Sermon on June 14, 2020
by Rev. Kelly Jane Caesar
Last week we talked about God as a gardener, nurturing a diverse creation, and creating us, humanity with our first call to nurture diversity in creation. Today we look at the power we have to answer God’s call.
We all have power. God is gracious enough to share.
How we use our power matters.
Today’s story, Genesis 18 and 21, another foundational story of our faith. It reveals a lot about God’s power and our own relationship with power.
At a time when we may feel powerless,
Whether we feel powerless in the face of:
- The novel Covid virus of which we don’t have a treatment or a vaccine.
- Centuries of racism in our country continuing to kill black and brown people
- Transgender rights and protections being rolled back
- Economic insecurity
- Illness or grief in our personal lives.
At times when we may feel powerless,
Understanding our power and God’s power is vital to living and moving forward as God’s people.
The first and perhaps most obvious truth we see in this scripture is that God is powerful and we are not God.
God gives Sarah a child in her old age, even though Sarah laughs in disbelief. For the record, Abraham expressed his own disbelief just a few chapters prior. Even though they did not believe or even fully trust God, the Divine still acts for their good.
This story counters the popular theology of “bad happened because I did not believe enough.” Too often a bad thing happens and we blame ourselves or others for not having enough faith…my loved one would not have died if I had prayed more…I didn’t get the job because I didn’t trust God enough.
God’s action in the story of Abraham and Sarah shows the opposite:
We do not have such power that our thoughts can dictate the universe.
stepping on a crack does not break your mother’s back,
And doubting God does not prevent goodness.
After all, even when we do it all right, there is suffering and injustice.
A man, Ahmaud Arbery, goes for a jog and is shot.
A woman, Breonna Taylor, is asleep at home and is killed.
A woman goes on a date and is raped instead.
Suffering happens to the innocent.
The sins of racism and sexism have injured millions for centuries,
Not because of the thoughts or actions of black people or women.
Clearly we do not have the absolute power of God.
We are individual humans.
Our innocent actions are not shields to unjust suffering.
Our disbelief and doubts are not obstacles to God’s blessings.
It is important to remember that we do not have the absolute power of God-
Otherwise we may blame ourselves for suffering that is outside our control.
Numerous stories in our sacred text go to great lengths to point out that humans are not all-powerful.
God has a habit of working miracles when it is clear that it is God and not humanity at work.
Sarah bearing a child at 100 years old. Rachel bearing a child after years of barrenness.
In the great Exodus from Egypt God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that the people were not freed the first time Moses demands, but after great plagues took over the Egyptians. The exodus took place after many plagues in order for the power of God to be known and the people would not take credit themselves.
These sacred stories show us that God has great power and we are not God; we do not have the power to change the course of stars or individually dictate what will be.
However, just because we are not God does not mean we are powerless.
Alongside the mighty God of miraculous power, we also have a decidedly relational God who practices power with.
In this story of angels visiting Abraham with a prophecy of Isaac’s birth, we see that God’s Power is Relational.
The visitors who come to Abraham’s tent are at times called angels, other times called Lord – a name for God. The pronouns in this text jump back and forth between singular and plural, sometimes in the same sentence.
Some say this is because one of the three is the Lord God and the other two are angels. Some point to different writers of the Bible.
For many centuries Christians have seen the three visitors as the Holy Trinity:
The three in one: Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit.
Thus the use of both plural and singular pronouns.
The belief that the Trinity visited Abraham is so widespread, that an Russian icon from the 1400s depicts the scene as such.
(Show picture of Trinity)
Andrei Rublev painted this famous icon in the 15th century.
On the far left is God the Father or Creator.
In the middle is Jesus – his robe blue for divinity and brown for humanity,
Signaling his position as fully human and fully divine.
Notice how his hand reaches for the cup, symbol of sacrifice.
The tree behind him is both the tree Abraham was sitting under,
And also echoed the tree of Christ’s sacrificial crucifixion.
On the right is the Holy Spirit – robe of blue for divinity and green for spiritual growth, shown in front of a mountain symbolizing spiritual growth.
Together the three form a nearly perfect circle in 2D.
As I spoke about last week, the Triune God is unity in diversity.
In other words, the Triune God is inherently relational,
for God is the relation of three persons as one.
God practices relational power within God’s self.
God not only practices relational power in God’s self, between creator,Christ and Holy Spirit, but
God also practices relational power with us.
Notice how the icon leaves space at the table for the viewer to draw near.
There is literally space at the table for us to join the conversation.
