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Monday, September 29, 2008

" . . .and who gave you this authority?"

Matthew 21:23-32
XX Pentecost – September 28, 2008
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

Well, here we are again, watching Jesus pushing the buttons of “the chief priests and the elders of the people.” Last week it was about fairness. This morning, we hear him pushing The Very Big Button in organized religion:


Authority, in fact, is one of the animating dynamics of The Anglican Church that, in turn, animates The Episcopal Church in our own unique way. Authority is one of the clear strands in our religious DNA.

The Reformation may have been ignited over the issue of the divorce of King Henry VIII but to say it was the reason for the Church of England to come into being is like diagnosing a symptom as the disease – it’s tantamount to saying that a person has a “cough” when the cough may mean anything from a common cold to pneumonia to lung cancer.

The Anglican Church, or the Church of England, broke away from Rome because of the corruption at the time of that religious body. It was part of a deeply held belief sweeping the European Continent and Briton that the authority of Rome had been corrupted by a centralized, corporate power which no longer served, much less cared for, the needs of the people; rather, the religious institution of the Roman Church served and cared for itself, primarily – its own needs, its own wealth, its own future.

The Reformers in England were especially keen not to have a “foreign curia” and to have the words of prayer in the “common language” of the people – not the “universal” language of Latin which was accessible only to those wealthy enough to be educated. This is why, if you haven't already guessed, that we have a Book of Common Prayer.

Religion has often been used as a social wedge – a powerful tool of authority, used to separate out the riff-raff from those “truly worthy of God.”

The impulse against a “foreign curia” was strong enough to be carried to “the Americas” – the “new England.” It should come as no surprise then, that during the Revolutionary War – which I was shocked to discover this summer is still referred to in England as The War of American Independence and is taught to school children that it had to do with British domestic politics rather than the legitimate grievances of the oppressed – those who were the architects of the Constitution of the United States were writing the Constitution by day at Constitution Hall in Philadelphia and the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church by night at Christ Church down the street.

The system of authority in The Episcopal Church closely parallels the system of authority in our government. All resolutions and all changes in canon (church) law must receive a majority of votes in both houses – not exactly the House of Representatives and Senate but very similar: the House of Deputies (made up of laity and clergy and is the ‘senior house’ and the House of Bishops.

We have no royalty here as they do in England but rather, a President of the United States. In Rome, there is a Pope. In England, there is an Archbishop of Canterbury. In the States we have a “Presiding Bishop.” Both the ABC and the PB are considered “first among equals.” Very democratic. Very unlike Rome.

And while the Archbishop of Canterbury is clearly our spiritual leader, unlike Rome, he has absolutely no power or authority over any of the other bishops, Archbishops or Primates in any part of the Anglican Communion. His real currency is moral leadership and spiritual persuasion.

Now, that doesn’t mean that the Presiding Bishop doesn’t have any ‘legal’ authority. She does. So does the Archbishop of Canterbury. But the lines of authority are clear and contained.

We operate more on the authority derived from relationships – sometimes called “councilliar” or that which comes from councils made up of representatives of the various diverse groups of people that make up the whole.

It’s a state of being that drives some people right round the bend. It’s messy and, at times, can be highly ineffective.

Someone once asked Desmond Tutu to describe the essence of the Spirit of Anglicanism. He said, “We meet.”

We want to be in communion with one another, in conversation with one another, and in relationship with one another on all kinds of levels, both local and international.

We like to say that we are held together by “bonds of affection.” It's about that "new heart and new spirit" that Ezekiel talks about.

In terms of authority, however, well, that has to come from within and not so much without if we are to be in relationship with each other in the name of Christ. It’s a very difficult balance to achieve and requires a great deal of spiritual maturity to attain and maintain.

That’s really the point Jesus was trying to make to the chief priests and elders when he asked about John’s baptism – did it come from heaven or was it from human origin? And, the religious authorities, who hid behind the authority of their offices and did not speak from their own authority, were afraid to respond.

Have you notices? Cowardice often hides behind the robes and uniform of religious or public office.

That’s precisely what happens with authority which is imposed from without rather than coming from a place of authenticity from within. It either shrivels and quakes in the face of authentic authority or is decidedly jealous of it and seeks to squash or kill it.

St. Paul really zeroes in on the matter in his letter to the early church in Philippi. “Be of the same mind,” as the mind of Christ, he writes to a community. He was confronting the Philippians about two factions that had centered around two prominent women and how it needed to cease.

Some of the Philippians thought of themselves as “super Christians” with a superior spirituality which gave them greater authority (Hmmmm . . . where have we seen this dynamic repeat itself?).

To end the dilemma, Paul calls on his own spiritual authority and directs them in this way: Have in you the mind of Christ – and live like it!

He writes: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourself.” In other words, he didn’t lay down new rules about how to behave which favored one over the other. Instead, he admonishes the community to treat others as Christ has treated you. Here again, it's Ezekiel's new heart and a new spirit that God wants.

Christ is the model of our authority. We are to follow Him – His Way, His Truth, His Life. God knows our humanity because God was humbled to come to us in human form in Christ Jesus.

In the parable of the two sons, Jesus tells us that God understands our impulse to ignore or disobey authority – what’s important to God is not so much our disobedience as that which is in our hearts that causes us to think twice, change our minds and do the right thing.

And, here’s the important part: we are to do these things of our own volition.

You see, it's not about writing 10 Rules on the wall and having you follow them to the letter. Rather, it's about being faithful to what God has written on the inside of your heart.

I love the story told about an encounter Mark Hatfield, Senator from Oregon had with Mother Theresa. He asked, “Don’t you ever tire, grow discouraged, when you look around and see this abject poverty and be able to change so little of it?”

“Oh, no,” she said, “for you see, the Lord hasn’t called me to be successful, only faithful.” Her model for life was Christ.

That’s the point Jesus was trying to make to the chief priests and elders of his community about authority. We are not called to be successful, only faithful to the model set for us by Jesus.

The rule used to judge your life when you stand before God, isn’t “The one with the most toys, wins.” God will only ask us if we were faithful to what we understood Jesus was teaching us.

By what authority do you do what you do? Believe what you believe? Pray what you pray? Are you faithful to what you know of the teachings of Jesus? Then, you have all the authority you need to be a Christian in community – because it means that you respect His authority in your life enough to recognize and respect it in the lives of others as well as yourself.

And that, my friends, is the Very Big Button of our spiritual lives – Authority. Not mine. Not yours. But that of God as revealed in Christ Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

By what authority to I have to say these things? Only the authority I claim by the trust you invest in me and our relationship together in Christ.



Anonymous said...

I thought this sermon was in a word excellent. I'd like to use in at Here I Am Lord which is a collection site for exegetical and reflections, essays and biographies. I will reprint in full with a link back to your main site. If this is okay, please let me know via comment on either blog or by email at troyspeyton @

The blogs are at:

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Wow. Thank you. I'm deeply flattered and would be honored to have this sermon on and linked to your site.