St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

3800 East Third Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47401

(812) 332-5252


Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (February 1, 2015)

Liturgical Color: Green

Reverend Doctor Lyle E. McKee


Authority

Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

When I was in seminary, I wasn't much interested in being a pastor. My intention as I entered into the study of theology was to move on to a degree in clinical psychology. What led me to seminary was an interest in pastoral counseling and a desire to help individuals and families deal with their struggles.

Part of my reticence to consider congregational ministry, even as my thoughts and heart turned in that direction later in my seminary studies, was a deep suspicion of authority. I didn't like what I saw in pastors as I attended various churches—or politicians as I worked on Capitol Hill for a few months. I was simply unwilling to think of myself as an authority figure. And in truth I wasn't much prepared to take on that role or act the part. Authority was still something outside myself and beyond my young years. And it was something I and society as a whole were reassessing.

My time in seminary followed decades of social upheaval related to authority. The 1960s are infamous for their expressions of distrust in authority, and much was made of not placing trust in anyone over the age of 30.

In the 70s, authority took more hits from Watergate and the growing recognition of the foibles and failures of character present in people at every level of government, the church, and the world. It was all fueled by the erosion of deference, respect, and civility, as well as by the rise of multi-media empires dedicated to the insatiable thirst of folks for the dirt and the gossip and the skeletons in the closets of any public figure.

By the time I entered seminary in 1978, I wanted to avoid those public offices that both drew too much interest and expected too much of those who occupied them.

And yet, here I am. I preach to people. I struggle with texts and what they have to say. And I attempt to speak—with authority—the Word of God. In retrospect, and at every moment, it seems presumptuous to me—even with the required credentials, the affirmation of the church, the call of congregations, and the blessings of the Holy Spirit that come with ordination and experience and time.

Today our scriptures challenge us to consider the nature of authority. Where does it truly lie? Who speaks with it? How might re recognize it? What gives it sanction?

Authority is no easy nut to crack. And that was clearly true even in ancient times.

In Deuteronomy this morning, we hear just how serious is this business of speaking on behalf of God. Chapter 18 continues the address of Moses to the people of Israel, reminding them of the covenants God had made with them, and laying down the laws that God expects them to observe in faithfulness. Be begins with the Ten Commandments in chapter 5, and he continues his speech through all of the intervening chapters. Then, here in chapter 18, Moses offers the promise of God to raise up other prophets who speak on behalf of God. Authority, he suggests, will continue to come from one like him. And for those who would pretend, watch out because God will not let them even live.

Perhaps all of us who have taken on vocations related to authority should now swallow, very hard—whether leaders in religious or civic spheres. Authority is indeed very serious. It is to be taken with the utmost of care and dedication, with particular mindfulness of its fundamental importance.

Then Paul, in 1 Corinthians, tells us about the nuanced responsibilities of authority and prerogative. Even though some things are permissible, that doesn't mean they are always helpful. Paul doesn't resort to law here, instructing Christians not to eat certain foods or behave in ways that are not troubling to others, but rather simply inviting us to be sensitive to the perspectives of others. He invites us to act in loving ways in order not to get in the way of or to offend others.

This passage reinforces the message from last Sunday—that we are called to love fiercely, not stirring the pot of enmity or war, in order that we might be effective bringers of good news—or, as the story had it last Sunday—fishers of people. It's all about the limits of authority and prerogative, about doing what builds up rather than what tears down, of loving others as we would have them love us.

In the reading from Mark today, Jesus enters the synagogue and preaches with authority. Then Jesus acts with authority, healing a man with an unclean spirit. And those who observe are amazed. What many who think of themselves as righteous cannot recognize, the unclean spirit does. "I know who you are," says the spirit, "the Holy One of God."

How odd that the righteous fail to recognize what the unrighteous seem to know easily. Here, authority seems a slippery thing—hard to grasp, odd in its manifestations.

Fred Craddock titled one of his books on preaching "As One Without Authority." It's a book that explores a form of preaching that invites the hearer to enter into the story. Craddock recognizes that whatever authority preachers have is more indirect than direct. It's hard to put a finger on. But at the very least, it is clear that those who listen can no longer be expected simply to accept what preachers have to say. In some ways, we are ones without authority.

