Fight the Power: A Sermon Preached at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church

360625-nyc-power-outageThis fall, the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church has been engaged in a sermon series, New York Gods, about the idols and false gods we often construct for ourselves. I was invited to preach the final sermon in the series. It was also Christ the King Sunday, so I chose to talk about the idol of Power.

You can also listen to the sermon here.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church
November 22, 2015
Christ the King Sunday

John 18:33-38a

33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ 38Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’


The year was 1925. The place, Italy. A new prime minister named Benito Mussolini was orchestrating a series of steps to increase his power. He and his National Fascist Party had overthrown the existing prime minister a few years earlier, and he had convinced the legislature to give him dictatorial powers. Using both military might and parliamentary maneuvers, Mussolini and the fascists were consolidating their power, demanding absolute allegiance, and systematically destroying their opposition.

That same year, 1925, an encyclical was published by Pope Pius XI. This little document, nothing more than a pamphlet really, did two primary things: one, it announced to the world that there was only one supreme ruler of the world, and that ruler was not Mussolini, not a political party or fascist ideology. That supreme ruler was Jesus Christ: Christ the King.

The other thing that the pope’s statement did was establish a holy day in the church, a day in which the church would proclaim with one voice that Christ is Lord of our lives. That day is called Christ the King Sunday, and 90 years later, Mussolini is long gone, but here we are, still singing majestic hymns about Christ the King, still reading scriptures affirming the kingship of Christ. As my friend Joe Clifford tells his church in Dallas every year on this Sunday, “Grace and Peace in the name of Jesus Christ, the leader of the free world.”

Is that who Christ is? That’s what Pilate is trying to find out. He asks him point blank, “Are you a king?” They have a little back and forth and still Jesus doesn’t answer the question… but then he does, but in a strange way. He doesn’t say “Yes,” he doesn’t say “No,” he instead describes his kingdom. He says twice, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Only when Pilate asks him again, “Are you a king,” does Jesus say yes, sort of: “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, to testify to the truth.”

It’s as if Jesus is saying, “It’s less important to me whether you think I’m a king, and more important that you know the dimensions of my kingdom… in fact, don’t call me a king unless you understand what kind of king I am.”

So what kind of king is he? What kind of power does this king have?

It’s an important question, this question of power. Because here we are in one of the power centers of the world. I happen to live in another of those cities, Washington DC. And I stand here today very aware, one week after Paris, that your city and my city know something, perhaps, of what the people of Paris are experiencing right now. In these incredible seats of power, we know that while we live in hubs of business and finance and global communication and politics, we are still fragile human beings, flesh and blood and bone, and tears. Our prestigious positions, and our advanced degrees, and the majestic buildings in which we live and work and worship, will not ultimately protect us from harm.

We know that what happened in Paris and Beirut, and then Mali this week, is not just an affront to the Prince of Peace and the King of Glory whose praises we sing here today. What happened in those places, and in too many others to mention, is an affront to basic human decency and it must be resisted with every bit of courage we have and fought with every bit of peace-building energy we can ask God to grant us.

But how? If we are subjects in a kingdom that is not of this world, what kind of power do we wield?

I keep thinking about 1920s Italy, Mussolini’s incredible rise to power, and it seems so strange and touching that the church responded to this… with a position paper. What kind of power could a church policy paper have in the face of such twisted evil? It seems like such a feeble protest. The rise of Fascism, and what does the church do? It institutes a new holiday.

What kind of power is that?

I don’t know how many scientists we have here, but I hope those who are here will permit me to borrow some of their language as we unpack this business about power. Because physicists will tell you that there are two primary equations to describe power.

The first one is
Power = Force x Velocity. Force x Velocity.

So power comes when we push something with a certain amount of oomph (that’s the scientific term) and we do it with a certain amount of speed.

So by this equation, if we want to maximize our power, if we want to be power-full, we want to push hard, and we want to push fast. The harder we push and the faster we go, the more power we yield.

And I think this is the way we usually think of power. This is the equation of overwhelming force. Quick action. My way or the highway. Get on board or get out of the way. Flatten the opposition. Push. Achieve. Mission accomplished. Close our borders, shut down the mosques, and flatten Syria into a parking lot.

That kind of power can feel very satisfying. But to borrow Scott’s language from earlier in this series, this kind of power can whispers false comfort in our ears.

