As we all know, we are in a political season. The ways of politics spurred a conversation recently about the use of power. What can we do to stop the violence of our society, the injustice, the inequality? We feel powerless to do anything.
Summarizing one young person: “What I want is something huge – a massive march on Washington or something like that! This must stop and we have to do something! We are on a path to devolve into anarchy, chaos, revolution, where anyone with power will take what they want, until we have the cultural backbone to stop it.” Until we have the cultural backbone to stop it! What an indictment of our current political system!
There is a group which could make a radical change in our culture, but it would take courage we have not seen in our country for many decades. The Congress could change everything! What if they closed their doors to all media, lobbyists, and even their voters, and banded together to collaborate – to work together untiringly until a common solution could be found. A solution which upholds justice and access to the basic needs of life for every American. It could be done, if we had the radical love and moral fiber to let go of our power. Congress could model it; states could follow suit; municipalities could get on the bandwagon. This commitment to work together for radical justice would change the world!
I am going to talk about politics this morning. There is nothing partisan about it. Jesus was not afraid to speak the truth to power. And neither should we be afraid. The way of Jesus speaks to how we are guided to live in the world, including in our political decisions. Our understanding of politics should not be limited to what elected officials do. Originally, politics was the work of the citizens of a Greek city to govern their affairs. It was the citizens gathered to make decisions for the common good. At heart, politics are simply the ways we discern together the best way forward for everyone. It is hard work. But it’s not rocket science. The secret is giving up our greed, our rights, so that all beings may thrive. Human communities have been doing it since they first existed. Sometimes, we have resorted to power struggles that devolve into violence. But at its shining moments, humans have also sat around a table, or a fire, or a meeting room and struggled through until the way was clear and humanity as a whole was the winner.
Richard Foster tells the story of John Woolman, a Quaker and an abolitionist a hundred years before the Civil War. He actively worked within the Friends’ tradition of seeking the guidance of the Spirit of Christ and patiently waiting to achieve unity in the Spirit. As he went from one Friends’ meeting to another, he expressed his concern about slave-holding. Gradually various Quaker Meetings began to see the evils of slavery; their minutes reflected their condemnation of the practice. When John Woolman stood before the annual conference of the Quakers in 1758 and delivered his moving plea against slavery, the entire body, without spoken dissent, agreed to remove slavery from its midst.  This unity of heart had taken years of effort, but it was worth it, making the way for the Quakers who risked their lives to free slaves, most notably through the “underground railroad.” It is possible to come to a common and clear direction as we submit ourselves to each other in respecting and honoring each human being.
Today we have James and John. Powerful personalities! They were brothers, the sons of Zebedee and likely partners in the fishing business with Peter and Simon’s family. With Peter, they composed the inner circle of the disciples, Jesus’ closest friends. All three were powerfully outspoken! We typically associate this trait with Peter, who seemed to speak before he thought a number of times! But it was James and John who Jesus nicknamed “sons of thunder.” The Greek term, boanerges, seems to refer to a vociferous preacher or orator. I would take from this that they were, positively, powerful and persuasive speakers, and negatively, loud-mouths! We don’t know a lot about James’ story. This James is not the one who became the leader of the church in Jerusalem and author of the epistle of James, who was Jesus’ brother. This James was one of the first disciples to follow Jesus and is assumed to be the first one to be martyred. His death is the only one of the disciples’ deaths recorded in the Bible, Acts 12:1-2, where it is said that Herod had him executed by the sword.
John we know better, since he left us with a much-beloved gospel account of Jesus’ ministry and three letters to his home church in Ephesus. He is thought of as the beloved disciple, Jesus’ closest friend. But don’t think by this that he was not a boanerges, a thunderous orator! Perhaps, growing up on the fishing boat, amidst the wind and the waves, they learned to be loud and outspoken in order to get the work done.
James and John, when they are spoken of together, are powerful personalities! In Luke 9, they want to call down lightning on a Samaritan village who refused them hospitality. “Jesus, let’s call on your power to bring down the punishment they deserve,” you could hear them say. And now our passage this Sunday finds them angling for power again. “Let us sit at your right and left hands in your glory,” they ask Jesus. The argument about who among the disciples was the greatest is recorded in all four gospels. They may have been Jesus’ followers, and they definitely respected him as their leader, but everything else seemed to be up for grabs. Who was Jesus’ favorite? Who was going to be the top of the pile?
When I was a child, there was a dirt mound, perhaps around an old tree stump, which was a big as a mountain to us! It took some climbing and good hand-holds to scramble up. In my imagination it was about four feet tall and six to eight feet around (probably much smaller in reality, but it is how I remember it. It was a great place to place “King of the Mountain.” We would scramble to the top and see how long we could be the only one standing on that “high throne,” looking down on the peons trying to bump us off.
