Election Sermon #3: Authority
Delivered by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson, priest-in-charge
Church of the Intercession, NYC
September 27, 2020
Text: Matt. 21:23-32
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, our Gospel raises questions about the nature of authority that are at the heart of many of our current struggles. The reading begins with two questions that the chief priests and the elders pose to Jesus as he is teaching in the temple: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
These may sound like the same question asked twice, but they are really two separate questions. The first – “by what authority are you doing these things” – challenges Jesus’ credentials. They dare him prove that he is qualified as a teacher. Who were your professors? Let’s see your college transcript, your diploma. Remember, Jesus was not in the scholarly circles of Jerusalem, so no one had any knowledge of him undergoing the traditional training of a rabbi, a teacher, although he was acting as one. Despite – or perhaps because – he is teaching brilliantly, the recognized religious authorities in the community are vetting Jesus to make sure they can control or even stop his teaching by pulling bureaucratic rank on him to stop him, and shut him up. This is clearly meant as a threat.
The second question is even more dangerous for Jesus: “Who gave you this authority?” In other words: Who let you in here? We know we didn’t. It’s as though Albert Einstein, a Princeton professor, sat down in a lecture hall at Yale without permission and began teaching. Yes, he may have been teaching brilliantly, but he had no business being there without permission from someone higher up. Security could have been called upon to remove him for trespassing.
We’ll come back to Jesus’ answer to those questions in a moment, but since our pre-election sermons are meant to apply the Bible to our current national climate, let’s talk about our time. These questions – what qualifies you as an authority, and who gave you permission to be an authority – are the fuel oil and fertilizer for much that is detonating right now in our country. The very existence of authority is being challenged in myriad ways, whether the authority under attack are truly assailable or not.
Some among us have come to believe that the authority of anything or anyone is contingent upon our acceptance of it, but this is very often not the case. If we view someone in authority as having the power of truth behind them, then those of us that follow their authority are acknowledging the truth behind that authority, the power behind the throne, so to speak.
But there are many, many powers in our world that are true – that are going to have authority over us – whether we choose to acknowledge them or not. Think, for example, of physical laws, which operate independently of our acknowledgment. You can deny the existence of gravity all you want, but if you walk off the edge of a cliff, gravity is going to operate anyway.
Yet, as theologian R. R. Reno says, “Our postmodern era views authority (of any kind – my addition) as something to be grimly endured – or simply overthrown.” So we are right now suffering from the effects of millions of people – some in the highest positions of power – who will not acknowledge the seriousness of COVID-19 or the authority of science when it comes to dealing with it. Similar to gravity, the virus will not care whether we acknowledge its power; denying it simply makes us more vulnerable to it, sicker when we contract it, and costs countless lives.
A similar case is climate change – we can deny it all day long, but storms will get stronger anyway, sea level will climb regardless, wildfires will be more ferocious, and droughts and famines more frequent and deadly. Climate deniers, like virus deniers make us more vulnerable to its effects, which will cause increasing damage to our planet and to human life, not only now but for generations to come.
Now, we may not think that moral or spiritual laws have the same kind of independent authority that physical laws do, but we would be mistaken. For example, God’s existence does not depend on our belief, and God’s power does not rely upon our acknowledgment. The moral laws that flow from God’s power – like the Ten Commandments – operate with the same force and constancy that physical laws do. It’s often been said that no one breaks the Ten Commandments, but that many have been broken on them. Simply because the consequences may not be immediately evident the way that the results of walking off a cliff are does not mean that these laws are not inexorable – they are. But the varying time span between the breaking of a commandment and the resulting damage can lead us into a false sense of security, the belief that we actually have a choice to acknowledge the authority of moral law or not. We don’t.
So far, we’ve seen that some kinds of authority are not dependent on our recognition, but when it comes to human political authority – authority given to lead – that is a completely different kind of authority, and this type is very fragile and totally dependent on our acknowledgement. Indeed, our entire democracy is built on that foundation only – if we stop believing in the idea of democracy, or in the fairness of our elections, or in the legitimacy of the courts, or in the powers vested in various government offices, then, unlike the authority of God or physics, democracy will in fact crumble and vanish.
