with him – reminding him, not so kindly, that he was just the lowly son of Mary and should stop acting too big for his carpenter’s britches. Jesus responded by sending his disciples out, two-by-two in the countryside to heal the sick and perform deeds of power and authority.

So we’re rolling, rolling, rolling along and suddenly we learn that the nameless folks in Jesus’s hometown aren’t the only ones keeping a watchful eye on his antics. There are others watching, too. Namely, Herod. And Herod isn’t pleased with the reports he’s receiving from the countryside.

Mark calls this man “King Herod” but that’s not entirely accurate. This man, Herod Antipas, was technically a tetrach, which is a fancy way of saying that he ruled over only part of the kingdom. Specifically, Herod Antipas ruled over Galilee, where Jesus was from and where his disciples were roving about healing the sick and generally making a scene.




Herod Antipas, like his father before him, was a real person. That much we know for sure. There is a giant 20-volume work of history called Antiquities written by a first-century Jewish historian named Josephus. If bells are going off in your head right now, your Western Civ teacher is probably smiling somewhere because you vaguely remember Josephus’s name. He’s kind of a big deal.

So, what we know about Herod Antipas we can piece together from the writings of Josephus and the bits and pieces of information we have about him in the Second Testament.

Herod and his family were a part of a dynasty of rulers chosen and maintained by the Roman Empire to watch over Judea. You might remember Herod father, Herod the Great, from his appearance in the birth narrative of Jesus in Matthew. You remember him, right? He’s the guy that killed off all the male children under the age of two in Bethlehem because he heard that the Messiah of the Jewish people had been born there.

When Herod the Great died, his kingdom was divided among his sons, and the Herod from today’s story ended up ruling over Galilee. His distinguishing name – Antipas – isn’t so distinctive after all. It just means, “like his father” and we can see that he did, indeed, have some things in common with his father.

Jesus – the one who so frightened Herod the Great – escaped his attack, as we all know. And here he is, all grown up, making waves, and Herod-the-son-who-is-like-his-father is left to deal with the one who got away all those years ago.

Mark says that “Jesus’s name had become known.”

Now you might think this would be a good thing, right? I mean, if someone told me that President Obama had been paying attention to my activities I’d probably feel pretty good about that. But in this case, of course, being known is not such a good deal for Jesus.

People were trying to figure out who this Jesus really was and they were making all kinds of guesses. Some said he was John the Baptist, back from the dead. Others said, “No, he’s Elijah,” and, still others believed he was a prophet like from the good old days. Herod, pondering all these things about this strange man, Jesus, declared, “It’s John. John is back from the dead.”

John – such a common name for such an uncommon man. In Mark he appears out of nowhere in the wilderness, bursting onto the page with great force in the first chapter of Mark. He is the beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the son of God. He proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

John is a common name. It means “God is a gracious giver” or “one who is graced by God.”

In Mark we don’t have the beautiful birth narrative of John the Baptist that we find in Luke. But by the time Luke wrote folks seemed to have been in agreement that this John was important enough to need a birth story – a good one – and Luke doesn’t disappoint. You remember this one – John’s father, Zechariah, is silenced after failing to believe the good news from the angel. His mother, Elizabeth, feels her son jump in her womb upon seeing her relative, Mary, who is also pregnant. And at his birth he is given the name John – graced by God; God is a gracious giver. No one in his family has this name and so everyone is shocked that he’s been named John – but his father, once unsure, steadily writes his name on a tablet to confirm it: “His name is John.”

John – graced by God; God is a gracious giver.

And this gift of John was to be for one thing: to prepare the way.

There were so many Johns around that this John needed a name to set him apart from the others and so people started calling him John the Baptist or John the Baptizer because that’s mostly what he did. But one thinker I encountered this week referred to him as John the Waymaker and I love that name most of all.

And so here we have, in the midst of the fast-paced action of the Gospel of Mark, the image of a ruler, surrounded by advisors who are chatter-chattering about this strange man Jesus. The freight train that has been chug-chugging along grinds to a halt and we’re all stuck inside Herod’s head as he remembers this train-wreck of a story. And, like all good train-wreck stories, this one is impossible to ignore. Try as we might, we can’t avert our eyes from this gruesome tale of political intrigue, family dynamics, drunken revelry, sexual impropriety, and – in the midst of it all – a prophet from God sent to prepare the way of our Lord Jesus.

