Paul, Power, and Privilege



Inspired by Acts 13:1-3; 14:8-18

'You are wise and fearless and fair, Lady Galadriel,' said Frodo. 'I will give you the One Ring, if you ask for it. It is too great a matter for me.' 

Galadriel laughed with a sudden clear laugh. 'Wise the Lady Galadriel may be,' she said, 'yet here she has met her match in courtesy. Gently are you revenged for my testing of your heart at our first meeting. You begin to see with a keen eye. I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired to ask what you offer. For many long years I had pondered what I might do, should the Great Ring come into my hands, and behold! it was brought within my grasp. The evil that was devised long ago works on in many ways, whether Sauron himself stands or falls. Would not that have been a noble deed to set to the credit of his Ring, if I had taken it by force or fear from my guest?

'And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!'

She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illuminated her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.

'I pass the test,' she said. 'I will diminish, and go into the West and remain Galadriel.'


That of course was a passage from the book The Fellowship of the Ring. For those of who are not familiar with the 1954 classic by J. R. R. Tolkien, in this passage, Frodo, who had been carrying a magical ring of great power, so powerful that it could change the course of history, and not for the better, attempted to give the ring to Galadriel, a wise leader whom he trusted. He was on his way to destroy the ring because it was evil and it had already been proven throughout history that no one could bear it and remain good. Its evil was just too great. But it was also a burden to carry and so Frodo hoped that he had found someone who he could pass it on to. Her reaction was not what he expected.

Instead of taking the ring of power, something that she had secretly wished for, she refused. She knew that it would overpower her, that, even though she was a good person, she would not end up using it for good purposes. So, she gave up that power, she gave up a future of ruling over the world as queen, she gave up the opportunity to be elevated in status. She didn’t trust herself with it. So, in spite of his good intentions, she corrects Frodo and walks away from the opportunity. Or as she put it, she passed the test, and would remain who she was, would remain Galadriel.

One of my favorite scenes in all of the Lord of the Rings books! And it’s a similar scene to our Bible story that we have before us today from the book of Acts. Well, minus the magical ring, and elf, and hobbit. For those of you who weren’t here last week, our readings each week between now and Pentecost will all be from the books of Acts and Romans and they will all be readings and lessons from the beginnings of the church as they were trying to figure out who they were called to be without Jesus physically by their side anymore. Last week we got a story from the work of Peter and Cornelius and today we have a story from the work of Paul and Barnabas. They are in Lystra and Paul performs a miracle in the healing of a man who could not walk and now could. However, I’m not sure that’s the real miracle in this story.

The real miracle here is the reactions of Paul and Barnabas to the crowd's desire to identify them as gods and worship them with sacrifices. Imagine the self-control this must have taken, the resistance to the temptation of so much power! I mean, they could have been set for life! But they refused. Instead, they correct them, they tell them that they are plain ol’ human beings like everyone else. And we have to ask ourselves why. Why would they give up this golden opportunity to live out a life of leisure as gods? I think most people’s answer to that question would be humbleness but I think that’s too easy of an answer. I think it’s more than that. I also think humbleness is overrated but that’s mostly because I think there’s more false humility floating around than genuine humbleness but that’s for another sermon.

I don’t think this is about humbleness, I think this is about justice. Hear me out. Why would someone like Paul, someone who has had a taste of power, not only was he a Pharisee which was basically the religious elite, which not only came with it the authority over decision making but also authority over people’s souls. So, not only was he a Pharisee, he was also a Roman citizen, something that was extremely hard to come by. It wasn’t like here in the states where just being born here made you a citizen. No, you had to have connections, or wealth, or heritage, or all of the above to achieve the status of Roman citizenship. So, Paul, had all these things, power from every angle of society, and then he gets offered even more power from the people of Lystra, god-like power and he turns it down. Why would he do that?

