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Delivered to the United Church of Jaffrey
January 28th 2018
Both of the scripture readings this morning are concerned with a central issue:
Both of the scripture readings this morning are concerned with a central issue:Authority.
Here are three big questions I want to ask about authority — three questions I want to use today’s two scripture passages as a ground for speculation.
First: what is authority?
Second: Is Divine authority different from human authority?
And third: How do we know when a person is worthy of being granted authority?
These are eternal questions that we are not likely to definitively answer this morning…
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
Trying to answer unanswerable questions is what religion is all about. If we didn’t do this we wouldn’t have any way to approach God.
We wouldn’t have scripture.
We wouldn’t have poetry.
This is why poetry and scripture are so inexact.
And so filled with beauty!
But I digress.
What was the first question again?
Ah yes, it was the big one: what is authority?
The Divine as King?
For a big question — a big answer — the biggest.
In all of the world’s monotheistic religions — that is, religions that believe in one God — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — there is a foundational belief that ultimate authority rests with God. This is based on the traditional view that God has an essential three-part nature: that God is all-powerful (omnipotent), all knowing (omniscient), and all good.
If we talk about authority in religious terms, then, we use God as the ideal, and we measure human authority according to the particular person’s similarity to God.
But can a human be God like in this way?
This gets us into the second question: Is divine authority different from Human authority?
The answer is simple.
Yes, divine authority is different.
Divine authority — as defined earlier — is complete, and human authority is, by necessity, partial because…
It is simply not possible for a human to be all powerful, all knowing, and all good…
I have never heard of such a human anyway.
We can all point to historical figures who have attempted to become all powerful — but every human who has tried to do this — I think of people like Napoleon and Hitler — were corrupted so much by power that they lost all vestige of goodness — indeed they were judged by history to have become the very opposite of good.
These people, like Hitler and Napoleon — were not granted authority — they seized power.
They did not serve truth — as one who is good would do — they served themselves. And doing this, of course, they proved themselves to be the farthest thing from all-knowing. They were ignorant.
It is said that power corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
We say this about humans.
Because it is true of humans.
Do we say it about God?
I hope not.
There is, undoubtedly, a strong tradition in scripture and also in all the monotheistic religious traditions, that characterizes God as a kind of monarch who relates to humanity as a king might relate to his subjects.
Whenever I encounter this tradition in scripture, it makes me nervous and unhappy.
I do not like to imagine God as a king on a throne.
That idea sounds too medieval to me. It sounds too convenient for those who are in power.
The passage Brenda read this morning from the Book of Deuteronomy makes me feel anxious in this way.
If you recall, in that passage God said:
I will raise up… a prophet… from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable.”
There is no doubt that this would be one effective strategy to bestow divine authority into human form.
Just make the human speak only the words that God puts in his mouth.
But if the prophet can only speak the words of God — what happened to the prophet’s free will?
Has the prophet given up his freedom?
And if so, is he still human?
And if the prophet is human, and does claim his freedom? What then?
This solution of communicating God’s will to the people through a human mouthpiece is only as robust as the chosen human happens to be. The prophet would soon discover his power, and would be tempted to use that power for his own purposes. And as soon as this happens — well… we’re back to the “Power corrupts” problem again.
Authority, here, is filled with problems.
If the prophet is true to God, he must give up his free will, and God seems troublingly like a dictator!
If the prophet insists on his freedom, he retains his humanity — only to, inevitably, become corrupted.
Sometimes, when things are just to crazy at home, I will run away on a Saturday afternoon, in hopes of finding a quiet spot to write my sermon.
Yesterday, I found myself in the library at Northfield Mount Hermon — the school where I teach.
The reading room in the library is a reading room in the old style, with big tables and tall ceilings framed in dark wood.
On Saturday afternoon there were only a handful of students about, and I had the place more or less to myself — which was lovely.
Almost too lovely.
The winter light was at lying down on the distant hills like a barely audible melody that you once knew.
Sometimes it is too crazy to work on my sermon, and sometimes the silence is too beautiful.
I needed to be interrupted.
Along came my friend Hugh.
“What are you doing?” says Hugh.
“I’m writing about authority,” says I.
Hugh then tells me his favorite idea about authority…
“That is very helpful” says I.
And of course, I am going to tell you what Hugh said, but not until after we consider this morning’s gospel story.
Granted by Community
The drama and action of this morning’s gospel story is familiar us.
Jesus chases away an unclean spirit.
But before the unclean spirit appears in the synagogue, the text tells us that Jesus is in the act of teaching a group of the people gathered around. These people were, quote,
astonished at his teaching, since he would teach them on his own authority, unlike scholars.
There are three things to notice about Jesus’ authority as described in this short sentence:
One: Jesus does not claim authority — he earns it by giving his unique kind of teaching.
Two: Jesus does not earn authority from God. He earns it from people — a community of people.
Three: Jesus earns authority not because of who he is, but because of something he does — astonishing people with his teaching.
Authority, here, is something dynamic that grows out of community interaction.
It is not wrested from people by force. It is the fruit of effective communication.
It is only after the people in the synagogue have granted him this authority, that Jesus exercises that authority to order the unclean spirit to be gone.
And while Jesus is not exactly polite to the unclean spirit — it is worth remembering that man himself who undergoes a convulsive and violent sounding exorcism, is ultimately, the better for this interaction.
He is healed.
And once the man is healed, the people, once again remark on Jesus’ authority:
“What’s this? A new kind of teaching backed by authority! He gives orders to unclean spirits and they obey him!”
Healing, here, resides within the embrace of an authority that is granted by community.
“Authority and power are not the same,” Hugh told me. “Power is seized but authority is granted. Power is wielded but authority is exercised.”
For humans, authority exists in community and must be earned from that community. It is, therefore, not a fact, but a process.
It should act less like a noun and more like a verb.
To be granted by a community, authority should act less like a king or a general, and more like teacher or a healer.
Jesus, after all, was born in a barn, not in a palace.
He did not order drone strikes.
He healed lepers.
He did not issue executive orders.
He talked to poor people on the in the countryside, and in the scattered towns by the sea of Galilee.
And when we follow this wounded healer…
This vulnerable divinity…
We earn a small measure of his authority…
We become a part of his process of healing.