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote about the Supreme Court a number of years ago in his book “Making Democracy Work”; in it is considers the question of
the public’s willingness to accept the Court’s decisions as legitimate. When the Court interprets the law, will the other branches of government follow those interpretations? Will the public do so? Will they implement even those Court decisions that they believe are wrong and that are highly unpopular? Many of us take for granted that the answer to these questions is yes, but (he points out) this was not always the case (throughout American history).
And we might add, it might not be the case again, right now. The same could absolutely be said about the legitimacy of nearly every aspect of what we think of collectively as the United States of America, all of which is being questioned right now, some of it rightfully so – like the way we practice law enforcement or implement environmental policies. Now, questioning authority is necessary to improve the lives of our people, particularly the most oppressed and marginalized among us, and to heal the injustices that have plagued us from our founding. But now the need to be under any authority at all is under attack, and that is a serious matter.
What does the Bible say? On the surface, it offers us guidance on authority that seems contradictory. Both the prophet Saul and God himself are upset when Israel begs for a human king to be set in authority over them, so that they can “be like other nations” (in their words); God had envisioned leading Israel himself, and appears here to take a dim view of human authority. And Jesus himself is frequently quoted denigrating various authorities, particularly the Jewish ones (although I’m certain that he denigrated the Roman ones as well, but those quotes didn’t make it into the Bible likely because of the extreme danger to his disciples of including them). These quotes from Jesus excoriate the Pharisees for “lording” their power over the people they were charged to lead, often hypocritically, and always with the aim of preserving their own positions of power.
Yet Jesus also speaks positively of authority, both civil and divine. He pays taxes, recognizing Rome’s civil authority, saying, “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, unto God what is God’s.” And he marvels at the faith of the Roman Centurion who humbly tells Jesus to not bother to visit him but to “only say the word” and his servant would be healed, because he understood Jesus’ great authority was so powerful that it would be obeyed even a distance.
What is nowhere to be found in the Bible is support for the abolition of authority entirely, the result of which would be anarchy. Here is where we can dangerously miscalculate the relationship between freedom and authority – we tend to believe that that more we throw off authority, the freer we are, although the opposite is true. In his book, “Up with Authority,” the Episcopal priest Victor Austin makes an eloquent and indisputable case for the need for authority, particularly as freedom increases. It is never the fact of authority that oppresses us, it is the wrong kind of authority that keeps us from attaining true freedom. The right kind of authority is just yet firm, setting limits to prevent harm to ourselves or others. Just as a brilliant conductor leads an orchestra and choir, the right authority creates a harmony in which each of us is encouraged to sing or play our unique role in the cosmic symphony, as we partner together with God to create a world that comes closer and closer to God’s kingdom.
So now let’s return to today’s gospel. Jesus does not answer the priests and the elders directly, because that would give them grounds to engage him in a specious argument, as though they had the right to question his authority. Just as it is hard to prove the existence of gravity without experience of gravity, Jesus doesn’t try to prove his divine nature because his questioners do not have the experience of God necessary to understand who he is. Instead, he trips them up with a question about John the Baptist, which knocks down their sense of superiority over him. Although they do not appreciate it, Jesus is actually doing them a favor if they wanted to accept it: he is giving them the opportunity to see him and authority in a new way, to have a different vision of power in their world, God’s power rather than their own. The question Jesus poses to them is: Will you rely on your own authority, or that of God?
We all need a vision to follow, a goal to work towards, and a leader, an authority, to shepherd us there. The Book of Proverbs says, “without a vision, the people perish,” but the wrong vision, delusional authority, corrupt leadership can cause the people to perish, too. Jesus wants us to follow his authority rather than that of the world; he tells us that if we are tired of the unjust, selfish, death-dealing authorities in our society, we have a choice: “come to me, all you that are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest for your souls. For my yoke (that’s Jesus’ authority) is easy, and my burden (that’s Jesus’ burden) is light.”
This election season, whose yoke, whose authority are we going to choose? Will we continue to acknowledge as legitimate authorities the institutions of our government, even while vowing to change them for the better? Will we respect and accept the authority of immutable physical laws, or deny them to our peril? Will we accept the constraints of authority, the yokes that come with faith and freedom, or will we further divide our country and diminish our power as we sink further into the tyranny of our own ideas and desires? The choice is ours. Church, we must choose our authorities carefully; the future of God’s kingdom – and our country – depends on our choices.