Deeds of Power

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50

Have you ever longed for miracles, for what Jesus called deeds of power? They come in many kinds, not even counting prayers for the Red Sox or to find a parking place. Consider the story of Esther, Queen of Persia. She was not an aristocrat, merely a beautiful woman in the harem of King Ahasuerus or Xerxes who was made queen because of her sexual charms and docility. She was a Jew, and the Jews then were hated by a high Persian official named Haman who was a member of the House of Agag; Agag had been killed by the Israelite prophet Samuel, as you can read in 1 Samuel 15, and most of his people were slaughtered by King Saul. Haman plotted to destroy all the Jews who lived in Persian dominions and enrich himself. Esther found out about this, manipulated the King into killing Haman instead and put her own kinsman, Mordecai, into a position of great power, thus saving the Jews. This salvation of the entire Jewish community is commemorated in the festival of Purim that Jewish people celebrate to this day.

Would it not be a great miracle, a deed of power, if some world leader arose from obscurity to do just the right thing to turn aside the warring madness that engulfs our world? There must be some way to vent the hatred all around and to let the rich nations see their duty to be just to the poor. In the past great leaders sometimes have arisen in times of crisis—think of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. They were miracles in a very important sense, and they are rare. The international political world today needs a miracle. A great peacemaking leader would be a miracle because the odds are so great against such a person arising and having an opportunity like Esther’s to make a significant difference. Although the Jews were delivered in Persia, they were not delivered in the Holocaust, at least not enough of them and not early enough. Deeds of power are miraculous because they usually do not happen. Nothing in the Esther story, by the way, suggests that God had anything to do with the miracle.

Jesus’ own use of the phrase “deeds of power” is in reference to an anonymous exorcist who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Whatever you think of ancient exorcism, it was a power widely believed to be exercised by many people, not only Jesus or his disciples. Exorcism was not a matter of praying that God would work a miracle but rather a power inherent in the exorcist or the “patient,” something Jesus explained as deriving from faith in God. The disciples were upset that this anonymous exorcist was so successful when he was not actually a member of Jesus’ own following. Jesus, however, rejoiced with the remark that “whoever is not against us is for us.” Given the fact that Jesus’ own disciples had spotty records as exorcists, he was probably glad to get the outsider’s help.

Don’t we long for the surprise outsider miracle? We work so hard to cope with life’s troubles, many of which can be rightly described as demonic, and yet our efforts are not deeds of power. Then someone unexpected and not of our community comes along and does just the right thing. Who would have thought that the civil rights struggle in the United States could be transformed into deeds of power by Martin Luther King, Jr., stumbling on Gandhi’s philosophy of aggressive non-violence? I doubt Gandhi ever thought about African Americans, and the situation in India in his time was different from that in King’s America. Gandhi was not a Christian, not a member of King’s community. Yet his deeds of power in India sparked deeds of power here. How unexpected and rare! It was a miracle in its strange way.

Or consider the community James addressed in his letter. If you remember the texts we have been considering the last several weeks you know that his community struggled to be faithful to doctrine as James urged them that correct faith is not enough: they need to practice their faith. In today’s text James addresses very practical matters. If you are suffering, pray. If you are joyful, sing. If someone is sick, bring the elders of the community to pray over them, anointing them with oil, for “the prayer of faith will save the sick.” Confess sins to one another, and they will be forgiven. If someone brings back a member of the community who has wandered from the truth, the one who brings that person back will have a multitude of sins covered. “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” said James.

Now we all know, as James’ community must have known, that not everyone who wanders is brought back. Not every sin confessed with the mouth is confessed with the heart. And not every sick person who is prayed over gets well. My wife and I know that from experience. We had a daughter who developed heart disease as an infant. We prayed and prayed. She was operated on and we prayed and prayed, as did our congregation, St. Stephen’s Methodist Church in the Bronx. Our daughter died six days after surgery. All that praying did not avail to accomplish our hearts’ desire. A miracle was there nonetheless. At the time of our deepest, most raw, soul-numbing grief, my wife and I were conscious of the prayers and support of the congregation, and were thankful. Yet that wasn’t the half of it. When our daughter was baptized, the entire congregation had stood up in joy as her God-parents. When she died a few months later, I believe the entire congregation took off work to attend the funeral. Our daughter was conceived in the life of that congregation, cheered by them at her birth, received into the Christian life in the arms of all the members, and was returned to God with universal tears and hallelujahs. That was a miracle. Her life and death in that congregation was fully powered by the Holy Spirit, a deed of power embracing her, the congregation, and ourselves. What a privilege and grace her short life was! I served as associate at St. Stephen’s another dozen years and don’t know whether it ever again was so God-filled. Nor have my family and I ever found a congregation that carried Christ and us together so well since. But because of that miracle of our daughter’s life and death in that congregation, with all the songs of joy, prayers through suffering, and tears of goodbye, I know what Christ’s people can be. I’ve seen the love. I’ve felt the faith. My hope does not shake, even when I wade through the Christian klutziness that has discouraged so many of you. There! You have my testimony that I have witnessed the Church as miracle.

