This sermon is from our Remembrance Sunday service.
Elizabeth May is one of Canada’s most respected environmentalists, and has a long history of involvement in peace movements. Trained as a lawyer, May served as Executive Director of the Sierra Club of Canada for seventeen years. A practicing Anglican, she also studied theology at St Paul University, and has received an honourary Doctorate of Divinity from the Atlantic School of Theology. May is the leader of the Green Party of Canada and a Member of Parliament representing Saanich-Gulf Islands.
23When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
“As One With No Authority”
Jesus was asked, “By what authority do you do these things, and who gave you that authority?”
Wow. Another hard day at the temple.
Have you ever found yourself without authority?
I have. Rather frequently, I must admit.
For example, when my first-born was an infant she had powerful lungs. She could scream like a Banshee and when that happened at 2:00 in the morning, you can imagine Janet and I would be shaken from the depths of sleep. If it was my turn, I’d drag myself out of bed and go to Colleen’s room. I’d check her diaper; I’d try the bottle — many of you know the routine. You do whatever you can to settle down this tiny creature that wakes entire neighbourhoods with her cries. And that’s the extent of your authority. It pretty much stops right there. Your authority is to take care of the child.
You can’t tell the child to stop crying.
You can’t reason with the child that it’s no longer necessary to cry because you’re here to help.
You can’t bargain with or bribe the child to cry only after 6:00 in the morning (pleeeeze?)
As a parent, guardian or caregiver, you have no authority other than caring for the child – feeding, cleaning, soothing, holding (and bouncing). It took a while for me to get this: caring for infant Colleen’s needs was the only authority I had.
Now, of course, it’s vastly different. Now my daughters are young adults – Katherine turned 18 on Friday and they both celebrated by going to the Cold Play concert. And if any of you have teenagers or young adult children, you know that as a parent, guardian, caregiver, you have absolute authority. Anything you say is readily received for its wisdom and your years of experience in this world are unquestionably valued.
We don’t have to stretch the imagination too far to know what it’s like to have no authority, or to have our authority questioned.
A bureaucratic system; a tyrant boss at work; a person who already knows they’re right and doesn’t need to listen to you.
If this connects with your life in any way, know that you’re in good company. Even Jesus was dismissed as having no authority. Jesus — who others claimed to be a prophet, a great rabbi, a healer, the Son of God, the Prince of Peace – was dismissed as having no authority, or at least no trustworthy authority.
Consider the scene of today’s reading. Notice where it all happens. Jesus entered the temple. That’s how this story begins. Jesus enters the temple. Now for the Jewish people, the temple was the axis mundi, the centre of the world. When you entered the temple, you were walking into the arena where heaven bends closest to earth. The temple was the umbilical cord to Yahweh.
Do you see the irony? At the very spot where people are brought closest to God, the chief priests and elders are not able to see the authority of Jesus. Because their attention is on other things – maintaining their position, their reputation, their own authority — they can’t see the intrinsic authority of the Nazarene who stands before them.
They ask the kind of questions we ask: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
In other words, do you have a PhD? From where? With whom did you study?
Are you published? Who was your publisher?
What’s your pedigree? Did you grow-up in Wally or in West Point Grey?
Do you blog? How many followers do you have?
How many friends on Facebook?
We size people up all the time to get a sense of their authority. Can we trust them? That’s all we want to know. Is this someone I should be listening to?
Though it’s ironic that the Chief Priests and elders, the head of the religious institution, needed to ask Jesus’ authority I don’t blame them, really. We so the same: we get a read to sense whether or not a person is trustworthy. It’s a survival technique.
Can I trust this boss; will she treat me with respect?
Can I trust this guy and invite him into my apartment?
Can I trust this surgeon who will soon be cutting me open?
Basically the Chief Priests and elders, the ones entrusted with protecting the institution of the temple, were asking Jesus, “Can we trust you?”
