The False Way of Power

A week ago I concluded a backpacking retreat in the Paria Canyon with an organization called Renewal in the Wilderness. Ten of us spent six days hiking the Paria River in Utah and Arizona through a slot canyon, sleeping under the stars, and reflecting on deep questions of faith posed by our two leaders. A fellow pilgrim—a Professor in Church History—began our reflection time one morning before we began hiking with a poem from Wendell Berry.  She had memorized the poem and recites it at the end of each class she has taught over the years. It’s titled “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” and begins:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,

vacation with pay. Want more

of everything ready-made. Be afraid

to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.

Not even your future will be a mystery

any more. Your mind will be punched in a card

and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something

they will call you. When they want you

to die for profit they will let you know.

I stood in a circle with new friends and shuddered, although I didn’t know if it was the poem, the cold temperatures, or the Holy Spirit. The words hung over me as an all too telling reality of our world, the truth of which seemed more real—more oppressive—after getting away from the soup of 24-7 media bombardment for a few days. If you step away from the grid without any communication from the outside world, you’ll see it too. Everywhere we look, we’re told to buy something, to look out for ourselves, to seek power no matter what.  And the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Jesus was in the temple with his disciples. In the scene leading up to today’s reading, they watched a poor widow drop a couple of small coins into the collection box. “I tell you,” Jesus said, “this widow has put in more than all the others, because she put in all she had to live on.” And then we get to our reading this morning about the disciples remarking how magnificent the temple’s stones were, how beautiful the gifts adorning the worship space. Jesus responds, “A day is coming when all this will be thrown down.”  And the disciples were utterly astonished.

They stood there looking around at the striking temple constructed by King Herod and couldn’t help but be impressed. Certainly this would stand the test of time just given its grandeur. They didn’t seem to hear Jesus talk about the widow who had just given her last coins in order to fund all that extravagance. It just dazzled them. The opulence, the stunning majesty of it all. It took money and power to build something like this.  

Jesus, unimpressed by it all, saw it for what it really was: a display of human power and dominance. And then he begins to warn them about people who would come in his name trying to make it about themselves, about their own power and manipulation.  “Don’t follow them,” he says, “They will lead you astray from the true path.” He then describes how there will be wars and insurrections, political upheaval on a global scale.  The earth itself would be under duress with earthquakes and droughts and plagues. Finally, the followers of Jesus themselves would be persecuted for their belief that it’s not about wealth and power, but above love, repentance,  forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Berry’s poem continues with this advice in the face of powerful forces:

So, friends, every day do something

that won’t compute. Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it…..

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest

that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested

when they have rotted into the mold.

Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus

that will build under the trees

every thousand years.

Jesus tells the disciples that they will get a chance to testify about his kingdom, about following him, and they shouldn’t prepare even an elevator pitch for their defense. “I will give you the words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand,” he tells them.  Which is counterintuitive at best for those of us who live in an overly litigious society, we who spend time imagining responses in our heads when we do something outside of the norm. Like almost every humanities student out there who fears hearing the words: “What do you mean you want to be an English major? Shouldn’t you be taking business classes?” Don’t do it, Jesus says, just keep living in my way. Keep doing things that will not compute in our society. Love the Lord. Love the world. Don’t stop showing how dedicated you are to God.

And by your endurance you will gain your souls.

We know all too well the ways our souls get lost. We describe jobs or commutes or conversations as “soul-sucking,” as enervating and draining, as taking something substantial out of us. We often look for meaning in life, and our society tells us to buy something to satiate that longing. That it’s stuff that’ll make the difference for us. But it doesn’t. Newer technology, or the bigger house, or the nicer car, it doesn’t change anything really in the end. It keeps our souls headed in a direction away from what’s most important.

Which is why we come to a place like St. Mark’s each week. We come to worship God, to find respite for our souls, to seek healing, and to be encouraged that there is indeed another way of life. A way that hasn’t been dictated in advance by Wall Street or Madison Ave.  A way that isn’t littered with lives seen as useless once the more powerful ones have gotten what they wanted from us.  A way to see the importance of each person.  A way that is filled with compassion and love, of making amends and finding renewal, a place of solace and life.

Which is why we give financially to sustain this parish. Because through it—through one another—we are sustained by God’s grace. By making a pledge to the work of Christ here, we are saying to the world at large that we believe in taking the long view, in planting the seeds of faith in our children that we hope one day will bear fruit.  We share from our abundance so that someone who faces a tough time in life doesn’t need to face it alone.  We give to spread God’s kingdom not so we can have something given back to us, but to know that giving to the greater good doesn’t compute in our world and will at the same time change lives for the better.  The way of Jesus never makes sense when we compare it to the values of our society, but when we take his way of love, our souls endure.

This year your vestry asks that those who have given in the past maintain their level of giving or increase it slightly—by 3%—to cover our ongoing ministries. We recognize that many of you have given sacrificially this year already with the addition of our tower preservation campaign. We are grateful for your gifts that have been a sign of God’s sustaining grace to us and to our community.

For those who haven’t pledged in the recent past, or are newer to St. Mark’s, we encourage you to give a percentage of our income to the work of God here. Melissa and I give 10% of my salary back to St. Mark’s for our pledge each year because we feel blessed by God and want to share in the work of the kingdom. We encourage you, if you are just starting out in giving, to pledge 3% of what you’ll bring home next year—3 cents on each dollar in your paycheck—as a way to share in the ministries here.  Together we participate in the care of souls, of standing for something that is greater than buildings or power or wealth.  We are among those who have chosen the counter-cultural way of Jesus, and will follow him no matter what.

Wendell Berry includes the following lines as encouragement to those who travel a different way as he concludes his poem:

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.

Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful

though you have considered all the facts….

As soon as the generals and the politicos

can predict the motions of your mind,

lose it. Leave it as a sign

to mark the false trail, the way

you didn’t go. Be like the fox

who makes more tracks than necessary,

some in the wrong direction.

Practice resurrection.

Friends, beloved ones, we partake in the beauty of this community in order to practice resurrection. It cannot happen by definition without there first being pain and loss. But even when we face the end of the world as we know it, we can laugh and know that Jesus will bring us to that place where we can practice resurrection with one another. Let us share the good gifts given to us by God so that we too can by our endurance, gain our very souls.  By following the way of Jesus, we can survive—and thrive—in this world through our expressions of his love and hope.  May it be so.

Photo Credit: Nicolas P. Tschopp Flickr via Compfight cc

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