January 31, 2021 - Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
What might we as a Church do to encourage the true exercise of authority in the world?
As I read through the readings for today, I sighed over and over. Nothing came to mind on which to preach. I didn’t immediately get drawn into any themes at first. And so, as I often do when I hit a roadblock, I put the readings aside for a few days. And I pulled them out again on Thursday night, when it became critical to get something in writing.
And as I looked with renewed terror and angst at the readings, I was struck with a theme of authority that runs through today’s readings. We have Moses, the prophet, who was called and raised up by God. The Lord puts the words into his mouth. And Moses foretells of a prophet who is yet to come; this promised prophet will take the established commandments that applied to outward speech and actions, and make them internal matters of will and intention.
In today’s letter to the Corinthians, Paul presents a true way of wisdom as the members of the church seek to resolve their own understanding of their earlier pagan background. An idol is nothing more than magnificent art. But for Paul and the Christian community, God is infinite, and there can’t be more than one infinity. Paul writes, “if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall” (1 Cor 8:13). Paul’s authority comes from his solid example of putting first the needs of others. We need to show consideration for others, but our need to seek God’s way is no less compelling.
Our Gospel scene opens with Jesus teaching in the synagogue. As a prophet like Moses, Jesus could enter the synagogue and could teach there with authority.
Our story presents Jesus teaching in the synagogue, entering under God’s direct commission. He went regularly to the temple with the aim of building upon his people’s heritage. He used it as an opportunity to teach, to bring new light upon the meaning of Scripture and how it applied to daily living. Jesus went directly to the words of Scripture and explained them as one whose personal knowledge possessed authority; he didn’t follow the conventional pattern of citing precedents and interpretations of experts to show how precepts should be obeyed.
And I think these three readings hit us over the head with a needed discussion on authority. By what right or authority do the Church and its leaders assert that something is true. Popular opinion is a very fluid thing and affects a huge range of traditional beliefs. At times, it appears that NOTHING is certain or can be relied upon. And there may be good reasons for this.
At times, the Church hasn’t exercised its authority well. It has condemned, persecuted, and killed those who challenged the religious power. We have seen this in the Inquisition, the Reformation, the Salem witch trials, and the removal of theologians who propose dissenting views. We’ve seen this within our own denomination as we changed our views on ordination of women and the place for LGBTQIA persons. And we’ve especially seen this in our area as the Episcopal Church and other denominations worked to assimilate indigenous peoples at Native American boarding schools like the Thomas Indian School in Cattaraugus and the Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ontario.
Truly, though, authority issues have plagued us since the earliest times. Often, authority was asserted through physical or financial resources and inventions. In the 20th century alone, we see Nazism, Communism, and various dictatorships claiming supreme authority, crushing all opposition and eliminating and blaming those who dare ask questions or cast doubt on that exercise of power.
In this past year, the reaction to restrictions and actions enforced as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States and throughout the world shows just how easy it can be to doubt and to challenge authority. We need only look at the debates over the actions of the government and the fact that different scientists interpret facts and results of experiments and even create differing models that offer contrasting or conflicting predictions, and we see just how difficult it is to know who to trust.
And then, we hearken back to the times of Jesus. The question of authority was so critical and the object of much speculation. People continually asked how Jesus could heal, teach, and preach with such authority. It’s been said that the difference between Jesus and the rabbis of his time and ours was the way that Jesus spoke and took authority for his views and opinions. Jesus spoke with authority, commanding the unclean spirit to come out of the man. This is Jesus asserting that he is not dependent upon others to affirm his views, offer insight, or support him. Jesus claims, in a very real way, that he has a source of power and knowledge that is not human or limited.
In the Gospel of Mark, the authority of Jesus is seen in the power he exercised over the evil damaging the world and in his words of challenge and correction to human mistaken understandings and competing struggles of power and influence.
We are not God. We do not have divine power and knowledge. And we are sorely in need of correction and guidance. So what might we as a Church do to encourage the true exercise of authority in the world? What might we do to set up a place which respects and cares for the poor and the downtrodden, the marginalized and oppressed, the voiceless and those who have been deprived of human rights and lack the resources to live a truly human life