"Receiving Power"

Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35; acts 1:1-14

Rev. Dr. William L. Hathaway

Listen Here         Bulletin

One word just jumped off the page for me in today’s reading from Acts. And the word is “power.” Jesus promised his followers that they “will receive power.” In the church we often speak of kindness and mercy as gifts of the Spirit. We announce forgiveness and comfort. But, at that special moment of Jesus’ ascension he spoke of power – “dunamis” in the Greek, the word that comes into English as “dynamite.” Today is about real power and power for the powerless; today is all about the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Anyone already a bit edgy or uncomfortable? Church folk often have a hard time talking about power. We know that power can corrupt and we are loathe to engage in power politics. As a result churches can be incredibly naïve and irrelevant out of fear of making a mistake. Up to recent years, some churches were among the last to confront the issue of clergy sexual abuse, in part, for many did not have the emotional, intellectual and spiritual tools to deal with the abuse of power in any form. But Jesus named the powers, engaged the powers and transformed the powers.  

Power, like money and any other resource, is morally neutral. Power is not inherently good or bad; its moral value is an outgrowth of its use. And, as we all know, power can be abused when it is hoarded over another person and, what we tend to forget, power is also abused when we inappropriately give it up, when persons accept powerlessness and suffer abuse as if inevitable or deserved.

Jesus exercised power, confronted abusive power and spoke of the divine gift of power - Spirit power given to the faithful. Such power is creating and life giving. Such power leads us closer to the kingdom of God.

Jesus exercised his power, in part, by giving voice and place to the powerless. He spoke with the mentally ill – those scary folks known at that time to be possessed by an unclean Spirit. Jesus touched lepers. He met with Samaritans – those “others” to be avoided – and he sat down with women – a rare event for a first Century rabbi. And, just if one would miss the point, he spoke one-on-one with a Samaritan woman at the well.

Jesus created space for the powerless to speak. I particularly love that encounter with blind Bartimaeus. First, Bartimaeus is screaming for attention from the side of the road. When the crowd tried to quiet him down and push him aside Jesus called him over, giving him a place to speak. Then – and this is the part that really strikes me – Jesus asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus invited Bartimaeus to claim his own voice.

In today’s lesson from Acts Jesus is speaking with his disciples. It is part of the stories of

his resurrection appearances. And, before he ascends into heaven (this past Thursday was the day of ascension – 40 days after Easter), Jesus promises power. “You will receive power,” Jesus promises his followers. The same power that fueled Jesus’ life and ministry was promised for those who follow him.

Returning to Princeton Seminary last week for a class reunion brought a flood of memories. The most powerful was that of singing in the chapel. My, what wonderful outpourings of faith, spirit and energy! Alison and I met at seminary so we have all those memories of meeting, falling in love and planning a life together. Passing by the Administration building I also remembered a story about power – my lack of power in the face of James McCord, the most powerful person I had ever personally met up to that time. Dr. McCord was the President of the seminary, brilliant and a powerful presence physically, intellectually and organizationally. He ran a tight ship, so to speak. In my last year I was in a position to represent the student body and I vividly recall the day that I had prepared my short speech to deliver to Dr. McCord.

This was 1977, just at the time of the first wave of women on campus. The seminary had two full time women faculty members – Dr. Freda Gardner in education and Dr. Katherine Sakenfeld in Old Testament – pioneers in their own right. There were no women in the homiletics department and an older, extremely patronizing man chaired that department and handled all the introduction classes. Now, I had figured out a way to avoid that professor by finagling permission to skip the intro class but that was a difficult route to take. So, my job was to tell Dr. McCord that students at the oldest and largest Presbyterian Seminary were avoiding preaching classes because of one, sexist department chair. McCord had all the power and I had little to none. But here is what I remember. He listened to me. He asked questions and, I sensed, he heard the plight of the students. I have no way to measure the impact of my visit and the timing could have been completely coincidental but, shortly thereafter, the preaching department was reorganized.

What did I learn? I learned that powerful leadership can be open, that power can be shared, that a good leader allows space for other voices and allows the voice of the powerless to be heard. I also learned that truth telling is a form of power.

That is the Presbyterian way, isn’t it? Back, in the lead up to the Revolutionary War, the Rev. John Witherspoon traveled from Scotland to New Jersey to assume the position of President of the College of New Jersey, that institution we know today as Princeton. He also served as the pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Princeton. He knew something about the Spirit giving voice to the powerless – he was elected to the Continental Congress and subsequently was the only active pastor to sign the Declaration of Independence.

We know something about the powerless claiming a voice. In 1846 when our congregation was formed, Dr. Ridout, one of the two founding elders, was the secretary of the Maryland Abolitionist Society and throughout the balance of that century we were known as “that northern church in a southern city.” In more recent decades we entered into that minority of Christendom by acknowledging the God given voice and rights of women then gay & lesbian members. As we assert in the creed, “In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage … to hear the voices of people long-silenced and to work with others for justice, freedom and peace.”

Power. How do you use the power given to you? It is easy to identify the abuse of power:  the Manchester bomber, the massacre of Coptic Christians in Egypt, the unprovoked murder of an African American student & soldier at the hand of a man with ties to white supremacist groups, the Russian attempts to manipulate elections in Europe and the United States, the overwhelming number of men who abuse women. We will stand against such abuse of power. It is harder to claim and celebrate the good use of power. For, remember, power denied and power not used for good are also examples of the abuse of power.

John Witherspoon used power for the common good. John Ridout did as well. Heroes who opposed the Nazi era and those who took down Apartheid South Africa stood up to the abuse of power, even writing declarations of faith, naming the will of God within the opposition movements.

How do you use the power given to you?

A member of our congregation spoke of the struggle he is in at work, at a time of corporate re-organizing and downsizing. He is in the midst of deciding what it means to do justice and love kindness as an executive, advocating for his colleagues and supporting the integrity of their work.

A groundswell of concern and action has grown up in the midst of our congregation. Calling themselves FPC Action, 62 members are on an email chain sharing information about public policy. These are members choosing to claim a voice, rejecting assumptions of being powerless in the face of destructive public policy.

Week in and week out you use your power to deliver food, tutor children, and spend time with the lonely and isolated.

Each of us faces decisions of how to faithfully exercise the power given to us by God, the power of being a child of God, the power of being gifted by the Spirit of God.

Compliments of our recent travelers to the Czech Republic I learned about the witness of Regina Jonas, a women of some fame whom I had never known about. Ms. Jonas was Rabbi Jonas, the first woman rabbi within Judaism; having been ordained in Berlin in 1935 (other sources assert 1937). As her male rabbinical colleagues were arrested or fled Germany she became quite well known as an itinerate preacher around Berlin. Then, she was swept up in the Nazi genocide, deported to Terezin near Prague, and later transported to Auschwitz where she was murdered. Survivors told the story that she continued to preach and provide care for her flock when imprisoned at Terezin. A plaque in the Czech Republic records this line from one of her sermons: “To be blessed by God means to give wherever one steps in every life situation blessing, kindness and faithfulness.”

Blessing, kindness, faithfulness – may your power be expressed with such integrity.