John 1:29-42; Isaiah 49:1-7

Every year this Sunday gives us a chance to strike the flint of the Bible against the steel of a specific historical person, Martin Luther King, Jr.  This year it sparks a fire of exceptionally good news for us.  It also throws more light onto our faith and onto our understanding of history.

Many of us remember the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, and we may even have seen the police attack the marchers as they tried to cross the Edmond Pettus Bridge.  Seventeen marchers were hospitalized, many more were bloodied and severely injured.  It became known as Bloody Sunday.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was not on that march.

When a new march was planned, Martin made sure to be part of it… but with a different approach.  This time 2500 marchers, both black and white, again set off and came to the Edmond Pettus Bridge.  Again they came face to face with barricades and armed troopers.  But instead of a confrontation, King just knelt and bowed his head in prayer.  The other marchers did as he did.  Then he stood and he turned back.  This seeming timidity caused some of the young African American leaders to turn against him; but that act of submission aroused support across the nation for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  A huge victory.

I want to link the contrast between those two marches to a book I read recently, Power vs. Force.  Let me take a moment and describe how power and force differ.  Sometimes it can be tricky to tell which is which from observation; but in fact they are polar opposites.  Here are some examples of where the difference is obvious.

Power unifies, while force divides.  Power accepts while force tries to control.  Power forgives, while force condemns.  Power is open, force is secretive.  Force says, “My way of the highway;” power doesn’t give ultimatums.  You can add to this list from your own life experience.

Other examples show that it’s not always obvious which is which.  For instance, am I being confident or arrogant?  Am I requesting or am I demanding?  Am I being spontaneous or impulsive?  Thoughtful or pedantic?  Reliant or dependent?  Helpful or meddling?  Courageous or reckless?  Authoritative or dogmatic?  Sometimes we have to search our hearts to know.

Power has the greater strength; for in the long run force succumbs to power.  But where does power get its strength?  It arises within our hearts — I don’t mean hearts as in Valentines, but hearts as Jesus meant when he said, “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart” — from the core of our being.  If our hearts are centered in Jesus and sharing in his mission we will be people of power.  That is, if our mission  is to reveal what divine love looks like in created form we will be people of power.

Now let’s link the Martin Luther King story and the concepts of force vs. power to the Bible.  For an example, we might turn to today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah was writing from Babylon in the 6th century BCE, where the Israelites lived in misery as captive people.  Speaking through Isaiah to the people of Israel, God said — and I’m paraphrasing — right now you are deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers; but the time is coming when those who now have force will prostrate themselves before you, because of the power of God working through you.  Call this the Divine Paradox — the very thing Jesus meant when he said, “…many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matthew 19:30)  In other words, those who use power may appear to fail; while those who use force may appear to succeed.  Those who lacked force — the marchers, the nation held in captivity, and supremely, Jesus on the cross —  become victorious through the power of God’s love acting in them.

Turning now to the Gospel, we see yet another example of power vs. force.  It accounts for the difference between Jesus and John the Baptist.  I think this difference explains a saying of Jesus’ that always puzzled me.  Referring to John, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (Matthew 11:11).”

Calling John the Baptist a man of force warns us not to presume that power is good and force is bad.  John the Baptist had nothing but good intentions, but he tended to use force to bring them about.  Force is not so much bad as ineffective.  Because force always moves against something, it creates counter-forces, and it polarizes.  Force simply fizzles out.

And it isn’t as though some people use force and others use power.  Most of us use a mixture of both.  The more closely we follow Jesus, the more we will move with power.  The key to knowing when we are choosing force and when we are choosing power lies in this question.  Am I trying to control the outcome of this situation?  Or am I letting God shape the outcome?  Letting go and letting God does not, of course, get us off the hook.  We still have to play our role.

Here’s an example of playing their role and using power.   In Whitefish, Montana.  The “Daily Stormer” website posted the names and pictures of targeted Jews on its website, plus pictures of their children, their phone numbers, addresses, email and social media information — for the purpose of encouraging white supremacists to “take action” and “Hit ‘Em Up.”  They are threatening to hold a march through the center of town, carrying high-powered rifles and to bus in skinheads from the Bay Area to swell the march.  Citizens are responding with power, not force.  They are enlisting people across the country to pledge money to a special fund, tied to how many minutes the white supremacists march — so many dollars per minute. The money raised would be used for such things as community and police training on how best to handle a hate incident.  I’ve pledged.

I suspect many of us would speak up when something happens that we know to be wrong.  But two things keep us from doing that.  First, our impulse is to act with force; and something in us draws back from that.  We don’t want to make enemies, to add to the polarization, to create another ‘Bloody Sunday,’ and so we keep still.  Second, we don’t take seriously the consequences of not acting.  By not acting we say in effect: this behavior falls within the bounds of normal, of acceptable.  Once that happens, our community, our society,  takes on a toxic identity.  Who would want to move to a town where children aren’t safe in their homes?   Who wouldn’t want to move to a town where citizens look after each other?  It is absolutely vital that we act and that we act with power, not force, if we hope to preserve what we value.

I said at the beginning that these readings would spark a fire of really good news for us.  Here it is.  If like me, you’ve tried something and it didn’t work out, do we then carry a burden of failure?  It may be that it didn’t work out because we were using force.  In that case we did not fail; we created an opportunity to learn.  Or it may be that we acted with power and invoked the Divine Paradox.  That is, our efforts only appear to have failed.  In fact, through our efforts we have enabled God to work out a far grander plan that we ever imagined.

Today’s readings invite us to make constant use of a well-known mantra.  “Let go and let God.”  It’s the secret to living in joy.  It says: let go of outcomes.  If we invest in the outcome of our efforts, we cannot help but turn to force.  The mantra does not say: make no effort.  Make your very best effort to show the world what divine love looks like in created form.  Make your best effort and trust in the Divine Paradox for the outcome.


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