Power and Redemption
I preached a sermon back in July that got a strong (mainly positive) response. Several people asked if I could provide a transcript. I have taken that sermon, had it transcribed, and have now turned it into an essay. It is a bit long for a blog post (3500 words), but I offer it to you here. Feel free to distribute (with citation) at will.
Power and Redemption
by Thomas McKenzie
When I was barely 22 years old, I moved to Ambridge, Pennsylvania. Ambridge is a small former steel town on the banks of the Ohio River just north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It is the home of Trinity School for MInistry, where I was beginning seminary.
I had just graduated from the University of Texas, and had moved directly from Austin to Ambridge. I had never owned a car in Austin. I lived close to campus and rode my bicycle everywhere. However, when I got to Pennsylvania I discovered that I was going to need to buy a car. I lived on one side of Pittsburgh but had found a job as a youth minister on the other side of the city. There was simply no way I was going to be able to do that job and not drive. So I started to look for a car.
Conveniently enough, there was a used car lot right across the street from the seminary. It was called the Ombres Brothers Auto Sales. It was unlike any other car lot I had ever seen. Instead of a one story glass building in the middle of a giant parking lot of cars, the Ombres’ place was a series of cramped rows of cars parked bumper to bumper in what would otherwise have been a vacant lot between two 100 year old storefronts. The office was a little room near the lot, and I remember they had a couple of other lots in nearby blocks.
I went across the street to the lot, and I was met by one of the Ombres brothers. Mr. Ombres was this big guy with a full-sized Pittsburgh look to him. He had a thick mustache that hid his mouth beneath a fountain of dark, wiry hair. His off-white shirt was unbuttoned a bit too far, and he wore a gold chain around his nick. He looked pretty much what I expected him to look like.
I shook his hand and explained my situation to him. I told him, ”I'm a student at the seminary. I'm also a youth minister at a church over in McKeesport, and I need a car. I need the cheapest car I can find, really. I just need something to get me from point A to point B. I don't care what it looks like. I just need a good, reliable car to get me across town." He said, "Oh, I have the car for you."
He took me down the rows until we came to a Dodge Colt. This Colt was a stubby, brown thing. The upholstery inside was worn thin, and the body had several small rust holes near the wheels. I have no idea what year it was, but it was this small, incredibly ugly little beast. He said, "I can give you this car for $1,800." I said, "Wow, that's great. But I don't have $1,800." He said, "That's okay. We can finance it here on the lot. Don't worry about that."
I said, "Well, you know it's kind of rusty." "Oh yeah, it's Pittsburgh. All the cars are rusty." "Okay." I said, "Where is this car from, how old is it?" He said, "Oh, it was driven by an old lady who kept it in her garage. She just drove it back and forth to the grocery store and to church, and she passed away recently and we took it upon ourselves to sell it. This is a really great value on this car." You may have heard kind of line of bunk at a used car lot before, or maybe you think it’s so silly no one would ever use it. I’m here to testify that, at least at this lot in 1993, the tale was still in use.
At this point, I need to tell you something. I had never shopped for a car before. I had never even bought anything expensive before. Not a house, not a TV, not anything. I had no idea what I was doing; and Mr. Ombres could smell it on me. He could smell my incompetence, my inexperience. So he said to me, "Tell you what, I'm going to give you a piece of paper. You just go across the street to your seminary and get someone over there to sign it. The paper says you're good for the money, and we'll finance this car for you." I said, "Oh, that's great Mr. Ombres. Thank you so much."
So I left Mr. Ombres and I went across the street to the school. I found the office of the Director of Development, the Reverend Admiral Bruce Newell, U.S. Navy, Retired. Admiral Newell had been in charge of the nuclear submarine fleet of the U.S. Navy before he became a priest. He was, like Mr. Ombres, a big and impressive looking older man. LIke Mr. Ombres, he seemed to know what he was talking about. Frankly, he was about as intimidating as anyone I’ve ever known.
I came to his office and I said, "Bruce, I need to buy a car from Mr. Ombres. He told me I had to get someone over here to sign this piece of paper, so I’m hoping you can do that for me." Bruce took the paper from me, looked it over for a moment, and said “this is asking me to cosign a loan for you at 14 percent interest.” I had no idea what any of those words meant, so I nodded my head. He put the paper on his desk, removed his glasses, looked me in the eye, and began to ask me some questions.
Admiral Newell: "What year is this car?"
Me: "I don't know."
Admiral Newell:"What’s the mileage on this car?"
Me: "I don't know."
Admiral Newell: "Have you had this car checked out by a mechanic?"
Me: (shrugging) “no.”
Admiral Newell: "How does it drive?"
Me: "I don't know."
Admiral Newell:"What do you mean you don't know? When you test drove it, what was it like?"
Me: "I didn't test drive it."
Admiral Newell:"You didn't test drive it?"
Me:"No, Mr. Ombres didn’t say anything about test driving it.”
Admiral Newell: "Did you even turn the engine on?"
Me: (looking down) “No.”
Admiral Newell: "Okay, I'll tell you what. I'm going to take this piece of paper and I'll get back to you. Come back tomorrow." I said, "Okay, I'll come back tomorrow."