And the honest answer to their question would have been no. No, you can’t trust someone like Jesus to uphold temple politics. You can’t trust someone like Jesus to toe the party line and overlook injustices and questionable ethics. You can’t trust someone like Jesus to stay with the prescribed soundbite. In this sense, he came not to bring peace to temple politics but a sword. He was a disturber of the peace and a disrupter of the status quo. Because he was Spirit-led and God-infused, there was no way he could colour within the lines and stay within contrived boundaries. No way!
Jesus knew that if the religious leaders had to ask for his authority, they wouldn’t understand if he told them. They may not have been able to see him but he saw through them.
Asking Jesus for his certificate of authority might be similar to asking that of Joe Roberts, the Pushcart guy who walked 9,000 km across Canada to highlight the problem of homeless youth. He walked his sore legs and feet into Vancouver yesterday and if you heard him talk about his own struggle with addiction and homelessness years ago, you’d not need to ask him about his authority.
Asking Jesus for his credentials is like hearing a mother speak about horrible violence her family suffered in the country she fled,
Or hearing how the opioid crisis effects the front-line paramedic,
Or hearing how a person of African heritage experiences racism even today even in Canada
Or hearing an Indigenous person speak about their years in residential school
And then having the audacity to ask, “By what authority do you speak?”
Are you serious? They speak from the authority of the integrity of their own experience. Someone who speaks about their addiction and recovery, about the horrors of war, about racism, about being a healer in a drug-infested city, speaks with an intrinsic authority that rises from their own suffering, their own experience, their own hard-won truth.
Jesus spoke from his own authority, a hard-won authority honed in the wilderness, an authority that came from his connection with Spirit, as if his power cord was plugged directly into the Source.
In Matthew’s Gospel, behind the Greek “with authority” is the rabbinic term gevurah, which means “from the mouth of Power” or “Spirit.” When people heard Jesus speak or saw him heal, they’d exclaim, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority!” And that authority came from the mouth of Power itself.
So in the story, who recognizes that power, that authority? This is important. To the world of politicians and religious leaders, Jesus had no authority. To people who had something to lose – wealth, status, position – the unpredictable, untameable Jesus was most often seen as a threat. He’s the kind of person who could stroll into the temple courtyard and release mayhem by turning over the tables for the injustice that whole economy represented. He could do that and he did. How could a responsible person (with power to protect and traditions to uphold) trust him?
But to those who had no position, no power, no status, no wealth, to those on the margins, the unclean, the neglected and pushed aside and oppressed, to anyone who thirsted for God, longed for love, raged for justice, panted for peace…ah, to them his authority was undeniable. They did not need to ask. They knew because something in them recognized his searing authority. They knew because something in them was lifted and healed when they were with him. They experienced in him an authority that came not from a piece of paper or a degree or a bank account, but from within, which is exactly why people exclaimed, “Who is this guy? He doesn’t speak like the scribes and Pharisees!”
What about you? What about us? We who are in the progressive church, who allow a broad theological range, who encourage questions and welcome doubt as a respected guest, from where does our authority come?
Sometimes I envy those Bible thumpers, the ones who wave the good book in the air and shout their faith because it’s all so neat and prescribed, the answers all sewn up in their mind. Or the fan at the football game who holds up the sign reading, John 3:16 “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but will have eternal life.” There it is, all tied up with a bow and handed to you for your salvation. Wouldn’t that be a relief? You could just point to the Bible for your authority. “Right there. It says it right there!”
For some Christians, authority comes from being “saved,” or “born again,” or anointed by the Spirit.
But what about us? We who choose not to thump the Bible over someone else’s head, who may not pull-out our ‘born again’ certificate, what is our authority? For those of us in the 21st century, shaped by a culture of science and critical thinking, what about us? From where does our authority come?
If this feels like an uncomfortable question, maybe that’s because you’re smart enough to connect the dots: if well-respected, educated, articulate leaders didn’t recognize Jesus’ authority, what chance on earth do I have of those same folks recognizing my authority? Maybe not much.
But you know what? That’s not our concern. We don’t need to pull out our credentials. We don’t need to prove our authority to anybody.