Force x Velocity is a particularly potent temptation on days that end in body counts.

Barbara Brown Taylor has pointed out that “Jesus is not brought down by atheism and anarchy. He is brought down by law and order allied with religion, which is always a deadly mix. Beware of those who claim to know the mind of God and who are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware of those who cannot tell God’s will from their own. Temple police are always a bad sign. When chaplains start wearing guns and hanging out at the sheriff’s office, watch out.”[i]

The Reign of God does not run on that kind of power. It does not run on Force x Velocity.

In fact, Jesus’ kingdom has none of the usual stuff we think of when we picture a kingdom. There is no opulent palace, royal intrigues and scandals, no power plays, no aristocratic class. No, the chief currency of Jesus’ kingdom is this weird idea of truth. “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” And Pilate asks him the famous question, “What is truth?”

Frederick Buechner imagines this conversation taking place between Jesus and Pilate and says, “Jesus doesn’t answer Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” He just stands there. Stands, and stands there.[ii]

Truth is not a what, as Pilate’s question suggests, but the truth is a Who.
The Who is the King of the Jews, not a ruler from on high, but a Palestinian Jew who spent his toddler years as a refugee in Egypt.

And right there is the paradox of Christ the King Sunday:
Not a posturing king on a throne, but a peasant on a cross.
Not a military general who calls us to arms,
but a nomadic carpenter who said “take up your cross.”
Not a political leader with his own platform and campaign website,
But a person who said, “I am the truth. And I am the life. And I am the way.”

I am the way, and the world you see around you, churning along dysfunctionally, is not the way the world should be. Look at my life, Jesus says, and you will see a template for how the world is supposed to be.

Theologian David Lose suggests that we have to look at the action in this scene to get at what’s really going on. If it were playing out on a stage, “the stage would be split in two. One half would be occupied by Pilate’s headquarters; the other half would be devoted to the portico, or patio, just outside his headquarters.” Standing on the patio are the religious leaders who have brought Jesus to Pilate. Standing inside is Jesus.

The scene begins, then, with Pilate coming out to greet the religious leaders. And then Pilate goes back in to Jesus. Then he goes back out to the mob. Then back to Jesus. All told, Pilate moves between his headquarters and the patio not once, not twice, not even three times, but a total of seven times. “That’s right,” David Lose says, “Pilate wavers back and forth between Jesus and his accusers like a drunken sailor trying to walk from the pub back to his ship.”[iii]

And that’s just the point. Pilate wavers: he knows what is right…but he also knows what is easy, what is politically expedient.

The crowds are shouting:
Hit him hard!
Hit him fast!
Crucify him!
Force x Velocity!

And then there’s Jesus. Just standing there in a different kind of power.

The physicists know. I told you there were two ways of calculating power. The first as we’ve said is Power = Force x Velocity.

The second equation is Power = Work divided by Time.
Work divided by Time, or in the shorthand, Work Over Time.

Now we’re getting somewhere! Work over time does not posture. It doesn’t bluster. It doesn’t favor the quick forceful action over everything else. Work over time is Jesus’ way of wielding power.

Force x Velocity would be Jesus punching Pilate in the throat and escaping the palace, gathering his followers and taking up arms, staging a surprise guerrilla uprising against Rome. But that’s not the equation of Jesus.

Instead, power looks like a last supper with friends in which Jesus breaks bread and pours wine and says all the things that need to be said. Power means not resisting when the mob comes to arrest you. Power is declaring forgiveness in the final faltering breaths. Power is new life bursting forth from the grave; power is a church that gets it wrong sometimes but oh when we get it right you’ve got to shield your eyes from the brilliance of it; power is that we’re still here 2,000 years later, fighting evil with good, feeding the hungry and caring for the stranger. Work over Time… Work over Time.

Work over time takes the long view instead of being seduced by the idol of the quick fix. It’s hearts and minds. It’s a pamphlet proclaiming Christ as King in the wake of a Fascist dictator rising to power. Today it’s the Catholic Bishops and the mainline denominations, and the National Association of Evangelicals speaking with one voice about the plight of Syrian refugees (and when have we ever gotten the evangelicals and the mainliners to agree about anything?!), and they’re saying that we may be scared, and we need to be thoughtful and thorough in our processes, but we cannot close our hearts and doors to those who are vulnerable and literally running for their lives.

