Unity

In November of 1905, the Rev. William Reed Huntington, Rector of Grace Church, New York and umpteen time General Convention Deputy, known affectionately as the First Presbyter of the Episcopal Church, preached a sermon on church unity at the Inter-Church Conference on Federation.  In that sermon, he lamented the fractured state of Christianity in the United States.  He laid before the audience three motivations for unity in the Church: intellectual, moral, and economic.  Intellectually, he feared that among Protestants, the question of authority that had been settled, at least to his mind, at the Reformation were being ripped open again.  The infallible title that had been removed from the Papacy in the 16th century had, over time, been placed upon the Bible, which Huntington thought, and I agree, was the source of entirely too much division.  Morally, Huntington wondered what damage the rifts among denominations would inflict upon American society.  If we are too busy arguing and being ugly toward one another, how can we have any positive influence upon the world in which we live?  Finally and reluctantly, WRH asks what kind of stewardship it is to have so much redundancy in faith communities.  Here, we find the money quote (pardon the pun) for this sermon, “The multiplication of half-filled meeting-houses and half-famished ministers in little country towns, is a sight to make the angels weep…”

More than 100 years later, not much has changed.  In fact, the rate at which disunion is expanding seems only to ever increase.  Now-a-days there are 84,000 ways to order a cup of coffee at Starbucks, and just under half as many, 33,000, denominations in the United States.  We are, it would seem, hopelessly divided, doomed to a future of angels weeping over dilapidated churches, opening their doors to four faithful souls, only on Christmas and Easter.  How is it, that we have fallen so far away from the prayer that Jesus prayed over his disciples on the night before he died, “that they may all be one”?

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Having studied the late Reverend Huntington quite extensively, I think his assessment of the situation is quote accurate, even a century later.  The question of authority and where it rests is a wound that is constantly being ripped open again and again, and it is such a fools errand to study.  Whether we place authority in the Church, the Pope, or the Bible, we have missed the point entirely.  For all authority comes from only one source, not made by human hands or intellect, but begotten of the Father, Jesus the Christ.

The question of authority will not be answered by “certain elaborate philosophies of religion, systems of theology, bodies of divinity,… or in the observance of complicated forms of worship, intricate liturgical arrangements, heavily brocaded rituals; but one through Him whom John the Baptist pointed as the Lamb of God, whom Simon Peter owned to be the Christ, whom fifty generations of believers have called Blessed.”

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, as Jesus seemingly prepares to ascend to the right hand of the Father, he says to the group gathered on the mountain in Galilee, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  God therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  Jesus delegated some authority to the disciples because he wouldn’t be present in bodily form any more, but with the promise that he would be with them, and us, always, we can be certain that authority will forever rest upon his shoulders.  If, somehow, we could all agree on that, perhaps the kind of unity that Jesus prayed for would be possible.

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Amazed by Authority

I’ve written a couple of times on the topic of authority, but it seems to be a popular one in the Gospels.  Sunday’s lesson is bookended by it.  In the Synagogue, the crowds were first astounded by Jesus’ teaching, for he taught as one with authority.  Then, after he heals the man with the evil spirit, they are amazed (a different Greek word, btw), again because of the authority with which Jesus both taught and acted.  This shouldn’t surprise us.  I don’t mean we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus had such authority, though if we believe him to be the Son of God, we shouldn’t be.  What shouldn’t surprise us in this story is the reaction of the crowd.

True authority is so rare in this world.  It is true today.  One need only to look at Washington, DC or Frankfort, KY to see that many who claim to be leaders lack any real authority.  It was, it seems, equally true in Palestine in the first century.  It is also true that people are hungry for leaders who have true authority.

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My favorite definition of authority comes from the Rev. Dr. Craig Koester, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Luther Seminary.  In a commentary on the “all authority” passage in Matthew 28, Koester defines authority as “followability.”  Many people follow many leaders because they have to.  Plenty of governments, businesses, and even churches operate this way.  Someone is in a position of authority because of a job title, and others follow because they say so.  In the case of the authority of Jesus, it seems clear that people followed him not because they had to, but because they wanted to.  People were drawn to Jesus not because he was born in the right place or studied at the right school or was the son of the High Priest, but because God had poured out on him the gifts that are necessary to bring people along.

