The Rev. Casey dunsworth

serves as Associate Campus Pastor to the Belfry, the Lutheran-Episcopal Campus Ministry to UC Davis

and as Program Director for LEVN, the Lutheran Episcopal Volunteer Network.

Who's Got the Power?—A Sermon on Servants and Tyrants

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

This week’s scripture has some big picture things going on. The text from Job is such a powerful one, but it is a little bit confusing. To make a very long and interesting story fairly short, Job is deeply upset, because his whole life and livelihood have been torn to pieces. He has some friends that are trying to help him reason out this situation, but mostly they are not helping, because they keep talking about how great God is, and how Job must have done something terrible to deserve this. There are several chapters in a row of Job’s friends telling Job to get it together, because God is so great, and there is no way that all the bad things that have happened to Job are a coincidence. Thanks, friends.

So then, in our text for tonight, we hear from God, who is, shall we say, perturbed, that Job and his friends seem to know so much about how the world works and what God does and why. Essentially, God is calling them out. “If you’re so smart, tell me, how does it all work? How was the earth created?” I don’t often imagine God making snide remarks, but this is just so egregious.

You’re familiar with the concept of mansplaining or whitesplaining—when men explain things to women about women that women already know, or when white folks explain race-related things to people of color that they already know—Job’s friends are, shall we say, humansplaining? They’re putting words in God’s mouth and ascribing motive to God’s actions. And God is over it. God goes on for two more chapters after this, listing all of God’s accomplishments that Job and his friends should have to answer for. In chapter 40 God finishes with, “Anyone who argues with God must respond.” Which is basically God-speak for “How do you like them apples?”

God, in this story, reminds Job and his friends of the awesome power that God wields. The power of God is far more than the power of any individual human, no matter what we might think.

We had a jam-packed day of work today, and last night I imagined running out of time to finish this sermon. I thought about what I would say if it came down to not being prepared to preach. And then I thought, if there’s such an obvious important message to blurt out, why don’t I just say that in the first place? Pastors get in our own way sometimes.

So here it is: The world is full of people fighting for power, and we are called as Christians to hold powerful people accountable.

Power, definitionally, is the ability to act or to influence the action of others. As children, we learn that we have the power to make choices, and that our choices affect other people. We go to school to learn what we’ll need to know to be equipped to work in our chosen field, in order to have more ability to choose. We apply for jobs that will allow us to better wield the power we have, and perhaps provide us new power.

For as long as people have lived in community, we have struggled to order those communities and decide who gets to make what choices. As you make your way in the world, you exercise power every day, making choices and interacting with people who have more power than you do or less power than you do. It is very easy for us to be lured into holding power over other people, because we enjoy having control over ourselves and our environments. We can, and do, get carried away.

Jesus’ disciples paved that way for us. James and John, in this story, are thinking ahead to when Jesus eventually sits on the throne of Israel. This is what they anticipate will happen, though we who know the story know that his “glory” is the way of the cross, not the way of kings. So they come to Jesus with the audacity to say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And then they ask, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:35, 37).

Henry H. Mitchell, a preaching professor, wrote that James and John want Jesus “to promise them a special seat of honor at the end of their services as his faithful followers. They wanted to choose and guarantee their reward in advance. Jesus’ response makes it plain that we were given this life for the purpose of engaging in service, for which there would be no immediate or predictable recompense.” [1]

Jesus says, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:43).  James and John were asking to be made the next-most-important people after Jesus (...👀…) and instead, Jesus says that true greatness comes from service. This was as countercultural then as it is now.

Beloved siblings in Christ: pay attention to who holds power, who is grasping for power, and how power is transferred.

Next Wednesday, we’ll celebrate the 501st anniversary of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation. The Reformation exposed abuse of power and hoped for a diffusion of power. We’ll also commemorate All Saints Day and All Souls Day, the Church’s annual remembrances of all those we love who have died. The following week, our nation will head to the polls for the General Election. All of these events in succession should invite us to reflect on human community and power, generation after generation, and how we use the power we have to do good in the world.

We are called, as the Body of Christ, to serve, rather than to be served. What does that call us to do, here and now? Who does that call us to serve? Are the people who lead us—on campus, in our community, at our jobs, in elected office—are the people who lead us Servant Leaders? Or are they tyrants? When we hold power—on campus, in our community, at our jobs, in elected office—are we Servant Leaders? Or are we tyrants?

Taking it all the way back to our good friend Job, let us remember that God is our greatest example of power. God the Creator called life into being. God came among us as one of us in the person of Jesus, speaking truth to earthly power. God the Holy Spirit breathes in us, empowering us.

The same God who laid the foundation of the earth and determined its measurements laid the foundation for your life. The same God whose voice brings forth lightning, who calls forth floods, brought you into being and calls you forth into life. The same God who has the wisdom to number the clouds has the wisdom to number the hairs on your head. The same God who provides for all of creation provides for you.

Over the weekend, a memo from the United States Department of Health and Human Services made national news. This memo explained their effort to “adopt an explicit and uniform definition of gender as determined ‘on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.’ The agency’s proposed definition would define sex as either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with.” This is not Servant Leadership. This is abuse of power.

The God who created you—your body, your heart, your mind, your spirit—created you perfectly.  God created you male or female or nonbinary or trans in God’s own image. Your gender identity and expression are good and wonderful, whatever they are. Your way of moving through the world in the body you have is good. If you need to change your body in order to more fully live in it, do that. If you feel pressured to change your body by the expectations of the powerful in this world, know that I am praying for your strength to stay true to yourself. If part of the way God created you is with chronic pain, or mental illness, or a disability, you are already holy and whole just as you are.

As members of the Body of Christ, diversity is our strength. The family of God is not complete without all our siblings.

It is not the vulnerable among us but the powerful among us who need to change. James and John asked Jesus to “save them a seat” close to the powerful. They were asking the wrong question. What they really needed was a seat at the table. Here, at God’s table, there’s always a seat for you. In a few minutes, I’ll tell you “come to the table, for all is now ready, and it is Christ who does the inviting.” You maybe don’t even notice that I say that, because I say it every time and it’s just part of the thing. But I say it as a reminder not only to you but to myself. It is not up to me to exclude people from this table. It is God, who created the universe and each of us in it, who invites you into relationship. God invites you to be who you are, whoever you are, here. Amen.

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[1] Henry H. Mitchell, “Proper 24” in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: Year B, 453.


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