Jesus’ power, Work over Time, is what Eugene Peterson has called a long obedience in the same direction. It’s figuring out what our work is and doing it quietly but relentlessly day after day, because Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, which means it’s just beyond our grasp… but not beyond our imagining.

I’m always interested in what gets passed around social media following a major world event such as the Paris attacks. You often see Mr. Rogers quote about finding the helpers. But the other one I saw a lot this week comes from Rabbi Tarfon, who says, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

That is the power of the kingdom of God. Work over Time.

It’s the power of a man named Jadav Payeng, whom some people know as Forest Man. You can learn about him in a short documentary of that name.

Forest Man lives on Majuli Island in India, nothing more than a sandbar, really, home to about 150,000 people, but due to terrible erosion, it’s half the size it used to be.

Spurred by the dire situation, Payeng transformed himself into a modern day Johnny Appleseed and singlehandedly planted thousands upon thousands of plants, to try to halt the erosion. He started this work in the 70s.

Payeng’s work has been credited with significantly fortifying the island, while providing a habitat for several endangered animals which have returned to the area; a herd of nearly 100 elephants (which has now given birth to an additional ten), Bengal tigers, and a species of vulture that hasn’t been seen on the island in over 40 years.

Imagine a forest that’s larger than Central Park, all planted by one man, living a long obedience in the same direction.

That’s power. Work over time.

You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

Do justly, now.

Love mercy, now.

Walk humbly, now.


Image: View from the Empire State Building showing the power divide in New York City after Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Picture: Tom Hussey.



[ii] from Buechner’s Peculiar Treasures



Improvising Life: Building Trust, Sharing Courage through Improv

Today we welcome Ryan Bradney to The Blue Room! I met Ryan two years ago at an event I led in Kansas City and we bonded over our mutual interest in improv. Today he shares about an exciting ministry he’s involved with:

On Thursday mornings, I teach an improv class with the men and women of Wainscott Hall, a transitional residence for the homeless in Winchester, Kentucky. In the class, the residents, along with their fellow actors from First Presbyterian Church, take turns playing and observing bold, gracious improv. Some games require a few actors, others the whole class, but all of the games are participatory in that the class provides the needed resources for the game. It could be quotes, quirks, settings, or even a visual storyboard. Whatever the elements, I invite the actors to engage with what is present in the hope that we open ourselves up to new possibilities.

In between games, we reflect on what we’ve learned, share stories, and laugh about our favorite moments. We also identify the ways in which the games empower us to creatively engage in problem solving and build community. Janet Ballard, an actor with the group, has observed that “the games have opened up the residents to share their joys and struggles. I am seeing them build confidence and friendships.”

As we engage a variety of creative quirks and scenes, Janet Robinson has noticed that the joyful and resilient voices of our improv class can sound a bit unusual, saying, “when you are walking the halls during improv, you will hear BAM, Quack, Barking, Tapping, Spanish, and best of all, the laughter. I have seen the concern that they have for each other and friendships formed through play. I have come to look forward to the Thursday morning meetings with our friends in the group.”

improv_Oct 22 2015

Participants in the Community Improv class at Wainscott Hall, a transitional residence for the homeless.

As we create unusual characters, quirks, and settings, we are often surprised by the unexpected ways in which the scenes play out. One of the actors, George Ballard, Janet’s husband, ran out of the classroom during a scene, sprinting into the hallway, his steps thundering like a thoroughbred. Following his bold exit, George’s fellow actors were startled with surprise, many with laughter and some even wondered (as they shared in our reflection after the game) if he was overwhelmed by a fear of improv. The clamor of his booming feet continued until he returned with a smile. It turned out that George ran not out of fear, but, in response to his given quirk, “Running”.

Weeks later, I spoke with George about his convincing portrayal running through the halls, and asked what the experience meant to him. Embracing the improv principle “yes and” (building creatively on what’s present) George responded in a way that I couldn’t have expected. “If I would have known that the residents would look outside, I would have run downstairs, out the door, and would have continued running on the sidewalk.” There’s power in recognizing courage in one another, seeing those who are willing to go to great lengths, several laps in George’s case, to speak a word of hope. George’s commitment to fully embrace his quirk, no matter how foolish it may have looked, allowed his fellow actors to witness the power of trust, that in loving community, we are free to embrace our own quirks and experience acceptance, imperfections and all.

