A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, April 7, 2013
Luke 24:45-49 ESV
One of my favorite preachers, United Church of Christ minister Lillian Daniel, tells the story of spending a week with her teenage son in a remote tree house in Nicaragua. Why she and her son were spending a week in a remote tree house in Nicaragua, she does not say. But in order to get from the tree house to the dining room, they had to walk down a steep mountain path and then cross a long, wooden suspension bridge that creaked and swayed with the wind, revealing the gaping crevasse underneath. Lillian confesses that she does not like heights. So she determined to limit her encounters with the suspension bridge to the times when she was most hungry.
But one night when Lillian found herself alone in the tree house, all the lights went out. She was terrified. But then when she sat up in bed, the lights came back on. She laid back down, then the lights went off again, and when she again sat up, the lights came back on. So Lillian decided the lights must be controlled by a motion detector. Knowing that, and feeling hungry, she decided she was brave enough to cross the suspension bridge. So following the lights along the mountain path, she made her way to the bridge and stepped onto the wooden slats, barely able to see where to place her feet. And then it happened. All the lights went off again. So there she was, on the suspension bridge, in total darkness.
Fortunately, Lillian thought she knew what to do. Since she had determined that the lights were controlled by motion detectors, she let go of the rope railing just long enough to wave her arm in an attempt to trip the motion detector and get the lights back on. But nothing happened. She waved and waved, but no lights. Obviously, her theory was wrong. She would later learn that in the Nicaraguan jungle, the power goes off and on often. So the power source was not as she had thought it was.
However, Lillian testifies that she found a different power source—a power within herself. While her waving arm did not turn the electrical power back on, she realized that she had power to move her feet—one foot in front of the other—in the dark. And so, one step at a time, Lillian found the power to move across that swinging suspension bridge, in the dark. In conclusion, Lillian observes, “It’s a fine line between meeting God’s power source with your own. . . “ And then she concludes with a one-sentence prayer, “Almighty God, thank you for the ways in which your power within us allows us to do more than we could ever do alone.”1
After reading Lillian’s story, I could not help but think of something that Ralph Waldo Emerson said in his essay, “The Transendentalist.” You may remember that Emerson was a Unitarian minister who, through his published essays and speeches, left an indelible mark upon American thought, theology, and philosophy. One of Emerson’s constant themes was the worth of man and the idea that each of us has within us great, unrealized potential. Each of us has the power to be Christ-like, Emerson contended, if we would only exercise it. Emerson said, “The Transcendentalist . . . believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power.”2 And then in his Divinity School Address he says, “There are resources in us on which we have not drawn.”3
And when I think of unrealized potential and power and resources within us, I also think of those disciples of Jesus. You know, for the most part we are talking about a little band of uneducated peasant working men and women. Who would have thought that such a motley crew could go forth to change the world as they did? In the passage I read from Luke, he records Jesus saying to this small band of followers, “But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” Later Luke goes on to explain that this power is the Spirit that Jesus sends upon them. Whether one interprets the coming of the Spirit literally or figuratively, we have to concede that something happened to that small band of followers that gave them the power to go forth into the world to take Jesus’s message and vision with them, and by so doing, they changed the course of history. Whether the power within them was a power supplied by God or a power within them they didn’t know they had, the fact remains that they did draw on some type of power that enabled them to do what they did. They did the seemingly impossible. As Lillian Daniel observed, “It’s a fine line between meeting God’s power source with your own.”
For several months, we have been following the story of Robin Roberts, one of the co-anchors of ABC’s Good Morning America. In 2007, Robin was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. She underwent aggressive treatments and by all appearances beat it. But then five years later, she knew something was wrong and went for tests and learned that she had myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a rare and potentially fatal group of diseases affecting the blood and bone marrow, likely caused by her earlier cancer treatment. In order to survive, Robin needed a matching bone marrow donor. It just so happened that her sister, Sally-Ann, fit the bill. So Robin endured five months of grueling treatments, hospitalization, isolation, and the death of her mother during that time. After her long, grueling battle, Robin is back on Good Morning America. When asked to comment, Robin shared, “I’m a better, stronger, more complete person because of these trials and tribulations.” And regarding how her experience has changed her, Robin says, “I’m stronger than I thought I was.”4
I’m stronger than I thought I was. I found a power within me I didn’t know I had. Many of us could say that, couldn’t we? Some of us might be able to look back over a period in our life with amazement, wondering how we ever made it and did what we did. Spending days in the hospital, recovering from some radical surgery or life-threatening illness that took us by surprise. Or spending days or weeks at the hospital bedside of a loved one. Or enduring untold family tragedy that we would not wish upon our worst enemy. Enduring trials and tribulations that would tax the patience of Job. Many of us have been there, in one way or another. Had we gone to a fortuneteller beforehand who could have told us exactly what we were facing in the future, we wouldn’t have believed that we could ever make it through such a trying ordeal. The thought of what lay before us would have surely overwhelmed us.
And when we think about prisoners of war, or those who were imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps, or even those women and children who live for years in situations of domestic violence, it makes us wonder how a person can endure such things. But people do endure. People sometimes are able to hold up under seemingly impossible pressures and accomplish seemingly impossible feats. And often they are all the stronger for it. Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross observes, “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern.”5
Yes, sometimes we realize a power within us that we didn’t know was there. Is it power that comes from God? Is it power, as Emerson contended, that resides within the human soul, just ready for the exercising? During the season of Eastertide we are reminded of the power those early disciples of Jesus tapped into that enabled them to be more than they ever dreamed they could be and do more than they ever dreamed they could do. Such could be an inspiration to us. Maybe, just maybe, the same power to do things we never dreamed we could do lies within our reach as well. What might we do to exercise our unrealized power within? Amen.
1Lillian Daniel, UCC Still Speaking Devotional, Jan. 6, 2013.
2Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Transcendentalist.”
3Ralph Waldo Emerson, “An Address.”
4Robin Roberts, Parade, March 31, 2013.
5Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross, widely quoted quote.