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Authority from the ground up

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

September 26, 2014

Ordinary Time

Philippians, Matthew

I have my diplomas hanging neatly on the wall in my office.  They’re both in Latin, which isn’t usual anymore, and they’re both giant, so they’re fairly intimidating. To most people, they would suggest I know things.  Hah.

But I will never forget flying home to Williamsburg to finally be ordained a deacon, during my final year of seminary, and I was so excited, because this meant that I HAD FINALLY GOTTEN THROUGH ALL THE HOOPS OF THE ORDINATION PROCESS, of which there were many.

My plane landed, and I walked up to the rental car counter, and I went to sign to pick up my car—and the charge was 4 times what I had been told over the phone.  “Well, yes.”  said the man behind the counter.  “See, you’re only 24.  You can’t rent a car without an additional $50 per day fee for being underage. So It’s 12.50 per day, plus $50 surcharge.”

Authority comes from some pretty strange places.  Is my point.

And we sort of know this instinctively, right? Some people earn authority, some people are granted it, and some people have authority thrust upon ‘em, to mess with Shakespeare.

Some people have authority by virtue of their office—if you don’t obey your general in a battle, you’ll get court-martialed.  (Or shot.) This is not because your general is necessarily smart, or a nice person, so much as that is the way the army works.  By virtue of being a general, that general gets obeyed. 

Some people, on the other hand, are obeyed because they are so gosh-darn nice about it.  The charisma just comes off of them in waves, these people.  They are what we aspire to be.  So we flock around them in droves, hoping some of the magic will rub off on us.  (This is more or less how branding campaigns work—think of any sports star or movie star selling athletic star selling shoes, or watches or cologne.  It is not that Lebron James has any expertise in how Nikes work—it is just that we all want very badly to believe we will one day be as famous and cool as Lebron James.)

These are forms of authority that work just fine for the most part.  So long as you understand and accept their limitations, they work great—you should probably not seek legal advice from Katy Perry, for example.

But they do have limitations.  There are times when they fall short.  What happens when the general gives a bad order, and we know it?  What happens when our boss asks us to do something we know is unethical?  What happens when those charismatic people we look up to, do horrible things—-yet keep being charismatic?

(And I haven’t even mentioned Congress.)

We need to be careful who we let have authority over us.  Because not all authorities can be trusted all the time.  We need to be careful and ask questions.

And in their defense, that’s what the temple authorities are doing in this conversation with Jesus.  They wanted to know where on earth his authority came from.

Because goodness knows, he didn’t have an office, and he didn’t have diplomas, and he hadn’t studied anywhere to become a learned rabbi, so he didn’t have authority of the office.

He only had a few followers, and they were a pretty rag-tag, unimpressive bunch—some people liked him, but a lot of people didn’t, and also he smelled pretty bad, so he didn’t really have authority of charisma

Yet he went around acting and speaking about God like someone who knew, deep in his bones what he was talking about, so they were curious—where did it come from?

From his feet.  it came from his feet.

Jesus could speak of God’s love and forgiveness with authority because he didn’t talk about it, he walked the walk.  He had the authority of his feet.

He doesn’t just describe God’s healing power—he healed the sick.

He doesn’t just describe God’s wish for peace—he reconciled people in conflict.

He doesn’t just describe God’s love—he included the outcast and he loved people where he found them. 

Whereever he went, whatever he did, he embodied the way he spoke about God.  His actions gave authority to his words.

So, as followers of Christ, where does our authority come from?  When we speak, do we rely on the power of roles, on do-it-because-I-say-so, on everyone-else-is-doing-it?  On authority of being the boss, being the parent, being the oldest?  Being the coolest, being the better liked?

Or does our authority stem from something deeper? Does it come from our feet?

Because as followers of Jesus, our authority should come all the way from our feet—it should come from how the words we say match our actions—how we live out what we preach.  How we daily walk in the path that Jesus trod before us.

Our authority should come all the way up from our feet, from the self-emptying, loving way of Jesus that we follow in the world. 

Because that’s the sort of authority that lasts—that counts—that hits the road and keeps walking.

About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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