May 23, 2021

You will receive power

Passage: Acts 1:6-8, Acts 2:1–21, Mark 1:21-28

In 1975 I entered Mount Allison University, located in Sackville, New Brunswick after doing a year in Bible College in Springfield, Missouri.

My plan at the time was to do a Bachelor of Arts in  Psychology and Sociology.

I took two Sociology courses that first year. One was Anthropology and the other was Sociological Perspectives.

After that year and doing two major essays for those courses, I decided to switch to a Bachelor of Science in Math and Psychology. I decided I didn’t like doing essays, and I was much better at Math and got much higher marks. And I didn’t have to do essays. Did I say that already?

The essay I did for Sociological Perspectives, to my recollection was based on the book: “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest” published in 1962 by Ken Kesey.

The story is about one Randle McMurphy who ends up in a psychiatric institution, possibly because he pretended to be crazy, instead of going to jail for a crime. He immediately comes into conflict with Nurse Ratched who rules the ward with absolute authority.

As the novel unfolds there are endless power struggles. McMurphy pretends to take his medicine and doesn’t. He incites the patients to take a vote on watching the world series. He organizes a deep-sea fishing trip. He smuggles in prostitutes and has a party after hours.

He tries to lift a heavy control panel in the tub room so he can toss it through the windows and break them free. When he can’t, he says: “but at least I tried.”

The implication is that the others are not trying to be free of the domination and manipulation of Nurse Ratched and the hospital.

The novel is narrated by Chief, a large, almost giant of a man, who is half-Native American and pretends to be deaf and mute, although we don’t find out until much later in the novel that he can both hear and talk.

However, since everybody thinks he is deaf and mute they don’t pay him much attention, and he is the eyes and ears of the place and he sees much.

He sees that the hospital is a machine. It is part of the
Combine that works over individuals by power and control. He can hear the hospital walls hum with hate and death and secrets.

Even though this is supposedly a hospital to cure mental illness, Chief understands that all the strategies like medicine and group therapy and strict routines are ultimately about power and control, domination and repression.

And while it is supposed to be about healing, the Chief sees it more as a kind of machine shop where so-called broken parts are brought in and fixed to fit into or conform into the big machine of societal expectations.

And the one who is the leader and the chief symbol of the controlling Combine is Nurse Ratched.

And the system uses medicine and routines and therapies and even electro-shock therapy to bring you under control.

However, the Chief acknowledges that it isn’t just the obvious things, but all the non-obvious things that are working on you bringing into line. There is stealth control and manipulation at work and you don’t even know it is working.

The end of the story has Nurse Ratchet and Randle McMurphy in a big showdown. McMurphy organizes a secret after-hours party and brings in prostitutes and Billy one of the younger patients has sex with the prostitute Candy.

The plan is to clean up and not let anybody know that the party went on, but with all the drinking etc, the partyers fall asleep.

In the morning when Nurse Ratchet arrives and finds out what Billy did, she shames him and says she is going to tell his mother. Billy regresses to an infantile state, and afraid, goes to his room and takes a knife and commits suicide.

Whereupon McMurphy attacks Nurse Ratched and tries to strangle her.

The guards pull McMurphy off, who doesn’t appear in the ward for a while. Some days later McMurphy is brought back in the middle of the night. The chief goes to see him and finds out that McMurphy is lobotomized and is basically in a vegetative state.

The chief smothers McMurphy to put him out of his misery, lifts the heavy control panel that McMurphy couldn’t lift, and breaks himself out of the hospital and is free.

The novel was written in part as a response to Kesey’s time working as an orderly in a mental health facility. Kesey was advocating for a lot of freedom and that certainly was a theme of the sixties. Freedom from the Machine, the Combine, the Man, the Authorities, and the Power that Be.

And yet it has a larger theme of social control, and the ways in which all institutions, for better or worse ,try to form, or reform, or mold or conform individuals to fit in within the institution and conform to the values of the institution.

A few years after the book One Flew over the cuckoo’s nest, French Philosopher Michel Foucault would claim that power and knowledge go hand in hand, and there are invisible forms of discipline that oppress humans on a much larger scale; and things like prisons and mental institutions are microcosms of what goes on in the larger world of power and control.

I don’t think it is a great stretch for us to understand there is a lot of power in the world and those in power use knowledge often to form or conform people into their molds.

