Sermon for July 8, 2018: Power and belief (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Updated: Aug 11

From the very beginning of our existence, human beings have had to grapple with what it means to believe in something. “A belief defines an idea or principle which we judge to be true. When we stop to think about it, functionally this is no small thing: lives are routinely sacrificed and saved based simply on what people believe. Yet [we all] routinely encounter people who believe things that remain not just unproven, but which have been definitively shown to be false.”[1] Research demonstrates that once we believe in something, it’s very hard to convince us that it’s not true. In psychological language, this is called “confirmation bias.” People will go to great lengths to continue to believe things that are obviously false by any reasonable standard of evidence.


Of course, reason has little to do with belief. Most belief is related to emotion, which is why we are so invested in our beliefs. It can be incredibly painful to change long-held beliefs, especially if we think those beliefs have somehow been taken away from us by someone else. Some of our beliefs are so deeply intertwined with our self-identities that we can lose our entire sense of self if our beliefs are threatened. That’s one of the reasons that most of us have difficulty with change.


It was no different for the people we encounter in the Bible. Over the last several weeks, we have been following two story threads: one about the ancient Israelites and the changes they underwent when they asked God for a king to rule over them, and another which follows Jesus and his disciples as they grapple with the idea of Jesus as a king. These two narratives have been seasoned with words from the great evangelist Paul, written as he struggled to keep the fledgling “Christian” church on the right path. Paying attention to the roadblocks our ancestors encountered in developing and remaining faithful to their belief systems can help us to figure out what it means to “believe” in our own day. This is the gift of Holy Scripture.


In this week’s Hebrew scripture, we witness the ascension of the great king David to the throne of Israel. If you remember, a few weeks ago we heard the people of Israel ask God to give them a king to rule over them. They did this because they saw enemies on all sides and severe division within their community. They thought that a king would keep them safe by defending them against “outsiders.” So, after warning them against this, God sent them Saul, a strong and charismatic leader who seemed ready and willing to protect them against other tribes and tend to their needs first and only. But things did not go well. Saul was emotionally unstable, driven by paranoia and the desire to have and keep power, leading, as we heard today, to his eventual replacement with David. Evangelical pastor A.R. Bernard suggests that, “Saul [was] someone who was put into power not at the desire of God but as a concession to the people, and who ended up exposing the spiritual and moral condition of the nation.”[2] The ugliness among the people had to be exposed before it could be healed – and it had to be mended by all of them together, not through the exercise of power by one person.


A primary difference between David and Saul was that David recognized that his power came from and through God. Like the psalmist, he knew that, “Great is the Lord, and highly to be praised…this God is our God for ever and ever.” Power- all power- comes from God. Saul forgot this, just as David himself eventually did– just as Christian believers have continued to forget it throughout the history of what began as a simple movement centered on the teachings and actions of one man, Jesus of Nazareth.


It started while Jesus was still alive. Today’s gospel is part of a longer section of the Gospel of Mark that addresses Jesus’s kingship. In recent weeks we heard the story of Jesus’s healing of the demoniac and the “dead” daughter of a Roman official. In each story, the question arose, “Who is this person and where did he get this power and authority”? In today’s story, Jesus returns with his disciples to his home town of Nazareth, where he immediately goes to the synagogue to teach. Although initially impressed with his wisdom and power, the people soon remind each other that they know this guy. He is not some great and impressive official; he is the son of the town carpenter – one who has long been rumored to be illegitimate. And because of their own preconceived notions – because of their “confirmation bias- they are unable to believe the evidence of their own eyes. “The theological assertion beneath this vignette is uncomfortable, but plain: the human capacity for investing in social norms, for believing in one’s own preferences, is greater than the human capacity for faith.”[3]


That seems harsh, but, unfortunately, there’s a fair amount of evidence to back it up. The portion of Paul’s letter to the people of Corinth which we heard today tells us both how difficult and how important it is to depend completely on the grace of God rather than our own resources. History demonstrates that each time human beings decide that we have the right to impose our will on other people, on animals, or on creation itself, we experience painful reminders that we are not God.


For Paul, forced to defend his spiritual understanding of God’s work in the world, the temptation to exercise his own spiritual power to “prove” his point of view was acute. Paul saw superapostles bragging about revelations from God as distracting the people from focusing on Jesus and his words and mission. The desire to claim authority through relationship with God is consistent among those who would rule. “The ancient church [itself], once it was [free of persecution and endorsed by political leaders], all too quickly succumbed to the temptation to make itself powerful in the world, to present itself as spiritually superior to the pagan religions.”[4] Things have not changed too much. “One has only to click through… television channels to be reminded that contemporary superapostles still seek to establish their authority through vivid descriptions of personal revelations that demonstrate their privileged relationship with the Almighty.”[5]


But Christ’s power is not to be used for our glory. It is not to be used to hurt others. The true demonstration of belief in Jesus Christ is, according to Paul, a willingness to be weak for him, to be a fool for Christ. Garrett Green suggests that “The Christian community forgets that Christ’s grace is sufficient for it every time it seeks to secure its existence in the world by means of its own strength and influence, every time it allies itself with worldly power rather than allowing Christ to be revealed in its weakness.”[6]


Allowing God to work through us rather than seeking to wield God’s power for our own use is what it means to act with faith. It is not rational, but it is consistent with all we know about our God and the history of God’s work in the world. Our Eucharist prayers remind us that over and over again God has tried to save his creation – to give us the gift of his unfathomable love. To receive it, we have only to surrender our own biases. The Israelites were unable to do it. The people of Nazareth were unable to do it, and the people of Corinth struggled to do it. We can learn from them. We can learn to see our own confirmation biases and resist them. We can open ourselves to the words and stories of scripture – holy writings that tell us that true faith is demonstrated in servant leadership- and the understanding the power comes from God and must be used not for ourselves, but instead in service for others. Only then will we, like Jesus, have the power to heal and to see with clarity what it really means to be loved and to love with the power of our God. AMEN.


[1]Alex Lickerman (April 24, 2011), “The two kinds of belief: why infants reason better than adults,” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/happiness-in-world/201104/the-two-kinds-belief.

[2]A.R. Bernard, in Leah Marie Ann Klet, (December 27, 2017), “Dr. A.R. Bernard Compares Trump to King Saul; Says President Doesn't 'Legitimately' Know Bible,” http://www.gospelherald.com/articles/71765/20171227/dr-r-bernard-compares-trump-king-saul-president-doesnt-legitimately.htm.

[3]Mark D.W. Edington, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 214.

[4]Garrett Green, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 210.

[5]John T. McFadden, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 206.