Word of the Week

Authority that Speaks for Itself

Authority that Speaks for Itself

Matthew 21:23:32

Trust and politicians don't seem to go in the same sentence, do they? John Quiton once said, "Politicians are people who, when they see light at the end of the tunnel, go out and buy some more tunnel."

For even as we spent time this morning in our prayer, praying for peace and wisdom for our elected leaders, often it is our first reaction when we think of those in "authority" over us, is not to respect them. For as Doug Larson, once said, "Instead of giving politicians the keys to the city, it might be better to change the locks" we agree whole heartedly.

Just as one recent public survey poll reported, over 60% (and with the percentages on the rise all the time) don't trust governmental leaders to do what they say tey are going to do, we are a people (and for good reason of course) who have distasteful sentiments of those who claim "authority" in any area over us.  And such is also true of those in positions of religious leadership too.

It's no conscience that when I say, preacher, many of you have images come to mind of sex scandals--Tim Haggard the evangelical pastor who could never admit he was gay-- money laundering scandals, Jimmy Swaggered and his trail of tears, or even of crazy cult scandals--images of Jim Jones and the deadly kool-aid which are all engrained in our memory.  All this to say, we are a distrustful people, after all the evil that has been done in the name of "God told me to do this."

But, this is what I really want you to hear today: I think God wants us all of us to go home sell everything we have as quickly as possible and return to the church in 3 days and give all the money to me so that I can grow our church into a great empire . . .

(This is where you are supposed to say, "Yeah right. No way, Pastor and laugh me out of the sanctuary this morning)

But, even as what I just said was completely a joke, I think our issues with those claiming absolute authority over us, is as much about our shared experiences of watching the corruption of power manifest before our eyes as it is our own sense of feeling threatened by those who seem to suggest special knowledge over us. We are all Americans after all-- the land where everyone's voice and vote is supposed to be heard as much as anyone else. In this church, we are Baptists after all-- where we are firm believers in the priesthood of all-- that I have no more of a direct line to pray and hear from God as you do. Simply put, authority is not one of our favorite words.

When we begin to look at our Gospel reading for this morning, we encounter a group of the religious establishment who was both skeptical and threatened by the authority Jesus was seeming to stake his ministry on.  For in this religiously saturated culture, much like ours, the chief priests and the elders had not seen anything like the clarity of thought and boldness of action in this man who called himself Jesus.

The story goes that Jesus has just made the religious leaders of the day really mad. On this third and final visit to Jerusalem, Jesus not only stirs up the crowd by his triumphant entry, as palm branches were waved over the shouts of "Hosanna, hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" but Jesus did the unthinkable. He went into their more sacred of sacred places, the temple and placed judgment on a common practice-- the buying and selling of goods in the temple courts.

It wasn't just the act of turning over the tables in the temple courts that upset the religious leaders so much-- it was the fact that Jesus had the guts to do this with such unashamed authority. Jesus dared to touch ancient Judaism's sacred cow if you will, order of religious practice calling the temple, HIS Father's house.

And this is where the story before us in our text for today begins the narration.  Look with me at verse 23: "When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, 'By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?"

I guess, in a roundabout way, this was a nicest question they could ask Jesus in public and keep up appearances. I bet they really wanted to say something to Jesus like, "Who in the hell do you think you are coming in here and trying to make us look bad?"

But, alas, they question Jesus' authority to speak and act as he does for the sheer reason that they want to get into a debate with him and make him look bad.  They want to know the name of his teacher, basically because as one commentator writes, "If you can identify someone's teacher, then you can better grasp what they 're about. [Or,] more to the point, they are prepared to counter any and all claims to human authority
with their own authority."

But, Jesus, being the smart guy that he was does not find himself trapped in this series of questionings. No, Jesus directs the teachers of the law by asking his own counter question in verse 25: "Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?"

We get to listen in on the internal monologue of the religious leaders and learn that they didn't want to pick sides.

As we hear the thoughts of these folks, we learn that they were the definition of what we like to speak of in modern times as political correctness.

They knew they couldn't say that John the Baptist, the precursor to Jesus, had authority from heaven-- because it would bring into question why John's ministry wasn't supported by them. And, they also knew they couldn't say that John the Baptist's authority came from himself--- because they knew that there were many John fans in the gathered audience.

So, Jesus gets them to vocalize what was the TRUTH in their hearts: they didn't want to stake a claim on Jesus.

While you and I might find the details of this passage confusing-- I have to admit that I really admire the gutsiness of Jesus to speak truth to those in power and to bring out the reality of what was really going on in the hearts and minds of those gathered around him. Jesus was forcing the religious leaders to say, "This I believe" (though we realize that this is something that they will not do).

We all understand how difficult this is, right?