Here’s my guess, and it’s an educated guess based on Paul’s writings as a whole, I think he had seen how power was used in his world, how the elite of society, those born with privilege, those born a few steps above the rest of society, those born with a leg up, and he realized it wasn’t working. Paul, like Jesus before him, took a look around at his world and realized that power was not being used the way that it should be. There were too many poor, orphans, widows, the sick, and marginalized, that were not being taken care of.

And maybe even more than that, Paul realized that humans, just don’t have it in them to use power the way it should be, and so, chose a life of powerlessness—is that a word?, Microsoft did not correct it so I'm guessing I’m not making it up—they chose a life of powerlessness in order to do the work that God was asking of them. Oddly enough, a whole different kind of power was invoked through this powerlessness, the power to change the world by identifying with the powerless, and using that new different kind of power, to give a leg up to those who weren’t born with it.

So, we can apply this in so many different ways in our world but before we can do that we must first identify the different ways that we have been privileged, the different ways that we have been born with a leg up. So, I’ll start with myself because that’s the best place to start when talking about privilege. I was born male, in a male-dominated society. I was born able-bodied in an able-body dominated society. I was born straight in a straight-dominated society. This next one might sound silly to 90% of us but I was born right-handed in a right-hand dominated society.

And from a world perspective, I was born in the United States of America, one of the most affluent countries in the world, affording me opportunities that people in many other countries can only dream about. I was born with the ability to procreate, and the recognition of that gift is important on days like Mother’s Day, and causes me to be careful with my words when so many others are hurting on this day. All these privileges were just given to me at birth, I did not earn any of them.

So, it’s not a question of do we have privileges, it’s a question of what do we do with the privileges we’ve been gifted. And just so we’re clear, privilege does not equate to an easy life. Nobody is out there saying that. If you hear the word privilege and think, “Well, I’ve had to struggle all my life, he’s not talking about me” then we are talking about two very different things. I’d be happy to point you to some great resources if you’d like to learn more. So, it’s not a question of, has society elevated us in different ways, it’s how has society elevated us, and, more importantly, how will we react to that? Will we take that ring of power, like Lady Galadriel was tempted to? Will we allow our society to elevate us? Will we take that power and use it for our own gain the way that Paul and Barnabas were tempted to?

Or, will we be like Lady Galadriel and remain who we are, who we were made to be, who we were baptized to be, children of God for the sake of the world—children of God who use their God-given gifts, as well as our society-given privileges, to lift up others who have not been so blessed or privileged? Will we follow Paul and Barnabas’ lead, Jesus’ lead, and identify with people less privileged than us, in order to lift them up, rather than use them as stepping stones?

Lady Galadriel goes on to become a great leader in the face of many obstacles and enemies, often sacrificing her own power on behalf of the safety and betterment of others. Not because she had to but out of love for others. Paul and Barnabas, said no to the god-like status that was offered to them. Not because they had to, but because it was at odds with what God had called them to do. So, as we are thankful for the blessings and privileges that we have been gifted in this life, and let us also use them to lift up others around us, as we live out our baptisms, for the sake of the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Spelling Out God's Love



Inspired by Acts 10:1-17, 34

So, last week we finished reading through the Gospel of Matthew which we started back in Advent. I hope it was as meaningful for you as it was for me. So, with Jesus having been crucified, risen and ascended to heaven, his followers are now left behind to try and figure out this new faith they have been given. With their minds completely blown by the events of Holy Week and Easter, not only do they have to get their own bearings but on top of that, they have the responsibility of keeping this Jesus movement alive and moving forward. No easy task, especially because they are mourning. “Mourning?” you ask? “Why would they be mourning? Jesus has risen from the dead!” Well, yes, but we have to remember, that was never the plan! Well, at least not in their minds. None of this went according to their plans!

Not the Last Supper, the foot washing, not Jesus’ arrest or beating, and especially not the crucifixion! And Jesus may have been risen from the dead but where is he now, gone again! What were they to do? They couldn’t do the things that Jesus did! How were they going to keep this thing going? So, there they were, mourning what could have been but no longer will be. They had such big plans, and God did not come through on those plans. Have you ever been there? It’s not fun, is it? When you make such good plans, the best plans, all thought out, organized, budgeted, you got all your ducks in a row, and then bam! God says, “Ummmm, no, we’re not gonna do that. We were never gonna do that. We’re gonna do this instead.” Like my daughter Grace always says, “What the heck?”

