On the Perception of Power and the Power of Perception
January 10, 2021
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor. The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!” The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!
Mark 1: 9-13
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days…
Today’s sermon is titled On the Power of Perception and the Perception of Power. Throughout this time we have together I hope to hold the rather complex relationship of perception and power and how they interplay. This dynamic is very much at play in the scriptures today and we are working our way through processing the shocking images from the storming of our nation’s capitol building this week. This is the perfect time for us to consider together the relationship between perception and power.
Perception is a mental impression that is formed through our senses; the more senses involved, the stronger the impression usually. I imagine that on Wednesday, whenever it was that we were confronted with the images of the violence, we were taking in every detail. Our perception of this event was shaped through what we saw and heard and also through what we empathetically felt when we saw fellow Americans lying on the floor in the Senate chamber.
Our perceptions combine together to form our complex belief systems and, as is the case with most of us, the strength of our perceptions fuel the strength of our beliefs. Symbols can become a very important part of strengthening our perceptions and giving power to our beliefs. Symbols become a badge of identity; they let others know who we are and what we stand for. I saw many symbols in Wednesday’s footage: flags, familiar slogans, and (much to my dismay) even a cross held high.
So let’s try to hold all that in our minds as we travel back through the millennia to the banks of the Jordan river. What the words of this story offer us is actually a very intimate experience and I have, until now, failed to read it that way. In my mind, the scene has been created to include a multitude of people. I am certain that I have painted the same picture for you because each year on the first Sunday after Epiphany, we revisit a version of this same story, the baptism of Christ. This event is central to the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry because of the epiphany it provides. Who could deny the import of “the heavens being torn” and “a voice from heaven ”?
But if we re-read the passage carefully, without imagining crowds of people gathered on the riverbank, this is what we find: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days…” Here is our impression: two men in a river, one holding the other, dipping him under the water and lifting him up again. Here the scriptures say “he (he, who?) saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending on him, and a voice came from heaven…” It is unclear who saw what, exactly, and there is no way to know for sure, but what the words offer us is a very intimate portrait of an event with extremely powerful impression of a ritual taking place, in a moving river, the sky opening, a Spirit descending, a voice proclaiming! These form our perception in mind, and perhaps also in heart, and because of magnitude of the impressions we are drawn in and we are changed, perhaps ever so slightly, a teeny tiny epiphany or perhaps a full-blown realization of the divine nature manifested in Jesus of Nazareth.
For me, personally, my perception of this event is enhanced by what happens next. We read, “…the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” There was no convincing speech, there were no miracles performed, either. The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness and Jesus was tested and tempted and what was the bait? Remember what the Tempter used? Worldly power. From Matthew chapter 4: “The Tempter took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor and said, ‘All these I will give you if you will fall down and worship me.’”
The symbols of power here are “kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” I have not travelled abroad but I have walked for miles between the monuments and memorials and government buildings of our nation’s capital city. They are gigantic edifices that leave a lasting impression and the lasting impression is precisely the point.
Remember here that our perceptions are formed by impressions through our senses and through our perceptions, we assign power. This is key. Through our perceptions, we assign power. One of my favorite political analysts, Mark Shields, recently retired. Over and over, I heard him say, “In Washington, power is the perception of power.” Hold on to that while we go even further back in time to the writings of the psalmist we had to day.
Imagine life 3000 years ago. What would be some of the most impressive sights and sounds? They are all found in the reading we have for today: thunder, mighty waters, flames of fire, floods, thrones of Kings, wilderness, forests of oak and cedar, and a mighty voice that strips the forests bare. These impressions are conjured to make an impact, to form a perception of something so much bigger and more powerful than ourselves as individuals, and we effortlessly and unconsciously assign them power.
The greatest forces that guide us are love, primarily, and its close second that often threatens to overtake love is fear. I think the distinction between love and fear is blurred when we are profoundly impressed. Do you agree? Imagine standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls, at the base of the Washington Monument or the steps of the Capitol. We would say those are powerful places. Imagine standing on the banks of the Jordan when the heavens opened and the Spirit descended and the voice from heaven spoke. We would say that was a powerful experience. Imagine being in the presence of someone you greatly admire, someone you would drive for days to hear speak. We would say that was a powerful person.
Friends, we must take great care in how we assign power. We have seen over and over again the fervor that can run through a crowd leading to violence and destruction. The images and sounds from the attack on the Capitol echo in us still. We heard the President of America coaching an angry crowd, “Be strong…you have to be strong!” Friends, we must take great care in how we assign power, lest we be led astray. We are irresistibly impressed with grandeur, with fame, and with displays of earthly influence. Then we are vulnerable to suggestions that we have some thing to fear, someone to fear and then a little incendiary language is all it takes to reach a tipping point where reason and self-control become impossible.
We can see the people who were smashing the windows as enemies of democracy but that will not take us closer to addressing the underlying problem. We would be better served to see them as victims who fell sway to displays of grandeur, victims who fell sway to false promises, to misinformation, to misleading rhetoric. But that is not all. We must then see at least some of them in us, and some of us in them. There can be no healing when we maintain a stance of “better than” or “wiser than.” We all have some responsibility to bear and part of it has to do with to what, and to whom, we assign power.
In closing, I don’t want to lose the imagery of Jesus and John in the waters of the river Jordan, Jesus coming up out of the water and seeing the heavens open and the Spirit descending and the voice from heaven speaking. It fills me with wonder and questions and a mix of love and fear, if I am completely honest. I assign a great deal of power to the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. His teachings call me, call us, to learn about a love so strong that we do not see enemies; it is.a love so strong that it pushes out vestiges of hate and racism and paranoia. We must refuse to assign power to unworthy leaders at every level and to their misled movements, however distracting and destructive they may be. Love is alive in America and throughout the world. Our call as Christians is to live in it and let the love light shine through us to guide our way to a better, kinder, future. So be it. Amen.
Beloved God, I thank you for the precious gift we receive when we look to Christ as the embodiment of your highest wishes for us and for our fulfillment as human beings. Lead us through these dark times with holy light and divine love. Many in our nation and in our world are emotionally wounded, traumatized, grieving, and experiencing financial crisis. Empathy for our brothers and sisters and the struggles they face can be painful to bear, Lord, and yet through this deep feeling, we become more alive, we become more humane, and we come closer to the place within where you reside. I pray for our nation, for America. We have many more commonalities than we have differences. Lead us in the ways of righteousness. Lead us in the ways of Peace. With devotion, I pray in Jesus’s name, who taught us to pray by saying… Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from the book of Colossians, chapter 3:
“Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and forgive one another, as the Lord has forgiven you.” Amen.