Power – the real elephant in the room

Power is at the heart of this Sunday’s gospel lesson.  Jesus’ message about the Good News of the kingdom of God/God’s Reign/God’s way threatened the powers of his day.  You cannot call out the powers of the world, the ways of sin and death, and not expect the powers to react.  Especially when those powers think they are on God’s side (or the gods), but you are contending they are not.  There are many ways to talk about Jesus death on the cross, but any discussion without noting the power dynamics is incomplete.

As United Methodists pray and discern in light of the verdict/sentencing in the Reverend Frank Shaefer’s trial, we need to think about power.  The church has power over all those who trust their faith formation to our local churches.  Children and youth are being shaped by our ministries.  What we say and do has the power to help people grow closer to God and follow Christ more nearly.

Of course there is the flip side to the coin.  We have the power to hurt those who put their trust in local churches for their faith formation.  Shaping children and youth can help them in their faith journeys, but we can also shape them in ways that hurt their relationships with God.  Our actions and words have the power to hurt and repel people from God.

In light of the trial, we have to ask how and why are we using our power?  If the way we are using our power is hurting people are we honoring God?  When people outside the church see us putting on trials, what are we saying about the Christ who was tried by the powers of his day?  Is this really our best way to share the Good News?

Why we are using our power is an even more troubling question.  A person outside the church asked me on Facebook who the Reverend Shaefer hurt.  I am not really sure.  I guess the case is that he hurt the church by disobeying the book of Discipline.  For a church that has as its first general rule “do no harm,” I am not sure the harm to the church is as great as the harm the alternative decisions the Reverend Shaefer could have made could have caused.

Is a wedding the real reason we put someone on trial?  Did an internal power struggle in a local church get wrapped up in a larger power struggle between various groups in the UMC?  We rarely name power struggles as such, we would rather dress struggles in the guise of superficial issues.  It is easier to say that I am defending Biblical Christianity than to say I am fighting for my will to be done in the life of the church.  People will often ascribe demeaning motives to their opponents in this struggle, suggest that they are wrapped up in the ways of the world (implying the ways of sin and death), and that they themselves are merely defending the faith.  They may well be defending the faith, but they are also playing the power game.  Someone defending the faith will show the fruits of the Spirit, but it is hard to read the polemics and not see the desires of the sinful nature at work.

Whenever pastors contend this might lead to schism, they are playing the power game.  When a United Methodist, as a witness for the church, calls for “punishment from a pedagogical standpoint,” the person is playing the power game.  This week’s gospel lesson gives us insight about how the world plays the power game, but what lessons will we draw from it?


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