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The Power of One

August 14, 2017

“The Power of One” Genesis 37:1-4, 12-36 © 8.13.17 Ordinary 19A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

“One is the loneliest number.” So goes the old song by Three Dog Night.

But if one is a lonely number, it’s also a powerful one.

You can’t be serious, someone might object. What can one person do, especially against gigantic and faceless bureaucracies, global problems, overwhelming odds or rampant evil?

What can one do? There are plenty of negative examples that ought to convince us of the power of that number. Ask the Jews of the Holocaust whether Adolf Hitler, one man, was a force to be reckoned with. What about the bully who makes school or work a nightmare? The shooter, the suicide bomber, the abuser, the distracted or drunk driver who changes lives forever by victimization, assault, injury, and death? The ruthless and amoral or incompetent and stupid politician who leads a country down the road to disaster? The unforgiving and demanding parent for whom nothing the kids do is good enough? The power-hungry and lying preacher who foments fear and its offspring hatred in his or her congregation? One person can make a big difference.

If one is such a powerful number to do evil, why is it not for good as well? Do we believe evil is stronger than good?

What can one do? Reuben knew. Do you recall the back story of the account we heard this morning? Jacob, Reuben’s father, did not love Leah, Reuben’s mother. He loved Rachel, but where Leah was fertile, and bore many children, Rachel was described in the text by the cruel word “barren.” At long last, though, Rachel did conceive, and bore a son whom she named Joseph, which means “the added one.” As we will see in a moment, when Joseph was added, Jacob’s affection for the other boys and girls in the family was subtracted. And the brothers felt he was an addition of one too many.

Joseph was doted on by Jacob, loved because he was Rachel’s firstborn, adored because by the time he grew into his teens, Rachel was dead, departing this world during the birth of Benjamin, the youngest and last of Jacob’s sons. Joseph was a reminder of all Jacob had with Rachel.

As a sign of his affection for the boy, Jacob made him a coat with long sleeves, traditionally known as the “coat of many colors.” That comes from Greek and Latin versions of the text and is probably not a correct translation, but it’s suggestive of the problem with the garment. Even one color would have been expensive in that day, so Jacob was lavishing favor and resources on Joseph. If we translate as “a long coat with long sleeves,” that emphasizes how impractical the garment was; it wasn’t made for working, but for lounging. It looked like a robe a king would wear. And the brothers, in their short tunics with no sleeves, resented their brother not having to toil as they did.

Joseph had a dream, in which his brothers, symbolized by sheaves of wheat, bowed down to Joseph as to a ruler. Foolishly, he told them about it, and they hated him all the more. Another dream came, in which the whole family, Jacob included, gave him homage, and the brothers were jealous. Jacob’s feelings were mixed. He resented the idea of his bowing to his son, but he also believed there was something special in store for Joseph.

One day, Jacob sends Joseph out to check on or check up on his brothers, taking care of the flock in pastures some distance away. This was a day before the “Find My Friends” iPhone app, so Joseph has a bit of trouble locating them, to say the least. But when he finally does, they decide to kill him. Only Reuben as this point stands up for his flesh and blood and urges the other boys not to do Joseph mortal harm. “Throw him into this pit here, but don’t kill him,” he says, planning to come back later and get him out.

Now that is a rather unusual course of action for Reuben to take. As firstborn, he had the most to lose if Joseph became the head of their family. But also as firstborn, Reuben was the responsible one, both in the way that firstborns are always responsible—and if you are one, you know what I mean—both in the way we are always responsible, and also responsible to his father for the good of all the family. He acted against his own self-interest out of duty to family and the right. Reuben at least tried—not successfully as we will see—but at least tried to use his position and influence to keep another person from harm.

How many of us are in the same circumstance? Does not each one of us have influence in some way with someone in some context? Maybe it’s formal authority on the job or in this church. Perhaps someone trusts our wisdom or advice and turns to us time and again for help. Maybe our influence is with kids we teach or with that child or teen or young adult that breezes in and out of the house, who once in awhile looks up from his or phone, the person we call “son” or “daughter,” “grandson” or “granddaughter.” Could be you have a number of friends or are thought of as a role model, and thus have the ear of your peers to sway them to do right, to think a little more clearly and completely about their actions. Do you believe in your own power, the power of one, the one being you?

Reuben’s power of one, as I’ve said, was not effective in the way he envisioned. Perhaps he should have been more invested in the outcome, hung around, tried harder. It seems even the best-laid plans go awry, and no good deed goes unpunished.

But even if Reuben failed to stop the hurtful actions of others, he managed to influence his brother Judah just a little. Judah is motivated mainly by profit. But he prevails on the others where Reuben could not. Joseph may now be a slave, but at least he is alive, and the dream of God embodied in him is not dead.

The power of one. Have we not been struck by it, affected by it, even if we ourselves have never exercised it? Who can forget the iconic image of the lone student standing in front of a Chinese tank in Tiananmen Square some years ago? Perhaps we’re touched by a character in a film or a novel. Could be we see on one of those TV appeals the face of a hungry child or a homeless animal, pleading for our help. What about the inspiration provided by a great leader or mentor?

The late Rosa Parks was only one woman, and she never intended to be the catalyst for a movement. I saw and heard her once at Columbia Seminary in the early 1980s. She was slight, quiet, not an impressive figure as we judge such things. Parks was simply tired that day on the bus, and didn’t want to give up her seat to a white man. Yet she started something huge. The power of one.

