Thursday, October 02, 2008

Rev. Peter Carey, Sermon on Authority: Matthew 21:23-27

Rev. Peter M. Carey
Chapel Talk 1 October 2008
Bannard Chapel, St. Catherine’s School
Richmond, Virginia

Matthew 21:23-27
23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?"
24 Jesus said to them, "I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.
25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?" And they argued with one another, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say to us, 'Why then did you not believe him?'
26 But if we say, 'Of human origin,' we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet."
27 So they answered Jesus, "We do not know." And he said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.


Jesus enters the Temple and enters into one of many controversies that the Gospel of Matthew describes in his brief three years of ministry and teaching. Jesus enters the Temple, and while he is teaching, the Chief Priest and Elders of the people approach him and ask, “By what authority are you doing these things,” and “who gave you this authority?” For the hearer of this story, the answer is clear, of course…Jesus is given the authority by God, and it is through his position as the Son of God, that he is teaching, preaching, healing, and proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has arrived. However, the chief priests aren’t really asking the question to receive an answer. They have deemed him to be teaching without authority, and they are creating a controversy in which to trap him. As he often does, Jesus doesn’t take the bait. In a few brief words, Jesus dismantles the trap, and sets it for them. Those who would judge him are judged. For the chief priests and elders, the question of authority was vitally important, especially as the Jews returned to Jerusalem after the exile in Babylon. Who would be the ones to lead? Who understood God’s will? Who had the authority to lead the people?

Authority also comes up in our own time and there are controversies surrounding authority. Here at school, students endure the authority of the adults in the community, and authority and leadership are intertwined in terms of clubs, teams, and other student groups. How do we understand authority in this place, in this time? Certainly a great deal of authority rests in the people who lead our school, from the Board of Governors, to the head of school, to our assistant heads of school, and through our division heads and teachers. We can think of authority as something that is intertwined with position.

There is another way to understand authority, and it may have more to do with Jesus’ refusal to take the bait. Another way of understanding authority is to realize that the root of the word authority as “author” in it. If we switch our thinking from hierarchical leadership to the creation of narrative, authority takes a new kind of shape. What I mean is that when we think of authority as resting upon a sense of the word author, we may see that each one of us is, in some sense, the author of our lives. We are each given a great deal of freedom about the way that we choose to write our lives. We are each given a level of authority with which we can choose to act in a variety of ways. It is an exciting life that we lead. When we study the past, in some sense, we begin to understand the great narrative that has been written by the lives that have gone before us. However, the narrative is not over, and we will add our own story to that great narrative. It is like a quilt in which many of the squares have been completed, there are squares that our family has designed, created, and attached to the larger quilt of humankind which includes not only the squares of this great school, but also the squares of each era of our nation, each president of this land, and each family that has its roots here in this country or who came from other lands. As we begin to see authority as author-ship, we begin to see the vast and wonderful ways that each of us, each of you, are already designing your story, are already authoring your square of that great quilt. Your square that is uniquely your own, and for the good of the entire quilt, we need you to be you. It is just as Parks said on Friday, find your niche, find your thing and make it your own.

You are the author of your life; you have been given the authority to create that part of the story, of the great narrative that ties us one to the other – even when it seems we have absolutely nothing in common. You are the author of your life, this is not to say that you can do it all on your own, of course. No story is about solely individualistic narcissists – we need others, and the ways that each of our stories intertwine is where it all gets very interesting, exciting, and it is quite an adventure.

Look around the room, for a moment. Think about the vast stories that bring each of us here. The families that support us and also (at times) encumber us, the ancestors who were our heroes and role models, and also those ancestors we’d all like to forget – yes, they are also part of the story. (And no story is interesting without a few bad apples!)

The so-called “authorities” of Jesus time asked him, “by what authority are you doing these things?” He knew quite well his own story, he knew quite well where his story fit into the narrative, and refused to take the bait. He was the ultimate author of his life. We have been given the ability to also author our lives, to write the adventure, of our own narrative, we each write the story that will include its comedy and tragedy, and will include its highs and lows – no good story is without these elements. We have been given the gift to choose the vibrant colors and creative squares that we will add to the quilt of the human family.

Don’t take the bait;
Claim your authority.
Be a quilter,
Be an author, and enjoy each chapter!

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