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Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Authority of Not Needing Authority

“What is this? A new teaching – with authority?” Mark 1:21-28
IV Epiphany – February 1, 2009
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul - The Annual Meeting
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

There’s a story going round these days that has become a favorite of mine. It seems that a new rector was called to St. Swithens in the Swamp. At their first vestry meeting, the wardens and vestry asked the new rector to present his vision for the church.

The evening of the meeting came and the rector presented his vision for the church with eloquence and passion and clarity. The wardens and vestry listened intently and when he was done, the Sr. Warden stood up and asked for a motion to approve the rector’s vision statement. The motion was moved and seconded and failed by a vote of 12 – 0.

Just as the Sr. Warden asked for a motion to adjourn, a loud clap of thunder was heard. There followed high winds and crackling lightening, accompanied by driving rain and hail. Everyone dashed under the table for safety.

When the storm had stopped, and everyone got up from under the table, the rector brightened a bit and said, “Well, looks like God may have a different opinion.”

The Sr. Warden adjusted his glasses, looked around and said, “The vote to approve the rector’s vision stands at 12-1. Motion fails. Good evening.”

By what authority do we do these things? That was one of the first questions the scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus. They were asking him, “What gives you the right to say and do these things?” Which, to my hears, can sound somewhat like an angry four year old stamping her foot, hand on hip, and saying, “Nah-uh, you’re not the boss of me.” See also, the story of the new rector and the vestry.

Now, the scribes were the professional interpreters of the Law, different from either rabbis or priests. These were very pious men who loved the law. They were highly educated for the important task of the study of Torah because Jewish piety revered it as the precise expression of God’s will, governing the tiniest detail of their lives.

Perhaps you can now understand the great umbrage they took at his rabbi, who taught ‘as one who had authority’. Rabbi’s don’t have authority! Scribes do! Everybody in ancient Israel knew that! Clearly, this man was over stepping his bounds – and stepping on a few very important, highly educated, deeply pious, well-connected toes.

Issues over authority are in the very DNA of organized religion – every organized religion – Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu and yes, even Buddhist. As soon as someone – anyone, lay or ordained – comes up with a new idea, a new teaching, a new way to do something or think about something, it becomes an automatic threat to those who are highly invested in the status quo.

I’m sure you’ve seen that dynamic in action in your work place. Some of you present here this morning are in business for yourselves precisely because you had a new idea or saw things differently than ‘the boys upstairs’ and it became a perceived threat. So, they sat on your idea or found a way to sabotage it, or, you were ‘downsized’, laid off or flat out fired because of it.

The sound that threat makes often finds itself in the response, “We’ve never done it that way before.” In church growth circles, we call that “The Seven Last Words of a Dying Church.”

Well, as you will soon learn, we are a church that is far from death’s door. We will gather, right after this service, for our Annual Meeting, where you will hear that there’s lots of innovative, creative ministry happening here – lots of risk taking – lots of challenge to the status quo.

And, there’s lots more that needs to be done. We’ve got a whole lot more stretching and growing to do as a community, out of our individual zones of comfort.

Even as the economic climate continues to challenge our general purpose income and eat away at our endowments, it is devastating many of our own as well as our neighbors. Many of us are just a paycheck or two away from real financial hardship. We need to be much more creative in the way in which we respond to our neighbors in need.

It’s also important that we take a hard look at ourselves and evaluate our mutual ministry in this place. At yesterday’s Diocesan Convention, we approved a “Covenant for Increasing Capacity for Ministry” which has this stated goal:

“For all congregations in the Diocese of Newark to be vibrant, life-giving, faith communities that proclaim the Gospel and make it relevant in their unique environment.”

You know, every congregation I’ve ever been in – as lay member or priest – has always described itself as ‘warm and welcoming’. I’m not sure what that really means anymore because my experience in those churches has varied so highly.

Besides, I think those are the wrong words – or, at least, they are the absolute minimum requirement for any organization that professes to follow Jesus.

I very much like the words that are used in the goals of our Diocesan Covenant: “Vibrant.” “Life-giving.” “Relevant.” “Unique.”

How ever are we to measure that, you ask? Well, here are just a few of the measuring sticks:

• Each congregation will actively seek information about its mission field (the area in which it is located).

• Each congregation has big picture priorities that can be articulated by the person in the pew.

• Each congregation identifies its unique purpose based on its understanding of God’s will for it.