We probably can see there is hardly any power, or government, or institution, or company, or educational force, or medical system, church, or even family that is completely neutral.

We have seen over the last while that the internet has a great capacity to be a force for good and give billions of people information at their fingertips. (I use the internet a lot when crafting sermons.) But the internet also can be misused, as a place to spread lies and misinformation, as a way to manipulate consumers into buying what corporations want.

Several years ago, both Facebook and Google gave personal data and information, of millions upon millions of their clients or users, to groups that used the data to manipulate political elections.

And the truth was most people did not, or still do not realize, how the manipulations work, and who is doing them.

However, while we all want to be free of those who dominate us and control us, it is literally impossible to do away with every system and force that has power over us.

One of those powers which control us is our family. It is pretty hard to grow up without a family.

Likewise, the prospect of no government, no education system, no public utilities, no media, no internet, no medical system, no churches.

The powers that be, the Man, is still necessary to any kind of social existence.

But maybe what we need is a different power.

The scriptures writers were well aware of the dynamics of power. Paul wrote: Do not be conformed to this world. He also wrote that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against rulers and authorities and cosmic powers of darkness and spiritual forces of evil.

And today, on the day of Pentecost, I present to you a little case study on power as I present to you the story of the man with an unclean spirit, as found in Mark’s gospel. Now, Mark’s gospel is not quite as replete with mentions and teaching of the Holy Spirit as John’s gospel, but Mark does say that Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit, and for Mark when Jesus talks about the Kingdom, or Reign of God being at hand, then we are talking about the reign of the Holy Spirit as well.

So please understand that when Jesus encounters the man with the evil spirit, then it is the Holy Spirit who is empowering Jesus to heal this man.

And the first thing to notice is that Jesus taught as one having authority…as one who had power….

We think, “well duh. It is Jesus.” But they didn’t know that Jesus was any different than anyone else, but they recognized that power. And what was that power. That was the power of the Holy Spirit. They probably couldn’t even understand it or explain it. They just knew that it was power, and a different kind of power. Not the power of an official, but the power of one who cared.

But it wasn’t just the people who noticed the power of the Holy Spirit….. the evil spirit, the evil power recognized that this was a different power.

The Power of love, of compassion, of justice, of equality, of forgiveness, of friendship, of acceptance, of grace has come to town, and guess who sits up and takes notice.

Evil does. Because evil works with lies and gossip and unequal power and manipulation and forcing people, and threatening people.

And this unclean spirit wants to know if Jesus has come to destroy it and all the powers and forces.

And Jesus hasn’t come to punish or destroy but to heal.

And he heals the man.

And most of us go “wow.” And we see the story as a healing. But I think something much deeper is going on.

Today a literal reading might understand it as a medical situation. We see it maybe, as a psychiatric case. But when Jesus comes into the synagogue, the place of Jewish religious authority, and the Holy Spirit starts to work it disturbs the very structure of society. It disturbs, the principalities and powers and systems and forces and spirits, who are happy to see this man subjugated and under the control of evil forces and not happy when the man is freed of domination and control.

You see in first century Palestine, they did not think of the man with an evil spirit as a sick man, but as a bad man. They thought of him as a cursed man. They thought of him as an unclean man. They thought of him as demonic. They thought of themselves as the winners and this man as a loser. They thought of him as one who deserved what he got. They thought of him beyond forgiveness, redemption or acceptance.

And, so he must be removed from the community. He must be excluded.

And when the Holy Spirit comes, not only is the man healed, he is restored into community.

But oppressive forces don’t want that. They want people oppressed They don’t want the Holy Spirit. They don’t want healed people, because people who have the Holy Spirit, who have the power of Jesus, are the undoing of oppressive systems of power.

Today I want to talk about a new power. The Power of the Holy Spirit. It is the opposite of Nurse Ratchet and the oppressive controlling abuse of power.

It is the power to love and to heal and to include, and it is not the power of winning, but of love for all.

The Holy Spirit comes into our lives and is the power to do deep healing within, as we face the truth of our own pain, our own sins, our own wounds that have been shaping us, and forcing us and controlling us for too long.

The Holy Spirit comes into our lives and makes us aware of the forces and systems that bind us and bind others.

The Holy Spirit comes into our lives and we are able to name the evil spirits, and expose them and tell them to leave, not only in our lives, by in the systems and people and institutions we encounter.

