No Power of Ourselves

Dave Zahl got the good out of Bob Dylan in his excellent sermon from a few weeks ago, but there is one more famous line of his I’d like to use to begin this short All Saints’ Sunday sermon.  “You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed, you’re gonna have to serve somebody. Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”  Dylan rifles off a number of socially powerful professions, from ambassadors to doctors to drug lords to preachers even, but concludes that every single one of us is in service to someone else.

Dylan’s reductive statement is inductively true. Given the 6 baptisms at Christ Church this All Saints’ weekend, his reference to the powers and principalities whom we serve is appropriate. Parents and godparents must first renounce the devil and then promise to serve Christ as Lord before their babies are baptized.

You’re gonna have to serve somebody. Despite all the free will and self-empowerment talk that we Americans hold so dear, not a single person is capable of being the captain of his own soul or the master of his own destiny. Freud has gone out of style, but his fundamental insights remain true. We are all subject to, you might even say in service to, a myriad of subconscious pressures and impulses over which we have little or no control.

Modern people may think it a stretch that we are in service to the devil, as Dylan says, but I think it’s fair to expand the devil’s reach into the dominion of the self. Parents and godparents must also renounce the “sinful desires that draw us from the love of God.” Anyone (aka- everyone) familiar with the power of lust, anger, envy, or pride, to name a few, knows the servitude forced upon us by these forces.

Thornton Wilder describes this so well in The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Writing about his main character, he says, “She saw that the people of this world moved about in an armor of egotism, drunk with self-gazing…. in dread of all appeals that might interrupt their long communion with their own desires.” These people sound a little like zombies. But Wilder nails it. He unmasks the myth that service to the self leads to fulfillment and happiness. Instead, the long communion with our own desires leads to not to fulfillment but gnawing malediction and bondage.

Jesus says clearly that you’re gonna have to serve somebody, and furthermore you cannot serve two masters. He names the options as God or Mammon – or wealth as the false object of devotion. Modern social psychologists agree, or at least underscore that money can’t buy happiness.

Psychologist Madeline Levine works with parents and teenagers. She spoke last week at a local school saying that “rates of depression and anxiety are nearly double the national average for teenagers with household incomes above $160,000.” Several insights could be drawn from this fact, but one conclusion is that the obsession with achievement/self-actualization afforded by wealth leads not to a child’s peace and happiness, but to his or her anxiety and instability.

That one illustration combines the mastery of Mammon and self, both of which Christians believe are subsumed beneath the ministrations of our great Arch Enemy. And to underscore, Freud’s insight, the Book of Common Prayer asserts that in service to these forces, you and I have “no power of ourselves to help ourselves.” That’s pretty much the exact opposite of the “Can Do” mantra nearly everyone assumes as an American birthright.

Well, the no power of ourselves to help ourselves pickle we’re in brings us directly to All Saints’ Day. Thanks be to God there is a power greater than ourselves, a power strong enough to interrupt our long communion with our own desires. St. Paul describes this power in our All Saints’ reading from Ephesians.

Listen to how many times the word “power” is used in this short passage. “God has shown us the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion…” You do not have power of yourself to help yourself, but make no mistake – God does.

Per All Saints’ Day, it is his power that takes sinners like you and me and makes us saints. God’s power resides for us in a very specific place – Christ’s blood. The 100-year old gospel song, redone a million times by a million different artists tells us in the refrain, “There is power, power, wonder working power in the precious blood of the lamb.”

Do you believe this on this All Saints Day? I love novelist Walker Percy’s crotchety interview with himself, done in the last years of his life. He talks about this belief.

Q: How is such a belief possible in this day and age?  A: What else is there?

Q: What do you mean, what else is there? There is humanism, atheism, agnosticism, Marxism, behaviorism, materialism, Buddhism, Muhammadanism, Sufism, astrology, occultism, theosophy. A: That’s what I mean.

Q: I don’t understand. Would you exclude, for example, scientific humanism as a rational and honorable alternative? A: Yes.

Q: Why? A: It’s not good enough. Q: Why not? A: This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it and have to answer “Scientific humanism.” That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed aholt of God and would not let go until God identified himself and blessed him.

Q: Grabbed aholt? A: A Louisiana expression.

You’re gonna have to serve somebody. “Would you be free from your passion and pride? There is power in the blood, power in the blood. Come for a cleansing in Calvary’s tide; there is wonderful power in the blood.” Why settle for anything less?

Amen.