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Sermon for October 9, 2016

Empowerment: Claiming Your True Self

Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Behold, all who are incensed against you shall be put to shame and confounded; those who strive against you shall be as nothing and shall perish. You shall seek those who contend with you, but you shall not find them; those who war against you shall be as nothing at all. For, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, “Fear not, I am the one who helps you.”  Isaiah 41:10-13 ESV
I love that first verse I just read. I use it at funerals all the time. It’s comforting to me. Fear not, God says. I’ve got this. I always stop at verse 11, though. Behold, all who are incensed against you shall be put to shame and confounded; those who strive against you shall be as nothing and shall perish -- not as comforting to me. Verses like that confirm our first fears about God: God is vengeful, and angry. I was talking with a conservative Christian friend who told me that I misunderstood God in those verses. God acts in ways that seem cruel to us, but they are really God’s way of disciplining us so that we will follow God with our whole hearts. Consider them course corrections. To my ears, it sounds like God says, “Follow me or die.”  It sounds abusive to me – power used for the sake of power; power used to manipulate. The church picked up on this idea and applied it to Jesus. Early theologians wanted to make Jesus into a victorious monarch. This is how the writer of the book of Ephesians puts it:
I pray that you'll begin to understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe. This is the same mighty power which he brought about in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is named not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things in subjection under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church.
And man-oh-man did the church eventually run with that one! Jesus, who rejected religious exclusivism and triumphalism, became equated with the end all and be all of God’s power. In the name of Jesus, the church has done some terrible, terrible things. And, in the name of the all-powerful Jesus, churches argue over some rather petty things. Tradition claims that Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher is built over the cave in which Christ is said to have been buried.  In July 2002, the church became the scene of ugly fighting between the monks who run it. A Coptic monk sitting on the rooftop decided to move his chair into the shade. This took him into the part of the rooftop courtyard looked after by the Ethiopian monks. Ethiopian and Coptic monks have been arguing over the rooftop of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for centuries. In 1752 the Ottoman Sultan issued an edict declaring which parts of the Church belong to each of six Christian groups. Despite the edict conflict over the church remains. The rooftop had been controlled by the Ethiopians, but they lost control to the Copts when hit by a disease epidemic in the 19th century. Then in 1970 the Ethiopians regained control when the Coptic monks were absent for a short period. They have been squatting there ever since, with at least one Ethiopian monk always remaining on the roof to assert their rights. In response a Coptic monk has been living on the roof also, to maintain the claim of the Copts. And so we get to a Monday in July 2002, when the Coptic monk moved his chair into the shade. Harsh words led to pushes, then shoves, and then an all-out brawl, including the throwing of chairs and iron bars. At the end of the fight 11 of the monks were injured, including one monk unconscious in the hospital and another with a broken arm.

We know it’s not about who gets the shady spot. So what’s really going on here? Some theorists say that all humans have certain essential for well-being. As humans, we have a need for safety and security. We need freedom from fear and anxiety. We need love. We need to be accepted by others and to have strong personal ties with one's family, friends, and identity groups. We need to be recognized as strong, competent, and capable as we reach our potential in all areas of life. We need personal and cultural security, in other words, we need to know that our sense of self, as well as our community language, traditions, values and ideas are recognized as valid. We have a need for fair and just distribution of resources among all members of a community. We need the freedom and access to partake in and influence civil society.

Many of the deep and unresolvable conflicts we experience may go back to these essentials. When social conflicts are caused by the denial of one or more of these crucial needs, victims will fight indefinitely for their realization and will not give up until their needs are met. Sometimes the conflict become such ingrained and patterned responses, certain people or groups are unwilling to change their attitudes towards their opponents, even when their opponent's attitudes and behaviors have changed.

We can’t talk about needs and conflict without talking about power. How do we use or claim power to create change in our lives, our church, and our world? We have a variety of ways to exert power. I was at a workshop recently where I was given a three page handout listing different types of power. Today, I’m going to boil it down to four.

