09/28/14 Sermon (September 28,2014)

posted Nov 6, 2014, 12:08 PM by David Hawkins

“The Discipline of Authority”

Scripture Reading: Matthew 21:23-32

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.”

So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.”

And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’

He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went.

The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.

Which of the two did the will of his father?”

They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

Sermon: "The Discipline of Authority"      Rev. David Hawkins

We find Jesus today in the temple, brought before the temple priests and scribes to account for his actions. Specifically, they are asking about the way he had, the day before, gone through the temple like a whirlwind, overturning the tables where predatory lenders stood in the way of God’s people coming to worship.

That must have been quite a scene, Jesus chasing out the money lenders. And you can hardly blame them for being offended. They were providing a service, after all. There was  need for what they were offering.

And the temple priests had reasons to be angry as well. Their well-established, traditional way of doing church was literally turned upside down. Everything was topsy-turvy, all because of the man standing in front of them. This nobody, this peripatetic preacher, this rambling  rabbi, from Nazareth (!) of all places, has come to the center of the Hebrew universe and upset the apple cart.

Who is he, anyway? What gives him the right to cause this kind of chaos? Doesn’t he know that there is a certain way to go about these things, a certain decorum that we, as good religious people, need to maintain? Doesn’t he know that church is supposed to be done decently, and in order?

This Jesus person has a lot to answer for. And it’s not like this is the only time his actions have caught their attention. Stories of healing, of a radical teaching style, an unusually generous understanding of who God’s love includes have all been filtering into Jerusalem for quite a while now. Even a fantastical account of Jesus raising someone from the dead is making the rounds, if you can believe it.

Jesus has been rocking the boat in so many different parts of the country it’s no wonder they’ve heard about him. He comes into their town, riding like some kind of king, paraded like a returning hero, serenaded down the main promenade as though he really is someone important, rather than just another rabble-rousing trouble-maker. And then he comes into their house and makes a scene.

Just who does he think he is? Where does he get the audacity to make this kind of mess? What make him think that he can forgive, and teach, and offer God’s love so extravagantly? He hangs out with prostitutes for crying out loud. And tax collectors! Does he have no sense of common decency? Can’t he see what a bad name he is giving our religion? We have an image to uphold, after all. We can’t risk staining ourselves, or our God, by associating with these kinds of trash. What will people say?

And so, today, they finally get the chance to ask him, face to face, “Just exactly what authority do you have to do the things you do?”

And of course, like a good pastor, he answers their question with another question.

“Where do you think this kind of authority comes from?”

And that’s the question.

It’s a question that the church has been trying to answer for several thousand years, whether in the temple or in the cathedral. Where does ecclesiastical authority, church authority, come from? It’s a question for us today, still. Do we have authority as Christians? And if we do, what kind of authority do we have? And where does it come from?

We Americans have a love-hate relationship with authority. On one hand, our national ethos is born of revolution, the ultimate rejection of authority. We tend to favor the underdog, the rebel, the maverick.

This aspect of the way we think about authority is revealed by the way so many people initially cheered Cliven Bundy when he resisted federal agents’ attempts to enforce grazing laws in Nevada.

At the same time, we respect those in positions of authority. Most of the time, we expect people to follow the rules, to abide by the laws of the community. We are suspicious of strikes, sit-ins, political rallies and protests that question the the status quo, especially when these protests involve civil disobedience.

Now, I know that some of you have exactly the opposite view of the two scenarios I just described. Some of you cheered for the Occupy Wall Street protests, and thought that the Bundy Band of desperadoes should have been rounded up along with the cattle.

But that’s my point, isn’t it? That we are okay with authority, as long as we agree with it. We are OK with authority, as long as it forces someone else to fall in line with what we think is just and right. We are not OK with authority that requires us to accept situations or actions with which we do not agree.

I guess I’m suggesting that our relationship with authority is somewhat, um, fluid. Our relative acceptance of authority goes back and forth, depending on our point of view. It depends, to a certain extent, on whose ox is being gored. Or, to stretch that metaphor into our context, it depends on whose cow is being rounded up to pay for the grazing permit.

My point is, our relationship with authority is not absolute. It is not fixed in stone, no matter how much we might say it is.

