Saturday, October 04, 2008

By What Authority?

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, September 28, 2008: Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

They had had enough. It was one thing for this itinerant preacher to roam the countryside causing little pockets of religious fervor here and there and winning the loyalty of a few people. It was quite another for him to ride into Jerusalem as if he were some kind of king, then to enter the Temple and start teaching as if he had the authority to do so.

It was too much.

By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?

For them it really was a rhetorical question. They were the ones with authority, not him. They knew that. Everybody knew that, except, it seems, this upstart.

Clearly Jesus upset human authority, the authority that created and made for an orderly society. You can’t really blame the religious authorities for questioning him. He was upsetting the apple cart, and such an upset can certainly be volatile in a city where great crowds are gathering for Passover and the Roman army is everywhere, waiting to crack down at any moment.

Jesus, however, comes into this situation and does not seem to care if he is upsetting things; in fact, he seems deliberately to be doing so. The religious authorities have the sense that at least some things are about to come unglued and so they act to stop it.

By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?

Authority. As long as there has been human society there has been authority, someone to be responsible for keeping order. No society has ever been able to live without it. There must be some order to life if people are going to live together.

Authority is necessary. It is also dangerous, because it is so easy to abuse. It is seductive. Having received some, most people instinctively want more. Authority equals power and power is something human beings crave.

Authority can be used to protect and defend; it can also be used to oppress. Authority can be used for good, or it can be used for evil.

The Church has been given a certain measure of authority in society, and, of course, there are individuals within the Church that are vested with authority. But the struggle to use authority for good or ill has been very much alive in the Church’s life as it has everywhere else. The Church has often been in the position to uphold the social order of society, even when that social order included things like slavery, for instance. Oppression of various “minorities” of people has frequently been upheld by the Church, even practiced within its own life. We really don’t have a very good track record on this at all.

This coming Saturday, the Episcopal Church, in a service in Philadelphia, will apologize for its role in slavery. It is long overdue. It was an abuse of our authority of enormous proportions. Yet I am a little leery of this apology (and I am not alone). I’m not sure as a Church we have done sufficient work really to know just what we are apologizing for. And our actions speak louder than our words. Just one example, anti-racism training was mandated by the General Convention at all levels of the church in 2000. To date only half a dozen of our 110 dioceses have implemented it. We are finally about to in our own diocese, mainly at the urging of this parish.

It is a long journey we need to take to learn just what it is we have done and are still doing to prop up a social order of white privilege. And that is, of course, only one of several “social orders” that we continue to prop up.

And we also need to learn deeply what a betrayal this has all been of God, of Jesus, of the biblical witness. What is this biblical witness?

The Bible believes in order, and it even provides for human authority. But it has a definite purpose for that order and authority, and that is to build a community of justice. Order for the sake of order, authority for the sake of authority is not a biblical vision. The Bible recognizes that order can actually be opposed to justice, and demands that the people of God put justice first.

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says,

Yahweh, the God of the Bible, is no friend to order, but insists on justice and is ready and able to intervene in decisive ways, against legitimized order if necessary, to establish justice. If God must choose between order and justice, God characteristically chooses justice.[1]

That dynamic is what was going on in the Temple that day between the religious authorities and Jesus. Jesus had been teaching in the Temple as he had been throughout the Galilean and Judean countryside. What was he teaching? He was teaching the good news of the kingdom, the kingdom of God, where justice reigned supreme. And those especially in need of justice heard the message and were transformed.

Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes are getting into the kingdom of God ahead of you.

That statement turned the natural order of things on its head. It would have convinced the religious authorities that Jesus was either simply insane or was a significant threat to social order.

But what Jesus was doing was what Paul says in the reading from the Letter to the Philippians we have this morning. He was continuing to preach and practice a message of self-emptying as the only way to practice true authority. Humility and obedience to God’s values even when they conflict with human ones are the standards by which to measure this authority. Only this kind of authority can truly glorify God.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

“Self-emptying authority” seems like an oxymoron, but it is God’s way of authority and God means for it to be our way as well. It is authority that is characterized by at least these three things:

· It does not seek the glorification of self, but the glorification of God.
· It does not exploit anybody, anywhere for anything.
· It understands completely that it is only a surrogate. In Christian terms Jesus is Lord and nobody else. Any other authority on this earth derives from him and his principles or it is illegitimate.

By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?

In the end Jesus would not tell them, because they refused to acknowledge that God was at work around them and that, therefore, their authority was only derivative and not absolute.

In this season of electing persons to positions of civil authority may we keep in mind what qualities of leadership to look for, and may we make these qualities our own, we as a Church as we struggle to come to terms with our past collusion with authority used for ill and we as individuals strive to live out our baptismal promise to love our neighbors as ourselves and work for justice and peace among all people.

[1] Peace (Chalice Press, 2001), pp. 110-111.