It seems likely that one part of this story is accurate – Herod does seem to have killed John the Baptist. The Gospels and Josephus disagree on most of the other details.

Trying to figure out exactly what happened won’t aid us much on our quest for the gospel, though, so I think it’s best to just stick with Mark’s version of the story. Because regardless of how this political murder went down, Mark tells it this way for a reason, right? And understanding a bit more about how and why Mark tells us will help us find the good news in the mist of a terribly gruesome and disturbing story.



One thing that stands out right away about Mark’s version is that he seems to get some of the names of the characters wrong.

Herod gets promoted to King and his new wife’s daughter who comes in to do the dancing is named Herodias, even though all the other sources call her Salome. I don’t know why this is – some people think maybe Mark just got the details wrong. But Mark is usually so careful with his words, so terse and precise, that I feel like there must be some other reason.

My theory is that he wants to play up the power of Herod (whose name, by the way, means “hero’s song”) and he does it by calling him King, giving his step-daughter his same name, and binding the whole family together with the name of the Herodian Dynasty. “The specific players in this little drama don’t matter too much, you see, so let’s not get caught up with details about the daughter’s actual name,” Mark seems to be saying.

This is a story about the powers-that-be, namely the “heroes” of the world, versus John and Jesus.

The other thing that is immediately apparent is that you get all these echoes from various other stories about an outsider in a king’s court. There are echoes of Esther, Ahaz and Jezebel, Judith and Holofernes and more. Women who dance; women who are rewarded with their heart’s desires; women who cut off heads or ask for them on platters.

These are stories about the power of those who should have power – the Herods of the world – versus those who shouldn’t – the Johns and Jesuses of the world.

And, of course, you have that last sentence, “When John’s disciples heard about it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.” Which makes us think, of course, of the other body that we know will be laid in a tomb by the time Mark’s story is over.

It’s a bizarre little story. So very unlike Mark to include all of these details and to spend time and energy on a story that’s not about Jesus anyway. Why is it here? Right smack in the middle of the twelve going out to heal the sick and them returning to discover 5,000 hungry people who need to be fed with just five loaves of bread and two fish.

Just as the disciples are really getting their acts together, Mark interjects this major downer of a story. Why?




Well, most commentators seem to be in agreement on that one – Mark puts this story here to remind us that following Jesus was dangerous business. Just as the disciples are really starting to show off, Mark wants us to remember that there’s only one thing you’ll be rewarded with for showing off – and that’s a gruesome death – just like the one waiting for Jesus at the end of Mark’s story.

But here’s the thing I think they’re missing: why does Herod pause to recall this story about the death of John?

He is reminded of it for one simple reason: he believes John has come back to haunt him.

He believes Jesus is John all over again: brought back from the dead – back to pester him – back to call his family into question – back to undermine his authority – back to haunt him.

Although he saw John’s head on a platter and knows he is dead, there is something about this guy that just won’t go away. There is something about the very spirit of John that refuses to die. Just when Herod thought he was rid of him, here he comes back around again, this time under the name of Jesus and – once again – he’s got a following.

Herod tried to kill him, but it didn’t work.

It didn’t work.

And so, to all of those fine scholars who say this story is a story of warning – a story reminding us that those who follow Christ will end up laid in a tomb just like him, I have to respectfully disagree.

Because the thing is, this isn’t just a story about John’s death. It’s also a story about John’s resurrection.

It’s a story about how a grace-filled prophet couldn’t be held down.

He did what he was called to do. He spoke truth to power. He troubled the rulers of his day. He called it like he saw it. And in doing all of these things, he prepared the way for the Lord.

And, like Jesus after him, he paid for it with his life. But that wasn’t the end of the story, because death couldn’t hold him.

Even Herod – his murderer – recognized that there was something in John that death could not contain.

And I would simply say that the good news in the midst of this horrific story is this: John is not unique.

John is not the only prophet that that powers-that-be couldn’t find a way to silence.

There were many before him, there have been many since him, and there will always be more like him because the light shines in the darkness but the darkness has never put it out. 

Thanks be to God for prophets who lead the way.

Thanks be to God who shines with a light that cannot be extinguished.

Thanks be to God for stories of death that always end with resurrection. Always.