James and John in this story have always reminded me of that game. They had decided that they were the best two for the job, and they teamed up to get Jesus’ support. No use wasting their power fighting each other. If they come as a team, they would double their power.
But Jesus didn’t fall into their game. He confronted them with the fact that what they were playing was a dangerous, costly game. They would lose everything in the fight to gain power. Jesus acknowledged that he would lose everything in his way to power as well. He did not hide that. He asked them if they were willing to be baptized with the his own baptism and to drink the cup he would drink. I don’t think they had any idea what he was talking about; that he was referring to his suffering, torture and death – his utter and complete defeat by the powers which so impressed them. They nodded yes, in their eagerness for power.
Jesus replied, “You will drink of my cup, Jesus replied, but still I cannot grant your request. It is not mine to grant.” Can you imagine their disappointment? And then it turned into anger as the others heard about their request and raised a stink about it! It was one thing to be exposed, if they had won their suit. But to be rejected was humiliating! There would be more humiliation in the way ahead; this was only a foretaste.
Jesus gave an alternative model. In Mark 10:15 Jesus says that instead of this power-grasping, and creating in-groups which keep people out, we need to let the kingdom in, like little children let it in. Power is more like the delight of children receiving gifts, than about controlling others.
When Jesus says we must become like children in order to enter the kingdom of God, we must be a bit cautious about how we hear it. Children can be quite mean to each other. One of the reasons a friend of mine kept her children home to school them herself was that children are so mean. She did not believe that children needed to socialize with other children because they only learned negative behaviors of competition, put-downs, and bullying. This is not the behavior Jesus was commending. Instead, he wanted the disciples to welcome the children, welcome anyone who wants to come to Jesus, to be taken into his arms and to be blessed. Children want to be loved. And anyone who wants love like a child wants love has discovered the doorway to the kingdom.
No one will push and pull their way in. No one will be able to elbow anyone else out of line. Just come. The door is open. Jesus arms are spread to welcome everyone. I think it may be a little bit disorderly and chaotic in the kingdom with all the open doors, but so are many of the things we love – parties, festivals, fairs, open houses! I sometimes wonder if our Presbyterian mantra of “decently and in order” misses this point. Perhaps songwriters Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh get closer to the point:
You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money,
Love like you’ll never get hurt,
You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watchin,’
It’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work. 
Reflecting an arms-open-wide approach to life might give us the Christian practice to counter the world’s yearning for power and control. Richard Foster suggests a vow of service. This is wonderful, but can sound a bit austere. Jesus seems to suggest, become more playful. Let go, open your arms wide to receive the love of the Kingdom of God anywhere you find it! Perhaps a vow to bless others might come closer. Always, in everything we do, to seek the total delight of the other. That is never power over, but seeking what will set people free with delight.
One of the best books ever written about power may be a “children’s book” by Trina Paulus called, Hope for the Flowers. Two caterpillars, Stripe and Yellow, meet on a trail of caterpillars heading toward a tall column, reaching to the sky, so high no one could see the top. As they got closer, they discovered that it was a pile of caterpillars, all climbing on each other, pushing and shoving their way to the top. But much as they asked, no one could tell them what was at the top. Something of the climbing thrilled them! Getting higher seemed like what they were meant for. But all the pushing, shoving, even kicking others, screaming, off the pile seemed to make their world grow dark. Finally Yellow decides that this is crazy and heads back down where she can nibble on the grass and be at peace. This struggle to the top can’t be worth it. But Stripe struggles on. One day, he is almost at the top.
Finally one caterpillar gasped, “Unless we try together nobody will reach the top. Maybe if we give one big push! “They can’t hold us down forever!” But before they could act there were cries and commotion of another kind. Stripe struggled to the edge to see the cause. A brilliant yellow winged creature was circling the pillar, moving freely – a wonderful sight! How did it get so high without climbing?… Looking into the creature’s eyes he could hardly bear the love he saw there. He felt unworthy. He wanted to change, to make up for all the times he had refused to look at the other. He tried to tell her what he felt. He stopped struggling. The others stared at him as though he were mad…. He turned around and began down the pillar…. He whispered to each, “I’ve been up; there’s nothing there….” “We can fly! We can become butterflies! There’s nothing at the top and it doesn’t matter!” As he heard his own message he realized how he had misread the instinct to get high. To get to the “top” he must fly, not climb. 
That may be what Jesus was saying. The way is to fly, not climb! May the Spirit give us wings!
 Foster, Money, Sex & Power: the Challenge of the Disciplined Life, p. 200.
 Trina Paulus, Hope for the Flowers, Paulist Press, 1972.