Homily: February 1, 2015
4 EPIPHANY, YEAR B; Rev. Theo Park
Okay, so the worship survey had several responses that asked for more humor.
That’s all the leeway I need.
So, stop me if you’ve heard this one.
Well, actually, don’t or I won’t have a sermon lead-in.
This young Drug Enforcement Administration officer stops at a ranch in Texas,
and he talks with an old rancher. He tells the rancher,
"I need to inspect your ranch for illegally grown drugs."
The rancher says, "Okay, but don't go in that field over there...,"
and he points out the location.
The DEA officer verbally explodes, saying,
"Mister, I have the authority of the Federal Government with me!"
Reaching into his rear pants pocket,
he removes his id card and proudly displays it to the rancher.
"See this card? See this card?!
This card means I am allowed to go wherever I wish...On any land !!
No questions asked or answers given!!
Have I made myself clear...do you understand ?!!"
The rancher nods politely, apologizes, and goes about his chores.
A short time later, the old rancher hears loud screams,
looks up, and sees the DEA officer running for his life,
being chased by the rancher's huge prize bull.
With every step the bull is gaining ground on the officer,
and it seems likely that he'd sure enough get gored before he reaches safety.
The officer is clearly terrified.
The rancher throws down his tools,
runs to the fence and yells at the top of his lungs:
"Your card! Show him your card!"
Or how about these one liners:
I am the world's greatest authority on my own opinion.
A leading authority is anyone who has guessed right more than once.
I have as much authority as the Pope. I just don't have as many people who believe it.
And of course my personal favorite bumper-sticker: Question authority.
It’s a funny concept, authority. And now I mean funny peculiar, not funny “hah-ha.”
We delegate authority, we cede authority, we exercise authority.
We talk, as the gospel does today, of someone “having authority.”
What does all this mean?
What does it mean to say that Jesus teaches “as one having authority”?
What does it mean to say that his teaching itself has authority?
First of all, the word “authority” comes from the Latin, auctoritas,
and further back from a Greek root word meaning author or originator.
We can stop right there for a moment.
Consider the implications of that root:
to have authority, to be an authority is to be an originator, a source of something.
There is almost a confusion of person and subject in that, isn’t there?
Certainly a consistency, an integrity.
Could this be what people see in Jesus?
He is consistent, he is integrated;
who he is and what he does or says are one and the same thing.
That's a rare quality in the world.
It’s not surprising, then, that people would be amazed when they run across it.
The first definition given in Webster’s for authority is this:
“the power or right to give commands, enforce obedience,
take action, or make final decisions; jurisdiction.”
Here we are often talking about legal power or right,
but it may be a power defined and conferred by tradition as well.
This sense of the word also applies to the position of one having such power:
and so we speak of a person “in authority.”
This would certainly fit Jesus.
“All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” Matthew has him say.
And John repeatedly portrays him as telling the disciples
that he does not act on his own authority but the authority given him by God.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Authority as power, or control.
The military, the police, the courts
all have this sort of authority over us and may “enforce obedience.”
Parents likewise have authority over their children,
who are minors and legally under their control.
We chafe at this, we struggle against it, we test the limits.
Most of us bridle at the thought of another person having authority over us,
even at the authority of the system.
But as much as we value our autonomy,
the truth is that we live in a fairly regulated society
where much of the time someone else is in authority, does have power over us.
Even in the Church there are clear lines of authority,
spelled out both by church law and tradition.
A Bishop, as the overseer of a diocese, as we understand the role,
is given the authority to do certain things which no one may question.
Final decision for much of the work of the diocese rests with the bishop,
and she or he has the power—
whether regularly used or not, and different bishops have different styles—
the power to give commands and enforce obedience.
Priests, too, have certain unquestionable areas of authority.
No ifs, ands or buts about it.
The Prayer Book, going into more specifics, states that a priest alone—
in our denomination at any rate—
has the authority to absolve the penitent and to bless the sacraments.
This authority is understood to be vested in the priest.
Vested…meaning carried by.
We’re back to the implication that authority carries with it
not only certain agreed upon rights
but that an individual in authority is expected to be a certain type of person,
to have a certain integrated quality.
Of course we all know people in authority who do not act as people of authority,
or whose authority we question—often for good reason.
Anybody who has to wave around a card, for example,
Or who stands on their authority to get their way or hides behind it.
Sometimes authority can be misused, even purposely abused.
And so we speak of an authoritarian state,
or complain that “My father is a real authoritarian; he is so strict.”
Authoritarian religious groups repress all individuality
in the name of unquestioning obedience to leaders or creeds.