Nichelle Nichols, who portrayed Uhura in the classic Star Trek TV series and movies was ready to quit the show. But one night she met someone at an NAACP meeting. She was talking to a friend about her plans, and she heard behind her: “You can’t quit.” She turned around to see Martin Luther King, Jr. She was too important, he said, as she presented an image of dignity and competence. And she didn’t leave. One woman influenced by one man. The power of one.

The Rev. John Buchanan, a retired Chicago pastor, and former editor of the journal The Christian Century, once wrote in that magazine about the death of JFK, Jr. Those musings led him to reflect on the influence of the senior John F. Kennedy. Buchanan notes: “He did something his predecessors had difficulty accomplishing: he inspired ordinary people to want to serve their nation and their community. He spoke to something dormant in people’s souls, and he made public service appealing…” (“Chords of remembrance: A family’s commitment to public life,” Who can forget “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”? Or “We will go to the moon in this decade not because it is easy, but because it is hard”? The power of one.

You’ve heard this next story before. A few years after ordination, I was floundering around in life, not knowing what I wanted to do. My first call as Associate Pastor in Mobile had not worked out, for a number of reasons, and I was asked to resign. Fortunately, I found work in the law firm of Robert Edington as a clerk. That was such a positive experience, I thought I would try to get into law school and give up ministry completely. I did keep my ordination, though, and supplied churches here and there along with teaching leaders of something called the “Bethel Bible Series” at Government Street Church in Mobile, just to make a little extra cash. I went one night to a party in the home of one of the students. There was a minister there, Tom Walker, then pastor of Central Presbyterian Church. He somehow sensed my plight. He took me under his wing, got me a new connection with the church as a volunteer on his staff, took me out most Sunday evenings for pecan pie and coffee, and rode with me to Atlanta to talk to the president of Columbia Seminary about the Doctor of Ministry program. He saw something in me I couldn’t see, so great was my despair, my grief, and my self-deprecation. Tom gave me hope and direction. He provided an example for me as head of staff when sometime later I came into such a position in Kentucky. The power of one.

For years in Montevallo, Susan taught a small church school class of elementary school kids. One day, she decided to have them all over to the manse to bake some M&M sugar cookies. A simple thing to do, really. A gesture of kindness, a way of showing affection. Just one woman including some children in something she enjoyed doing. Years later, one of those kids, grown to be a teenager, still talked about that day in the kitchen and those cookies. She didn’t remember much if anything of what Susan said in class, but she was moved by what Susan did. The power of one.

Todd Beamer talked for thirteen minutes with a phone operator Tuesday morning, September 11, from hijacked Flight 93, that was supposed to have landed in San Francisco. It crashed, as we know, into a rural area 60 miles from Pittsburgh.

As it headed toward Washington, DC, Beamer and several passengers on that flight were in contact with loved ones, through their cell phones. That’s how they found out they were probably not in the middle of a "routine" hijacking. The passengers, with knowledge that they probably weren’t going to get off the plane alive, hatched a plan: they were going to rush one hijacker, who said he had a bomb lashed to his chest.

Beamer told the operator, Lisa Robinson, what to say to his wife, and also said he’d be joined by at least two other passengers, Jeremy Glick and Thomas Burnett, Jr., in the attack on the hijackers. Beamer recited Psalm 23 with Robinson and then left the phone off the hook, so Robinson could listen. Thomas Burnett, on his cell phone, told his wife, “I know we’re all going to die—there’s three of us who are going to do something about it.” Jeremy Glick told his wife, “We can take them, we can take them,” just before Beamer gave the order. She heard him say, around 10:00 AM, “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll!” Then there was some screaming, followed by silence.

Lisa Beamer, the widow, told the AP, “Some people live their whole lives, long lives, without having left anything behind. My sons will be told their whole lives that their father was a hero, that he saved lives. It’s a great legacy for a father to leave his children.” The power of one.

A preschool teacher, who wishes to remain anonymous, was on a Southwest Airlines flight a couple of weeks ago when she noticed troubling texts being sent and received by the man in the row ahead of her. He had one of those big phones, and he was reclined, so the teacher could see easily what was on the screen. He and his girlfriend were planning depraved and criminal acts against at least two children. The teacher took screenshots of the texts and alerted a flight attendant. Upon landing, the man was arrested, and ultimately, so was the girlfriend. According to a news report, the authorities credit the teacher with saving the children. She says she doesn’t see herself as a hero, just someone who trusted her instincts and spoke out. “‘I’m ultimately thankful [police] were able to act so quickly, and that those children are safe and suffered no more harm. That’s all I can think about…. It means the world to me, and I hope that by my example, somebody who sees something wrong and might not want to say anything will now speak up. One small bit of information may lead to somebody’s freedom and end their suffering.’” The power of one (

One person, who takes the time to nurture talent in a promising student. One who takes time to make friends with someone sitting alone or who believes in a teen everyone else sees as a slacker and a nuisance. One person, who offers a smile or a helping hand, who acts with courage and even sacrifice. One person who has faith and acts on it in a cynical world where the odds of success are not good and not to try is infinitely easier than to try. One person who still passionately holds onto the belief that he or she can make a difference, if only in a little corner of creation.

The power of one. An individual engaged with community, family, with conscience, with duty, with the Creator who calls him or her by name and issues a summons to service. It’s the power of One like Jesus, who set his face toward the cross and did not look back, but saw his journey through to the end. Or as the band U2 once put it: “One man come in the name of love.”

The power of one.


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