Monday, July 9, 2012

"Deeds of Power"


Mark 6: 1-13
July 8, 2012
Ordinary Time
First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

When you have a two-year-old who is fairly obsessed with fire trucks, you don’t miss the Fourth of July parade. It was insanely hot on Wednesday – but given the option of being stuck in the house yet again or hauling our family downtown so our son could see the fire trucks in all their glory, we opted for the latter.

We got there early and got a spot in the shade. M waited, somewhat patiently, for the fire trucks and I think both David and I breathed a sigh of relief when we discovered they were near the beginning of the parade. It was insanely hot, but we made the right choice – M was not disappointed by the fire trucks or the rest of the parade.

If you’ve never been to the Independence Day Parade in Bloomington, you simply have to go sometime. Maybe some year when it’s not 400 degrees outside at 10:00am. It really is the oddest little parade I’ve ever seen. A little slice of Bloomington. Mixed in with the fire trucks and patriotic floats thanking our veterans, you get these bizarre little groups of adults dressed in costumes like it’s Halloween. Sometimes they’re playing music. Sometimes they’re just walking down the street. It really is a great celebration of our community – which is what it should be.

Some groups received applause when they paraded past. They weren’t the big fancy groups, but the groups that spoke to people’s hearts. Hoosiers for a Commonsense Healthcare Plan go a loud cheer as they walked past, as did the folks from VoteToAmend.org – a group working to undo the damage done by the U.S. Supreme Court with the Citizens United case. And, of course, the Bleeding Heartland Roller Girls received a round of applause when they rolled past. Something about those rollerderby women really speaks to people – I think it’s the way they are supremely confident, comfortable in themselves, strong women.

Although M was thrilled by the fire trucks, there were two big fire trucks that were a bit more than any of us could take. They blared their sirens and horns so loud that M cried and we all had to cover our ears. I looked around and noticed lots of adults with their hands over their ears as those two trucks went past. And when I looked up at the firefighters driving the trucks they seemed to be oblivious – not noticing at all that they were making adults wince and small children cry.

It made me a little cranky. How could they not notice the effects of their power? Didn’t they know they were being too loud?

Power is an important thing. The power to make people laugh at your crazy costumes. The power to inspire people into a round of applause. The power to make people cover their ears and shrink away from you.

Power is important. And how you use it matters.

In the time of Jesus, power was highly concentrated and formalized. Those who had power had primarily been born into it. The government had power – the power to levy taxes, the power to conscript you into military service, the power to take away your land if they felt like it. And some “ordinary folks” with plenty of money or property or the right name had some power – power to influence, power to share or keep to themselves, power to praise or shame others.

Do you know who didn’t have power? Guys like Jesus.

Jesus – the “son of Mary” as he is called in this passage – shouldn’t have had much power. Notice that Mark didn’t call him the “carpenter’s son” but “the carpenter.” In addition to having a fairly menial day job, Jesus didn’t seem to have a father – which was a problem. Anyone who had to be identified simply as the son of his mother was not someone worth paying much attention to.

When Jesus went back to his hometown of Nazareth, the folks there knew him. And they knew he shouldn’t have power – not according to the standards of their society.

So the problem, of course, was that Jesus was claiming a great deal of power. Thus far, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has been on a whirlwind tour of power – healing people left and right, preaching and teaching everywhere he went, cleansing a leper, quieting a storm on the sea, commanding a demon to leave a man’s body, and – finally, just before this scene – raising a young girl from the dead.

You’d better believe that when you start bringing people back from the dead, folks sit up and take notice.

So now we have Jesus, back in his hometown, and when Jesus starts to teach in the synagogue, the folks in Nazareth aren’t having it. They can’t seem to make sense of how Jesus – son of Mary, just Mary – could be claiming the authority to teach.

Jesus’s response? “Eh. No big deal. Prophets are never honored in their own hometowns. I’ll move along.” And the author of Mark tells us that Jesus couldn’t do any deeds of power in Nazareth – well, except for curing a few sick people. Which, last time I checked, was a pretty big deal.

When you’re dealing with a powerhouse like Jesus, he’s hard to shut down – even in his own hometown.

Power is something many of us don’t spend a ton of time thinking about in an intentional way, but it affects nearly every interaction we have with other humans.

When I’m walking down the street and I see a man who is much larger than me and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and I move to the other side of the sidewalk, you’d better believe I’m thinking about power on some level. When we talk to our bosses, our friends, our parents, our children, our neighbors, our senators, our teachers, the homeless woman outside the library, or the kid bagging our groceries at the store – we’re thinking about power on some level. Even if it’s not explicit.