This makes sense because following today’s scripture the Lord invites Abraham into the Divine conversation among the Trinity. They discuss the fate of the city of Sodom and how many righteous people could save the city. The Lord listens to Abraham, Abraham is part of the conversation – although God certainly has the final word.
This is representative of how God uses power and our human power –
We have power, we have power to be in conversation,
But we do not have the power to dictate or dominate.
God models for us how to use power –
God’s power is relational, shared equally among the three persons on the trinity.
What’s more is God shares some power with us –
We call it free will.
God decisively releases power in order to be in relationship with us.
After all, forced love, forced obedience is not love nor respect.
We have power to make decisions, to act, to think and even argue with God.
It is power with; not power over.
It is a Relational power, not power in domination.
Let’s look at an example of how to live out this Divinely-inspired and given relational power.
You can apply the concept of relational power in nearly every personal situation or societal issue.
Our community, our nation, indeed our world, is crying out for racial justice.
So let look at how to use our relational power for racial justice.
How do we exercise “power with”?
Again, our scripture provides inspiration:
Abraham’s hospitality is a model;
he runs to give good food and rest to the visitors.
As Abraham literally gave material goods,
we too can exercise power with by giving of concrete resources.
If we want to use our power for racial justice,
we can literally give our resources to the cause.
This may mean making a donation to an organization working for racial justice – Color of Change, Moral Mondays, Equal Justice Initiative.
It can also mean buying from businesses and corporations that promote racial equity or seeking out black-owned businesses to counter centuries of discrimination against black businesses.
After Abraham has shared his material resources, he steps aside so his guests can eat in the shade. However, the Lord continues to talk to Abraham – so Abraham doesn’t retreat into the tent, he is still present, but has simply made space for the guests.
Exercising “power with” involves making space for others. God does this with us and we see Abraham doing the same in order that they may share in a dialogue.
In the situation of racial justice making space means taking an honest look at how much space you take up in conversations. Often in multi-racial settings the voices of black and brown people are cut off or pushed to the side. To exercise power with necessarily requires listening to others and also speaking.
Exercising power with not only involves sharing space in conversations, it also involves sharing physical space. There is a long history of white people overseeing or “protecting” “their” space – starting with Europeans overtaking the lands of black and brown people around the globe, continuing through self-proclaimed watchdogs, which we saw on full display in both the Amy Cooper incident and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. White people taking it upon themselves to “protect” “their space”. In both cases we see white people using power over.
In contrast, we see Abraham practicing hospitality, welcome and the sharing of space. “Power with” looks like an equal sharing of physical space.
Notice in the picture of the Trinity, the persons are united, yet distinct. When practicing power with we do not need to eliminate the differences. The Triune God is so powerful precisely because the distinct attributes of God help each other out. God the Father lifts Jesus from the depths of hell into the resurrection. The Holy Spirit breathes over the water and into humanity, dancing with the Creator at the time of creation. Jesus as the incarnation of the Divine is our bridge to the holy. Three distinct, yet intimately connected parts of a whole God. The differences matter.
So when practicing power with, we ought not to wash away the differences. Rather, we need to honor and commemorate the unique gifts and place of others. This is why “being colorblind” is not a virtue. To say you are “colorblind” is to ignore the very different experiences people have in the world.
To practice power with is not easy, especially if you are accustomed to having power over.
However, when we exercise power with, new life emerges.
In our scripture story, Isaac is born – literally new life.
Jesus is resurrected through the power of the Trinity – an inherently relational God. There are many depictions in art of God the Father lifting Jesus up from the cross, surrounded by the Holy Spirit.
Today when we exercise power with, new life emerges as well.
When diverse groups organize and have conversations together,
new laws, new understandings,
and ultimately new life is found.
On the last slide you will see such an example –
It was also on the front page of the Hartford Courant on Saturday.
It is a photo of over a hundred clergy from over 38 congregations in the greater Hartford area coming together to demand action on racial justice. The action was organized by the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance who include faith communities in suburban and urban areas, wealthy and poor, large and small. They had conversations between themselves to identify real problems and then they speak with people in leadership to make the necessary changes. Their work together is an example of exercising power with. It has resulted in anti-racism training for all adults working in schools in some of the area’s school districts, a promise to strengthen the citizens review board of the Hartford police department, and the symbolic yet powerful promise for a Black Lives Matter sign to grace Hartford city hall.
When we exercise “power with”, we allow the Holy to breathe new life into the world.
May we dare to join God at the table –
Not attempting to dictate what will be,
Nor trying to control what we cannot control,
But to be in conversation, in relationship with.
That through the power of the Triune God we may usher new life into the world. Amen.