To begin a conversation with "This I believe" is often a top our fear list-- because if we say we know something for sure, even if we say it in
passing, it's something that others can hold us accountable to.

In particular, more than saying we believe gravity holds us to the earth or the sun will rise and set each day, it's even more frightening for some of us to begin a conversation with "I believe in Jesus, as God's Son" because we know if we do, we could seriously offend others. We might make a fool of ourselves. We might even find ourselves with great disappointment in our hands after Jesus doesn't act in our lives as we hope
he might.

On Wednesday Night, those of us gathered at the Amazing Grace book study, we ventured into this conversation topic of what it means to say that we believe in Jesus.

It is an easy temptation, we noted to not want to fully commit our lives to Jesus with the excuse of "I'm not perfect enough yet" or "I don't know
enough yet." We think because we can't say with our mouths "I believe in Jesus" and talk intelligently about it, then we aren't worthy enough to
be a Christian.

With the class, I relayed the story of one of my first pastoral visits I made during my tenure as pastor at Washington Plaza. Grandison Jones made an appointment to meet with me, wanting to get to know me better and talk about one of my latest sermons.

When I asked him to tell me about his church and religious background, he said I needed to know about all of the years he spent in church choirs, especially in the Episcopal church in his early years.

As he described this experience of how much he enjoyed singing and how moving choir music was for his soul, he told me there was a turning point for him that changed the direction of his spiritual life. He was singing one day, he said with the choir, and after the sermon, there came a point, as it was done every Sunday when the congregation said together the Apostle's Creed.

Saying this creed or a statement of faith that generations of Christians had claimed as a summary statement of belief, was something that Grandison noted that he had recited every week previously, but this particular week he thought to himself, "Grandison Jones, you don't believe a word of that you are saying, so why don't you stop just going through the motions of repeating it."

I think this was one of the first stories that Grandison related to me-- may he rest in peace now-- because he wanted to shock me a little and see how I reacted to him, to see if he would still be welcome in the church even with all of his questions.

But if you had the privilege of knowing Grandison, you know that a man who was here with a smile on his face, beating even Ernie and Dave to church on many Sundays (which is hard to do, you know), was a person who wasn't far from faith.  He built by hand the pulpit on which I preach
from this morning and lived out many acts of service that were rarely seen and not done for the purpose of showing off or somehow getting ahead in any way among the ranks of church leadership. But yet even up until the days of his death, it was hard for him to say with his words, "I believe in Jesus." In fact, I don't ever remembering hearing him saying this at all.

Yet, in this struggle to understand what it means to stake a claim of belief on Jesus-- asking ourselves do we have to make faith statements or do we have to show faith in our actions-- Jesus informs our thinking here with a parable.

"A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, 'Son go and work in the
vineyard today.' He answered, 'I will not'; but later he changed his mind and
went. The father went to the second [son] and the said the same; and he
answered, 'I go, sir.'; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his
father?  They said, 'the first."

In this story, we find an appreciation by Jesus of the struggle of belief-- while the first son says in the beginning, "No I won't go" in the end this
is the son who changes his mind and does as his father asks while the second son speaks loudly at first-- sure I'll go but whose actions don't follow

From this parable I gather that authority, according to Jesus rests in actions. Why did he want people to follow him? And for his future disciples, how would he want them to make known his authority?

This is not to say that Jesus didn't care about words and the confessions they can make, but words, he knew would never be the whole story. For Jesus, his a mission that was never about proving himself through particular words or wielding political power or even being able to pass a test which said he had the proper knowledge of the Torah.  It was always about simply being who he was, for the authority on which his life's
work rested would simply speak for itself.

So, today, I ask you not what do you believe, but who are you? Whose are you? On what authority are you resting your life?  What do our actions show about the fruits of the spirit-- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and so on appearing the world ? What do our actions show about what we really believe in our hearts, even if can't yet say the words aloud? Didn't St. Francis of Assisi once say, "Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words?"

I am not saying that words of faith aren't important. I'm not saying that professing "Jesus as Lord" is not something that we should learn to
say together. I'm not saying that we should throw out altogether the historic words of the Creeds (as we said together earlier in the service), that our forefathers and mothers in the faith have shared together.

But, what I am saying today is let us shy away from Jesus because we can't say yet what we think are all the "right words."  Let us affirm together the journey that each of us are now. Let us commit together anew to allow the life and work of Jesus to soak into your daily life with no checklist of what this journey looks through the ups and down and twists and turns. Knowing that as we stay on the journey, it becomes just a little easier
every step, every day, every week, every year to follow Jesus both in actions and words.

So, let us join our voices and sing, I have decided to follow Jesus-- such is something I could imagine that Grandison, even Grandison would cheer us on in singing this day-- as he's conversing with Jesus as we speak, asking him now all his questions.

Let us keep following this day.