First is coercive power. Coercion involves trying to make the other side yield by reason of fear or force. Coercion and force are often used as synonyms of power, and all too often are seen as the only type of power. Coercion can take many forms, like violence, bullying, intimidation. I may prevent you from doing something you wish to do by withholding some resources (physical or emotional or spiritual. Or, if I have the means, I can force you to do something you would not otherwise do. Coercive force is not always bad. For instance, on a global scale, we can think about UN economic sanctions on North Korea as a form of coercion. In the workplace, a manager can combat sexual harassment by applying the force of sex discrimination laws. While there are limited occasions where coercion is necessary, at CCC we do not abuse coercive power to make decisions. We realize authority maintained by coercion is ultimately untenable because at the end of the day, it relies on threats to make people behave a certain way. So, let’s try something else…

How about exchange power? I want you to do something which I value. To convince you to do it, I offer you something, which you value. In other words, I buy you off, either with money or something else that’s important to you like my time and attention, my affection, or my favor. Of course, if I give something to you, I will want something back. Trade and exchange is a very basic idea. When one group has control over resources of value to their others, trade and exchange can help improve trust. But, it only works if I have something of value to offer you and you have something to offer me. Think of a time or situation in our church when people wanted to get something done that was not a popular decision, and an exchange was offered? Were the benefits fairly exchanged? Was it a just allocation of physical, emotional, and spiritual resources? If people felt sour about the exchange, or there was no trust, I wonder if that parties actually valued what each gave to the other.

A third type of power is called cooperative power, otherwise known as “The Hug.” We tend to respond with the stick, but almost never the hug. Cooperative Power is the capacity to obtain what we need and want, in concert with others. Coercion and competition are win-lose, power-over situations. The Hug is power with, not power over. People work together to shape solutions to conflict.  Think about human needs, again. Our need for belonging cannot be satisfied simply by being in the presence of other people. Our relationship must have depth and endurance. In the news, especially in this current political climate, all we hear about is division, and discord. Who is moving the narrative towards cooperation -- towards building a shared social identity? In order for conflicts to move toward resolution, political parties must rebuild their cooperative power, their capacity to live together, to be a community.

Here is the fourth type of power -- a word we use all the time and I think is misunderstood the most: empowerment. It means the restoration of a sense of your own value and strength and your own capacity to handle life's problems. Empowerment is the capacity to sense that one is capable of handling life's problems and is able to transform damaging social policies and structures. The word "empowerment" can be disempowering when we think it means the powerful give power to the powerless. That definition is actually a mild form of coercion. I cannot empower another person. I can share power, but I can’t impose it. If I give or even lend you my power, you are beholden to me for it. You owe me. If I help you build your own power base, the power is yours, not mine.

Again, think of a perennial conflict in our country, in our church or in your own life. Think about the ways people have worked toward resolution without success. Which model do we tend to use? Do we try to fix it by claiming power and imposing our will over another? When do we ever use cooperative power, or “Power With?” How have we acted in ways that promote the welfare of all?  And when do we acknowledge the need for empowerment: I can construct what I need all by myself. I don't have to get it from someone else. I decide to engage in meaningful conversation and claim my voice in key decisions.

I began my sermon by reading from Isaiah. Fear Not Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God.  At the end of that passage, God says, “Fear not, I am the one who helps you.”  Notice it does not say “Fear not, I am the one who gives my power to you.” I think God helps us claim our own power. Empowerment comes from deeply mutual relationships.  Look what happens when we refuse to think of coercion and force as synonyms for God. When love motivates one to seek to control the other for the other's good, the exercise of unilateral power seeks to transform the other in one's own image. If I seek to transform you in my own image, I pressure you to suppress your authentic feelings and intimacy is blocked.  I have sinned against you by seeking to limit the possibilities for the self you are becoming and the possibilities for the selves we can become together.

Look what happens when, in a moment of grace, God reminds us that God is unlimited mutuality. God does not force us to be God’s image. We, together, are God’s image. We participate in God becoming complete. 

So, what’s going to change? What needs to change for you to claim your role in making God complete? What needs to happen for you to find your voice and let it be heard? What needs to shift for you to build your power and share it with others? What do you need to create for you to participate as a full partner in your relationships? What do you need in order to get a grip on your problems? What can you do to be part of the transformation of our church, our community, and our world? What can you do to shift detrimental systems to promote people of peace and structures of reconciliation? Don’t you dare think it can’t be done.

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