Speaking truth to power

Matthew 3:13-17
Philippians 2:1-11

This week Japanese scientists announced that they think they have discovered what the core of the earth is made of. We have known that there is a great deal of iron and nickel, and now it seems that the great unknown is silicon. Knowing so much about the earth can help us understand how it works, which can help us care for it better, and use it more fully. You might have been tempted to describe that as power, but if we start to think we have power of the earth, that’s when all manner of problems begin.

This week also saw the untimely death of Jill Saward, who devoted her life to supporting victims of rape and sexual abuse, and to campaigning for the rights of victims of these horrendous crimes, all of which sprang from her own experience as a victim of a horrifying attack. Yet, if some people didn’t think they had power over other people, crimes like this would never happen.

The Christmas story began with God pouring himself, God’s essence and being, into human form, into a child born among us, beginning, as we all do, from the hard and loving work of a woman. This is where the story of God leads us, at its core, to the pouring of that God given life, the decision of that child grown to maturity to empty himself, into the work of healing our broken humanity.

With intention, one sharing divinity with God becomes human. Not among the one percent with creature comforts from the cream of capitalism, but a slave, profoundly vulnerable, at the bottom of the order, with no real chance of rising above a beginning fixed in poverty.

Our gospel reading today, Jesus being baptized, is all about power, because it is in this act of his baptism that people recognise the power of God in Jesus. But this power in Jesus, as we know isn’t the kind of power that controls the earth, nor the kind of power that abuses people; it’s a power which is made perfect in weakness.

And we cannot ignore that this week is inauguration week. At 12 noon on Friday Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America. The mood, it must be said, does not feel as optimistic as it did in January 2009. In an earlier time, Americans would have called Barack Obama all kinds of names we cannot repeat now, but then they called Mr. President. While we respect the office of president, I have heard a few names used for Donald J. Trump.

In 2009 the largest crowd ever to witness an inauguration gathered. This time, tens of thousands of women will march, demonstrating against the misogyny of the man who will occupy this high office. They’re going to march, as if they spoke truth to this new power on the day he assumes it.

The one leaving the White House is intelligent, speaks with thoughtful, studied precision, is deeply prepared to address the broad range of issues, crises, concerns that challenge both America and the world. He is principled, respectful of others, scandal free, open to dialogue, learning as he leads. The one coming to the White House makes things up as he goes along, speaks in tweets, could not be less well informed about the world he will have the power to change a few days from now, and has no interest in learning on the job. He’s so shallow that he probably thinks having principles, plural, means going to more than one school.

The lives of all, and the life of our planet are imperiled on day one after this inauguration, and the confirmation of the gallery of rogue anti agents he is assembling. Anti-education, anti-environment, anti-worker, anti-justice. He and they are for themselves and others like them, and those who have been seduced by this charade will surely rudely awaken when the covers are thrown back, but we will all suffer. “I’m gonna fix the infrastructure,” almost certainly means that he’s going to give contracts to private corporations who will rebuild and then own the roads and bridges and tunnels.

Yet, filled with a sense of foreboding of what the future might hold, we are still the people that Jesus was born for, lived for, and died for. His whole life spoke truth to powers that kept people hungry, that marginalised women, that oppressed the poor. There is good news for us here in Paul’s warm and intimate letter to the Philippians. There is encouragement in Christ, there is consolation from love, there is sharing in the Spirit, there is compassion and sympathy, which can make our joy complete.

We don’t really know how Paul learned the gospel, formed his insight, his perspective, on the life and work of Jesus. We don’t really know much about Paul. In the Acts of Paul, an early non-canonical book, he is described as short, bald-headed, bowlegged, with eyebrows that meet in the middle and a nose that heads south and then hooks west. Maybe riding down that road to Damascus in his fanatical persecution of all who strayed from his strict interpretation of Jewish tradition he was surprised and overwhelmed by God’s grace, and became a new being in Christ. Maybe sitting in prison waiting to die he was somehow filled with joy, and knew he was as free as any person who had ever lived.

However and why-ever Paul got there, he did. These words are a prescription for joy in a dark and foreboding moment. “What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible?”, Henri Nouwen asked. “Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life. Jesus asks, ‘Do you love me?’ We ask, ‘can we sit at your right hand…in your kingdom.’”

Paul continues with his prescription for joy, “be of the same mind, the same love…look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others…Let the same mind be in you that was in…Jesus who, though he was in the form of God…emptied himself…” Disagree, hold, profess, act upon, move in the world by different values with all the passion each concern requires, AND, hold on to one another as if our belonging together in the family of God were the purpose of believing and acting in the world. When are we going to learn this?

We keep letting go, pushing away, because we don’t agree, don’t speak the same language, pray to the same God. Too families aren’t extended anymore; they are frayed, worn, broken. Our nation tries to look strong, but is fragmented, tainted, saturated with poisonous politics as much as the United States; too many folk don’t recognise one another as citizens of the same world. Yet, our calling in the church is the mind of Christ: an orientation, a maturity of perspective, a turn of the head and heart that honors our common heritage and humanity, our uncommon creator, our saving friend and constant companion.

There is only one world, one fragile imperiled planet. Only one humanity, male, female, trans, some like men, some like women, some like men and women, we’re tall and short, old and young, frumpy and cool, differently abled, we’re all kinds of colours, red and yellow, white, black, and brown. When threatened, as we all are at this moment in history, we must live speaking truth to the powers that inhabit every land, devouring, hoarding, demeaning, and denying others. We must act together for justice.

As one American commentator wrote, “there is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by.” The days stretch out before us. The challenge is to live good lives each day, taking seriously our stewardship of creation, seeing in others the humanity we believe invested in ourselves, humbling ourselves, as Jesus did, in obedience to the God, in whose image are we all created.

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