No matter the example, when authority is wielded in such a way
there is no respect for individual judgment or action,
there is no fundamental integrity.
Which suggests that there is no genuine authority.
But what does that mean? What is genuine authority?
The second dictionary meaning describes authority
as “power or influence resulting from knowledge, prestige, or respect.”
The third speaks of authority as a quality of reliability of a source or witness.
Ah. Here is the implication that authority is earned, or that it accrues to a person,
even that it emanates from that person.
And that someone has authority for us not because of legal obligation
but because we know them to be true,
because our experience of them points to
an essential honesty and dependability of being.
These definitions make great sense in the context of today’s gospel passage.
Evidently when Jesus taught it was quite unlike anything people had ever experienced. His mode of teaching was apparently direct and confident of its own authority—
none of the appeals to past experts or to scripture
that other religious teachers relied on—
he was so sure of himself and so one with his message that people were astonished.
And the fact that Jesus cures the possessed man by word alone,
without ritual or magical display, ties his healing to his teaching:
the power of the one reinforces the integrity, the authority of the other.
All of this was overwhelming to the crowd;
they had seen wonder workers before, heard credible and reliable teachers,
but no one like this.
This was something new; this had an unmistakable stamp of authority.
As a result, the earlier question, “What is this?”
will quickly become another, more profound question, “Who is this?”
It already lies just below the surface.
Of course the reader of Mark’s Gospel already knows the answer:
just ten verses before this passage Jesus receives his baptism from John
and is claimed as the son of God, the beloved.
In this telling the unclean spirit knows this too,
recognizing and naming in Jesus a superior power, a superior authority.
It is a power from God vested in Jesus, the Anointed.
If anyone has the right to command obedience, he does.
His authority is part of him, it flows from him,
but he commands only to heal, only to bring release to the captives.
Those standing by do not know this yet; despite what they hear and see,
Jesus’ identity and the source of his authority is not obvious to them.
Here as elsewhere in Mark, it is those who are outside the religious power structure who recognize who Jesus is, while those who might be expected to do not.
And in fact the question will continue through most of Mark.
Intriguing, isn’t it?
The Gospel writers know the difference between being in authority and having authority (just contrast Pilate with Jesus).
They also know that understanding the authority of Jesus—
who he is and what his mission entails—
involves far more than simply witnessing a miracle.
And I think that the questions the narrative raises are alive for us as well:
who is this and by what authority does he do these things?
What is the reliability of his witness, the source of his expertise?
And why should we trust it—what authority are we willing to give him over our lives?
I think we trust it because we have faith that Jesus is authentic:
we recognize that the power and the man are one and the same.
And we know this because our faith is born of experience,
of a living relationship with Jesus.
And here is where the question of authority comes back to us as a community of faith.
It is not individuals alone who are charged with, vested with authority,
who must be clear about their charge,
consistent and integrated in its expression in their lives.
This is as important for us corporately as personally.
Having professed our faith in Jesus, having acknowledged his authority over our lives,
how do we live that out as Christians, those who bear his name in the world?
How do we manifest to others the living relationship we have with Christ
and the difference it makes in our interaction with the world?
In what values are we grounded?
Where is, and how do we carry, our authority?
Thus, once again, the emphasis on identity work during this period of transition.
Work, I might note, that is well-begun but is not completed: because it is life-long.
But I would refer you to the “Getting to Know Gethsemane” document you produced
for those candidates seeking to join your work as your next clergy partner.
It is a strong statement for the basis of your authority,
grounded in community, justice, creative liturgy,
and the use of your resources and assets for the building up of God’s kingdom.
Live out this identity fully: be honest and true and consistent and whole,
doing it all in Christ’s name and to the greater glory of God,
and the world will recognize your authority and beat a path to your door.
And do not be ashamed to name aloud either your failures or your growing edges.
Keeping them quietly hidden away risks turning them into demons to beset you.
Naming the demons means knowing the demons, after all.
We know that Jesus has been in the desert,
that he has been tempted by the darkness and by fears we may never know.
He knows what evil looks like and he is no stranger to suffering.
And because Jesus has faced his own demons, he will never forget their power to hurt and never forget the power to heal that lies in touching broken-heartedness.
Jesus hears, below the demon noises, the anguished cry for deliverance, and answers it. This is where he meets us, in all the authority given him by God.
And he takes our pain and suffering into himself,
replacing evil with love, separation with reunion, death with life.
He is the true source of our healing; he gives us back our true selves,
and then he delegates to us the authority to go and do likewise in his name.