A Matter Of Power

January 19, 2020


The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“A Matter of Power”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 4.1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Hartley was fifteen when she said to me, “I want to go into politics because I love to argue.” Not wanting to argue with her, nor dissuade her zeal, I simply said, “Hartley, politics is not about arguing, it is about deciding.” I could tell I had just invited debate, so I explained. “Politics is the power to decide; whoever gets to decide is has the power. That is politics.”
A part of me knew that this was not a lesson to teach; this was a lesson that must be demonstrated. In order to provide a demonstration, I convinced the local community foundation to fund six youth for a summer internship. The youth would interview stakeholders, work in local government and non-profit agencies, and ultimately organize a neighborhood meeting for the city council and the city manager.
Needless to say, it was not a relaxing summer. The six teens were voracious and accomplished amazing things. One of the youths had drafting skills and redid the city’s tax map; others canvassed the neighborhood and allowed the city to determine the actual percentage of housing mix. There were many other things like this. Yet, the greatest accomplishment was the neighborhood meeting. 100 people showed up and spoke to their elected and paid city leaders and solved a plethora of problems as neighbors.
In some form this program lasted another five years. At that time and beyond, I have had the privilege of working with many young leaders, future politicians, and “movers and shakers.” I am not always in a position to offer them an internship, but I can recommend a course of study. “Read Robert Caro,” I tell them. Start with the Power Broker, the life of Robert Moses, and then read Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, which will soon be complete with his fifth volume. “There is no greater school in power than these books.”
Reading Robert Caro changed how I lived life, how I pastored, how I read the newspaper. Indeed, if I were to recommend one change to the curriculum preparing pastors it would be to give them a summer to read Robert Caro and live in a poor neighborhood. It may not change everyone, but it would change most for the better.
Understanding power is not something we seek to do. We castigate those in power, we are wary of power, we envy power. But mostly we are magical in our thinking as Hartley was at fifteen, “the one who argues the best wins the day.” It would be a better day if we realized the incredible power we have as friends. If only we sought to make a difference together. This is the message as well as the warning behind each page of Robert Caro’s histories. The power to change is here; will we use it for good or for evil? Will we rise to it or shrink away afraid of getting involved or stepping forward?
Hartley now works for the Development Authority in Northern New York. Last year Cornell University recognized her with their “hometown award.”
Online I found an article about this. The reporter covering the event wrote, “she thanked her husband, RJ, with whom she is raising two young daughters and balancing the family’s two full-time careers . . . she thanked her hometown community, noting that it was an internship she got at age 15, conducting surveys for a local neighborhood improvement district, that set her career in motion.” Yet, I would say, what really set her in motion, made her career, and led to the award was her grasp of power, to change things for the better is a matter of power.
This is Martin Luther King weekend. Later we will sing “We Shall Overcome.” Later still there will be a service at New Hope Baptist Church. In some form or another this is the day where we should ponder, “Is his dream still alive?” That we even ask the question some 57 years after the speech, that we will pause tomorrow to reflect upon our divisions and hope, is a powerful yes to the question.
Yet, another question is how close or far are we from the dream being a reality? If you read The New Jim Crow the answer would be: we are very far. Racial segregation simply became mass incarceration. If we read the book, Our Kids, we may take heart knowing that racial segregation in housing is a thing of the past, but we must be quick to lament that segregation is alive and well. It is no longer a matter of the color of your skin, true. Now it is a matter of your income. The picket fence is now the gated community, the doorman, the property tax gone awry.