Of, course, there are times when authority is absolute, and it needs to be. For instance, when I was in Army basic training, I realized very quickly, that the tall, angry, southern, African-American Drill Sergeant screaming profanities in my face needed to be obeyed, directly, without hesitation. Being a farm boy from Western Colorado, I may not have always understood what he was saying, but I so desperately wanted to do whatever it was that he wanted me to do.

And that was fine with me. When you are being prepared for the battlefield, an instant, and unquestioning respect for authority, especially when it is screaming at you to ‘get down’, might be the one thing that keeps your head attached to your body.

And in reality, leading a charge uphill against a dug-in enemy force will not work at all if at first everybody in the unit has to be consulted, the stakeholders identified and included in the discussion, and all decisions run through committee until a consensus is reached. As much as we Presbyterians love our Robert’s “Rules of Order”, they do not apply to every situation.

And so, sometimes, there is such a thing as absolute authority. Listening to an airplane stewardess during an inflight emergency is an exercise in absolute authority. Following orders for an evacuation during a flood means yielding to absolute authority. Sometimes absolute authority requires us to simply do what we are told in order not to die, or in order for others not to die.  

But when we talk about authority in the church, that is an entirely different matter.

Now, I want to warn you that what I’m about to tell you comes from a deeply Presbyterian perspective. Not all faith traditions agree with the way I think about authority. And that’s fine. Our salvation is not at stake if we disagree with one another.

But, for Presbyterians, the issue of authority is one that is handled very carefully. We are extremely suspicious of too much authority resting in the hands of any particular person, or group of people. We’re very American in that way. The authority of the pastor, for instance, is granted, not by the PC(USA), nor by his or her ordination, but by the church to which the pastor is called. And it is the session of the church that determines the boundaries of the pastor’s authority, even including when, where, and to whom the sacraments may be administered.

A Presbyterian church is run, not by the pastor, but by the elders. The pastor certainly has a voice and participates in the leadership of the church, and depending on each individual situation, is given a certain amount of executive responsibility, but in terms of authority, it is the elders who call the shots.

And this division of authority is carried up the line. I just came home from a presbytery meeting yesterday, which is a meeting of the members of the churches in the panhandle area. We meet quarterly to decide matters that pertain to our churches in this part of the world, and one of the requirements of Presbytery meetings is that the ratio of lay people, that is, elders, must always be greater than clergy.

And this ratio applies also to the General Assembly meetings of the whole Presbyterian Church in the USA that are held once every two years. At every level of church leadership, the numbers of non-clergy, normal, everyday church members must outnumber the number of pastors. We are very careful to not invest Pastors with a sense of absolute authority.

There are many, many other examples of how the Presbyterian Church handles the issue of authority, too many to go into now. And as I said before, lots of other churches do it differently. For some church traditions, there is one person at the head of the entire denomination who holds absolute authority. For others, there is one person in the pulpit who who holds absolute authority.  

And for some folks, that’s a comforting thing. It is comforting to have someone tell us what to do. What to think. How to believe. We live in a world of too much information. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone would just tell us how to have faith in God?

But for me, my friends, this is why I am a Presbyterian. My faith is something that can only be worked out by me, in fear and trembling before the Lord. And, the same goes for you. I can’t, in fact, nobody can do this work for you. Each of us comes before God in our own way, and in our own time, and nobody has the kind of absolute authority that can decide someone else’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

In other words, nobody has the kind of authority to tell you what, and how to believe. This is something that you do on your own. As hard, as scary, as confusing, as vulnerable as that sounds, it’s just us and God.

And so, what kind of authority do we have? And where does it come from? Jesus doesn’t really answer this question, except for with a parable. A parable about those who do the will of the master. And for Jesus, it doesn’t matter at all what we say. It doesn’t matter at all what authority we claim. It doesn’t matter what authority others may claim. The only authority we have is the example of our own lives.

And that means the only authority we have is the authority to do the work Jesus modeled for us. We have the authority to forgive, to welcome, to include, to serve. We have the authority to insist that God’s love is broad enough for everyone, even for tax collectors and prostitutes. We have the authority to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, to comfort the lonely. If we are not doing these things, we have no authority whatsoever.

But when we do them, we have all the authority we will ever need.

Thanks be to God. Amen.