06/21/15 Sermon (June 21, 2015)

posted Jun 24, 2015, 11:48 AM by David Hawkins   [ updated Jun 24, 2015, 12:03 PM ]

“Real Authority”

Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 6:1-13

As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,

    “At an acceptable time I have listened to you,

         and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”

See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see — we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return — I speak as to children — open wide your hearts also.

Sermon: "Real Authority"             Rev. David Hawkins

There is a real crisis these days, around the idea of authority. Who has it, what they do with it, why they have, whether it is legitimate. For some of us, we feel that there has been a wholesale rejection of authority, that previously recognized authority figures are being resisted, rejected, or simply ignored. That traditional, institutional models of authority are being challenged, that their legitimacy is questioned.

For others, the reality is that traditional authority figures have so abused their positions of authority that they, as a group, cannot be trusted anymore. For many people, institutional authority must be suspect, because it has shown itself to be corrupt, self-serving, and morally bankrupt.

We are in the midst of a societal upheaval regarding authority. Authority is no longer granted on the basis of a title, or a position, or seniority or rank, or even skill or competence. Authority is not granted unconditionally. Authority is no longer given simply because someone demands it, or expects it. Authority is not something that can be assumed anymore, especially not by those who have been traditionally privileged to wield it.

And in some ways, we can understand why. In many instances, traditional institutions have been the instrument of their own fall from trustworthiness. People and organizations that wielded great power, who held great authority, who were granted great responsibility have been exposed to be not worthy of that honor.

This last week, I watched a documentary on the Penn State debacle, and it was horrifying to see the way that officials at the highest levels tolerated the abuses that Jerry Sandusky, one of the most respected football coaches of his generation, committed against small boys. The university president knew, the athletic director knew, even Saint Joe Paterno knew who Sandusky was, and what he was doing.

But the name and reputation of Penn State was more important than the lives and souls of countless young boys who were terrorized by this man, and he was allowed to continue his activities for years without censure or punishment.

Joe Paterno, as good of a football coach, and human being as he was, when the time came to truly prove himself, was not worthy of the authority that had been given to him. And when the evil that lay at the heart of that storied university was revealed, the it shocked all of America.

Of course, we could go through a long list of politicians and governmental agencies who have been found unworthy of the trust placed in them. The recent videos of police brutality have damaged the reputation of good policemen everywhere. In some parts of the country, all levels of government are so corrupt that the only solution has been to literally clear everyone out and start over.   

There is a larger shift as well, of course. In just a few years, the United States will no longer be a white majority country. It is estimated that in about 30 years, white Americans will make us less than 50% of the country. White babies already make up less than half of newborns.

This means things. Because whether we want to admit it or not, being in the majority means things. On an official level, of course,  it means holding positions of authority, of being in power. Unofficially, it means being able to determine what constitutes ‘normal’. Being in the majority means that we are able to decide, through sheer force of numbers what sort of culture we live in.

But, soon, that will change. Sooner than we think, white people will no longer be able to expect that they can dictate, either officially or unofficially their understanding of it means to be an American.

And this is a big deal.

It’s a big deal because nobody's really sure of what this new ‘normal’ is going to look like. There won’t be a new majority in America that will replace the white majority. We will become, literally, a nation of minorities. There won’t be a single block of any one race or ethnicity that will constitute more than 50% of the population, that will be in a position to determine through numbers alone, the cultural norms of the country.

And while most of us don’t really think about these things on a conscious level, I think that subconsciously we are all very well aware of the changes that are going on around us.

And it’s freaking us out. We are seeing more and more the way our national anxiety about what all this means is playing out all over the country.

There are pockets of white Americans around the country who refuse to recognize the authority of an African American president, and there are pockets of African Americans who refuse to recognise the authority of white police officers. And this last week, we have witnessed the horror of a young white man barely out of his teens who believed that it was his duty to enter into an historically African American Church, and shoot eight parishioners and their pastor, so that he might begin the race war that he believes to be inevitable.