So the next day I came back into Bruce Newell’s office. He sat me down and said, "I'm not going to cosign this loan. Not because I don’t trust you, but because that car is a piece of garbage. It won't last, and it may not work at all. They're trying to rip you off. I want you to call your mom and dad, and tell them you need a car. If they won't help you buy one, I will. I will go to the lot with you and we will find a car. I will give you a down payment, and I will cosign the loan. But first talk to your parents." I said, "Thank you, sir."
I never went back to the Ombres’ lot, and I never test drove the Dodge Colt. It wasn’t that I was upset with Mr. Ombres, it was more that I was ashamed at being such a sucker. I followed Bruce’s advice, and my mom and dad helped me out. My mom found a used Nissan Maxima for $4000 in Ohio, and she bought it for me. I drove that car for 100 thousand miles before selling it for $2600 years later.
This story illustrates something important about power. It is the story of two men who had power over me, and the decisions they made about how to use that power.
Power is simply the ability to affect someone's life. Sometimes power comes from someone’s position. Parents have power over their children, you boss has power at work, a policeman has power when he pulls you over. Power can also be based in having something that someone else needs, like knowledge. Mr. Ombres had power over me because I didn't know what I was doing. He recognzied that and decided that he was going to use his power to manipulate me for his own profit. He decided that the best use of his power was to gratify himself.
Admiral Newell, on the other hand, also had power over me. My inexperience and incompetence gave him the ability to influence my life. Unlike Mr. Ombres, Admiral Newell decided to use his power to help me, to put himself out for me, to try to enter in to my life in a positive way.
Power is a factor in practically any relationship, form long term ones (like parents and bosses) to short term ones (like salesmen and their customers). Power is neither good nor bad, it simply is. However, power can be used in good or bad ways. You can use your power to gratify the self, to make yourself feel better, to take something that you want, to make something go your way. Power can also be used to care for someone else, to respect the dignity of another person, to build another person up, to love them. You can either use people with your power or you can love people with your power. It's impossible to do both at the same time.
All of us have some degree of power. We have power in relationships. We have power in our jobs. We have power at home. All of us have power and all of us have people over us in power. Power is part of the human condition and it is never going away. The way we use our power, for love or for self-gratification, is within our control.
Consider two examples from the Bible in which men have power and use it. The first is the story of David and Bathsheeba. It is a familiar story, and is found in the Bible in 2 Samuel chapter 11.
King David is often seen as a hero of the Bible. How many preachers have used him as an example of great faith or great courage? Children read of his exploits in Sunday school, and his victory over Goliath is one of the most famous tales in scripture. In this story, however, King David is seen as a man who uses his power over and over again to please himself.
Verse 1: “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab and with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army.”
In the time when kings go out to war, David stays home in his palace and sends out his general. While other kings are putting themselves in danger, leading their followers into conflict, David is hanging out at home. The ability to lead an army is power. Sending someone else out to do your dirty work is an abuse of power.
Verses 2-4: “One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The was woman was very beautiful.” David discovers that she is married, but still he “sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her . . . then she went back home.”
While David’s general is out doing his job for him, David has time and leisure to spy on women from his roof. He sees this woman, finds out that she is married, but summons her to come to him. The ability to see an attractive married woman and then have her brought to you so you can sleep with her is a display of power. It is also a terrible misuse of the trust and authority that belongs to the King.
David’s misuse of power only continues. When he finds out Bathseba is pregnant, he decides he doesn't want her husband to know what he had done. He brings the husband back from the front lines and then tries twice to get the husband, Uriah, to sleep with his wife (verses 6-13). When that doesn’t work, David orders his general to have Uriah killed by the enemy (verse 15) . Once again, summoning soldiers and then ordering them killed reveals both David’s power and his misuse of that power to satisfy his own selfish motives.
When messengers report that Uriah is dead, David uses his death as a rallying point for his general. He uses the news to encourage his army to press harder, turning his own crime into motivation to strive harder against the enemy (verse 25). This displays a deep cynicism on David’s part.
David is no hero in this story. In fact, every action that he takes in this chapter is heinous. He simply goes from one sinful act to another, all in the name of personal pleasure.
In this story of David, I hope we see ourselves. We are not kings, we don’t have David’s level of power. However, if we're honest with ourselves we recognize that we have sent other people out to do our dirty work for us. We have treated people as objects for our lust. Some of us have broken marriage vows. We have avoided responsibility for our actions. We have used our authority at home or at work to cover up our bad behavior. We have let others take the fall for our mistakes. We have used the authority given to us to please our selves.
When we compare David to Jesus, when we compare ourselves to Jesus, we see that we fall far short. Consider the kind of power that Jesus had. In John’s Gospel, chapter 6, he has the power to take a small amount of food and turn it into enough to feed an entire army. In that same chapter, he has the power to control the weather and walk across a body of water. Imagine if Jesus had chosen to use these abilities to make war on Rome. Imagine an army in the ancient world that could be fed with practically no supplies, that could travel with perfect weather, that could walk across rivers and lakes. Imagine an army in which the dead could be brought back to life, diseases driven away, wounds instantly healed. Such an army could have conquered the world. It is no wonder, therefore, that the people who witnessed Jesus’ actions wanted to make him King (John 6:15-16).