How do we understand these deeds of power? To think of them as interventions of an anthropomorphic God who is persuaded by our prayers or needs is a mistake. The evidence is all to the contrary concerning either our persuasiveness or God’s consistency and good will relative to our hearts’ desires. That conception of God as a magical person is simply too small. Rather these deeds of power should be understood as grace.

Grace is the power of God to make good things. Ordinarily we let the goodness of God’s whole creation sink into the background of our consciousness as we focus attention on some particular good we would like to have. Most of us worry about seemingly inevitable conflicts in world affairs, with no end in sight. So we would like the grace of a miracle of peacemaking leadership, forgetting to be grateful for the grace of having cultures worth fighting for. We desperately want our loved ones to be well and safe, forgetting to be grateful for the grace of having lives with loved ones in them. We pray for the miracle of an A on an exam, forgetting to be grateful for the grace of getting an education. We long for the miraculous break for our career, forgetting to be grateful for a society in which c
areers are possible. Human attention just has this feature, that it focuses on some things by putting other things in the background. If we focus on the miracles we specifically long for, we forget the countless deeds of power in the gracious creations that surround us. And when we fail to get what we long for, our disappointment, perhaps even grief, can blind us to the rest of life that is so full of grace.

So let us recall and contemplate the graces that surround us, God’s creation of good things for which we should be grateful.

God the Father creates a world whose every part is a wondrous harmony of form and power, uniqueness and relation, assembly and dissolution. The Big Bang is grace. The singular swirl of cosmic gasses is grace. The clumping of galaxies is grace. The Earth is grace. Its hospitality to human life is grace. The Earth’s crust is grace. Its water is grace. Its atmosphere is grace. The evolution of slime-molds, dinosaurs, and mammals is grace. The Earth is a garden world and that’s grace. People have families, that’s grace. Cultures are grace. The arts are grace. Tilling the soil is grace. Building cities is grace. Flying off-planet is grace. Insects are grace. Birds are grace. Pets are grace. Laughter is grace. Crying is grace. Feeling so as to laugh and cry is grace. Gain is grace. Loss is grace. Birth is grace. Growth is grace. Learning is grace. Work is grace. Aging is grace. Death is grace. Wisdom is grace. Confusion is grace. Beauty is grace. Life is grace. “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Gen. 1:31)

Despite the cosmos filled with grace, we have not consistently responded with gratitude, the natural response to grace. Instead we have complained because the grace was not where we wanted it to be according to our personal lights. We complain there is no peace when we will to hold onto control. We complain that our loved ones die when there are others to love. We complain that others have the luck when we don’t take responsibility. And deep down we feel guilty for the price that our own civilized existence exacts from the environment, from others, and from our own freedom. With guilts and complaints, we turn from the Creator, ashamed, gratitude curdles to bitterness, and we forget the cosmos of grace.

Grace upon grace, Jesus came saying “Wake up! The Kingdom is at hand. Not your world of petty deeds of power but the cosmos of grace.” Jesus said “Blessed are the humble, not the power-brokers,” and that is grace. Jesus said our sins are forgiven, and that is grace. Jesus said that mercy is divine, and that is grace. Jesus said God loves us, and that is grace. Jesus said to love one another, and that is grace. Jesus loved his friends and made them lovers, and that is grace. Jesus’ friends loved others and made them lovers, and that is grace. Those others in the name of Jesus love us and make us lovers, and that is grace. Jesus nails our guilts to the cross and that is grace. Jesus turns our bitter complaints to songs of joy, and that is grace. Jesus redeems us from evil lives and that is grace. Jesus draws us to a cosmic kingdom filled with grace and that is grace. Jesus shows us God and that is grace. Jesus is our friend and that is grace. We flee from God but, meeting Jesus, God is where we flee, and that is grace.

So how then do we live as created, fallen, and redeemed people? The Holy Spirit fills life with deeds of power for sanctification. To pray our heart’s desire in things great and small brings grace. To sing and pray in the congregation of God’s people brings grace. To study Jesus brings grace. To live together as friends among Jesus’ friends brings grace. To spend ourselves for the poor brings grace. To risk ourselves for justice brings grace. To build homes brings grace. To serve communities brings grace. To play brings grace. To run brings grace. To think brings grace. To touch God’s creatures in all their gracious loveliness brings grace, even when the touch bears harm and finally wears us out. To bless the Lord who gives and takes away brings grace. The holiness of the redeemed life is to love God and all God’s creatures. We have the grace for that.

So I invite you to open your eyes to the deeds of power all around us. If you have troubles, cry to God with all your heart. But remember that your heart is also full of peace and joy because of the overflowing abundance of grace in our lives. If you don’t think your heart is full of peace and joy because it feels like confusion and despair, look deeper. For, the depths of the heart open onto God and the world to be loved. What a grace that is! Praise the Father who creates a world of grace, praise the Son who is the grace of salvation, and praise the Holy Spirit in whose grace we live by the love of God. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

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