The Power to Change Things- Revd. Maxine F. Ashley
Jean Vanier could be described as a humanitarian, philosopher, or theologian, but those who know him best would describe him as a man with a heart, a man of compassion. He was born the son of a Canadian diplomat. He joined the Royal Navy and had opportunity for a career as a commissioned officer but he was drawn to study and to seek a deeper spirituality. So he resigned his commission and studied both philosophy and theology. He was on his way to a life of academics. Either of those careers would have been honorable and worthwhile, but he felt called to something else.
While he was on an assignment in France, he met a priest who made him aware of thousands of people institutionalsed with developmental disabilities. Vanier invited two of these men, Raphael and Philippe to leave the institutions where they resided to live with him. That life changing experience led to the establishment of L’Arche (the Ark, a place of safety), a community for people with disabilities to live with those who cared for them. Each unit is meant to be a home, where each member is treated with respect, invited to make choices about “family life.” Everyone both gives and receives care. This was over 50 years ago in 1964. Today L’Arche is an international federation of such communities spread over 35 countries.
Vanier, when speaking of these communities says, “Our community is beautiful and intense, a source of life for everyone. People with a disability experience a real transformation and discover confidence in themselves; they discover their capacity to make choices and also find a certain liberty and above all their dignity as human beings.”
I was introduced to Homefires, a L’Arche community in Nova Scotia, shortly after we arrived there. I found it to be a remarkable place. Because it is made up of people, it is not perfect, but it is an excellent example of what happens to people when they are loved and cherished. And it didn’t happen only to the ones considered by the world as needy. It was a growing experience for all.
In a world obsessed with strength and control, Jean Vanier demonstrates the deep value of a caring community. He is over 80 but he was given an award yesterday at the Society for Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion (where Timm is). This story actually demonstrates another amazing kind of power. And it is this kind of power that makes a difference in the world, a little at a time. And the work goes on.
All of our passages for the morning deal with power. And all of them call upon us to use our imaginations to understand the meaning found in them. Keep Vanier and the L’Arche communities in mind as we look at these passages. For we see in them something more like the kind of power we will see displayed in our scripture lessons. And on this Reign of Christ Sunday—the last Sunday in our Church year–we will see once again the kind of reign (or rule) God intends to bring about and the kind of work intended for God’s people to do.
Today’s Old Testament lesson from Daniel 7 and the lesson taken from Revelation are alike in many ways. Both are filled with the symbolic language of what is called apocalyptic literature. This kind literature was popular especially in the two centuries preceding and following Jesus. It is the language of poetry, imagination, and vivid word pictures. It is colorful and often bizarre. It is filled with visions of what is and what may be. It is not to be confused with a literal roadmap about the way the future will unfold. This kind of literature is usually written to people who are in trouble and are suffering from political or economic turmoil of some kind. The images represent the forces closing in on the community that treasures the literature. All the power appears to be in the hands of the fierce and violent—in the hands of those willing and able to overpower. The literature pictures both power and powerlessness.
In we had begun reading a little earlier in the book of Daniel, we would have read about beasts sprouting horns, dragons breathing fire, mysterious horsemen and great sea-monsters. These represented the ones with power. But when we come into the story, there is a great contrast. Rather than the frightening beasts, the one telling of the vision now catches sight of Almighty God.
The picture is of one advanced in years, not a picture of senility but of wisdom and the strength born of it. Pure white hair is often used to picture a divine being, and most interpreters see this as a picture of God. But note that in this picture of God there are no beasts or fierce creatures. This ancient, wise One opens a book. We don’t know exactly what is in the book but God is able to pronounce judgment from it. And the scene changes. We see an entirely new kingdom coming into being. The vicious and violent nature of the old kingdom is to be replaced with a new one. And it will be different in a number of ways. It will be greater than any kingdoms that have gone before. It will be universal in scope. And it will not be replaced by another kingdom. This one will be everlasting. In apocalyptic writings, clouds often represent beings as they are sent from God alone. And here we see, coming with the clouds of heaven, One who will have power and authority to lead this new kingdom because the authority indeed comes from God, and this one looks like a human being. The power of this new kingdom does not come to be through might, and comes for service.
We are not yet given details about what this new kind of power will look like. We will have to look elsewhere for that picture, but we know it will not be like the power pictured in the earlier scenes of the vision. The reign of God will be in place and that kingdom will last forever. God’s answer to suffering people is that a new day is coming. Things will not be as they always have been. God has a plan. Wait for it.
Our passage in Revelation uses many of the same images we have just seen in Daniel. The author obviously had the words from Daniel in mind when as he was writing his own. These are words written to a Church suffering persecution. The hearers, again, needed a word of hope and we find it in this poetic vision. God and Jesus are described at great length as one who is and who was and who is to come, as the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. We see pictures of Jesus depicting the work he has done as “the faithful witness” as “the firstborn of the dead” referring to the hope of the resurrection, as “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” If those who were overpowering the people ruled over them, then this ruler Jesus is greater than all of them for he rules over tyrants, too. The image of coming from the clouds is seen again, reminding us that this kingdom comes from God.
We see an additional picture of the power of God’s kingdom here that we did not see in the Daniel vision. “To him who loves us and freed us…, it says.” At the very core of this kingdom is love, a self-giving, empowering love. This power does not overpower, but empowers. And the power to change things according to God’s plan is shared with God’s servants. Jesus made us into a kingdom of servants who also serve beside him.
