Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 21—Year A; Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25:1-8; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
Let’s begin today with a fill in the blank exercise. We have a crisis of …….(pause). Okay, drop down a bit. Think about the gospel story today. Okay, we have a crisis of ……. We have a crisis of authority. We hear a lot about this in today’s world. I googled the words “crisis of authority” just to see what would come up. In .19 seconds, there were 150,000,000 results, one hundred fifty million. And, among the first page of results were these: a book about “The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism,” an article about “A Crisis of Authority” in the Wall Street Journal, a reflection on “The Crisis of Authority” in response to the Lambeth meeting of Anglican bishops, an article on “The Crisis of Authority” in the political and economic realm, an article on “The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity,” and on and on and on. Phyllis Tickle refers to it as she describes this great shift underway in Christianity known as the Great Emergence—she says that one of the main things that is always up for grabs whenever the church goes through one of these great reforming upheavals is authority. It seems to be that we see this playing out at all levels of all denominations of all faiths, and indeed, at all levels of society, and it feels especially intense in our day and time, but maybe this battle over authority has always been so.
When Jesus 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?” When someone asks you about your authority to do something and asks you who gave you that authority, what does that feel like? (pause) It feels like a challenge. It feels like a way to dismiss you. It could feel like accountability. It mostly feels like deflection. It feels like a huge game of “gotcha.” It feels like they are trying to strip you of power.
Jesus knew this was all smoke and mirrors, and he responds in a way that will pull back the curtain on this ruse. Jesus 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. Did 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?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So 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.”
Jesus knew all along that the question of authority isn’t the central question. So, what is the central question? What is at the heart of the matter? Power. Power beyond our imagining. Power that is uncomfortable. Power that is undeniable. Amazing power that can be used for good and healing and wholeness, and power that can absolutely destroy. It is much easier to pick at authority than it is to look at the dynamics of power and our relationship to power. Several of us spent most of yesterday in a Dismantling Racism workshop looking at power as it relates to racism—good work, important work, tough work—power is a tough thing to explore, a tough thing to come to terms with.
So, how do you relate to power? Do you shy away from it? Do you claim it? Do you claim it and wield it like a weapon? Are you comfortable with its energy? Do you harness it? Does it scare you? Can you spot it in the systems of which you are a part? Or, is it one of those things that moves in the shadows or under the surface just out of our awareness?
Jesus knows the pitfalls of the trick question on authority. It’s a no-win scenario. So, after revealing the authority question for the straw man that it is, Jesus turns the tables, “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
Here, we see the power of action that speaks louder than words. It is not hard to get the words right, but it can be awfully hard to actually live as we speak (Parents, can I get an “Amen?”). We can speak of the importance of compassion and forgiveness and patience and kindness and steadfast love, but are we actually practicing these in the flesh and blood stuff of our lives?
Jesus continually shows us how God’s power moves as it will, where it will, through whom it will; it is wild and unpredictable and uncontrollable. The authority argument keeps a tight lid on where and when and how that power moves. Some have it, and some don’t; it is tightly controlled, very predictable, locked down, and mediated in very precise measurable quantities in very defined patterns.
That’s all well and good for those on top of the structure, but Jesus never was much interested in the top-down approach. Philippians—“though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself.” The big fancy greek word for this dynamic is “kenosis.” Jesus is superabundantly filled with light and life and power and love and pours it out lavishly, abundantly, recklessly. The love that pours out of him is way out of control.
The tax collectors and prostitutes could sense this kind of power—it flowed into the parched places of their lives, and when they drank of it, they touched the kingdom of God.
But as long as the chief priests and elders are having this debate about authority, they don’t have to deal with this wondrous, crazy, out-of-control power that will most certainly upend their lives and their structures. Their argument over authority is the armor that protects them from feeling the vulnerability that inevitably comes when you open yourself to this power that is flowing straight from the heart of God. That authority armor will protect you from feeling so vulnerable, but it also keeps you from touching the kingdom of God where all is grace.
Paul closes that part of his letter to the Philippians by saying, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Wow! Have you ever considered that salvation is not the reward of the next life, but the very work of this life? That our work is to work toward our wholeness with God and each other and our very selves, here, now, today, in the very detailed, intimate context of your life and your relationships? Have we ever considered that central to this working out of our salvation is coming to grips with our relationship to power?
If Paul is right, and it is God who is at work in us, then we have a load of power stirring in our hearts and souls and minds and bodies that we have to acknowledge and accept and come to terms with and steward. We have enormous power—how are we deploying that power throughout our lives? Are we aligning that power with God toward wholeness, ours and the world’s? Are we in touch with its awesomeness, that’s the fear and trembling part, or are we in denial that it even exists within us?
Back to the crisis of authority question. We may be in a crisis of authority, but crisis, by its very definition, is a turning point, a crucial time in which a decisive change is impending. The roots of this word eventually wind their way back to the cross. And on the cross, power got upended, turned upside down, and resurrected in a whole new way.
Maybe, as those who try to walk in the way of Jesus, this crisis of authority is an invitation to take off the authority armor and put on the power of God. Maybe, it’s an opportunity to examine our comfort and discomfort with this power that lives inside of us. Maybe our coming to terms with this power is what the world is waiting for because it sure doesn’t seem to know how to steward it well at all, and power that is not stewarded toward wholeness is dangerous and destructive.
Salvation is the work of this life.
Will we say “yes” to this power, or will we let this sleeping giant lie? Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC; September 28, 2014