Calvary Episcopal ChurchPhoto of Brooks Ramsey
Memphis, Tennessee
October 22, 2000

What Do We Do With the Power That We've Got?
The Rev. Dr. Brooks Ramsey

Gospel: Mark 10:35-45

You remember Muhammad Ali—the boxer, the greatest. There was something cute about his arrogance. He said, "I float like a butterfly, I sting like a bee." The story is told of Muhammad Ali on an airplane one day. As they were about to take off, the flight attendant said, "Sir, would you fasten your seat belt?" Muhammad Ali replied, "Superman doesn’t need any seat belt." The flight attendant looked at him and said, "Superman doesn’t need any airplane. Would you please fasten your seat belt?"

Well, there are no supermen among us. There were those of Jesus’ disciples who wanted to be supermen—to sit at the right hand and the left hand of Jesus, to be in the place of Muhammad Ali, to be the greatest, to be the first. Jesus rebuked them, but he did not rebuke power, because he knew that power is an issue in human relationships. Power is an issue in the Kingdom of God. He did not resist those who get power.

In this story there comes up before us three kinds of persons: the powerless, the power abusers, and the power users. The powerless are all around us. The multitude that gathered this morning at the door of this church to be fed is powerless. They have been disempowered by life. They have not the means to support themselves. Many of them do not have a place to live. They among us are the weak, and we are called upon to serve them. In the Spirit of Christ, they are the powerless, but if we limit our concept of the powerless just to those homeless ones, we will not understand what the challenge for the church is, for the weak are all about us.

I know people who live in big houses who are weakened by their addictions. I know the toll that alcohol has taken upon the lives of so many. I know the toll that gambling addiction has taken upon people, even to ruin their businesses. I know the toll that takes place among parents who strive to lead their young people to values. I know how single parents sometimes struggle just to make ends meet and provide for their children. They are the needy among us as well.

Yes, all of us are the needy. All of us are powerless in some facet of our lives. All of us need help, and we need those to serve us. No man stands alone. No one has achieved success by himself or herself. We are here because people supported us. They gave us strength. The powerless are all around us. But Jesus was aware that we live in a world where power is sometimes abused by the power abusers.

You know the philosophy of life that says, every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost. The elephant sang this as he danced among the chickens. It’s easy for elephants to take that philosophy of life for they are the powerful. What chance do chickens have to dance with elephants? They get trampled under foot. We have a lot of elephants in our world that trample on the feet – on the lives—of those who need help.

Think of the media merchants in our world who prey upon our young people with all kinds of salacious kinds of materials in order to make
a buck. They gear their advertising to make us want for things that we really do not need.

Archbishop William Temple of the Church of England said, "The modern society reminds me of a department store window into which an idiot has come in the middle of the night and reversed all the price tags." We live in a world where sometimes the price tags get reversed. Yes, that world out there can take advantage of weak people, of all of us. And sometimes even religion can become an abuser of power.

It distressed me this week, just a day or two ago, to pick up the paper and to read that Jimmy Carter has renounced his identification with the denomination of his lifetime because of their abuse of women and other minorities. This faith was not the faith of my upbringing, but it was a faith which incorporated so many wonderful things. One of the facets of that faith was the freedom of the individual; the freedom to approach God personally, not to have authorities telling us what we must believe or what we must do. We find our own way to God. But when religion becomes authoritarian and rejects those who disagree in even one little doctrine or one view or social belief, then those people become persona non grata. They are pushed out, and Jimmy Carter said, "I can no longer be a part of it because of the abuse of power."

Think of the Middle East right now, a powder keg. It doesn’t take much intelligence for someone to take a torch and throw it into a dynamite factory, but that’s what’s happening in the Middle East. Fanatics from both sides are throwing torches, stirring things up. They are abusing power. Perhaps the vast number of people of both sides are people of goodwill, but it only takes a few to abuse the power in order to produce a conflagration that threatens the whole Middle East and may threaten the larger world.

