SAN MARINO CONGREGATIONAL UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST
Reflections by Pastor Donald Shenk
(Delivered on Sunday, October 21, 2018)
Note: We are in the midst of our BE THE CHURCH series. This Sunday’s emphasis: Fight for the Powerless. Below are the introduction to the scriptures presented and the scriptures themselves followed by Pastor Donald’s reflections.
Introduction and Scripture
It doesn’t take long to find out what the Bible has to say about Fighting for the Powerless. From the ancient commands found in the Hebrew Bible to the fulfillment of the law found in the words of the Christ to the exhortations of the new testament writers to the new churches being formed, the direction is clear – we are to be the voice for those who have none, seek justice for those who are oppressed and welcome those who are innocent and without power.
Isaiah 1, verses 16 and 17: Wash! Clean yourselves! Get your injustice out of my sight! Cease to do evil and learn to do good! Search for justice and help the oppressed! Protect those who are orphaned and plead the case of those who are widowed.
Psalm 82, verses 3 and 4: Defend the lowly and the orphaned; render justice to the oppressed and the destitute! Rescue the weak and the poor, and save them from the hand of violence!
Matthew 18, verses 3 through 5: Then Jesus said, “The truth is, unless you change and become like little children, you will not enter the kin-dom of heaven. Those who make themselves as humble as this child are the greatest in the kin-dom of heaven.
“Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.”
Hebrews 13, verses 1 through 3: Continue to love each other as sisters and brothers. Don’t neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Keep in mind those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them. And be mindful of those who are being treated badly since you know what they are enduring.
And, finally, from Titus 3, verse 14: And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful.
“When King Ahasuerus was merry with wine, he commanded Queen Vashti to appear before him, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty—for she was fair to behold. But Queen Vashti refused.” – Esther 1:10-12
During the 180 days of King Ahasuerus’ big bash, Queen Vashti was throwing her own party. While he wined and dined the officials, ministers, governors, generals, and nobles of the Persian Empire—from India to Ethiopia—Queen Vashti hosted a banquet for their wives, mistresses, baronesses, countesses, and noble women.
For 180 days, the international assembly of women ate and drank, rested and played, and politicked. In the midst of it all, Queen Vashti was the gracious diplomat … until the king interrupted with a command: “Stop what you’re doing, and come look pretty for these drunk men.”
An interruption of her work.
A reduction of her diplomatic authority.
A power play against her bodily autonomy.
This is what power is. This is what power does. It interrupts and asserts its own agenda. “Come entertain us. Come work to make our lives easier. Stay quiet so we won’t feel challenged. Comply with our expectations so we can show you off.”
Queen Vashti assessed the king’s interruption, his power, and used her own: “No.”
It was an interruption like a scream made public 35 years after it was stifled.
Power is interruption: Violence interrupting life. Protest interrupting injustice. Silence interrupting healing. Hashtags interrupting lies. We all interrupt and are interrupted, with assorted and rarely pure agendas, although not with equal systemic power and impact.
But one Power interrupts us all. The holy and eternal Interrupter persists in disruption: asserting breath in the midst of chaos, interjecting promise in the midst of floods, providing welcome in the midst of hostility, interrupting injustice for the cause of life.
That’s a powerful piece by Rachel Hackenberg, one of our Stillspeaking devotional writers who serves on our national staff. She wrote that at the end of September as people across our nation and the world were struggling with what it means to be powerful and recognizing anew those who are powerless.
Rachel ends her devotional with this prayer: “God grant me the wisdom to recognize my power and to interrupt for the sake of your reign.”
I have often struggled with my own power and wonder if you have too. We all have power within us. Some of us recognize it and use it wisely and others recognize it and use it to abuse, silence and obliterate. How we use power and the ways in which we may feel powerless have a lot to do with how we will respond to this Sunday’s emphasis in our Be the Church series to Fight for the Powerless.
For, indeed, sometimes the powerless person is us. But more than often, I think we don’t realize how powerful we actually are and where we wield or don’t wield that power as children of God and citizens of these United States.
I had a mind-opening and rather disturbing experience this week as I confronted the idea of power in my own life and right here in the midst of our neighborhoods.
