Sunday sermon for Good Shepherd, Sun Prairie, and St. Francis House, at UW-Madison. Here are the appointed readings.
I’m not much for dictionary definitions, but when I asked Google, it told me that authority was “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” This matches, more or less, my free associations with the word. I think of things like the toll booth authority and TSA, please remove your belt and shoes. In the exception that proves the rule, this one time, waiting in the security line at an airport, the lead TSA agent called out, “Keep your shoes and belt on! Your government trusts you. I don’t trust you, but your government trusts you.” These aren’t the standard instructions. I suppose they were in a hurry. I was surprised, though, to discover honest to goodness tears in my eyes at the assurance of my government’s trust. Authority. The power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.
I am a Texan, and Texans, of course, don’t like to have our obedience enforced. I suspect Texans are not unique in this. [As a kid, it was drilled into me that, as a former Republic, Texas had the legal right to fly its flag at the same height as the national flag.] So, near where my parents used to live, about an hour outside of Austin, the state put in this toll road that promised to greatly reduce travel times in the area. The only problem was that Texans, especially South Texans, don’t drive on toll roads. Because, authority. It's complicated. So the state kept bumping up the speed limit, every other year or so, 5 mph at a time, to incentivize travelers and tempt them into trusting their government. Last time I checked, the limit was up to 85 miles an hour, and still no takers. The road is mostly empty. As it turns out, power of the government kind is hard to trust.
My first job was at a True Value hardware store, in high school. Authority in that context was my boss. He was kind to customers and cranky to employees, probably operating under the not unreasonable assumption that his high school workers (including me) weren’t the most thorough workers. The first time I was charged with sweeping the aisles and the floor at the end of a day, a co-worker warned me that it would not be unlike our employer to put a small pile of sand in a corner. A trap. Be thorough, he said. That’s right, the boss would make the mess worse just to keep us honest. It wasn’t a question of being comprehensive. It wasn’t a question of cleanliness. It was a question of not being caught. My boss thought we would apply ourselves better to the work if we feared him and doubted the adequacy of our abilities.
When we are told today that Jesus talks with authority I suspect that most of us aren’t surprised. It figures. We might have predicted that “God is great” turns out to mean God is the biggest boss with the biggest hammer. Polish your shoes, brush your teeth, or cover your tracks and run for cover. Adam and Eve knew the drill. In the absence of perfection, hide. Most of us have spent a fair bit of our lives hiding from one thing or another. Because maybe we deserve what we’ve got coming. Maybe we don’t. Doesn’t much matter when you don’t have the hammer. And it’s a problem for us, that we assume God is this way because, as pastor Greg Boyd puts it, “Your love and passion for God will never outrun the beauty of your picture of God.”
How we think about God affects how we relate to God and each other in the church. When we project accusation-based authority onto God, the projection eventually falls onto us, such that we start to fear each other and loathe ourselves. For example, I’ve always loved living in close neighborhoods and, as a priest in these neighborhoods, I’ve loved running into friends and parishioners at the grocery store. Only, most of the exchanges haven’t matched the idyllic repartees I imagined in my head. A typical encounter might go something like this, “Hey! My friend, how are you doing? It's me. Your priest in a t-shirt.” “Uh. Say, Father Jonathan, um, fancy seeing you here, um, you know I woulda liked to have been there Sunday, but I was sick, or not sick but, you know the Sunday before, my kid was, um, I mean, work is busy, and weekends, well, you know how it goes, I’ll be there this Sunday. I PROMISE.” “Um. Okay. Sounds like life’s been crazy, maybe don’t promise. See you Sunday - or not. Anyway, it’s good to see you.” “Yeah, well, I’ll maybe see you Sunday.”
We don’t trust authority. My parents always said broccoli was good for me, but I always knew they were in the pocket of Big Broccoli. Somehow. Other motivating forces had to be at work. Nobody knows me. Nobody would actually want to know me. How could anybody in this world be genuinely for me?
He spoke as one with authority.
But then, over against all this world has taught me about authority, in his book Discipleship, J. Heinrich Arnold - leader of the Bruderhof communities from 1962 to 1982 - writes this:
When we speak about the authority of leaders in the church, it should be very clear that we never mean authority over people. Jesus gave his disciples authority, but he gave them authority over spirits - not people. In the same way, those of us appointed to lead in the church are given authority, but not over people. It is all too easy to forget this. We must seek for humility again and again.
At first, that quote struck me as strange. But then, I looked again at our gospel. Sure enough, the authority has to do with casting out spirits. We 21st century folks may not know what do with authority that has to do with casting out spirits, but not knowing what to do with it is different from having permission to replace it with our own definition. What I want to notice is this: where today’s dominant authority is authority of accusation, Jesus comes with the authority of liberation. Where the authorities we’re familiar with can lock you up, Jesus’ authority promises to open up. Jesus’ authority sets the prisoner free. Which, yes, means Jesus’ authority can be an unwelcome visitor to certain other kinds of wannabe authorities. It’s like a vineyard master coming home and putting the stand-ins on notice.
It’s the tension of this story in which Jesus heals a man on the sabbath in the synagogue. He breaks a law but makes a person whole. He breaks the law but fulfills it. You could even say he heals it.
Witness four chapters after today’s story, where Jesus comes to the country of the Gerasenes. He meets a man who lives in the tombs, covered in shackles and chains. The man has broken out of the chains so many times, the pieces now cling to him like appendages. Remnants of the so-called authorities. But the new authority does not lock up, does not apply new chains to bind him up. Jesus’ authority unbinds, unlocks, raises to new life, so he casts the spirits into the pigs and they run off a cliff. And the people - watch this - the people, the same ones who had put the chains on the man, content to let him cut himself on the stones of the tombs while they traded their pigs for money, they weren’t afraid then. But now, the man put in his right mine, the local pig economy drowned, now they’re afraid. Get out, they tell Jesus.
Because he spoke as one with authority.
The Good News is bad news if you’re a pig farmer making profits on the imprisonment of others. But if you’ve ever longed to be told that you don’t have to hide anymore, this authority is for you. If you’ve ever prayed that the dead end just might not be, that your brokenness might be only the beginning, that the delight of the One who matters is mercy, then this authority is for you.
And, alternatively, if you’ve ever found yourself among the controlling, the conniving, or those simply not convinced that the old powers’ best days are behind them, he offers forgiveness. In addition to casting out spirits, Jesus gives authority to forgive to his disciples in the upper room: freedom to become agents of the authority that builds up the body in his very same love and opens paths of redemption and flourishing for God’s children.
Homestretch now. St. Paul is the poster child for those who have accepted the forgiveness of the new authority because they discovered full on their need of it. Today, in the epistle, he says that, where the old authority hinged on knowing the most, knowledge, the new authority rests on love. You used to be able to hold on to your position if you could prove that no one knew more than you. But Paul suggests that to be right and not in right relationship is unimportant for citizens of Christ’s kingdom because he died for us! Because, on the cross, we learn that authority is not power over so much as love poured out. Authority is not power over, is not running the show, is not having the bullhorn, but is seeking and finding opportunities to love and so to live generously toward God and each other, in thanksgiving for our Savior.
May God show us what it is to live under the authority of the One whose love for us is forever. May God give us all we need to love God and our neighbors as those set free from fear.