• The person in the pew can describe the unique characteristics of your congregation.

• Each congregation is able to illustrate effective shared ministry between its clergy and laity.

Those are just some of the marks of a “vibrant, life-giving, relevant, unique” congregation. Does our church meet these marks or do we fall short? What must we do to change that? Do you have a sense of the urgency of our mission? Can you describe the unique purpose or characteristics of our church, based on our understanding of God’s will for us? Do you actively seek information about our particular, unique mission field?

But wait, someone is saying. What is this? A new teaching? By what authority? What gives them the right to say these things? What gives YOU the right to ask us these things. Nah-uh, you’re not the boss of me! Besides (are you ready?), we’ve never done it that way before. In church growth circles this is known as “Building a better yesterday.”

While ‘authority’ may continue to be a major concern of institutional religion in general and The Episcopal Church in particular, Jesus seems not to concern himself with these things at all. He seems to be saying that it’s not what you THINK about God’s love so much as what you do about – and with – the love of God – in your life and in God’s world.

Yup. There he was. Bold as brass. Commanding unclean spirits to stop tormenting the man who came into the synagogue to be healed. Not waiting for a new teaching to be written about that before he acted. Not asking for anyone’s permission. He just did it. Why? Because it obviously needed to be done. And, because he could.

That’s all God ever asks of us – to do the best we can with what we’ve been given – for ourselves and for others – ‘for our families, friends and neighbors and those who live alone’ in the world our Eucharistic prayer calls, “this fragile earth, our island home.”

The irony is not lost on me that, ultimately, when we do these things, we do them in the name of Jesus, who had no authority at all. None whatsoever. Indeed, the religious leaders – the scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees of his day, summarily dismissed him as a no-account.

However, I am struck by the question asked by Elizabeth Alexander in her Inauguration Day poem: “What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.”

The truth of the matter is that, while we must tend to the business end of church with bylaws, contracts, motions, resolutions and financial statements, we do these things by the authority given to us by the Church, the Body of Christ.

More importantly, we do these things in the name of Love Incarnate, Love Divine. The love and ministry we share in the name of that Love, my friends, is the mightiest Word of all. Mighty enough to help us save ourselves so that we can, in turn, help others.

And, soul by soul, heart by heart, pew by pew, church by church, inch by inch, we will reclaim the world in the name of Jesus, who had absolutely no authority at all.



Anonymous said...

Right on, Elizabeth! Five stars for this one.

FranIAm said...

My theology grad school class is in church history this semester.

Just last week we were discussing the notion of authority. The on-going play of what Jesus might have meant and how it keeps getting reinterpreted.

This is brilliant and one of the sermons that I find here that will invite me back for a second, possibly a third reading!

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Agree ;=)

Paul (A.) said...

Diocesan Convention and Parish Annual Meeting in just one weekend? Bless, you, sister!

Fred Preuss said...

Great! Now I don't have to listen to anybody: priest, rabbi, pope, imam, archbishop, patriarch, guru, nun, friar, monk, pastor, preacher, evangelist....
The list of those with invisible friends I previously had to pretend to listen to with respect, so long as they had something I wanted/needed was long.
Free at last!
No gods, no masters!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Fred - Do I detect a note of sarcasm in your note? Just a guess.

Fred Preuss said...

Not at all. I'm completely serious.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Then, you completely missed the point of the sermon. Lighten up, Fred.

Fred Preuss said...

No, I got it.
Did you get it? You've lost over a fourth of your membership in the last 20 years.
Painting the Titanic's deckchairs all sorts of rainbow colors looks nice, but I'm not sure it will keep you afloat.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Fred, what the heck are you talking about?

Like many new clergy in the past 10 years, I have actually gone through my parochial record book and removed all those who were no longer active members. I do that actively, now - pruning and weeding and culling. It's the other side of 'evangelism'.

Some listed on the membership roles had been dead for 50 years. Others had retired some 10, 15 years prior in places like Florida, Vermont, etc. Some no one knew any more.

My congregation is a vibrant, life-giving community of faith. Our ASA has remained consistent, which is pretty stellar for an affluent suburban community in a section of the world which is 70% RC.

You know what, Fred? You are welcome to come and visit any time you like, but unless you've got something productive and life-giving to say, please refrain from leaving a comment.

You, poor dear, are drowning in your own bile. You may not vomit it here. I'll keep you in my prayers.