I’ve been on a mailing list for quite some time with a group called, “Making Housing Happen” which has focused is efforts on mobilizing the faith community of Pasadena and its surrounding areas. Last year we gave a gift to the organization to assist them with their “Homeless to Housed” bus tour which helped to educate clergy and others to the need for affordable housing in the area and to show some of the ways in which the local government is working to provide supportive housing to get people off the streets and into permanent homes.
On Wednesday night, Pasadena’s Council District 2 was holding a community meeting up at St. Gregory’s to let the community know of their plan to renovate one of the local hotels on Colorado Boulevard near where I used to live and make it a permanent supportive housing unit, based on models of such units which have had great success in other areas of Pasadena and around the U.S.
I went to the meeting with what I realize now was a great amount of naivete. As the council members introduced the idea of supportive housing at the beginning to the crowd of about 2 to 300 I looked around and wondered how many people there could actually be against such a reasoned, well thought out, proven plan with such obvious care given and expressed for the most powerless amongst us and living on our streets.
Quite a few it turns out. In fact, after sitting through an hour of angry questions and hate fueled statements lauded by and applauded by a risingly vehement crowd, I started looking around to be sure there were no torches soon to be lit and that the council members weren’t going to be tarred and feathered.
The few sane voices that dared to speak out were harassed and harangued by bullies in the back and it was obvious that a power struggle was taking place over what was being proposed and who had the power to make it happen or to stop it.
The song we sang at the beginning of today’s service rang in my head as I walked away from the meeting, “God of the poor, friend of the weak, grant us compassion we pray. Melt our cold hearts, let tears fall like rain. Come change our love from a spark to a flame.”
I’m afraid my love remained a spark on Wednesday night, but a fire was definitely lit within me as I realized how difficult it is to hear one another and to have compassion for one another when a power struggle comes into play.
When we are so hung up on maintaining our power or making sure we wrench power away from those who have it, we are in serious danger of losing sight of what God means when asking us to fight for the powerless.
Making an effort to stand in another’s shoes and to feel the “strain of toil and fret of care” (Gladden) experienced by another helps us to recognize who has the power and who does not and what the true meaning of power is.
For power is not lording it over someone so you get your way. Power is not making sure you get yours and to heck with everybody else. Power is not using your privilege and your status to usurp another’s will and rob them of their free agency or their right to the basic necessities of life.
True power comes in understanding that the One who made us and the One who saved us and the One who is with us always would have us turn the world’s view of power upside down.
Don’t spend your time kissing up to the powerful and the wealthy, but rather spend your life caring for those at the bottom, those without any power, those whose seeming lack of power on earth have given them the greatest rewards, we are told. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kin-dom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
I know you must have your own ideas of what power means. I invite you to look deep within and see where your own power lies and how you use it in your life. Do you promote your privilege and your placement in society above those who are so much lower on the totem pole, or do you fight for them in ways known only to you?
Are there other ways we can stand up for the poor, challenge the low status of women throughout the world, work to change the corporate and clerical circles that allow abuse of children and women to continue while we place their abusers in ever higher positions of power?
Where is God asking you and me to fight for the powerless? I invite you to ponder that question as the choir sings “For the Troubles and the Sufferings.”
Today We Breathe, Tomorrow We Push
an adapted piece by Valarie Kaur of the Revolutionary Love Project
written after the recent Supreme Court Hearings
“On the day of the vote, I went to the sea to breathe…I lifted my eyes to the horizon and thought about the suffering and survival of indigenous ancestors who had lived on this land for thousands of years before this nation was founded. I thought about how American institutions, built on genocide, occupation, and enslavement, were designed to consolidate power among white Christian property-owning men. The nation was simply not built for the flourishing of indigenous people, black and brown people, queer and trans people, poor people, Jews and Muslims and Sikhs, or women and girls, as my friend angel Kyodo Williams reminds me.
The founders of the nation invoked words whose power even they could not comprehend — freedom, equality, justice, and the guarantee of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These words seized the imagination of the peoples for whom they were never meant, and in every generation, people like us rose up to labor for these words and bleed for those words. They dreamt of an America that has never been, yet still must be — a nation for all of us.
The labor for justice has gone on for centuries before us and will go on after us. It is okay to feel hopeless in any given moment. Hope is a feeling that waxes and wanes. What matters is whether we choose to show up tomorrow — and labor anyway.”