It is interesting to remember that the slogan of the march on Washington was not “down with segregation” or “stop racism.” The theme of the march on Washington in 1963 where King proclaimed his dream, the theme of the march was “jobs and freedom.” Jobs and freedom! Economists are quick to tell you that for the vast majority of America we are nowhere near the health and wealth of the 1960s in terms of jobs and freedom. Wages have failed to rise in line with the economy for more than 50 years and the middle class has disappeared. A Boeing CEO gets 62 million to leave his job while food programs for the poor are cut in West Virginia.
Reading over King’s famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” I was surprised by something which never caught my eye before. The first was the long description of what sort of power was not going to change things. The first half of the speech was a description of non-violence. Violence was not the way to bring jobs and freedom.
The second piece that jumped out was the final paragraph before he listed his dreams. It was a call to power, the power of home and the power to resist the temptation of despair. Listen to his call to go home and to not fall to temptation.
Continue to work with the faith that un-earned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Ala¬bama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. To resist injustice with non-violence, to protest without injury, to demand truth without hatred, this was the path of power to which King called the quarter million in the Mall that August day in 1963 to pursue. This is a teaching of Jesus and thus a matter of great power.
Yet, his last two calls: the call to return home and the call to not wallow in despair, these too are lessons of Jesus. Jesus will tell his disciples to go home, go to Galilee. This is the great Easter message. This call is so needed in our day. We are lost in a wilderness of anonymity, a desert of our own making; we have no sense of how powerful we are together.
One of the key insights those interns gained so many years ago was the power of knowing your town, knowing your neighbor and neighborhood. When we know one another, there is great power here: we get to decide what will be done, what our life will be.
There is no greater opportunity to change our world for the better than to know one another; the power of friendship will overcome great darkness. Each summer at least one of the interns would say to me, I didn’t realize I didn’t know where I lived.
Knowing your neighbor, being known, is a matter of power—something we so often forsake or leave unrecognized.
Yet, perhaps the greatest need for power today, even greater than the need to go home, the greatest need for power today is in our reading, the second temptation.
All three temptations are a matter of power; each is needed and required for freedom. Yet, of the three, one is a desperate need, a failure of great proportion, devastating in effect. The second temptation, to throw yourself down.
The second temptation is not easily seen. The temptation to throw yourself down seems innocuous, silly even. The first and the third are obvious, bread for the hungry, power over others. These are rather clear. We know that the power to take care of one’s self too often leads to greed or pride. And the third temptation is the desire to control others. We can easily see that. The temptation to throw yourself down, though, doesn’t make a lot of sense until we recast it as the temptation to destroy yourself.

This temptation is reaching epidemic levels in our country today. We are literally wallowing in despair. We are right now throwing ourselves down.
Probably ten years ago, I was trying to help someone who was terribly depressed; she was in despair, tempted to throw herself down. She was also poor and unwilling to trust most everyone. She came and we spoke together each week for most of a year.
As the year progressed and my discipline of not attempting therapeutic counseling having been laid aside, I reached out to a very skilled and wise therapist. Jean is brilliant and tenacious and has given her life to helping the poor. I called Jean and asked for help with my suicidal parishioner. I was in way over my head.
Jean was quick to give me practical advice, how I could navigate beyond the danger of despair overwhelming the one was trying to help. What Jean told me saved the day; it worked. Her counsel helped. The one who wanted to throw herself down came through.
Yet, in addition to the practical counseling advice, Jean also instructed me. She counseled me in regard to power. She gave me a lesson in the power of despair. She said, “never be in the boat alone.” As she walked me through what this looked like my world changed, I could see my heart, my intentions, my hope and how powerless they were when limited to me. “Never be in the boat alone.”
We need to go home, go back, like King called the marchers to go back. We need to find home, find the neighbor, find the power of living a common life of dignity. Although the tide of despair is rising and more and more people are being crushed by greed and indifference “somehow this situation can and will be changed.” It will be changed when we live together.
You have the great news, the good news, to share. We can tell all who will hear, all who have ears, “you don’t have to be in the boat alone.” It may not seem like a solution to our economy or the ravaging politics we hear each day, but it is truth of the gospel; this is the hope Jesus gave. This is the church. We are not in the boat alone. With this power we will resist the temptation of despair, to throw ourselves down; we will not “wallow in the valley of despair;” we will rise and lift others to the path of common dignity. With this power we shall overcome all darkness someday and today. Amen.

Bible References

  • Deuteronomy 8:11 - 20
  • Matthew 4:1 - 11