If we consider these two passages together we see a kind of spiral inward calling our attention to the One whose reign is being described. The text piles description upon description to tell us who this is and what qualities are present. When we get to Revelation the spiral has helped us focus upon Jesus as a perfect picture of God. But we also see a reverse process taking place. From Jesus as its focal point we see the symbol spiraling outward to become what he represents: a new creation, a new humanity, a holy nation, the Church, US.
It is in our gospel lesson for the morning that we catch a clearer view of the kind of power we are looking at. But even that is contained in a story so we have to keep our imaginations in working order. There is no list of do this and don’t do that. It is a familiar story of what Jesus did once in the face of raw power. Jesus stands before Pilate, a man of great power in the Roman Empire. Pilate had already tried to send Jesus back to the religious leaders telling them to try him according to their law. But they said, they did not have the power to put Jesus to death. Pilate really had only one concern. Was this man a king? Was he a threat to the political empire? An affirmative answer was all he wanted to hear. So he bluntly asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” But Jesus does not make it easy for Pilate. He responds with another question. “Do you ask this on your own or did others tell you about me?” Each question is followed by another question. The easy answer would have been “no.” From the point of view of Pilate he was not a king. But Jesus did not take the easy way. Rather he said, “Yes and no.” “It depends on what you mean.” And Jesus makes an important comment saying that his kingdom was not from this world. He wasn’t saying that he had nothing to do with the world or that he needed to be separate from the harmful world, but is rather saying that his kingdom does not emanate from this world. The source of its power comes from God. We have already heard that this morning. From Daniel we heard, “I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven.” And from the author of Revelation, “Look, he is coming with the clouds.” From all appearances, Jesus is powerless. All the power is in the hands of the government and the religious leaders, but is it really? Well, you and I know the end of the story. And we see a different kind of power. A self-giving love that changes the world. A power that does not overpower, but rather empowers others.
Next week we will begin again to look at the humble beginnings of the Incarnation. Immanuel, God with us. Not to overthrow, but to serve. We know a great deal about power that overthrows. All we have to do is watch the news or read the newspaper and it is everywhere. But we also know examples of the kind of power that comes from God and is a part of his kingdom plan from Scripture, from history and from our own life experience.
My favorite image of the power that brings peace and wholeness is the lion and the lamb as pictured in Isaiah. What an unlikely combination, and yet the picture of the peaceable kingdom tells us that all kinds of unlikely combinations will live together in community. But it doesn’t come all at once. We see the lion and the lamb only in part. If we look we may catch a glimpse. Consider some of those examples.
On June 17, a troubled young man who had learned to hate, entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and joined a group of people studying the Bible. They welcomed him to the group but then the unthinkable happened. He took out a gun and before it was over, 9 people had been killed. These kinds of reports have become numbingly common. But the remarkable thing here is the response this church made. While they grieved and even expressed anger, they did not allow the feelings to turn to hate. They would learn to forgive. That church had known struggle before in its 197 year history. It is often called Mother Emanuel for the strength it had shown in difficult times before. And they determined that they would build on the strength of history and break at least one cycle of violence. This is power of another kind. And we can catch a glimpse of that lion and lamb lying down together.
Or consider the refugee situation in Europe as thousands of people flee war torn Syria. They come in such large numbers we can only guess at the actual numbers. Many don’t make it to safety. Hungary especially drew our attention because of the emphasis of our World Mission Offering. Here is a small, poor country, smaller than Wisconsin, trying to figure out how they will solve the problem. Fear and anger led to violence and we saw it pictured on television screens. Boats that would never make it across the Mediterranean were sent back, carrying children and babies. It was a horrifying sight. But if we are honest with ourselves we can recognize that the situation was more than Hungary could deal with alone. Outside help was and still is needed. We learned as we did our mission moments that some help was already being given at the peak of the crisis. There was another picture besides the one we saw on TV. Churches and other humanitarian groups in Hungary were reaching out and giving assistance. Word reached those who distribute One Great Hour of Sharing gifts and help was given. Other groups around the world are helping. The problem is a long way from being solved. And the attacks in Paris have complicated the matter further. People are afraid. But, in our fear, let us not forget that image of the lion and the lamb. There is still much work to do, but there is a glimpse of the lion and the lamb every time people use the power they have to empower those in need.
Or, we could look close to home. We could see an example of a different kind of power when we look at a small American Baptist Church on the corner of West and Main in La Crosse, Wisconsin, who decided that they would continue in the pattern of those who had carried on the work since 1852 and find some new ways to serve. There was space in the building not being used, so space was opened for groups that needed the space—the warming center, New Horizons, YMCA at risk teens, free legal clinic, El Centro Latino. We did not have enough resources to do all the work ourselves, but we could use what we had. It was a risk, but it was right. We joined with other groups to help feed the hungry with Monday’s Meal and Mobile Meals. We continue to support our regional, national and international work through generous offerings, through workers at Camp Tamarac, and CBTS, WI. The lion and the lamb are lying down together. We have recognized that we cannot do everything, but we can do something. And that has empowered us to empower others.
We could all think of many more examples. We may not be able to change the whole world, but if God’s people join God in the effort of bringing about the reign of Christ, we can make a difference. And we may again catch just a glimpse of that lion and lamb. The peaceable kingdom comes nearer when God’s people serve. And that is a power that cannot be stopped. Amen.