Which is a pretty good thing, because our authority, I believe, rests on something pretty humble. Our authority, in fact, rests not on what we’ve accomplished or earned; our authority rests on what we lack – not on something we possess, but on something absent.
Our authority rests on our yearning, our longing for
a Love that never dies,
a deep and abiding peace,
a world marked by justice.
If we keep awake to our yearning, then we make room for God. If we claim to possess God, we lose God.
Jesus knew he had no authority whatsoever apart from God. He didn’t need to claim any authority for himself or prove himself to his examiners in the temple. If he had, he would have lost that which he claimed.
Our authority rests on our willingness to be awake to the ache, the tug of our heart, alive to the longing of the soul that opens us to God and the world as it is. That’s our spiritual practice: to watch and notice the life-giving yearning.
You see, when we notice the ache,
hold the yearning,
attend to the longing and don’t rush in to fill-it with distractions, we make room for the work of grace. The Spirit comes out and plays through us. Our body and soul become a playground for the divine. When this happens,
anxiety loses its grip on us
and we discover gifts and tap into a current of joy we never knew we had.
I think of the laughter of Louis Armstrong. Now Louis was no saint. He was a flawed human being just as surely as I am and maybe you, too. But Louis brought a gorgeous beauty into the world. He would close his eyes and play, or throw his head back and sing in that gravelly voice and in the end he would smile broadly and laugh. He wasn’t celebrating how great he was. In that smile and laugh, he was celebrating the music that flowed through him. That’s what it was about. The beauty and power of the music made him laugh. And no one to this day questions the authority music had over Louis Armstrong.
Our spiritual practice is not to sing how great we are but how great is this life-giving force, this Music, this Big Joy that we call God. That’s where our true authority resides. Not in the car we drive, the size of our bank account, the number of degrees or awards; our authority resides in our longing for home in God and our ache for justice in the world. Our authority resides in the things we do and say that flow from this longing for the Infinite and this ache for the good of all. That authority, often unrecognized in this world, leads to a path of life. That authority is already yours.
Together, may we live into the fullness of it. Amen.
Professor Jason Byassee, a minister of the United Methodist Church (USA), holds the Butler Chair in Homiletics and Biblical Interpretation at the Vancouver School of Theology. He also teaches historical theology with an eye to how the minds and lives of the saints can help renew the church’s life today. He also teachers about writing, discerning God in popular culture, technology, and theological conversation between Jews and Christians.
Jason Byassee studied at Davidson College, Davidson, North Carolina, and received his Master of Divinity and Ph.D. in Religion at Duke Divinity School and University.
Professor Byassee believes that all teachers teach for that moment when students’ eyes come alive, when the penny drops, and they see things they couldn’t see before. “Jesus calls his students ‘friends,’” he has written, “and ever thereafter the line between teacher and taught has been thin indeed. I’m fascinated by how creative pastors and other faith leaders have to be to grow something in this part of post-Christendom North America.”
Dr. Byassee believes that the church is going to have to take back more of its theological and catechetical training from the academy where we’ve about ruined it.
This sermon is part of our Summer Preaching Series. Find of our sermons at canadianmemorial.org
Pat Dutcher-Walls is Professor of Hebrew Scripture at the Vancouver School of Theology. In addition to teaching, she is Director of the Library and the Dean of the School, providing administrative oversight to student programs and services, the Registrar’s Office and the Diversified Education programs, and the school’s relationships with sessional lecturers, guest lecturers, and other contractual teaching staff.
Professor Dutcher-Walls, through her publications and teaching, bridges scholarship for Biblical study both in the academy and the church. A life-long Presbyterian, she was ordained by the United Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1978 and now is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. With a love of teaching, she has led numerous adult education courses, retreats, continuing education courses, and lay education courses. Recent presentations include topics such as “Biblical Narrative Spirituality,” “Prophetic Perspectives in the Old Testament,” and “Living the Ten Commandments.” She has been active in the church through preaching, social justice ministries, part-time congregational leadership, music and campus chaplaincy. She is married to a Lutheran minister and has two children, and enjoys reading science fiction and gardening.