One of the things we don’t like to talk about in the church very much is this type of real authority.  In the name of the cult of nice, we don’t put much stock in followability when it comes to raising up leaders, both lay and ordained.  I can’t help but wonder if we do this to our own detriment.  The Gospel writers were not afraid to name the authority of Jesus.  Jesus, as he commissioned his disciples to be apostles, was not afraid to name their authority.  As the Church seeks leaders, we ought not be afraid to seek those who have that natural followability, the true authority that comes with giftedness rather than position and education.

By what authority?

For me, the problem with only preaching once in a a eight week span is that I’ve somehow missed the giant leaps the lectionary has done within the Gospel of Matthew.  Even if reality doesn’t bear this out, it feels like we all of a sudden find ourselves in Holy Week.  In actuality, we have jumped only a few chapters at a time over the course of the past few months, but this week, we find ourselves deep in the conflicts of Holy Week.

Chapter 21 begins with Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.  Known these days as Palm Sunday, this marks the beginning of Jesus’ final week.  Riding on a donkey, Jesus entered Jerusalem from the east on the same day that Pilate, the Roman Governor of Israel, would have arrived from the west on his war horse.  On the east side of town, the crowd cheered “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”  On the west side of town, a much larger crowd proclaimed Caesar as the son of god.  Upon his arrival, Jesus made his way to the Temple where with a whip of cords and disgust in his eyes, he flipped the tables of the money changers and equated the whole enterprise with Isaiah’s “den of robbers.”

The next day, which would have been a Monday, Jesus again entered Jerusalem through the east gate and returned to the scene of yesterday’s unpleasantness.  It is here that our Gospel lesson begins with the chief priests and elders asking a perfectly legitimate question, “By what authority are you doing all this?”  In common parlance, we might imagine them saying, “Who do you think you are?”  I’ve written on the topic of authority in Matthew before.  Then, it dealt with Jesus’ claim to have been given “all authority” following his resurrection.  I think the topic deserves attention here, before the crucifixion, as well.

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My current working definition of authority comes from the Rev. Dr. Craig Koester, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Luther Seminary.  In a commentary on Matthew 28, Koester defines authority as “followability,” which I find helpful in this context as well.  After all that had happened on Sunday, Jesus returns to Jerusalem and finds himself, once again and still, surrounded by a crowd of followers.  The leaders are indignant.  How could this rabble-rouser still have followability?  Who gave him such authority?  One suspects that they already know the answer, though deep down, they pray it isn’t true that God’s judgment had really come upon the Temple system.

We who follow Jesus recognize his authority simply by following.  By subscribing to his teaching of the Kingdom of Heaven and how it has been inaugurated, implicitly we agree to the reality Jesus names after his resurrection.  Namely, his authority, the reason we follow him, comes from the God who created everything that is.  In so doing, we place ourselves under that authority while also having some of it ceded to us.  Since we are not in the midst of Holy Week, and will not be under the scrutiny of those of would do us harm, by virtue of our baptisms, we are all able to answer the question, “by what authority” with confidence – “we follow Jesus.”

All Authority

A little over a year ago, I had the chance to give the Theme Presentation at the Gathering of Leaders held in Fairhope, Alabama.  The topic for the 2016 iteration of the GoL Gatherings was “By Whose Authority?  Faithfully Exercising Authority in the Missionary Church.”  The Theme Presentation, as you might guess, is meant to give the topic for our time together some context.  At the time, I was still the Associate in Foley.  As such, my canonical authority was the equivalent of a thumbtack, and yet, there was something very intriguing about this basic premise of authority that we hear about in Sunday’s Gospel for Trinity Sunday.

As I did some digging on the topic of authority, I found the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms to be significantly lacking in the theology department; defining authority as “the power or right to command belief, action, and obedience.”  Merriam-Webster couldn’t have done a more secular job.  I kept searching and found a commentary for Trinity Sunday by Craig Koester on the WorkingPreacher website.  There, as Koester wrestles with this interesting story of worship, doubt, commission, and promise, he pulls out a definition of authority that an old college professor once gave him.  It might sound just as secular as the WDTT attempt to you, but it spoke to me on a much deeper level.

“Authority is followability.”

