Sorry this is so late. The past few weeks have been chaotic and filled with colds that consumed everyone on campus, and emergency conference calls.
In any case, last week I preached all three services at Friendly Local Episcopal Church (whose website now links here. Hi, y’all!)
The rector was on some extremely well-deserved vacation, so I got to sub in, with the help of Friendly Retired Lutheran Pastor.
Here’s what got preached.
(For reference, I also include the following: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Xd_zkMEgkI&feature=youtube_gdata_player ).
September 25, 2011
Ordinary Time, Proper 21
In that foundational text of traditional Anglicanism known as “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, at one point, early in the movie, King Arthur strikes up a conversation with a peasant named Dennis and his elderly female companion, regarding the inhabitant of a far-off castle. Dennis doesn’t know who Arthur is, or why a king has appeared suddenly in their field. When the old woman asks Arthur how he got to be king, since she didn’t vote for him., he explains about the Lady of the Lake, holding aloft Excalibur from the depths of the water. The scene gets quiet, a choir sings off in the distance, everyone sort of stares off into the middle distance. Clearly this story is important.
But Dennis is unimpressed. “Look, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government! Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not some farcical aquatic ceremony!”
And in one fell swoop, the legend of the sword in the stone crumbles into hilarious pebbles. Arthur is enraged, and poor Dennis gets whacked about the head and neck by a belligerent king, yelling “come and see the violence inherent in the system! Help, I’m being repressed!”
Though, he’s right. And through our 21st century eyes, something as purely by chance as swords! Or birthright! Seems like a ridiculous reason to wield authority.
So what does give authority? Because that’s a question that still gets people going. From Arthur beating the snot out of Dennis,(the violence inherent in the system!) to the bloodletting in the GOP debates these past few weeks, to Jesus versus the temple priests, who gets authority and why is always a contentious issue.
Look again at the gospel—we’ve skipped ahead in time a bit—this encounter with Jesus and the priests is during what we consider Holy Week. Jesus has entered the city of Jerusalem to great acclaim and attention. He went into the Temple and threw out the moneychangers and the guys who sold the animals for the sacrifice—caused a bit ruckus there. He went around saiying that the Temple would get destroyed, ripped to pieces, and he would personally rebuild it in three days. These aren’t things you do if you want to win friends and influence the folks in charge.
So the priests,, in charge of the Temple system, decide to figure out just who this guy Jesus is. Where does he get off saying and doing all this?
And Jesus, never one just to give a simple answer to a simple question, shoots one back. “I know my authority—where did John get his authority from?”
And what follows is an interesting bit of political huddling. The temple leaders are in a tight spot. They’re facing a crowded city. That loved the martyred John the Baptist, so they don’t want to say anything against him, or destroy the saintly image he had earned. However, they didn’t want to be too nice to John, since the guy who had him killed was also the person who kept them in power. And was insanely paranoid.
So they give up. And Jesus lets them off the hook.
But notice that there’s something missing from their analysis. At no point in what we’re told of their deliberations does anyone say, “maybe this question isn’t about us. Maybe it’s about John.” Maybe it’s about John, and the crowd themselves, and the people that the priests are supposed to be serving the in first place. Maybe it’s not actually about us.
Granted, that wouldn’t have solved the very real political issues they were still facing. And Also? This is the gospel of Matthew here. Matthew has never won any prizes for an unbiased portrayal of the temple authorities, or any non-Jesus Jewish character in this story.
But for these characters, as described by Matthew’s gospel, authority is very much about maintaining power for yourself. They can’t answer the question about authority themselves, ironically, because their own is so twisted back on itself. It’s so self-focused. And really, who, hearing this story, thinks, yes! I want to follow these people!
Jesus on the other hand does things differently. It’s not that Jesus eschews authority or power—you don’t go around announcing the destruction of your national capital if you are afraid of power.
He just uses it very differently. Even the parable he tells—for both of the sons, the goal is to do the will of their father. Not theirs. Both sons seem a bit inconsistent and have problems telling the truth, but one ends up on the right page…just because he loves his father, and in the end, he thinks of his father, not just himself.
And that’s what it comes down to. Jesus’ authority comes out of love. Love of the people he came to serve and to lead, and love of the God who sent him. It was that love that people responded to, and it was that love that gave him the authority to do the things he did, love for the lepers he healed, love for the outcast he welcomed, and love for the temple authorities he challenged.
Love gives authority. But, not just any sort of appearing-on-daytime-talk-shows-love. The sort of self-emptying love that Paul describes in Philippians. That’s the sort of love that flows from God, and that’s the sort of love that empowers us to go out into the world in God’s name to serve as God’s hands and feet, here and now.
As Christians, that’s the only sort of authority we have. We don’t have magic powers, we don’t have trained assassins, we don’t have secret knowledge. We have self-giving, self-emptying love. Love so strong that even death and hell don’t contain it. We have that.
So when it comes right down to it? If what we do truly proceeds out of that love?
We need no other authority.