Now, here’s where it really gets weird, sometimes, like the resurrection, what we do instead of what we had planned, is amazing! When doesn’t God come through with a better plan than we had? God’s plan is always better than ours! But, that doesn’t mean that our plan was bad. And we put so much of ourselves into it, so much time and effort and love into that plan, all for God to just take us down a different path, and without ever asking us first, right? For a nationwide example of this, take a look at church denominations that have decided to be open and affirming of the LGBTQ community.

We thought, with all the best intentions, that we would be so welcoming and loving to everyone that people would just be streaming into our churches. Only to find out, that by the time most denominations decided to do this, the LGBTQ community had already been so hurt by us, us, many people didn’t want anything to do with us. To put this into perspective, the Unitarian Universalist Association was the first major religious group to welcome the LGBTQ community and that was in 1970. Our denomination, took nearly forty more years to get there in 2009. Earning back people’s trust and respect again, is going to take some time. And that was not part of the plan, but here we are.

This is also the place that Peter found himself, in our reading from Acts. Between now and the next five Sundays, concluding on Pentecost, all of our readings will be coming from the book of Acts and Paul’s letter to the Romans. And they will be stories and lessons from the earliest days of this new religion when they were trying to figure out who they were, especially in the midst of so much loss, the loss of their fearless leader, Jesus, who was now up in the clouds, gone again. So, in our reading for today, we follow two different stories that eventually merge at the end. The first story is about a guy by the name of Cornelius, and the first thing we are told about him is that he is a Roman military commander, a centurion, which seems like a minor detail but oh boy there’s a lot packed in that statement.

As a first century reader of this story it would have told you that he was not Jewish, not Christian, and that he worked for the enemy, the very government that crucified Jesus. So, right off the bat, the guy’s got three strikes against him. And then our author shares something that should stop readers in their tracks, a real curveball. The author shares that, “Cornelius and his whole household were pious, Gentile God-worshippers. He gave generously to those in need among the Jewish people and prayed to God constantly.” Now the term God-worshiper didn’t just mean any god, or even Roman gods, it specifically meant the Jewish God. So, as the reader, now you don’t know what to make of this guy. Is it enough to suspend your previous judgement against him? Maybe, maybe not. Let’s keep moving forward.

Then, an angel, straight from God, visits him. That’s when readers know that it’s safe to let their guard down around this would-be enemy. So the angel tells him to go find a guy by the name of Peter. Doesn’t tell him why, but I guess when an angel tells you to do something you don’t ask questions, so that’s what he does. Meanwhile, just before they arrive, Peter was on a rooftop having visions of his own. As he’s praying, he has this same vision three times, a vision of a large white sheet with animals of all kinds on it, but specifically animals that were forbidden for Jews to eat. So there may have been pigs on it, rabbits, maybe there were some lobsters and crabs crawling around too, all foods that Jews are not allowed to eat.

So, Peter sees this sheet, with all these animals on it, animals that he has been forbidden to eat, animals that have been labeled as unclean, and then God throws him a curveball as well and invites him to get up and eat what he sees, eat the animals that had been forbidden, labeled as unclean! Well, as you can imagine, Peter is utterly disgusted by the thought! He says, “Absolutely not!” Now, let me just pause there a second and point something out that I find fascinating.

Cornelius, the Gentile, Roman paycheck-cashing, never met Jesus God-worshiper, was told to do something by an angel and he does it no questions asked. Peter, St. Peter, who lived and traveled with Jesus for three years, was among his closest followers, is told to do something, not by an angel, but directly by God, and what does Peter say? “Absolutely not!” He doesn’t even ask any questions, flat out says no!

