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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Divine Authority

Agnus Day
The lectionary readings for today - especially the Gospel - are all about authority and power and what's fair and what is justice.

According to Mark's Gospel (Matthew 21: 23-32), tax collectors and prostitutes are going into heaven before the chief priests and the elders of the people.

Not fair, right? Blasphemy, is what it is.

By what authority does Jesus say these things?

It's a trick question, of course.

The answer is equally tricky.

Jesus says that His is the same authority given to John the Baptist. It's not about the power of institutional authority.

It's about the power of the authority of God.

Which is tricky, isn't it?

I mean, anybody can claim they are on a "mission from God". Jake and Elwood - The Blues Brothers - did it. And, who's to say they weren't?

I mean, they were trying to save the orphanage where they grew up. Isn't that a righteous cause? Didn't that involve sacrifice on their part? Didn't they place themselves in danger - or, at least, go against the grain? What more evidence do you need that this was a mission from God?

The answer is that sometimes the answer isn't clear until long after the event has past - or, perhaps after person who claims they are on a mission from God has died.

The thing about institutional authority is that it is designed to prevent abuse of power.  It's not perfect, of course, but it does keep the number of zanies and crazies to a manageable level.

Except that many people who are, in fact, on a mission from God look very much like zanies and crazies. I mean, look at John the Baptist.  Or, for that matter, Jesus.

Look at those who stood up to the corrupt power of the institution and unjust laws. 

Oscar Romero.

Martin Luther King, Jr.


Mother Theresa.

Nelson Mandela.

Then again, people like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann claim to be fighting the good political fight to overthrow what they perceive as a corrupt presidential administration because they feel called by God to do so.

Or, more accurately, Jesus.

See what I mean?

Tricky, right?

That's because the whole business of faith is tricky.  Feeling "called" to do something can't be proven, but it can be perceived. Often, it makes no sense. It's irrational and illogical.

I felt "called" to priesthood. Still do. With faith in that belief, we sold our home and our car in order to afford to take our six children with us to seminary. We still went into debt which took us ten years to pay off.  My first 'call' - a full time position - paid $12,000 per year. I had to work a second part time position just to make ends meet.

Crazy? Probably. I didn't do it for the institutional authority. I did it because I felt called to serve God and the people of God through the church.  And, God help me, I love the work I'm called to do.

Which doesn't give me much authority in most parts of the world. Indeed, as a priest, I am often met with suspicion and skepticism by people who have been injured and betrayed by people with institutional power and authority.

Some even deny the authenticity of my ordination status because I'm a woman. Impossible, they say. Jesus never gave authority to women to be his disciples. Historically and traditionally, the church has never given authority to women.

Therefore, women have no authority, even if the institutional church says we do.

Are you following this?

No?  Good! Because, it makes no sense - absolutely no sense at all.

Unless, of course, you understand that the ways of God are not necessarily the ways of the institutional church. Oh, we try to follow the ways of God in the institutional church, but more often than not, we fall short of the mark. Way short. Way, way, way short.

Some people are doing the will and the work of God without belief in Jesus. Indeed, I know some folk who are not part of any organized religion - Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, etc. - who live far more righteous lives than I do or most people would even consider doing.

Are they going to heaven? Before those who have institutional authority?

Here's the thing for Christians: You don't need anyone's authorization to claim the authority to do the ministry of Jesus Christ.  All you need is your baptismal certificate. Paul says we are baptized into the "priesthood of all believers".

Jesus wasn't "ordained" a Rabbi. He was baptized.

People just called him Rabbi because that's what he was. 

So, if you feel God is calling you to a work of ministry, don't look to the church to give you the authority to do that work. You have been given it in baptism. Just like Jesus.

Is that fair? Probably not by the world's standards. But, Jesus says that in the economy of God, it's not about fairness. It's about God's justice - which sometimes doesn't look to the world like it's very fair.

Jesus tells the parable of the two sons who were asked by their father to go work in the vineyard. One said no but then changed his mind and went to work. The other said yes but didn't do the work. Jesus asks, "Which of the two did the work of his father?"

Some of us are doing the work of the institutional church, but not necessarily the work of God, even though we believe it is.  Others of us are doing what we believe is the work of God but it's not anything that is authorized by the institutional church.

Which of the two is more righteous?  Which one has the authority to do the work of God? Which one finds favor with God?

Who will get to heaven first, one of the two or the tax collectors and prostitutes?

Is that a fair question? Probably not.

Is it just?

What do you think?


Carol Jo Pettit said...

Thank you, Dr. Keaton, for another great sermon. Where DO you find the cartoons? They're perfect! Blessings on you and your work, through Christ, our Savior. carol jo

Hutch said...

All I know is that today was a terrible, awful, no good kind of day at church. Still trying to get over it. A call can lead you places that angels fear to tread. Glad you're here, Elizabeth - you sometimes help me find some perspective.

Kemlynb said...

This post really resonates with me.

Anonymous said...