In addition to our weekly improv class, the Clark County Homeless Coalition (CCHC) offers financial literacy, attentive case management, and additional educational opportunities with the goal of empowering their residents with long-term self-sufficiency. Terry Davidson, executive director of CCHC, says that in her work she is inspired by “Seeing God at work. Seeing our client’s successes.” Serving a vital role in the community, Wainscott Hall is only one of a few homeless shelters in Kentucky that welcomes both families and individuals.

(To learn more about supporting the Clark County Homeless Coalition, be sure to check out their website at:

In his book, The Crucified God, Jurgen Moltmann writes that, “one of the basic difficulties of Christian life in the world today is clearly the inability to identify with what is other, alien and contradictory.”[1] The quirks, imperfections, the seemingly disconnected scenes of our lives, all of it belongs to God’s story. Jesus assures us to be unafraid, saying, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world!”[2] Christ overcame the abandonment of the cross, and through him we have been resurrected into eternal life. As we share the Good News, let us not forget our charge to take courage and creatively engage the suffering of this world.

To learn more about Community Improv and how to creatively engage suffering in your community, be sure to check out our blog at Community Improv.


Ryan Bradney

Ryan Bradney

Ryan learned about the power of improv from his High School English teacher and lifelong mentor, Ken Bradbury. Through this gracious form of improv, Ryan learned to listen, to build creatively on what’s present, and boldly fail. Ryan now integrates improv into his ministry as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Winchester, Kentucky.

Ryan enjoys sharing the practice of improv at conferences, churches, schools, and Clark County Homeless Coalition, where he is joined by church members, who serve as regular actors with the class.

Ryan and his wife Andrea share their home with their two loving rescue dogs, Winnie and Gracie, whom they adopted during seminary. The Bradneys share a deep love of basketball, cooking, the outdoors, storytelling, and yes, improv.


Thank you, Ryan! That’s beautiful stuff. Now, dear readers, do you know someone who’s improvising their life? I’d love to feature them here, so let me know!


[1] Jurgen Moltmann. The Crucified God. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) p. 25.

[2] John 16:33. NIV


Monday Runday: My Life as a Centaur

Several weeks ago I received this note via Facebook Messenger:

Hey MaryAnn, I have a question/offer for you. A while back I won 3 free sessions on an AlterG treadmill. I have been following the journey of your stress fracture healing and I want to give you the sessions.

This was from a member of Springfield Moms RUN This Town, someone I knew but not super well. (You can see why I still claim membership in that group, even though I moved from Springfield. They’re a special bunch of ladies. Although I look forward to getting to know my local chapter too.)

I got this message on a day when I was feeling particularly low about my injury. So after I finished laughing and crying at the sweetness of this offer, we got the logistics worked out. I’ve now had one of the three sessions at Capitol Rehab in Annandale with Dr. Compas.

The AlterG is based on technology designed to help astronauts work out in zero gravity, but here on earth it works in reverse—you can adjust the treadmill so that the patient runs on a set percentage of their body weight. This is a great thing for people who are coming back from injury and are easing back into weight-bearing exercise. And, it’s a total trip.

Basically you put on these super-tight bicycle shorts, with a zipper around the middle:


Then you step onto the treadmill and are zipped in. The bottom half of you and the treadmill belt are encased in a large bag that inflates and deflates based on the percentage you select. Last week I did most of my run at 50% of my body weight:


The title of this post comes from my friend Paurenia, who saw this picture and said I “looked like a sexy centaur.” Ha!

I’ve been running on the roads a little bit, but it’s been for very short distances and I’ve had to be very cautious about it. With the AlterG I was able to run for more than 30 minutes, pain free!

The sensation takes a little getting used to–you definitely feel lighter on your feet, though the zipper keeps you hemmed in so you can’t really fall like on a regular treadmill. It’s a great transition from pool running, in which you’re completely buoyant, to road running, in which you’re pounding pavement. And because you’re running on less weight, you can go a lot faster than you normally do, which is a lot of fun.

I also want to say a good word for Dr. Compas and his staff at Capitol Rehab. He is an athlete himself and “gets it”; plus he’s competent and compassionate. He helped me understand the source of my injury so I can avoid it next time. I haven’t used him for chiropractic care but I have friends who have and they like him a lot.