Jesus was aware that we live in a world where people abuse power, and he told his disciples, "You are not of that ilk. That is not your kind. You are the servants of all."

That brings us to the third type of person—the power users, the people who use their power to serve. There is nothing wrong with getting power. As a therapist all these years, I have found that one of the great problems with people is that they are disempowered. They don’t have the power to control their lives. They don’t have the power to control their addiction. They don’t have the power to control their relationships, sometimes by their own doing and sometimes by the doing of others. I find that people need empowerment.

Jesus is saying you should go out and develop yourself and reach your potential. You should go out and try to learn and develop influence in the world. He believed that. My feeling is that the goal of my life and the goal of your life is to become the center of creative aliveness. I want to feel like I’ve got some influence in the world, that I’m not helpless. Yes, Jesus said power, but what do you do with that power?

Paul, in the book of Romans, caught up the heart of Jesus’ ethical teaching when he said, "Those who are strong ought to help the weak and not please themselves, for Christ did not please himself." Those who are strong ought to help the weak. That’s our obligation. That’s the pivotal principle in Christian ethics. And if that falls, the roof of the church will fall in upon us. We have no right to exist if we do not believe what Jesus taught us—that those who are strong should use their strength to help the weak. That is the central question then, what do we do with the power that we’ve got? Go out and develop yourself. Use that power in the service of your own enhancement, but also use it in the service of others who need help.

One of my favorite novels is, Henderson The Rain King, by Saul Bellow. Henderson was a Jewish man who made millions of dollars selling pigs on his pig farm in New Jersey. But he was unhappy with himself. It’s kind of demeaning for a person of a Jewish tradition to make his money selling pigs. Also the children were separating themselves from the family, and he and his wife were having a difficult time in their love relationship. Henderson was disillusioned, beaten down, drained out. He decided that he would take a year off and try to discover a new sense of who he was. And so he went to live with a primitive tribe in Africa.

It’s really a funny novel; some of the things that Henderson created will put you rolling in the aisles. But in the midst of the humor, there is a profound message. Toward the end of his journey in Africa, without having found the answer, he accidentally stumbled upon a lion. He killed the lion only to discover that it was a lioness with a small cub. The people of the tribe said, "Henderson, you made a mistake, but don’t worry. You’ve done something that’s going to enhance you. We believe that when you kill an animal that animal becomes a part of you, you incorporate it into your life. If that animal was strong, you get the strength of that animal within you."

That encouraged Henderson, and so he decided that he would try to get that cub back to America with him. He carefully put it in a box and in collusion with the flight attendants, hid it in the back of the storage compartment of the airplane. He wanted to take that cub back as a reminder to him that power was coming to him, the power of the lion.

He was called upon to sit by a ten-year old boy on the flight back. The boy was from one of the Scandinavian countries, and he had a very rare and seemingly incurable disease. But there was a doctor in New York who was a great authority on this disease, and they were sending the boy over for treatment. As Henderson talked to this boy with his pale, emaciated face, and thin, thin body, his compassion went out to the child. He decided in that moment that he would do something. He went back to the compartment where the lion cub was stored, brought it back in the box, and put it on the lap of the boy—symbolically saying, I hope this power and strength is transferred to you.

As Henderson reflected upon it, he said: "An old man, disappointed, of failing strength, tried to reinvigorate himself with anger, but now I understand. The only gains I ever made were caused by love and nothing else." That’s the lesson of today. The only strength we get is the strength that comes from loving service, and the only way we change the world is to serve in the Spirit of the Christ. Amen, amen.

Copyright 2000 Calvary Episcopal Church

Gospel: John 1:1-14
1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was
1:2 He was in the beginning with God.
1:3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into
being. What has come into being
1:4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
1:5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
1:7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
1:8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
1:9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
1:10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world
did not know him.
1:11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
1:12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become
children of God,
1:13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but
of God.
1:14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the
glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. NRSV

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