Message: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 25:1-8 (Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16); Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
In the Episcopal Church, we understand our authority to look like a three legged stool. It’s not a stool that sits upright. Of the three legged stool, one leg is much longer than the other two legs.
First, we interpret the stool’s longest leg to reveal God’s saving grace and who we are as God’s as written for us in scripture. In other words, we believe our authority comes from God as we know God in the holy words of the Old and New Testaments. We look to the scriptures for our identity, our understanding of who we are as God’s own, created in God’s image, as good, and loved by God, as we go about with our free will as sinful human beings.
Second, throughout time, as witnessed in scripture, God’s people have marked the presence of God’s saving grace in our lives through various signs and symbols we know as our tradition; the second leg of the three legged stool. Our worship is rich with tradition, not without purpose and is grounded in the authority of scripture.
Finally, our third leg of the stool of authority is reason. We give thanks for God for creating us with a mind and the ability to interpret scripture in both rational and intuitive ways. Consequently we believe all things necessary for our salvation are revealed to us in scripture. Scripture is the inspired word of God uncovered by humankind throughout tradition and interpreted throughout history with reason.
Our crooked three legged stool of scripture, reason and tradition has formed and molded us as the Episcopal Church since the reformation times of the sixteenth century, two hundred years prior to our becoming the Episcopal Church. The three legged stool has held its ground as our understanding of authority throughout our history to this very day.
While often we question authority, and certainly the church has a long history of its authority being questioned, without authority, things would run amuck. Take a moment and think of all the rules and regulations we must follow every day. For some of us, because of the nature of living in the greater Washington, D.C. area, following rules and regulations goes without saying. I imagine this is true with our government. The system is such a well-oiled machine so highly regarded that rules and regulations are honored and followed regardless as to who is in the position of authority to issue the rules and regulations. Imagine, without authority how might our lives be endangered?
In his story “Roughing It”, Mark Twain writes about the Old West and a time when people took the law into their own hands without regard for true, essential authority. Twain writes of the devil breaking loose in the town. Guns are exploding and knives gleam with dripping blood up and down the streets.
One townsman is assassinated which leads to an argument between a meat market owner and a friend of the assassinated victim. As they argued about the cowardliness of the assassination the meat market owner pulls out a knife stabbing the friend of the assassinated man. Well lubricated with alcohol the stabbed man feels no pain as the local doctor stitches him up. He is back out on the street in no time renewing his argument with the meat market owner, now threatening his life. Taking no chances, the meat market owner promptly finds himself some protection with a double-barreled shot gun. Raising his gun in point blank range with the entire town in plain view and shouting warning signs to “not shoot”, the meat owner shoots the arguing man to a point of no recovery. Instantly, rumors spread as the whispering thickens back and forth that this is just the beginning. The night will end with six more shootings.
Where does our authority lie?
We’re reminded that authority, when administered with the proper intentions can provide order, assure security, manage conflict, protect rights and ensure the proper distribution of benefits. May proper authority always rest with such a solid foundation.
In today’s story from Matthew’s gospel the authority figures from the temple in Jerusalem are questioning Jesus’ influence as he comes riding into town truly rocking their sure foundation of authority. Upon a donkey, Jesus humbly rides and is greeted by a crowd of onlookers waving branches and shouting praises, pleading “Hosanna: save us please”. The crowd is begging for an authority of a different kind than what they’re experiencing from Roman dominance.
Humble Jesus marches in wielding his power over the temple officials who fail to use the holy setting for its intended purpose: as a house of prayer. He turns over the tables in the temple, throwing out money changers to the delight of the blind and the lame who have come to be healed by Jesus’ mighty power. The legal experts and chief priests are threatened as even the precious children cry out to their new authority figure, “save us, Son of David.” Watch out. Get ready. There’s a new authority figure in town and all are in awe of this prophet king.
Threatened that their authority may be usurped the leaders interrogate Jesus. “What kind of authority do you have,” they ask? “Who gave you this authority?” Jesus, in typical rabbinic fashion, responds with a question, “where did John get the authority to baptize? Is his authority from heaven or from humans?” No matter how they respond, they can’t win. Finally, they confess, “we do not know.”
They don’t know. They’re not on the Easter side of Christ. They are yet to come face to face with our one true authority, that is known to us as God in Christ, whose authority is firmly planted, most definitely assured and eternally present in his life, death and resurrection, given for us, that for now and for all time, our authority is established.
Finally Jesus finishes his encounter with the now un-empowered authorities as he tells the simple story of two sons. One does the will of the father. The other does not. Jesus asks, “which son is doing the will of the father?” Meekly, the chief priests and elders respond, “the first one.” Yes.
Jesus continues. There is hope. Change is in the air, especially for the established temple leaders. Watch out for loud mouthed, austere, hermits dressed in camel’s hair and living in the wilderness coming to announce a new authority. Beware of hated racketeers and rejected whores turning in the direction of this unexpected saving influence. The least desirable, those on the margins, the lost, the lonely, the sick and the forgotten; they are turning in grateful repentance to a new authority; a new hope: the saving grace of God’s love as promised in Jesus Christ. Can the established temple leaders turn too? Can they give up their ways and turn in the direction of the authority of God in Christ?
What kind of authority are we seeking?
Without the authority of God in Christ our lives may well be endangered also. Change our hearts, says Jesus. Establish Jesus as our authority; our influence; our power.
As we walk the corridors of power. As we watch others command allegiance in the halls of influence, may we always remember that we hold the power of God’s redeeming love, grace and mercy given to us in Jesus Christ. How, in the name of Jesus Christ might we be wielding our authority for what is just, what is right and what is true? How in our walk with our one true authority figure are we demonstrating Christ’s redeeming promise for us in our words and our actions?