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Sermon: "By What Authority ...?"

A sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on Sunday, September 28, 2014.

16th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (RCL): Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable to you, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

          I love movies. And my wife, Chrissie, will tell you: I love ALL movies. But now that I search for sermon material, I like to see movies with themes about God, heaven, faith and redemption, even if it’s a stretch, as in “Guardians of the Galaxy!” The latest film I saw, ‘Calvary,’ is about a good priest living in a small town in Ireland. It opens with Father James hearing a confession, in which the person speaks of being repeatedly abused as a child at the hands of another priest. The former offender is now dead, and the adult confessor has decided any retribution on the Church seems best carried out only against a good priest. Then the confessor announces he will kill Father James in a week’s time. The film follows this priest’s day-to-day dealings with all the town members. He discovers there is no shortage of domestic abuse, racism, suicidal tendencies and extreme immoral views. The lack of innocence runs deep. At the end, a series of criminal acts forces Father James to face his persecutor and the dark consequences from the Catholic Church’s past.

          “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus teaching in the temple after having cleansed the temple. He drove out the moneychangers, tossed some furniture around, scattered merchandise, and totally disrupted the business of others. I recall from the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, our Lord screams, “My temple should be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves. Get out! Get out!” Now teaching in the temple, Jesus’ authority is questioned by the religious leaders who are supposed to be in charge of the temple.

          I think we all know that Jesus came to disrupt the usual order of things – and this includes authority. The religious authorities, the Sanhedrin, try to throw the rule book at Jesus when they ask him about the source or origin of his authority. “By what authority …?” It’s obviously not one the Sanhedrin had established. Jesus’ authority is not found in religious law. The temple authorities hide behind their self-invented authority. They observe the commandments to make themselves look good, rather than the call to serve their neighbor.

          The surprising thing is that true authority finds itself on the outside. Jesus is the supreme outsider in this story. He is outside the boundaries the religious authorities want to establish. And Jesus is also the defender of the outsider, which in this instance, includes tax collectors and prostitutes. He places himself with the marginalized, even unto death, on a cross, outside the walls of the city, with other criminals. (Just so you know, Jesus has inspired groups throughout the ages and even today) There are religious communities, like the Little Sisters of Jesus, a contemplative Roman Catholic community of religious sisters, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who lived this identity with the outsider, not simply in service to the marginalized but living, completely assimilating with the poorest. They live among groups that are inaccessible to other forms of church ministry, whose day-to-day living is marked by divisions, racism, poverty and violence. They hope that in doing so they can be a sign of hope and healing in this broken world.      

          This past week, I was ruminating over things relating to Authority and Obedience. And having recently attended the Ordination to the Sacred Order of Priesthood of my friend, Liz Tomlinson at St. Paul’s, Baileys Crossroads, I revisited that liturgy in our Book of Common Prayer. Please feel free to turn to Page 525 in the Prayer Book if you’d like to follow along.

          After being presented, the ordinand is asked by the Bishop: “Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them? And will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?”

          Turning to the Examination on Page 532, the Bishop asks: “Will you do your best to pattern your life [and that of your family, or household, or community] in accordance with the teachings of Christ, so that you may be a wholesome example to your people?

          Finally, on Page 534 following the Consecration and vesting of the new priest(s), the Bishop presents to the newly ordained: “Receive this Bible as a sign of the authority given to you to preach the Word of God and to administer [the] holy Sacraments. Do not forget the trust committed to you as a priest in the Church of God.”

          Three groups accosted Jesus as he taught in the temple: the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders of the people. This included the representative of the congregation, exponents of the written and oral traditions, and the spiritual hierarchy. The question of Jesus’ authority to do “these things” no doubt included the triumphal entry to the city, that act of cleansing the temple, and now his teaching there. It’s ironic: By their authority, the Sanhedrin could destroy him; but his authority could redeem them from sin if they would hear it and believe in him.

          Jesus countered with a question asking their perception of the role of John the Baptist. Jesus’ messianic role was related directly to John as the forerunner. When he turned the question back to the Sanhedrin, Jesus did not dodge the issue, but was setting it in the context of salvation history, a history the chief priests and elders just do not see. But they do see John’s followers and they are afraid of them. So the priests and elders discussed among themselves how to answer, but being exposed by either answer, and realizing their predicament, they backed down and said, “We do not know.” How do they not know? Didn’t they have the authority to understand these things? Wouldn’t that be the kind of question they should be able to answer? But Jesus had undone them, and they were afraid. And Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” The question of John’s authority was essentially the same as that of Jesus.