But Jesus was not interested in using his power to please himself or his followers. Rather, he came to serve, to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28). He used his amazing power to “preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Jesus never used his power to care for himself but only to love those around him.
We have two completely different examples of the use of power. On one hand we have King David’s use of power, Mr. Ombres' use of power. This is the kind of power that says, "I'm going to use what I have to get what I want." On the other hand, we have Jesus’ use of power, Admiral Newell’s use of power. This is the kind of power that says “I’m going to use my authority to better those around me, to build other people up, to bring those who are lower to a higher place, to love and serve others."
We have before us two different options, two different ways to live. At this moment in the essay, I have the power to do something. I could say, "therefore let us take Jesus and Admiral Newell as our examples, and use our power to do good. Let us be good, like them, and not bad like King David and Mr. Ombres.” I could say that, and we could all nod our heads and give thanks for this excellent example of goodness that they offer.
That's what I could do. If our religion was about being good, that's what I would do, but it's not. While it is better to be like Jesus than King David, while it is better to be like Admiral Newell than Mr. Ombres, the essence of the Gospel is not to found in acting in good or bad ways. Let me share with you what the essence of the Gospel is.
In Matthew, chapter 1, beginning in verse 1 we find the genealogy of Jesus. In that chapter, the Holy Spirit of God speaking to the Universal Church through Saint Matthew tells how it is that Jesus came into human existence. He follows the story of Christ’s lineage, beginning with Abraham. “Abraham was the father of Isaac. Isaac was the father of Jacob, etcetera, etcetera,” through the generations. We see how God is at work in human history to bring forth His Messiah, how he is putting everything in place by brining families together, by keeping the line going. Then, in verse 6, this happens. "And Jesse became the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah's wife."
Wait a second. David misuses his power. He's corrupt. He's sinful. He takes a woman. He gets her pregnant. He kills the woman’s husband to cover up the crime. This woman, Uriah's wife, Bathsheba, is also sinful. She goes along with what David is doing. She does not warn her husband. We have no indication that she objected to anything the king did. Once Uriah was dead and her official mourning period was over, she married the man who had killed her husband and went on to have children with him.
We have these two people who have done these atrocious things, and out of them, out of that union, comes Jesus Christ. Out of one of the most sinful, dark, relationships you can imagine comes the bloodline that saves us all. Why? Because God redeems the fallen. That is the Gospel. The Gospel is not “be good, not bad.” The Gospel is the news that God come to us and become our Redeemer.
In the midst of sinfulness, God is still at work. In the midst of darkness, the Holy Spirit is still doing things. David had acquired Bathsheba and murdered Uriah through a despicable misuse of power. But God used the coming together of David and Bathsheba to bring forth the Savior of the world. Centuries after David died, Jesus Christ would be called by the honorary title "Son of David." (Matthew 9:7, etc.) Even though David and Bathsheba deeply sinned, God redeemed their union to offer salvation to us all.
I ask you, therefore, this question. If God can do that, what can He do with your brokenness? Think of your sin, your darkness, the mistakes you've made. Consider your regrets, your failings, the things you wish you had done differently. Is it possible that God can not only forgive you, but he can even use your failings to bring forth good?
If in the midst of all of David's ugliness, he can bring forth the Christ, what can He do in the midst of all your ugliness, or mine? The message of the Gospel is that God in Christ can bring forth great good even from our most miserable failures. His redemption is abundant. It is infinite. It is powerful. It is incomprehensible. It is beyond our understanding. It is beyond our choices. It is beyond our power.
The redemptive power of Christ is so great that not only can your sins be forgiven, but beauty can come from ashes. Glory can come from suffering. Good can come from what you and I meant for evil. That is the Gospel and that is the redeeming power of Jesus that He showed forth by dying for us on the Cross and by being raised again, by ascending to heaven, and by promising to return.
Each of us has our own burdens. We bear scars in our bodies and in our minds. We bear the burdens of the past. What the God in his Gospel says to us today is, "I can take those burdens from you, and I can do miracles with them.”
Jesus is still in the redemption business. Yes, it is better to use your power to treat people than to treat them poorly. But when we don’t do right, Christ is still here to redeem, as he did with David.
You are invited to come to Christ in prayer. Thinking of your burdens, you can say to him "will you please do something with this because I can't." Let him do his work in you. That's what he longs to do. His love for you is so great that He will bring forth redemption from whatever circumstances you have found yourself in.
This essay is based on a sermon given by the Reverend Thomas McKenzie at Church of the Redeemer (Anglican) in Nashville, Tennessee on July 26, 2009. You can listen to the original sermon, or other sermons and teachings given at Church of the Redeemer, by going to www.RedeemerCast.net. You can learn more about Church of the Redeemer by going to www.RedeemerNashville.net. Thomas McKenzie's personal blog may be found at www.ThomasMcKenzie.com