I had a conversation with a woman earlier this week about financial power. She wanted to know whether it was a bad thing to want to make more money so she could spread it around some more – help people, give to non-profits, support the arts, etc. I said, absolutely not! I think it’s a grand thing to try and earn more money so you can help people.

The use of our money is a key way that almost all of us – even children with small allowances – exercise power over others. The choices we make when we go to the store affect people in our local community and around the world. It’s an astounding thing to think about, really. And, like all kinds of power, money scares some of us off a bit. While some people gravitate towards positions of power and wealth, others shrink from it – not wanting to have power over other people.

This woman who wanted to give more to others also wondered about the ethics of giving money instead of time. She wondered if giving money was just a cop-out because it buys you distance from the very people you’re helping. You write a check but you don’t ever see the person you actually help.

This was a more difficult question for me and I don’t have a hard-and-fast answer. Because spending time with people, interacting with them face-to-face – that’s power, too. A simple smile or a handshake for a person panhandling on the street – an act that simple has the power to completely change a person’s day. An ongoing relationship with a person in need – seeing them week in and week out at the Interfaith Winter Shelter, for example – an act like that has the power to change lives.

We all have power – like it or not. Even those of us who feel like we don’t have as much power as we used to, or as much power as we want, have some measure of power.

And when we’re trying to figure out what to do with that power – be it our money, our words, our time, our actions – we really can’t hope for a better guide than Jesus. Told by the elders in his hometown that he doesn’t have power, he shrugs and goes on healing people. He knows that his power doesn’t come from his last name or his profession.

He knows that his power comes from within – from God.

And he knows something else about power, too. In a culture that held power as a limited-good, those who were trying to put Jesus in his place believed that power was finite. If someone who hadn’t previously had power – like a fatherless carpenter – suddenly had some, it meant he had to have taken it from somewhere. Power didn’t just stretch and grow – it was stolen or earned. And if you received some new power, it meant someone else had lost some.

This is what makes Jesus’s next action so revolutionary. In the face of a culture that believed you would lose power by giving it away, Jesus gave power to 12 of his followers. He sent them out two-by-two and commanded them to heal the sick. He told them they needed very little to do this. In fact, he sent them out with almost nothing except a single shirt on their backs, a staff, and a partner.

Jesus knew that giving away power does nothing to diminish it. Because God’s power isn’t limited. It’s not a commodity. It’s out there and it’s free for the taking.

God’s power isn’t about quantity, it’s about quality.

How do you know when something is the work of God? It doesn’t help much to see who’s doing it and whether they look like they ought to be doing God’s work. You know it by what the work is.

If someone is being helped, it’s the power of God doing the helping. If someone is being healed, it’s the power of God doing the healing. If someone is being loved, it’s the power of God doing the loving.

Wherever people are being built up instead of torn down? That’s God at work.

The power of God is not some intangible thing out there in the ether that’s wholly separate form us. The power of God resides in each and every one of us – fatherless children and lowly carpenters. Single-mothers and those with no children at all. The unemployed and the overemployed.

Just as Jesus commissioned the twelve to go out and do God’s work in the world, Christ calls to us today to do the same. You may not much like the idea of being a powerful person and, if you don’t, I’m sorry. Because I do believe that God calls us to act where we are and to use the power we can claim.

I believe God understands that power is a neutral thing. It can be used for good or for evil and God is always beside and inside each of us urging us to use it for good.  

I believe God understands that there is a difference between power over and power with. We can use our power to force others to do things – even good things. Or we can use our power with others to move all of us forward to better place. We can come together and pool our resources to build each other up into better teachers, better givers, better caregivers.

I believe God understands that some of us want to shy away from power. We’d rather just keep to ourselves, thank you very much. And I think God is continually calling out to these people to step just a little outside their comfort zone and consider the ways they can actively influence the world in loving ways.

I believe God understands that some of us want too much power. We get nervous about being out of control and we want to surround ourselves with people we can control. I think God continues to surround these people with love and care, helping to build them up from the inside-out so they might be inspired to use their power for the sake of others instead of themselves.

God’s power is as real today as it was in the time of Jesus. When we pass the plates each week, we touch the plates and think about the ways we might do God’s work in the world in the coming week. This is no small thing, folks. We all have power – like it or not.

The question for us is the same as it was for Jesus and the twelve – what will we do with that power?