          The subsequent parable of Jesus about two sons who don’t do what they say is only found here in Matthew’s gospel. It reveals surprises in the reign of God, such as prostitutes and tax collectors going before others into God’s kingdom. The Jewish leaders said they would obey God, and then did not (or did not follow his commandments but rather their own rules); the tax collectors and prostitutes said they would go their own way, but instead repented and turned to God. The religious leaders saw others changing and entering the Kingdom, but they had no “after-care” themselves to change their own attitude towards John’s ministry. They must have lacked the authority to best pattern their lives in accordance with the teachings of their faith, so that they could be a wholesome example to their people.

          This parable of the two sons speaks of a good and a bad son. It is one of ten parables Jesus told to show God’s mercy for sinners. Good son, bad son. Christianity lauds yet another son, the “only Son,” who both answers yes AND does the will of God. In the biblical worldview, a son is not understood as an independent agent, but is an extension of the father, owing the father everything. We who hear Jesus and follow as his disciples become children of God and bear that same relationship and responsibility. Regardless of our past failures and sins, we will share in the Kingdom of God.

          As someone beyond convention, Jesus looks to our heart, not to our mere words. Things are so easy to promise and so arduous to fulfill. I imagine that most parents experience this on an almost daily basis – and not only from the kids’ broken promises, but their own as well. As in ‘Sure, I’ll take you swimming; just let me finish these e-mails!’ And then, a long time later, the reminder comes unabashedly from the kids of the unfulfilled promise.   Being a parent, or anyone in authority, means understanding the trust that others place in us BECAUSE of our authority.

          “Yes” is easy to say. The action, the gesture, the deed, however, reveals the heart. God as judge sees the heart, not functioning as a human judge pondering “the scales of justice.” God’s fairness seems terribly unfair - giving the sinner the same chance as the righteous, rewarding the eleventh-hour worker the same as the one who worked all day in the vineyard. God’s fairness works in the midst of death bringing forth life. Confessions and forgiveness could pick up on these themes: confessing the “yes” turned “no” and rejoicing in God’s continual “Yes” spoken to us in baptism. Because God seeks unceasingly to be in relation with us, Jesus’ questions are seldom about right answers; rather, they are about calling his followers and hearers to be transformed.

          In his letter to the Philippians, as part of a call for harmony rather than self-seeking, Paul uses a very early Christian hymn that extols the selflessness of Christ in his obedient death upon the cross. Christ’s selfless perspective is to be the essential perspective we share as the foundation for Christian accord. Here we learn about the Lord who is Servant and about those who would be followers of such a Lord.

          “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

          Chrissie and I were deeply involved with the youth at Grace Church. In 2002, a mother new to the church expressed her desire for her children, a young son and younger daughter, to be baptized. The Children Ministries director approached me to mentor the teenage boy and I eventually sponsored Ed for baptism as his godfather. He quietly began exploring his faith, and was later confirmed. But after a few years, Ed drifted away, his family moved, and I wondered what became of him. Seven years later, he reached out through Facebook and asked to meet. What he shared was reminiscent of the Sower and the Seed parable where we may never know what we have sown, or if it took root, or had any chance to bloom and flourish. But it had and he did. I was starting seminary and Ed arrived: no longer a boy, but instead a Marine, married, with three children of his own. We stayed in touch (through Facebook) and he surprised me at my priestly ordination when, after the service, he knelt in the aisle and sought a blessing. Ed’s actions were especially poignant as I realized he acknowledged the new authority granted to me in the name of God by the Bishop and the Church.

          We are all called to be imitators of Christ, to be more “Christ-like” each new day. My ordination vows both guide me and challenge me through the authority granted me through the Church and the obedience required of me to be a loyal and faithful follower of Jesus Christ. I hope I can be a good priest like Father James of “Calvary,” willing to minister to the needs of God’s people while sharing the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. I pray I can likewise help to counter the abuse of authority that we have seen happen sometimes. This is authority that Christ shares with all of us as the priesthood of believers! And so, as the Bishop prays at the end of the ordination examination, ‘May the Lord who has given you the will to do these things give you the grace and power to perform them.”

          In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.