Happy running/walking/living…

What’s Saving Me: The Five Minute Journal

This week I’m over at the NEXT Church blog. This fall they’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” Here’s my offering.

What’s saving my ministry these days is a five minute journaling practice I’ve been doing each morning (and most evenings) for the past few months. I’ve tried various journaling methods off and on for years. Something about holding the pen in my hand allows me to focus my prayers in a way my monkey mind can’t do by simply sitting quietly. And now that I work from home “for myself,” I have lots of possible things vying for my attention and time. I was looking for something short and focused that could bring clarity and discernment to my day.

8Y0EDX4VP9Many of us are familiar with Julia Cameron’s morning pages, which she calls her “spiritual windshield wipers.” This practice serves the same purpose, but instead of writing stream of consciousness, I write short pithy statements. Whereas morning pages are like an epic poem, this is journaling as haiku. I adapted it from Tim Ferriss, an author and entrepreneur. He’s a little too “guru” for me, but I think he’s hit upon a good structure to get the day started with intention.

Here are the questions for the morning:

Three things for which I’m grateful:

Three things that would make this a fruitful day: These don’t have to be things I want to accomplish, but they usually are. Most of us have way more than three things on our daily to-do list, so it helps to be clear on the most essential items.

An affirmation: 
I am…
I have three kids, so “patience” shows up a lot here.

I’m curious about:
This is something I’ve added recently, thanks to Brené Brown’s work. This is often where I think about my reactions to things and wonder “What was THAT about?!” 

As for the evening practice, it is similar:

Three things to celebrate about the day:

One thing I could have done better:

Those of you who know the Ignatian examen will recognize threads of this practice in these questions. The questions are framed in terms of gratitude, and there is ample space to acknowledge the times I’ve fallen short—to see them written in my own hand, and to let those moments go—to let God absorb and hopefully transform them.

Are Religious Children Less Generous Than Non-Religious Ones?


Last week The Guardian published the results of a study that claims to demonstrate just that:

Almost 1,200 children, aged between five and 12, in the US, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey and South Africa participated in the study. Almost 24% were Christian, 43% Muslim, and 27.6% non-religious. The numbers of Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic and other children were too small to be statistically valid.

They were asked to choose stickers and then told there were not enough to go round for all children in their school, to see if they would share. They were also shown film of children pushing and bumping one another to gauge their responses.

The findings “robustly demonstrate that children from households identifying as either of the two major world religions (Christianity and Islam) were less altruistic than children from non-religious households”.

Older children, usually those with a longer exposure to religion, “exhibit[ed] the greatest negative relations”.

Someone asked me a few days what I thought about the study. I said, “Non-religious people get to feel superior and vindicated in their choices, conservative evangelicals can complain about the liberal media, and progressive religious types can geek out by wondering about sample size and methodology. Something for everyone.”  I can’t speak to the quality of the research, though I’m told it’s a peer reviewed study, which counts for something. On the other hand, Robert tells me that half of all psychological studies are unreplicatable, so…

But assuming this study is accurate, what would account for a lack of generosity in religious children? Not sure. For the record, I don’t think you need to have a religious tradition or belief in God to be a moral person. And at the same time, there is a strain of judgmentalism in some expressions of Christianity, and apparently Islam too, since that was also mentioned in the study.

But I do have one small hypothesis.

For the past several months, our family has been between churches. Since I finished my tenure at Tiny Church, we haven’t found a church to call home. I may preach in 2-3 congregations a month, but many of these are in other cities, so the kids don’t come with me.

During these months without a church, I’ve been keenly aware that it’s my job and Robert’s job–and pretty much ours alone–to teach generosity and kindness as spiritual practices. I say “as spiritual practices” because to some extent they also learn these attributes at school, during team sports and in other activities. But there’s usually no deeper meaning underlying them–it’s just the way you treat people.

Anyway, if this is our job and ours alone, we will want to approach it with great intentionality and care. Whereas parents who are religious may be relying on their faith communities to do a lot of this work. I used to hear this often from parents when I was a pastor–they rarely felt equipped to pass on the tenets of their faith to their children, and really hoped the church would do it instead.

Yet we know from study after study that parents are their children’s most important teachers. Which means that if parents are relying on faith communities to do this work, then the work isn’t getting done nearly as effectively.

What do you make of the study?


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photo credit: lone kid (6 of 8) via photopin (license)