Something made the disciples leave their fear in Jerusalem to find the risen Jesus on a mountain in the Galilean countryside.  That same something would be required for them to leave their Savior’s side to go and make new disciples.  It wouldn’t be up to them to concoct it, but rather, their ability to go rests entirely on the ultimate authority, the innate  followability of Jesus.

It isn’t a particularly Trinitarian lesson for Trinity Sunday.  I suppose the RCL would have us highlight the Triune name of God to be used in baptism, but what’s of interest to me this morning, as I stretch my blogging legs after a week’s vacation (let’s be honest, I’ve been pretty lax of late), is this idea of the authority of Jesus as his followability.  We who follow Jesus have the opportunity to share that authority with those around us.  We have the chance to share about our worship and our doubt, about our highs and our lows, about all the reasons we continue to follow Jesus in a world that says the story of God’s love is nonsense.  And maybe that’s the tie-in to Trinity Sunday.  On a day set aside to consider the basically extrabiblical doctrine of the Trinity, we are reminded that the authority of the Church comes from the authority given the disciples, which comes from the total authority given to Jesus, which is a result of his being a part of the Triune God.  We follow the teaching of the Church when the Church is following Jesus, the recipient and source of all authority.

The Authority of Jesus – a homily

There are certain questions that are answered simply in their asking.  If you have to ask how much it costs to operate an airplane per hour, the answer is: you shouldn’t buy one.  If you have to ask whether a tithe should come before or after taxes, the answer is: you haven’t come to grasp the power of sacrificial giving in your spiritual life.  If you have to ask Jesus where his authority comes from, the answer is: you just don’t get what Jesus came to do.  It is in this last category that we find the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders on Tuesday in Holy Week.

They are probably still sweeping up turtle dove feathers and finding coins in the cobblestone cracks when Jesus returned to the scene of yesterday’s dust up.  It had been maybe twelve hours since Jesus turned the tables in the Temple, running the money changers out of the Temple Court with a homemade whip.  There is no doubt that the whole town was still talking about what Jesus said to the Temple leaders, how he accused them of making the Temple “a den of robbers.”  They were humiliated by Jesus yesterday, and he had the gall to show up again this morning?  This sort of bold-faced threat to their authority could not be left unchallenged, and so a representative group of the Sanhedrin, the 71 member Jewish Council, was dispatched to question Jesus in what would prove to be the opening salvo in his sham of a trial.

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“What gives you the right to do what you did yesterday?  Who gave you such authority?”  By asking Jesus this question, the group shows that they very much do not care about his answer: either way, they’ve got him.  If he answers truthfully and says that his authority comes from the Lord God, then they can arrest him on the charge of blasphemy.  God would never give someone the authority to cause such an uproar in his holy Temple.  God wouldn’t hang out with sinners and tax collectors, like Jesus did.  God was cleaner than that, purer than that, holier than that.  Better than claiming his authority came from God would be if Jesus chose to demur.  He’d have no choice but to admit that his authority came only from within himself.  That sort of arrogance coupled with the unsettling things that Jesus had done and the ragtag group of followers he had amassed could easily be converted into an arrest on the charge of insurrection.  No matter what answer Jesus gave, the chief priests, scribes, and elders knew that they had him dead to rights, but then again, so Jesus knew that too. The answer they sought was already found in the question they had asked.

But, it was only Tuesday.  The Passover Festival was still a few days away.  Herod was only now settling into his palace, while nearby Pilate was preparing himself for his least favorite week of the year.  It wasn’t yet time for Jesus.  The preparations weren’t complete.  The final meal hadn’t been shared.  Knowing that whatever answer he gave wouldn’t really matter, Jesus turned the question on its head, insisting that these Temple authorities exercise some actual authority by answering an unanswerable authority question of their own.  “Was the Baptism of John human or divine?”

you just heard the story, so you know that, in the end, the Temple authorities choose to exercise no authority what so ever.  They declined to answer Jesus’ question.  Not only that, but even once they realized that Jesus had embarrassed them by way of a particularly damning parable, they refused to arrest him, for fear of the crowd.  In a scene that was supposed to be all about challenging Jesus’ authority, it is the Temple leaders who end up looking like fools.  They showed their ignorance by simply asking the question, but Jesus gives them the opportunity to repent – to fall in line under the authority of God – but instead they chose the safety of their highly respected careers.

