Perhaps you have heard the saying, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” These are the words of a famous 19th century English politician named Lord Acton, who was considered one of the most learned men of his time.
What Lord Acton was speaking about was the tendency of people who gain power over other people to succumb to moral weakness. Such people not necessarily innately evil. They may well begin as honest men and women whose motives are honorable and altruistic. They may want to “do good” for their people. But, over time, as they gain more power, as they experience its benefits, and as that power becomes more and more essential to their identity and self-esteem, the risk of corruption grows. Many will fall prey to its seductive influence. Their desire to maintain or increase their power will lead them to compromise their values and to sacrifice their integrity. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” “Despotic power,” Lord Acton warns, “is always accompanied by corruption of morality.” (italics mine).[i]
Power can be addictive. The more power people are given, the more they crave it. If they stay in power long enough, their ability to distinguish between what is morally right and what is politically expedient can be diminished. The lines become blurred. They do what benefits them politically, even if it means compromising their integrity and their moral standards. They may lie or distort the truth to get and keep their power. We don’t have to look far to find examples of this in our own political landscape.
Malachi 4: 1 – 2a
Thessalonians 3: 6 – 13
Luke 21: 5 -19
Before coming to the community, now just over thirty years ago, I was rector of a small parish on the west coast of British Columbia. The Parish of Salt Spring Island, was, as its name suggests, on an island between Vancouver Island and the mainland. The rectory was just perfect for me; a small two bedroom house built in the 1920’s or so. It was situated at the head of the harbour, facing southeast.
I had two favourite rooms in the house. One was the living room that had a fireplace and newly refinished hardwood floors. Shortly after I moved in, I came downstairs for my coffee one morning, and stood breathless as I looked into the living room. The sun was just coming up, and the living room glowed. It reminded me of one of my favourite prayers.
Gracious God, your love unites heaven and earth in a new festival of gladness. Lift our spirits to learn the way of joy that leads us to your banquet hall, where all is golden with praise. We ask this through Jesus Christ the Lord.
That morning watching the sun come up in my living room, I had a vision of that banquet hall where all is golden with praise. I loved my little house from that instant.
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-12, 23-28, 32-12:2; Psalm 37:28-36; Matthew 22:23-32
When we brothers were on pilgrimage to the UK a little over a year ago, we stayed at Keble College while in Oxford. Among the prominent features of Keble College is its chapel. It is not that there is anything outstanding in its architecture that makes it stand out, but rather, once you walk through the doors you are thrown into a sort of sensory overload, especially because all around the perimeter of the chapel are beautiful, multi-colored mosaics. Once you get over the initial shock and begin to study the mosaics, you will note that most of the scenes portrayed are from the Old Testament. You see Noah and the Ark, Abraham and Isaac, Joseph, and others. It may seem odd at first to experience a Christian chapel that predominantly features scenes from the Old Testament. That is until you take a closer look and note that in each of the scenes there is a thinly veiled reference to Jesus Christ.
In the image of Noah we see a dove flying between the Ark and the rainbow, a symbol of the Holy Spirit hovering over both the waters of Creation and of the waters of Baptism. Directly below that we see in the story of Abraham the priest Melchizadek offering bread and wine, the emblematic food of the Christian, the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.[i] And as you go around the chapel observing these mosaics you can see that Jesus is subtly there and that each story from the Old Testament is giving a knowing nod to the Word (sometimes referred to as the Wisdom of God), who the prologue of John’s gospel says was present in the beginning with God. For the leaders of the Oxford Movement, the Old Testament is “one vast prophetic system, veiling, but full of the New Testament,” and, more specifically, “of the One whose presence is stored up within it.”[ii]
I Samuel 16:1-13
From the First Book of Samuel, that great story of the calling and anointing of David. I’ve always really loved this story. It’s a kind of Cinderella story. Here are all Jesse’s sons lined up in front of the prophet Samuel. He looks at each one in turn: which one has the Lord chosen to be king? The first one, Eliab. He’s tall and good-looking. He must be the one! But no, says God. Never mind about his appearance or his height – he’s not the one. Nor the next one, nor the next one. But surely, God, this one looks perfect to be king. No, says God – never mind what he looks like. “For the Lord does not see as mortals see. They look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
And none of his sons are chosen. Are you sure there’s no one else? Well, says Jesse, there is the youngest (or in Hebrew it can also mean the smallest or the shortest). It couldn’t possibly be him! – and anyway he’s out with the sheep. Bring him in! I need to see him! He comes in, and immediately Samuel knows‘This is the one!’ And he anoints him with oil in the presence of all his brothers, and we read “The Spirit of the Lord came mightily on David from that day forward.”
Well, it’s a great story, and the reason I think I’ve always loved it is that I’m the youngest son in my family and I’ve got two older brothers. Growing up I was always younger and shorter than them. Playing football (soccer) with them and their friends, they’d say, ‘Oh, you’re too small. You can go in goal. I hated being in goal and just standing around. Boring! You couldn’t run around with the ball.
1 Kings 12:26-33, 13:33-34; Psalm 106:19-22; Mark 8:1-10
I have never wanted to create a god. I would never think to construct something out of metal or stone or wood, only to begin to worship it upon completion. This is why the stories of the Israelites turning to the worship of golden calves have, for a long time, been confusing to me. It seems to make idolatry into something that’s an obvious, explicit turning away from God, a deliberate decision to say, “No, I choose to worship this unliving thing, made with my own hands, that I know is not God.” This is not any idolatry with which I am familiar.
I have been happy to discover, then, that perhaps this is not what the Israelites were up to. One theory explaining the repeated trope of the golden calf is not that God’s people intended to fashion for themselves new gods. Yahweh and El—both names ascribed to the God of Israel—were often symbolized with bulls. Further, in the Ancient Near East, it was common to depict images of gods enthroned, not by showing them sitting in a stately chair, but instead standing atop an animal associated with the god in question. If one wished to create a new throne for the God of Israel, it would have been natural to fashion a golden calf.1
I Samuel 24:2-20
In this powerful story from First Samuel, we see a ruler who is in trouble. His erratic behavior, his dark and brooding temperament, and his unstable mental state have caused his approval ratings to drop to an all-time low. He feels increasingly threatened by a promising young leader who is widely respected and loved, and clings desperately to his place of power. Although he was called by God to be king and anointed by God’s prophet, he now tries to take matters into his own hands: instead of entrusting himself to God, he tries to destroy the one who challenges his authority by putting him to death.