Reverend Philip Stringer
LET US PRAY: You, O Lord, are the author of life. Speak to our hearts and fill us with the breath of your Spirit, that we may live and move in your ways, all the days of our life. AMEN
I did something terrible when I was eight. I put a thumb tack on the chair of my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Weber. I don’t know why I did it — it was uncharacteristic of me. I was not a troublemaker. I was generally quiet. I’m not sure why I did it. But I did it. And I sat at my student desk in the middle of her classroom and waited...
She was a fairly large woman and always wore a dress. I was filled with anticipation as she approached her desk ... and she sat down ... and ... nothing. No scream. No jumping reflex. No expression of shock on her face. Nothing. Her attention was directed at some business on her desk — which was good because if she had scanned the room for the guilty party, I’m sure she would have seen shock and disbelief all over my face, and she would have known instantly who had done it.
Mrs. Weber either saw the tack on her chair and swept it away quietly, or — God spared us both from the consequences of my actions by causing her to sit in such a way as to cause the tack to align perfectly with that vertical delineation between left and right behind us all. I suspect it was the former .. but I remember looking later to see if the tack was affixed to the back of her dress, but it was not. I guess I’ll never really know.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my action was a challenge to her authority. Of course, if she had found it — whether as a result of sitting on it or by seeing it — and had then acknowledged it by demanding to know who put it there — I never would have admitted to it. And the challenge to her authority would have remained. By not acknowledging my action she dispelled the power of that challenge. She treated it as nothing and so it became nothing.
God’s authority is continually under attack in this world. God’s authority is challenged even in our own lives. Whenever we act selfishly — whenever we think ill of others and place our own wants ahead of the needs of others. When we promote our own wellbeing at the expense of others or to the detriment of God’s creation — we are challenging the authority of God.
Today, Jesus reminds us that such challenges ultimately cannot endure, because the authority of God is genuine. The authority of God is not subject to human demands. And ultimately, the authority of God will dispel all illusions of earthly authority. Like Mrs. Weber and my tack, Jesus treats the supposed authority of his challengers as nothing — and in doing so he shows that it IS nothing.
And our gospel reading today affirms for us that the genuine authority of God is wielded — not as a weapon of domination and control, but as the means of healing and building up. The marks of God’s authority are generosity and kindness. God’s authority is expressed through Jesus, who not only frees us from sin — but also frees us from lives lived under the delusion that we wield any authority of our own, and lives lived under the tyranny of any who would wield an earthly authority over us.
It is important for you to hear this, because — although God’s authority is at work in your lives and in the world, you live in a world that is continually trying to subjugate you to earthly authorities. And sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference. Is the authority of parents of human origin or of God? What about that of local and federal government? Or a property owner? Or world organizations and nations? What about the authority of the Church?
It seems to me that we could define authority as that which should be respected — admired, revered, lifted up as sacrosanct.
People may have a variety of opinions where the line between earthly authority and godly authority is drawn — but there is a simple litmus test which Jesus shows us: look at their works. The aim of earthly authority is self-promotion and control. The result of heavenly authority is to promote the wellbeing and dignity of others.
There was a song we sang at our church camp — the refrain “and they will know we are Christians by our love.”
There is another song that comes to mind as well that speaks of the authority of God that frees us from tyranny. Martin Luther’s hymn, A Mighty Fortress, has this powerful verse:
Were they to take our house,
goods, honor, child or spouse.
Though life be wrenched away
they cannot win the day.
The kingdom’s ours forever.”
Jesus not only frees us FROM lives lived under tyrannical authority — he frees us FOR lives lived as instruments of grace and healing in the world, and this is the most important thing for you to know —
Through your baptism into Christ, you receive the authority of God. You have the authority to heal, to forgive, to create. You have the authority to live as a blessing to others. You have authority to stand against those powers that tear down and destroy. You are given the authority to speak words of healing and forgiveness in the name of God.
By what authority do you live?
By what authority do you speak?
By what authority do you do everything that you do?
That is the question before each of us.
You are also given the authority to determine the answer.