This Tuesday in Holy Week, we each have the same opportunity to recognize the authority of God, to acquiesce to the authority given to his Son, and to invite the Holy Spirit to have authority over our lives.  This choice won’t come through the asking of difficult questions.  It doesn’t require mental acrobatics to rationalize it all.  Leave systematic theology to the ivory towers of academia and instead, ask God to be the author of your life.  The life of faith is about entering a relationship of trust, the sort of relationship that the Temple authorities couldn’t muster: following Jesus all the way through the cross and inheriting everlasting life by yielding to the authority of God.  Amen.

Jesus’ Authority – Tuesday in Holy Week

“By what authority are you doing these things?”  That’s the question isn’t it?  The one question upon which hinges the Christian faith and the Church which professes it.  By what authority?  There are those who with a sneer will say, “by his own authority,” and chalk Christianity up to the selfish desires of a man from Nazareth.  Others will laugh at the possibility of the resurrection and say, “by the authority of his followers.”  For those of us in the Church, who confess Jesus Christ as Lord, the answer is quite simple, by the authority of the LORD, God Almighty.

The struggle between Jesus and the Temple all comes down to authority.  They each claimed the authority of God.  One group, the Temple, claimed that through adherence to the laws, handed by God to Moses, and perfected by the tradition, a good Jew could be saved.  Jesus, on the other hand, claimed that through adherence to the law of love, all of creation could be saved.  The Temple sees these two ways as mutually exclusive, and the only way to exert their authority is to rid themselves of the rival party.

Ironically, in order to exert their authority, the Temple must first abdicate it by reaching out to the true authority, Rome, for the punishment they desire.  Jesus shows the authority of love through the ultimate sacrifice; dying for us while we were still sinners.  Come Friday, it’ll look like Jesus had no real authority at all, but come Sunday, the truth will ring out.  Jesus Christ is Lord!

Are you ready for Jesus – a sermon

Today’s sermon is now on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

If statistical research and everyday conversations are any indicator of real life, then the most important thing I do in my work is preparing, writing, and delivering a sermon.  Hours of study, prayer, and writing go into each fourteen hundred word text.  This summer, I took a class on preaching that was co-taught by Duke Divinity professor and Episcopal Priest, Lauren Winner, who noted that preaching presents a unique opportunity in modern life.  With TVs and iPhones and cars that have Internet access, the average American will rarely, if ever, choose to sit and listen to another human being talk for 15 minutes, except for Sunday morning.  Dr. Winner was adamant that “There is no excuse for not taking seriously the extreme privilege that preaching is.”  I get that, which is why I work so hard to craft the sermons I preach.  I also know that a 2007 study from LifeWay Research says that 87% of church-shoppers say preaching is the most important factor in their deciding where to worship.  Again and again, studies by Episcopal seminaries say that the number one thing people want their priest to be able to do it preach a decent sermon.  I really don’t think human beings have changed much over the last two or three thousand years.  I think preaching has always been an important part of the religious life of the faithful.

It was certainly important for Mark and his Church.  This morning we hear Mark’s story of Jesus’ first public act, and what do you know, he preached a sermon.  Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus said to the congregation gathered at the First Synagogue of  Capernaum, but we know their reaction: “they were amazed at his teaching for he taught as one having authority.”  I imagine the people in the crowd that morning weren’t that unlike you and me.[1]  They’d come to Synagogue for all sorts of reasons.  Some where there hoping to find healing from a deep hurt.  Some were there hoping to see and be seen.  Some where there because their grandmother had made sure they went to Synagogue on Saturday and their grandfather had built the place with his bare hands.  They’d come to the Synagogue in all sorts of conditions.  Some where there hoping to hear the voice of God.  Some where there hoping to shake off the cobwebs of a late Friday night with friends, hoping for forgiveness for another week.  Some were hopping mad at their children for putting up such a fuss about getting dressed.