And while some might think that  the tragedy in Charleston is an isolated incident, there is no denying the fact that our country is hurting. Traditional understandings of authority are being questioned and are being found wanting. We are in the middle of a seismic shift in what we think about who is in control, and what gives them that right to be in control.    

Even the church is not immune from these questions of authority. We have not done our best in maintaining the trust that has been given to us. The Church has been rocked by scandals about pedophile priests and pastors being shielded by the church, shuffled around, shipped to other churches, with their sins ignored, denied, and hidden away.

Money has been stolen, positions of authority have been abused, and members of the church have been hurt, taken advantage of, and their pain has been swept under the rug.

It hurts me to say it, but the Church has earned the suspicion of a skeptical world. We have not been worthy vessels of the treasure entrusted to us; we have not been good stewards of the responsibility we have been given. If we are not trusted, it is because we have not shown ourselves to be trustworthy. If our authority is no longer recognized, it is because we gave it up when we protected those among us who victimized the innocent in order that we might maintain our own reputation.

We gave it up when we used our positions to further our own interests. We gave it up when we used our authority to accuse, to judge, to shame, to indict, to condemn. We gave it up when we forgot where and who our authority comes from.

And while this might seem to be a modern problem, it’s really not. In fact, it’s the same problem that Paul has, its the same problem that he is trying to overcome in his letters to the church in Corinth. It’s a problem of authority. Who has it, and why do they have it?

We have to remember that when Paul wrote these letters, there was no sort of ecclesiastical authority or hierarchy. The words that we use today as titles for positions of authority, words like ‘apostle’ and ‘deacon’, were not used as titles in his time. They were words that indicated actions, or functions, rather than positions. An apostle was literally someone who carried messages, a deacon was literally someone who waited on tables. In Paul’s time, there was no inherent authority in the word ‘apostle’, at least, not in the way we think of it today.

And so, in today’s text, we see that Paul is trying to establish his own authority, trying to get the church in Corinth to recognize the truth of what he is trying to say about Jesus. The problem is, he is competing with a group of evangelists who seem to be getting the upper hand, a group of preachers who stress adherence to a particular code of behavior, who point to their own success as proof of the truth of their teaching.

But Paul will have none of that. He recognizes that he is not the world’s greatest speaker or writer. He admits that he is not much to look at. He has nothing that the world could possibly see as commending him to the Corinthians. There is no outward sign that he possesses any sort of skill or gift that should motivate this congregation to pay any attention whatsoever to what he is saying.

Except for this -- except for the fact that he has dedicated his life to the church in Corinth. He has endured just about every hardship imaginable for them. By his own account, he has endured  calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger for his church.

And so his authority doesn’t come from his knowledge of scripture. It doesn’t come from his charisma or from his success as a preacher. His authority doesn’t come from a title, or from his education, or his parents, or from his station in life. It doesn't come from money or from ecclesiastical privilege.

Any authority that Paul has comes from the fact that he has given his life to the church in Corinth. It comes from the fact that he loves them. And the message that he carries is the same, that any authority that Jesus Christ has in the world comes from the fact that he gave his life to the world.

This is the only authority the church has ever had, that we love the world, that we give ourselves completely to the world,  that we bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things, for the sake of the world, the world that Jesus died to save.  

And I think we might have forgotten that. I think that we may have assumed that the Church had authority because it was the church, or that we had authority because we believe in God, or because we know scripture, or because we read Greek, or because we hold some sort of position in the church.

But Paul reminds us that real authority only comes from the sort of life that Christ has demonstrated for the world. Real authority comes from love, not from power, from giving, not from taking, from sacrifice, not from privilege.

Real authority in this world comes from giving ourselves, completely, fully, unconditionally to the world. I’m not sure I’m ready for that kind of responsibility. I’m not sure that any of us are.

But I know that this is the office to which I am called, to which all of us as Christians are called. To give ourselves, as servants to a hurting and anxious world. And as long as we do that, as long as we give every bit ourselves, we will have all the authority we will ever need.

To the Lord who speaks to us,
and strengthens us,
and blesses us with peace,
be all glory and honor forever. Amen.