Text: Matthew 21: 23-32; Philippians 2:1-18
"By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?"
In other words,
Jesus, who put YOU in charge?
So asked the religious authorities, who for all intents and purposes really were in charge,
at least in human terms,
It was their job to keep order, to uphold tradition.
Just before our gospel passage today picks up, Jesus arrived in Jerusalem and not one day passed before this guy started making a ruckus. Flipping tables in the Temple, accusing the money changers and vendors of making his Father’s house a “den of thieves.”
This bum from Nazareth, what did he know?
It’s not like the marketplace below the temple was purposeless--
People needed to buy animals in order to make sacrifice,
to perform their religious duties.
And people needed the right currency to buy the animals, hence the money changers.
It’s not like there was no design behind this system, it made sense,
in human terms.
Jesus was already making a bad rap for himself,
Cracking whips at shop owners,
Then turning his back to them,
Taking blind and lame by the hand,
Leading them into the temple,
And healing them.
By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?
Authority is a funny thing for Lutherans,
Maybe it’s the insistence on the passive acceptance of grace,
that we cannot do anything to achieve our own salvation.
Maybe it’s false equivalence of stoic Scandinavian personality with Lutheran ethic.
But whether it’s a theological principle that is core to us,
Or an exclusionary assumption we’re trying to shake off,
Or maybe a completely different reason.
It seems to me, that
Many Lutherans have a problem with taking authority.
I am one of them.
The summer I spent as a hospital chaplain
My peers and I were given just a few days of training before given the big badge that said “Chaplain”—not “intern,” not “I’m just here for the summer,” not, “I have no idea how this goes.” All Caps. “Chaplain.”
As I sanitized my hands before going into every room, I took a breath,
Not knowing who I would be to the person behind the door.
But that I had an important role to play,
And I was not qualified for it.
I spoke with my supervisor a lot that summer about pastoral authority. He suggested there are at least three kinds.
First, authority that is ascribed purely on the basis of one’s title.
The Rev. Jane Buckley Farlee
President Donald Trump
And however you feel about that person, their title alone gives them power. That’s ascribed authority.
Then there is asserted authority,
Authority that seized with an upper hand.
It could be military force, or the threat of it.
It could be making yourself the loudest voice in the room.
For good or for ill, that’s asserted authority.
And the last one is earned authority,
Which cannot be taken, but only given by people whose respect has been won.
Earned authority comes over time,provokes obedience not by force,
but in inspiring in others to follow.
Now before you say, only the last one counts,
Let’s notice that God has all three.
If “God” isn’t enough of a title, I don’t know what is - that’s ascribed.
And God could send down fire or flood at any moment - that’s asserted.
But is that why we follow God?
It seems a little medieval, doesn’t it, following God in fear of hell
But that’s how a lot of Christians live, and to be honest, it’s probably operating deep inside of us, too--
Seeing God’s power ultimately as a threat to us.
It’s the third kind of authority that Jesus embodies for us,
Authority that only comes because he has walked the walk before us--
He lived a sinless life, not without suffering,
And not for his own exaltation.
For … though he was in the form of God,
Jesus did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of servant
being born in human likeness, and being found in human form
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross
The poetry we find in our reading from Philippians
Is also known as the Christ hymn,
And is thought to be the earliest hymn text written down by Christians.
Hinting to us why they followed Jesus, so long ago.
Living in response to God’s grace,
Is following the God who humbled Herself first.
Our salvation is not secured under siege or threat of punishment.
Our salvation has been freely given,
by one who has the title and the upper hand,But chose to lead the way to the glory,
by way of the cross.
This is the God we worship.
Not because we must,
But because He has earned salvation on our behalf.
How then shall we live, following in the way of our Redeemer?
For we have authority, too.
As much as Lutherans might eschew it.
As much as we might feel unsure, as much as we are certainly unqualified,
We have a role to play in the ushering of God’s Kingdom.
Jesus, who put YOU in charge?
In classic form, Jesus doesn’t answer the question,
He tells them a story of two brothers,
One who talks the talk,
and one who walks the walk.
Who do you think did right by his father?
If the Kingdom of God is justice,
If the Kingdom of God is peace,
Then we will not make our way there by holding onto our authority,
By making claims about ourselves,
Or making sense of the world in our own very human terms.
It is human terms that make the rich richer,
That make the poor poorer,
That justify keeping the blind and the lame out of sight.
Jesus’ used his authority to rectify the world according to God’s terms,
Insisting on the belovedness and the beauty of the least of these,
and we are to do the same.
In a world that denies the humanity of people who have fled their homes, of people with black and brown skin, of people who practice Muslim faith…
We are to demand upon the belovedness of each and every one of our neighbors,
The same beauty of all creation for which Christ died on a cross, and rose again.
God has given us the gift and the opportunity to be in relationship with our neighbors,
To walk as God walked, in humility.
Our call is not to teach or to fix. Our call is not to assert or speak over.
Our call is to be in relationship—to listen and to learn. To pay attention.
And when we pay attention,
We will see not only the pains of the world,
But the Kingdom of God in glimpses and slivers.
We will see where Jesus is leading us--
to Peace, to Justice.
Come, let us follow him.