No matter the reason, no matter the mood, the congregation in Capernaum headed off to Saturday morning services expecting what most of us expect on a Sunday morning, routine.  Whether you’re a Baptist, a Jew, a Roman Catholic, a non-denominational type, a Muslim, or an Episcopalian, everyone heads to their weekly worship service expecting it to look like it did last week.  The folks in Capernaum, like most of us this morning, came ready for a fairly predictable liturgy: a reading from the Bible, some prayers, a few songs maybe, and a sermon that would either make them feel warm and fuzzy or make them think, just a little bit, but not too much.  What they certainly didn’t expect was Jesus of Nazareth, but Jesus is exactly what they got.

It wouldn’t have been unusual for a guest preacher to be asked to speak.  Travel wasn’t easy, so when you had someone from out of town, especially a Rabbi, it made sense to invite them to share a word.  Presumably, Jesus would offer greetings from the Synagogue in Nazareth, news he had learned on his journey, and a brief reflection on a safe text.  I’m sure when he was introduced as being from Nazareth; the reaction was not unlike Nathaniel’s from two week’s ago: a groan or two, maybe some eye rolls, and someone muttering under their breath, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” But then Jesus began to preach, and it was unlike anything they had ever heard before.

Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus said, but a few verses earlier, he did offer the crux of Jesus’ message, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news.”  It wasn’t that this was a new teaching, but it was the way he said it.  It wasn’t like the preaching of the Scribes: who had to rely on their brains, their studies, and the Holy Spirit for the words they said.  No, Jesus spoke with conviction, with a new authority.  He spoke as if the message about the kingdom of God was fulfilled in his speaking – as if his saying it made it so.  There was a depth and a power to his teaching that was unrivaled, even by the best preachers: the John the Baptists, the Billy Grahams, the Michael Currys.  Jesus spoke and immediately everyone sat up at attention, amazed at what they heard.

I wonder what would happen if Jesus showed up to preach at Saint Paul’s this morning.  Would we be inclined to listen?  Would we sense the same authority and depth the folks in Capernaum realized?  Would we find ourselves amazed?  Or would our experience be more like Jesus’ first public act in Luke’s Gospel, also a sermon.  This time, he isn’t in Capernaum as a guest preacher; he’s in his hometown of Nazareth.  Having preached my first sermon in the congregation in which I grew up, I can tell you how that goes.  As you stand up to preach, the people start to smile.  The congregation is transformed into proud adopted parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles as they await your first word.  My first sermons there were awful, but the people were so kind.  “Great job,”  “I’m so proud of you,”  “You’ll do great things,” they said to me.  Jesus looked out on that hometown crowd and said to them basically the same thing he said in Capernaum, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news.”  “Great job,” “I’m so proud of you,” You’ll do great things,” they said, but Jesus kept talking.  The kingdom wasn’t going to look like what they thought it should look like.  He wasn’t going to bring his hometown buddies riding in on his coattails.  Much like in Capernaum, the crowd in Nazareth recognized the authority of Jesus, they sensed his conviction, and they felt the weight of his words, but in Nazareth things went south quickly.  The room flipped from proud smiles to enraged scowls in seconds, and Jesus was run out of town.

Are we ready to answer the call of Jesus to repent and believe in the good news?  Can we hear about freedom to captives, sight to the blind, and the forgiveness of sins for all people without getting nervous?  Are we willing to let Jesus challenge our preconceived notions about what the world should look like?  Or are we hoping that he’ll offer us a safe word, one that might make us feel warm and fuzzy, or at worst make us think, just a little bit, but not too much?  Are we ready for the sort of authority that Jesus claims over our lives: about how we vote, how we shop, and more importantly, how we treat our neighbors and our enemies?  Are we willing to have our lives changed by Jesus, or are we stuck in the same old ways of living that lead only to death?

We are all here this morning for different reasons.  We’ve arrived here having dealt with all sorts of different things.  Some of us are tired and in need of rest.  Some of us are excited and looking for a way to channel our energy.  Some of us are here to get our card punched for the week.  Some are hoping to be changed.  Ideally, all of us are here expecting to encounter Jesus of Nazareth.  In word and song and bread and wine, we come and ask God to enter into our lives, to usher in his kingdom and to set us free from anger and sadness; from routine and boredom; from the way of selfishness and death.  Are you ready to hear the voice of Jesus?  Or would you rather keep things safe and easy?

[1] I’m grateful to Scott Hoeze for helping me imagine this scene.  http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany-4b-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel#sthash.5WeKqYDU.dpuf