The Holy Spirit comes into our lives and convulses all the structures and machines and forces and combines that seek to control not only us, but the poor, the marginalized, the innocent, the children, women, the vulnerable.

The answer to the rulers and authorities and cosmic powers of darkness and spiritual forces of evil, is not to become Randle McMurphy. It is not freedom in the sense of being free to do anything you want.

Randle McMurphy is a symbol of freedom, but his type of freedom is not the type of freedom or power that we need or even want.

While he opposed the dominance and excesses of Nurse Ratchet and is the protagonist we come to admire in the story, we don’t want a world of Randle McMurphys who think that they don’t have to follow any rules, or laws, or anything. They are free to have fun and to do whatever they want and with whomever they want and rules do not apply.

That is not the Holy Spirit.

I am appalled when I see in the media that a couple of churches in Alberta are refusing to follow Alberta Health Guidelines, in the belief that somehow their religious faith means that they don’t have to follow any government law.

If every religious faith group in the world said that because they believed in God, they didn’t have to follow any laws, the world would be total anarchy.

It is not a choice between oppressive manipulating controlling power…. and anarchy and lawlessness.

The Holy Spirit give us freedom and power. It is the power to love, the power to care and be compassionate. It is the power to heal and to forgive. It is the power to listen and understand. It is the freedom to do what is right and loving; and not let the powers keep us from doing what is right and loving.

One of the most interesting parts of the Pentecost Story in chapter 2 of the Acts of the Apostles is, this miraculous event whereby rough uneducated Galileans are able to speak all kinds of languages.

And the crowds of foreigner are astonished and say to each other that they can hear and understand

It is the opposite of the tower of Babel Story where the pride of humans, the selfishness of humans means that humans are scattered and cannot understand one another.

One of the miracles of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit is the ability to hear and understand one another at a very deep level.

As I have said before most of the time when we are in a conversation, we are using our brains to think of the story, we are going to tell, when it is our turn to talk; instead of using our brains to really listen to the other, and what their story is, and what their pain is, and what their needs are, and what would be something that we could say and do that would bring healing and light to them.

One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is that we really take the time to listen, to hear and to understand. And then we act in love.

And when we take the time to hear and understand and care for, every person, then we undercut the very dark and sinister forces that try to manipulate and control people.

Let me tell you a story of power. In 1991, Rabbi Michael Weisser moved to Lincoln, Neb., with his family. He was then the cantor and spiritual leader of the South Street Temple, the oldest Jewish congregation in Lincoln. One Sunday morning, a few days after they had moved into their new house, the phone rang.

The man on the other end of the line called Rabbi Weisser “Jew boy” and told him he would be sorry he had moved in. Two days later, a thick package of anti-black, anti-Semitic pamphlets arrived in the mail, including an unsigned card that read, “The KKK is watching you, scum.”

The messages, it turned out, were from Larry Trapp, the Grand Dragon of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Nebraska, who kept loaded weapons, pro-Hitler material and his Klan robe in his cramped Lincoln apartment. Then 42, Mr. Trapp was nearly blind and used a wheelchair to get around; both of his legs had been amputated because of diabetes.

Rabbi Weisser, who suspected the person threatening him was Mr. Trapp, got his telephone number and started leaving messages on the answering machine. He would say things like: ‘Larry, there’s a lot of love out there. You’re not getting any of it. Don’t you want some?’ And hang up,” he said. “And, ‘Larry, why do you love the Nazis so much? They’d have killed you first because you’re disabled.’ And hang up. The rabbi did it once a week.”

One day, Mr. Trapp answered. Rabbi Weisser said “ ‘I heard you’re disabled. I thought you might need a ride to the grocery. ”.

Then, one night, Rabbi Weisser’s phone rang again. It was Mr. Trapp. He said, ‘I want to get out of what I’m doing and I don’t know how.’

Rabbi Weisser drove to Mr. Trapp’s apartment that night and they talked for hours, and a close friendship formed. The Rabbi’s home became a kind of hospice for Mr. Trapp, who moved into one of their bedrooms as his health worsened, and he stayed there till his death in September 1992.

By that time Mr. Trapp had renounced the Klan, apologized to many of those he had threatened, and converted to Judaism in Rabbi Weisser’s synagogue

All because there was a different power. The power of love.

That is the power of the Holy Spirit.  And you have that power. Amen.