Seventh Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 9B

"You Are a Moral Agent," by The Rev. John Paddock, July 8, 2018.

Posted by Christ Episcopal Church, Dayton on Sunday, July 8, 2018

The other day I picked up a little volume that is a history of First Methodist Church in Lawrence, Kansas, where my great-great Grandfather was pastor for a time. He had the improbable name of George Washington Paddock. Born in 1823 in Vienna, New York, he married Sophronia Sheldon. In 1857 they went to Kansas during that turbulent time where they were working to keep Kansas as a free state. George was a circuit-rider, who had churches in Baldwin City, Wyandot, Kansas City, Leavenworth, and Lawrence. The state was referred to at the time as bloody Kansas, as northern and southern bands of raiders killed one another. The most famous of these was John Brown, but others were even more deadly.

Their most tragic experience during those years was one August morning in 1863, while they were stationed in Lawrence, an abolitionist stronghold, when Quantrell’s Raiders struck the town and shot down in cold blood one hundred and eighty men. My great-great grandfather barely escaped with his life.

In his diary, George W. Paddock described a typical Sunday morning. As his congregation sang, prayed, and listened to a sermon, armed lookouts were posted on the roof to give the alarm in the event that a band of raiders from Missouri should appear, hoping to catch a bunch of northern sympathizers, all gathered in one place. As he stood in the pulpit, there was a gun-belt and pistol strapped around his waist and a loaded rifle leaned against the pulpit close at hand.

I thought of that image of my ancestor when I read a Reuters News article recently under the headline:

In some U.S. churches, guns are the answer to a prayer

The Sunday service was winding down, but before it ended, Bishop Ira Combs led the congregation of 300 at the Greater Bible Way Temple in prayer. The shootings that killed people in South Carolina and Texas and elsewhere could not happen here, he reassured his flock. As he preached, Combs was flanked by a man on each side of the pulpit, each armed with handguns beneath their suit coats. Other members of the church’s security team were scattered among the crowd.

Charles Ellis is pastor of the Greater Grace Temple, a Pentecostal megachurch in Detroit with 6,000 members. Ellis’ church has a trained, armed, 25-man security force, nicknamed “The Ministers of Defense.”

Without any intention of critiquing George W. Paddock who lived in another time in history, and with no desire to criticize Bishop Combs and Charles Ellis, who live and work in another place and who may have information to which I’m not privy, I do want to raise some questions? I want to know

  • What makes one strong?
  • What keeps us safe?
  • How can we be protected?

Can we have enough guns to keep us safe? Can we accumulate enough wealth or security alarms, gadgets or defense forces to ensure us against injury or death?

I don’t think so. Oh, we can be prudent: get our vaccinations, take our flu shots, eat healthy foods, drive defensively, say our prayers . . . .  But as we all know so well, there are no guarantees.

St. Paul wrestled with these same questions. He had what he called a “thorn in his flesh.” There has been a lot of speculation through the centuries as to what that was–whether it was spiritual, psychological, or physical. Some of the more popular theories about the thorn include temptation, a chronic eye problem, malaria, migraines, epilepsy, arthritis, or a speech impediment. Some even say that the thorn refers to a person, such as Alexander the coppersmith, who (according to 2nd Timothy) did Paul “a great deal of harm” (2 Timothy 4:14). Although no one can say for certain what the thorn was, it really bothered Paul. He wrote:

Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7b-10)

“Power is made perfect in weakness.”

What a contrast to the message of the world where power is equated with things external to us like pistols and money and high fences. But the teaching of our faith is that power arises out of our weakness. True power is moral power, power within, power dwelling in us.

  • It’s the kind of power you see in people, bravely and non-violently, facing into the charge of police dogs and the spray of fire hoses.
  • It’s the internal strength of a lone man facing down a tank in Tiananmen Square.
  • It’s the witness of Mahatmas Gandhi’s fasting that brought the British Empire to its knees.
  • It is none other than the power of the cross.

St. Paul explained it to the Philippians:

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

   did not regard equality with God

   as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

   taking the form of a slave,

   being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

   he humbled himself

   and became obedient to the point of death—

   even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:4-8)

The cross is the worst that police power, military power, empire power can do . . . kill, maim, destroy. Beyond that these forms of power are empty. They have no power. But the obedience of the weak, the victims, those with moral courage and the power of God behind them are revealed as the truly powerful . . . the kind of power that lives beyond death and grave . . . resurrection power.

Although we cannot control our security and our well-being, we do have moral agency. By that I mean that we have choices. Or in theological terms, we have free will.

Paul says that his thorn in the flesh was given him from a messenger of Satan. The rabbis teach that angels are messengers of God who have no free will. They just do God’s will. And God’s sends two angels when we face a moral choice. One angel on each shoulder, whispering in our ears—one whispering for us to do the right, the moral, thing—the other encouraging us to do the wrong or the evil thing. Both angels are sent by God because we have free will to choose the good or the bad. If we didn’t know about the bad choice, then we wouldn’t truly have free will.

A well-known native American story makes the same point.

An old man told his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two

wolves inside us all.”

“One is Evil, It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies and

ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, humility, kindness, empathy

and truth.”

The boy thought about it and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?”

The old man replied, “The one you feed.”

We choose to feed the Good wolf with what the world often sees as weakness: peace, love, kindness, empathy, truth.

But we know that “Power is made perfect in weakness by the grace of God.” So it’s not weakness at all. It’s the only kind of power that endures: cross power.