The Rev. Deborah Silver
January 31, 2021
There is a car that someone drives around my neighborhood that is covered in bumper stickers. Many of these bumper stickers espouse a liberal cause. Here are some that I especially like: Science is Real; Black Lives Matter; No Human is Illegal; Love is Love; Women’s Rights are Human Rights and, Kindness is Everything. Not a bad list of mottos to live by! Whenever I find myself behind this car at a stop light I think to myself, “only in Decatur!”
There was a bumper sticker in the 60s that was very popular. If you are from a certain generation, maybe you remember it, it said simply: Question Authority. Question Authority. In a time of the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Movement, the Gay Pride Movement and the Anti-War movement, many of us were questioning authority and conventional truths.
We seem to be living in a time that is questioning authority again but in a troubling way. The authority of science is questioned by those who deny the reality of a global pandemic. The authority of democracy is in question by those who not only deny a fair and secure presidential election, but seek to overturn it. Even the authority of common sense seems to be in question by those who support irrational conspiracy theories such as QAnon. Some of these theories are more harmful than others such as the one questioning the reality of the school shooting massacre in Parkland, Florida.
So, a timely question to ask ourselves is: to whom and to what do we give authority?
Let’s take this question back to today’s reading from the gospel of Mark.” … and immediately on the Sabbath, Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. And they were astonished at this teaching, for he taught as one who had authority, not as the scribes.”
What a timely text. So, what is this authoritative teaching of Jesus that so astonished his hearers?
We don’t know. Not a word of Jesus’ teaching is remembered here in Capernaum. Whatever it was that so astonished people was not written down. We don’t know what Jesus taught, we only know how he taught: “as one who had authority, and not the scribes” says Mark’s gospel.
Not as the scribes. This seems rather odd too because authority seems to be precisely what the scribes had. The had the prestige of religious leadership and the authority of clerical position and power. But somehow Jesus taught with authority surpassing these claims. There was something about Jesus’ authority that was more compelling and more authentic.
One of those listening to Jesus at the synagogue in Capernaum took issue with Jesus. According to Mark, the man is “with an unclean spirit, and he cries out to Jesus, what have you to do with us?”
Perhaps this man says what many of those present that day are thinking. What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? And, then the mad man says, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
The mad man names Jesus’ authority while also acknowledging the danger this new authority poses to the status quo.
We might have hoped for something more in this story. But over and over again in Mark’s gospel, Jesus offers no words that can be transcribed into a systematic guidebook on this new authority.
However, according to the Rev. Dr. Barbara Lundblad preaching professor and author at Union Theological Seminary, Jesus offers us so much more than words. As she puts it, “In Mark’s gospel Jesus himself is the content of the teaching. The authority is not in particular speeches, but in this particular life. Jesus lived as one who had authority, an authority radically different from that of tradition. Different from what had been expected. To understand this authority, we must not only listen, we must also look.”
If Jesus himself is the content of his authoritative teaching, what do we see? What do we see in how Jesus treated others and how he lived his life? We see Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners; we see Jesus healing on the Sabbath day, silencing the scribes’ objection not with an answer but a question: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath day to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to kill?”
We see Jesus moved by the feisty faith of a Syrophoenician woman who dared to argue with him for the healing of her daughter. We see Jesus, a Jew, speaking directly to a Samaritan woman, at a well, receiving a cup of water and offering her living water. And, we see Jesus, the Rabbi, washing his disciples’ feet and being anointed with expensive perfume by a prostitute.
In Jesus, we see an authority based in an all-inclusive love that puts persons over traditions and social conventions. We see and hear a person-centered morality and an authority that embodies love of neighbor and gives rise eventually to what we, as Episcopalians, promise in our own baptisms: “to seek and serve Christ in all persons and respect the dignity of every human being.”
This radically different kind of authority compels us to re-examine what authority means for us, and look carefully at how authority functions, especially among those of us who profess to be Christians. This is a crucial question right now.
On January 6, among the insurrectionists were those professing to be Christian. In fact, some of these Christians carried a huge, execution size wooden cross to the steps of our nations’ capital, knelt and prayed. No doubt, these people believed that they were acting under the authority of Jesus. But as our bishop, the Right Rev. Robert Wrights said recently, “How could Jesus of Nazareth endorse any individual or group that accepts and supports people wearing clothing that says, “6MWE” Six million wasn’t enough” in reference to the Holocaust? How could Jesus of the Bible accept and support people who chanted “hang Mike Pence” when Jesus himself was publicly lynched?” Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, offers his observation this way, “if it doesn’t look like love, if it doesn’t look like Jesus of Nazareth, it cannot be claimed to be Christian. We are experiencing a fundamental distortion of Christian teaching of what it means to follow Jesus.”
The people who professed to follow Jesus and then stormed the capital were infected with the virus of Christian nationalism. And, it is important for us to examine how this particular authority operates: Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities. It distorts both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy, racial injustice, misogyny, LGBTQ+ oppression and xenophobia.
My friends, in a time fraught with conspiracy theories and the rise of Christian nationalism merged with white supremacy, it has never been more important to understand Jesus’ authority. It has never been more important for us to know who we are and whose we are. It has never been more important to have your identity and your morality rooted in your baptismal promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons and to love your neighbor as yourself.
The authority of Jesus moves us toward inclusion rather than exclusion. This authority includes precisely persons who have been excluded in the past. As Dr. Lundblad puts it, “It is what liberation theologians call an authority ‘from below.’ Those invited into Jesus’ rabbinic school included tax collectors and sinners, poor widows and prostitutes, little children as models of the reign of God and foreigners as models of faith. We must, therefore, be suspicious of religious authority which moves toward exclusion, whose aim is to keep certain people out by written rule or daily practice. We must judge ourselves, [our fellow Christians and our church] by Jesus’ move toward inclusion.”
Jesus authority cannot be reduced to a bumper sticker. Jesus is the content of his authority. But in his Gospel, John offers us a glimpse of Jesus’ authority by recounting these words, “This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.” Again, back to the content of his life. “As I have loved you, love one another” inclusively and abundantly.
Actually, I think we need to look no further than our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry for an apt bumper sticker. In his words, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” That sounds like a pretty good message to put on your bumper right now and to hold in your heart. Amen.