Shuck and Jive

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Easter and the Powers That Be--A Sermon

Easter and The Powers That Be
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

April 8, 2012
Easter Sunday

I Corinthians 2:6-8

Now of course I do have something to say about wisdom, when I am with those who can fully comprehend it, but it’s not a wisdom of this age nor of those who rule it at present, all of whom are destined to be deposed. I am talking about a hidden and mysterious wisdom of God which God intended before time began: to raise us to the glory of God’s presence. None of the rulers of this age knew anything about this. If they had known, they would not have crucified the one who has become our exalted lord.

I want to speak today of the phrase, the concept, and the reality of “The Powers That Be.” You know that phrase. The Apostle Paul in the scripture I just read from I Corinthians uses the phrase, “the rulers of this age.” I am pretty sure that is the same thing as the phrase we know as “The Powers That Be”.

“The Powers That Be” or “the rulers of this age” are not particular people. They are the unseen forces that determine how the world works. “The Powers That Be” make up the personality of institutions. They consist of the ideology, the mythology, the structures and the rules. If you want to get ahead in an institution you play by the rules. You learn those rules that are unwritten. Everyone knows the rules.

When we speak of things like the “mainstream media” or “Wall Street” or “corporations” or “the government” or “the church” we are not speaking of particular individuals, except as those individuals participate in their role as agents for “The Powers That Be” of the institution in question. The individuals, the managers, the executives, and so forth are interchangeable. Sometimes when speaking of “The Powers That Be” we use the phrase “they”. That is what “they” say. That is what “they” do.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck told of the story of a family migrating from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression. In the telling of this family’s journey Steinbeck painted for us a portrait of the times. He wrote about how people lost the land and how bewildered they were in how it all happened. Unseen forces and powers were at work that were beyond their control and comprehension.

This is an excerpt from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. It describes what happened when the bank repossessed the land from those who had worked it, in some cases for generations:
The owners of the land came onto the land, or more often a spokesman for the owners came….if a bank or finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank—or the Company—needs—wants—insists—must have—as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time….

You see, a bank or a company…those creatures don’t breathe air, don’t eat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don’t get it, they die….the bank—the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size…we have to do it. We don’t like to do it. But the monster’s sick. Something’s happened to the monster….
Sure, cried the tenant men, but it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours….

We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.

Yes, but the bank is only made of men.

No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it. Pp. 42-45

I don’t repeat this quote in my sermon to pick on banks. It is just that Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath happens to be one of the finest illustrations of “The Powers That Be” in literature.

It is important to say that institutions and the powers that be that are the driving forces within these institutions are not necessarily bad. They simply are. In fact when they uphold the good they are good. Theologian Walter Wink writes that the powers are simultaneously good, fallen, and redeemable. All three all at once.

There are times when the powers become like monsters as in the excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath. That is when the institutions lose sight of wisdom, that is, of their intended vocation, and instead become ends in and of themselves. This is the situation in The Grapes of Wrath. The banks lost sight of their intended purpose. Instead of enabling people to stay on their land, by means of sharing capital, they made their own profits their purpose. This story is being played out before our eyes every day in the present.

“The Powers That Be” have their effects on us individually as well. When we become self-absorbed, cynical, and despairing, that is a sign that we are beaten down by the powers. The work of engaging and transforming “The Powers That Be” is the work of Easter. That work is both within and without.

All the images, symbols, and themes associated with Easter such as resurrection, rebirth, a new day, dying to an old way of being and rising to a new way of being, are part of this engagement and transformation of the powers within us and outside of us.

Easter is a shift. Easter is a shift in consciousness. It is what Paul called the wisdom of God “that raises us to the glory of God’s presence.”

That is why we say liturgically that we are invited to live the Easter faith in the present. Christ is risen today, in the present. Today is Resurrection Day and so forth. Today is the new day. Today you are a new person. That is the spirit of the poem from Mary Oliver that I included in the bulletin:

What I want to say is
that the past is the past,
and the present is what your life is,
and you are capable
of choosing what that will be,
darling citizen.

So come to the pond,
or the river of your imagination,
or the harbor of your longing,

and put your lips to the world.
And live
your life.

That is I think the wisdom of God that Paul speaks about. Had the powers that be, or the rulers of this age, known that wisdom, “they would not have crucified the one who has become our exalted lord” writes Paul. They wouldn’t have felt they needed to do so. Had they known that wisdom they would not have seen Jesus as a threat.

Regardless of “The Powers That Be” we, that is you and I, have the capability of choosing what we will be at the deepest level of our self. That is the wisdom of meditation, for instance. Through the practice of meditation or through the practice of participating in the life of a conscientious community we experience ourselves free, liberated from thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and powers.

This individual liberation that is part of the Easter experience is very important especially for those who engage the powers of the institutions. Our congregation is an activist church in many respects. While we try not to tell people what to think or do, we nevertheless do engage issues of importance. Whether those issues include our environment, working for peace, for healthcare, for civil rights for LGBT people, or for science and religious literacy, we engage the powers. It can be discouraging work. The powers are called powers for a reason. They are powerful. At times intractable.

If we don’t have a center, if we aren’t careful, we can take many paths that are going to be dead ends. I am not speaking hypothetically, I am speaking from experience. We can be discouraged or cynical, even immobilized. We can be self-righteous or aloof. We can even become what we hate and return violent speech or actions with the same.

Paul knew this. Jesus knew this. Krishna and the Buddha knew this. The wisdom is not to avoid engagement but to engage with awareness. Krishna spoke of it as doing one’s duty without being attached to the results. The Christian way of saying it is to live and act with integrity and leave the results up to God.

Easter is a celebration and an acknowledgment that the wisdom of God has been around for a while. As Paul writes, “I am talking about a hidden and mysterious wisdom of God which God intended before time began: to raise us to the glory of God’s presence.” That is poetic and metaphorical language. What other language can we use? It is language that speaks about the glory of being human as God created us. We are now in God’s presence. We are human beings created with and for dignity. Nothing can take that away.

That is why I think the original followers of Jesus did not give up when Jesus and thousands of others were tortured and executed by “The Powers That Be”. Rather than give up in despair and rather than return evil for evil, they found inner strength and became creative. They said,
“Every time we gather for a meal of bread and wine we will remember. We are Christ's body. Christ is alive with us. We will continue to remember and to resist. We will show hospitality to those who are victims of imperial bullying, to the outcast, to the slave, to the stranger. We will lean on and support each other. We will remember and tell the stories of the victims. When we get self-righteous or discouraged and when we lose hope, we will remember who we are and whose we are. And we will dream, hope, and work for the day in which the kingdom of God, the empire of God, the empire of justice and peace, the wisdom of God which God intended before time began, will be realized on Earth.”

That is what the original acclamation, “Christ is risen” meant.

Christ was risen in them.
Christ is risen in us.
Christ is risen in you.

Today is a new day.
Our past is past.
Kiss it goodbye.
The old has gone,
the new has begun.

You who hunger and thirst for justice, wisdom, peace…
Come to the table.

As Mary Oliver writes:
So come to the pond,
or the river of your imagination,
or the harbor of your longing,
and put your lips to the world.
And live
Your life.



  1. It's an Easter sermon for exiles hanging on in UU Congregations; it's an Easter sermon for my brother and sister, who long ago left church of any variety.

    Thank you. And happy Monday. If you meet the Buddha on the Road to Emmaus, say hello.