But that is not a new thought. From the times of the Reformation, we have grown to understand that the authority of the church and of those who preach is not their own. It is sourced elsewhere—in the Word of God, in the collected wisdom of the ages, in reason, and in considered experience (repeat). Truth is spoken and known when it resonates with these wells of insight and with the hearts of its hearers.

Perhaps some other perspectives on authority will help to open up the question of its nature. Here are a few:

Many, as noted earlier, speak against institutional authority in one way or another:

Timothy Leary: Think for yourself and question authority.

Sid Vicious: Undermine their pompous authority, reject their moral standards, make anarchy and disorder your trademarks. Cause as much chaos and disruption as possible but don't let them take you ALIVE.

George Carlin: I have as much authority as the Pope, I just don't have as many people who believe it.

Sherman Alexie (a Native American educator): My only purpose is to teach children to rebel against authority figures.

Thomas Chandler Haliburton (19th c. politician and author): Whenever there is authority, there is a natural inclination to disobedience.

Some speak with humor about this serious subject:

John Oliver (British-American comedian): I think Americans still can't help but respond to the natural authority of this voice. Deep down they long to be told what to do by a British accent. That's why so many infomercials have British people.

Cartman (of the animated sitcom, South Park): Respect my authoritah.

Some say some disturbing things:

Arnold Schwarzeneggar: My relationship to power and authority is that I'm all for it. People need somebody to watch over them. Ninety-five percent of the people in the world need to be told what to do and how to behave.

Others try to get at the truth of authority's roots:

Tupac Shakur: I think I'm a natural-born leader. I know how to bow down to authority if it's authority that I respect.

Anne Bradstreet (17th c. poet): Authority without wisdom is like a heavy ax without an edge, fitter to bruise than polish.

Ken Blanchard (author): The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.

I think that these last three help us to see that authority rightly comes from relationship, forged through earned trust and respect, and exercised with wisdom.

Still, regardless of where we place ourselves among the various approaches to authority in these days, we stand confronted by the amazing power of Jesus in Mark's story. Realms that are beyond us listen to Jesus and recognize his words and works. Teachers are amazed at his wisdom. And he is labelled aptly by the spirits, "You alone are the Holy One."

After all, it is Jesus who says, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." (Matt. 28:18)

Perhaps, even as we struggle with authority, we can rehearse that amazement and that declaration in our worship and in our lives. So much that happens here is amazing. God's word is spoken visibly and invisibly. We hear it. We touch it. We eat it. We receive it. Forgiveness and grace imbue our liturgy. Visions and dreams call to us. A new reality is breaking into ours.

We rightly wonder, "What kind of authority is this?" And we live into it, unjaded by the times or by the false prophets of our day, rejoicing and living in the triumphant declaration of good news. We recognize the highest authority. And no demons, no kind of evil, will keep us from the light of its power.

In this season of Epiphany, we celebrate the light of Christ growing from the manger to the Transfiguration and its evidences among us. That light shines where we are still amazed by Jesus'authority, by his teachings and deeds, serving to upend our assumptions about what's possible. It shines where we see souls set free from destructive tendencies and powers that we thought were beyond anyone's control.

We want the light of that authority to shine.

I certainly hope that the words I speak draw you closer to Christ, and that they are infused with the power of God. God's word is powerful and intends for things to change when it is spoken.

What is true of me is true of everyone present here. We all want something to happen for the good of God's mission in the world by virtue of the words we speak and the actions we take on behalf of our God—words and actions that spring from the authority of God.

You too may bring the light of the powerful authoritative word of God wherever you go—the places of brokenness and disappointment and fear, both in your lives and in the life of the world. God is still very much at work casting out the unclean spirits of the world, and God is using all of us to continue that wondrous work.

To what illness of self or world or ill-temper or ill-conceived notion might we speak the words of Jesus—with authority—this day and this week. Whatever our fears and uncertainties about our own authority, we may rest assured of the power that resides forever in the Word of God. With sure and certain confidence, we may say to those forces that seek to undo us, "Be silent, and be gone, in the name of the One who alone is Holy." Amen.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.

 

 

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