To be fair to Peter, in any of your travels, have you ever encountered a food that the locals thought was not only normal but delicious that you couldn’t bring yourself to even try? Some cultures eat scorpions, some eat large spiders, some eat pigs feet, cow tongue, for me, it was in Pennsylvania and the food was scrapple. Who knows what scrapple is? If you don’t look it up, I can’t describe it to you right now otherwise I’ll start gagging. My kids though, who are Pennsylvanians, grew up eating scrapple with their pappy. Me, nope, I’m good never trying the stuff. And that’s coming from a Mexican, we eat some weird stuff let me tell ya! Anyway, that’s the kind of reaction that Peter had to God’s idea of food, but with the added religious guilt on top of his disgust.

So, Peter is utterly flummoxed by God, can’t understand why God would ask him to do such a thing. So much so, he may have even been questioning whom the voice really belonged to. God ends by saying, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” In other words, you don’t get to decide what is clean and unclean Peter. I imagine Peter getting up from his prayer thinking, what was all that about, wondering if he’ll ever figure this one out. Then there’s a knock on the door, he opens it and there’s his answer, literally staring back at him. He’s then told of this Cornelius, this Roman, Gentile, convert who just happens to also be a military commander. I wouldn’t be surprised if Peter, upon hearing the title centurion, immediately had PTSD flashbacks of Jesus’ arrest, trial, beating, crucifixion, and guarded burial.

However, he’s also told that God sent for Peter to come to Cornelius, in a vision no less, not unlike the vision that Peter just had. As Peter connects the dots between his vision and these uninvited guests in his mind, and in his heart, his reaction is priceless. Peter says, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another.” Every time I read this story I think, “Really Peter? What have you been doing these last few years!” Isn’t it fascinating that one could literally walk with Jesus and still have lessons to learn about how to treat other people. And I suppose it’s why I love Peter so. He’s us, in a nutshell. We walk with Jesus, or I should say, we recognize that Jesus walks with us, and yet, and yet, we have so much to learn about how to treat other people.

This story reminded me of the synagogue shooting about a week ago. A young man by the name of John Earnest walked into a California synagogue and opened fire while they worshipped, hitting men, women, children, and the elderly alike, all out of a hatred toward our Jewish siblings. And like so many other shooters before him, he was one of ours. Was he Lutheran? No, he was Presbyterian, but what does that matter?

Jesus walked with him just as Jesus walks with us. And yet, he had so much to learn about how to treat other people. Why do I share this with you? Just to make you feel guilty? No, I share this with you because I think we need constant reminding, while Jesus walks with us, that our actions, or inactions, have very real consequences. The pastor and fellow church members of that 19 year old shooter are having to ask themselves some questions that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

Is there something we could have done? How did our teachings get misinterpreted so badly? Were there warning signs we missed. Is this our fault? If you ever wonder why I often, specifically talk about certain groups of people, people of color, the LGBTQ community, women, Muslims, or whoever I may be talking about, this is one reason why? Because I don’t want there to be any question in anyone’s mind who I am talking about. This is why it’s not enough to say God loves everyone, or all are welcome.

We don’t live in a world where that’s enough. We have to spell it out for anyone who will hear us, that God loves people of color, God loves women, God loves our Muslim siblings, God loves our Jewish siblings, God loves our Buddhist siblings, God loves our lesbian siblings, God loves our gay siblings, God loves our bisexual siblings, God loves our transgendered siblings, God loves our queer siblings.

My friends, my family, we can’t leave God’s love up for interpretation. We just can’t. People are dying because Christians have done that for far too long. We have come so far and yet we have so much more to learn. And yes, that may sound daunting at times but it’s also exciting, think of it as an adventure! Think of it as an adventure that will literally save lives. And know going in that it will not go as planned. And there will be moments of mourning over our amazing plans that God ignores because God has a better plan.

But also know going in that God knows what God is doing. So, as Jesus walks with us, as we learn how wide God’s love really is, as we continue to learn how we should treat others, how we should talk about others around people, as we are careful with our words we use, our attitudes about others, know that God knows we are learning, and will never leave our side while we are learning, even after the next time we fail at this. Thanks be to God. Amen.