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.

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