Lording It Over Them

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“But Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.'”

                                                                                                      Luke 22:25-6

“Na-na-na-nah-nah!”  The old schoolyard taunt has been echoing in my ears this week, as the new US administrtion produced a record number of first week executive orders.  A friend of mine from the Order of St. Luke, a religious organization to which I belong, emailed me this week.  He is from Canada, and he asked with some degree of disbelief if this was all legal.  “Can the US president make laws without going through Congress?” he asked.

TV commentators from the pro-Trump side reminded listeners that these were all things Trump said during the campaign that he would do if elected.  And now he has been elected, and he is following through on camapaign promises.  But I have to admit, the speed with which he is turning out executive orders – a new record for the number of orders signed during the first week, almost feels like the schoolyard taunt.  “Na-na, look what I can do!”  He’s got the power and he’s gonna use it!

The Gospel lesson from Luke reminds us that the purpose of power is not to “lord it over” others, but to serve them.  Thomas R. Hawkins, a contemporary writer on Christian leadership, distinguishes between “power over” and “power with.”  Jesus certainly exercised power, but it was not power over; for him, power was exercised with and for, not over.  He mentored and taught his disciples, not lording it over them, not demanding.  He chose humility over pride and self-sacrifice over self-aggrandizement.

In the Gospel of John, Pilate is considering whether or not to order Jesus’ crucifixion.  He warns Jesus that he, Pilate, has power over Jesus.  But Jesus responds, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”  (John 19:11)  That warning reaches much farther than ancient Palestine. It suggests that power, political or otherwise, is not an excuse acceptable to God for actions that contradict God’s mission.  Time and agian the Bible tells us what is expected of us: to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8); to witness by our lives to Jesus Christ (Acts 1:8); to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger and care for the sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-46).  The Bible is adamant in its call for leaders to exercise justice with mercy, to seek righteousness with compassion, and to care for the least.  This is the purpose of power – to do God’s work of love and justice, to work with God for the good of the people.  In both Old and New Testaments, God calls for leaders who will care for the people – all of the people, not just those who are well off or fromthe right party or belief set.

As we move forward with a new administration, let us offer our prayers for our nation and its leaders, but let’s also demand accountability, and direct our leaders to exercise power with not power over, power that supports not power that undermines, and power that seeks to work for the good of all the people.

Prayer:  Almighty God, from whom comes all power and authority, I pray today that you will work in the hearts of leaders everywhere to teach them to use their power in ways that build up, not tear down.  May they exercise power for the good of all the people they govern, not just the few, not just those who agree with them.  Help leaders to care for the sick, to lift up the downtrodden, to bind up wounds caused by intemperate campaign language.  Let those who hold power use it to serve and to support as Christ taught his followers to use the power you granted them.  All for the sake of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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Gold Medal Humble

“The Lord has shown you what is good.           image
He has told you what he requires of you.
You must act with justice.
You must love to show mercy.
And you must be humble as you live in the sight of your God.”
Micah 6:8

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Have you been watching the Olympics this week? What an exciting time it has been, to see Michael Phelps extend his record for the most gold medals, and to see Katie Ledecky blow the field away in the women’s 800 meter freestyle. And the US women’s gymnastic team and little Simone Biles claiming the all around gold!

How does someone with 23 gold medals be humble? How does a woman who wins a race by six or eight body lengths stay humble? Or a girl who is told she is the best all-around gymnast in the world? Is that even possible without seeming fake? I guess it all depends on your interpretation of humble.

Thursday and Friday of this week I attended the satellite broadcast of the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit, an event bringing together outstanding leaders in many fields to learn from each other. One of the speakers was the Director of Social Justice in the Western US for the Salvation Army. She told a story about her six year old son, trying on his Avengers costumes and running into the living room, jumping up on the ottoman, and shouting “Ta-da!” followed by “I’m…” and then he’d announce the costume he was wearing. First it was “I’m Captain America!” Then, “I’m the Hulk.” Finally, he ran into the room dressed only in his skivvies, jumped up on the ottoman and shouted, “Ta-da!” His mother asked him who he was, and he looked at her puzzled and answered, “I’m me!”

I think that’s what humility is all about. It’s not about pretending we are less than we are, nor claiming to be more than we are. It is simply being who we are, who God made us to be. Genesis 1 tells us that God made everything and then called it good, and that included us. The Apostle Paul tells us that God has given everyone at least one gift, so there’s no use pretending we have no gifts at all. We are who we are, not because we earned it but because God made us that way. We can develop the gifts we’ve been given, but we can’t create them from scratch. Michael Phelps was born with the physical gifts that, if properly developed, made him an Olympic swimmer. Simone Biles was doing flips around the house at an early age – she was born with natural skills. Both of them had serious issues in their lives to overcome – Phelps struggled with depression over the last 8 years; Simone was put in foster care as a young child until her grandparents found and adopted her. But they each had certain natural skills. Humility doesn’t mean denying those gifts God gave them; it means accepting the gifts but recognizing they are gifts, not something we deserve. And then, it also means recognizing that possessing these gifts and using them as they were intended does not make us better as a person, just better as a swimmer or gymnast or whatever our gifts allow us to do.

We live in an area where many people seem to be blessed with more than one gift and with the resources to develop them to a high level. Let’s never forget that we are not better people because of our gifts, just gifted people who had the resources to develop those gifts. Let’s give thanks to God and walk humbly with the Lord, recognizing the source of our gifts and looking to see how God might be inviting us to use those gifts for the good of all. That’s what will make us better people.
Prayer: Gracious God, you have made me your beloved child and given me gifts that I could never earn or deserve. Help me to recognize my gifts, to develop them as you intended, and to use them for the good of the world. Keep me from arrogance, keep me from denial. Let me see myself and all the world around me as you see. Most of all, let me see you as the God who made me and anchors my life. This I pray through Jesus Christ, my Lord. Amen.

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The Rev. Dr. Bronwyn Yocum is an ordained United Methodist elder.  She served God through the local church as pastor and as a district superintendent in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference.  She has taught leadership and conflict management at Palmer Seminary (Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary).  She holds a D.Min. in worship from the Theological School of Drew University.  Bron now provides assistance to local congregations through consulting and workshops as well as guest preaching.