By what authority?

October 11th, 2022

“Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22)
"Tell us by what authority you are doing these things" (Luke 20:2)

When Jesus began his first sermon in his hometown, everyone was impressed. Well, for a little while. They were astonished, “amazed at the gracious words.” (Luke 4:22) Captivated, that is, until he began insulting them, “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” (Luke 4:24) Who does he think that he is anyway?

Likewise, the chief priests, setting out to trap Jesus demanded that he tell them how he was able to impress through his teaching, heal, and drive out demons. What was the source of his authority? Who does he think that he is?

This teacher, preacher, healer, truly knew who he was. And he knew the source of his authority. However, the scriptures are filled with those who were, justifiably, uncertain of their authority. Standing in front of a bush that burned, listening to a voice telling him to go and declare to the people that they were going to be set free, are we surprised at Moses’ question? Wait, he thinks, the people are going to wonder, “Who does he think he is?” They will ask, by what authority? “Who are you anyway?”

When I was ordained in the Episcopal Church, women had been ordained as priests for a very short time. Most congregations had never met an ordained woman. I can guarantee you, the looks on their faces declared, “Who does she think she is? By what authority is she standing behind that altar?” In fact, the day after my ordination as priest, I, alone began the service declaring, “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” That was my part. The congregation was to respond, “And blessed be his kingdom, now and forever.” That was what they were supposed to say. But I was met with resounding... silence. They were so shocked to see a woman alone at the altar, they couldn’t say a word. 

Those of us, called by God, to go and proclaim the good news, are more than likely to have those “Moses Moments.” How can I do this? By what authority? Who do I think that I am? Who do they think that I am? Yes, the scriptures are filled with stories of people who asked those same questions. Isaiah certainly did not think that he was good enough, nor did Amos. I am always drawn to the striking picture of Jesus and Peter in the boat, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8) Peter was thinking, “I know who I am, and I am definitely not good enough, smart enough, holy enough, wise enough, eloquent enough, to be sent on this mission.” Like Peter we are often tempted to jump out of the “preaching” boat.

Were Moses, Isaiah, or Peter wrong to question their ability? I don’t think so. I certainly questioned myself as I looked out at that silent congregation as the newly ordained priest. “Aghhh!” I thought. “Am I doing something wrong? Who do I think I am?”

It is not a failure on our part that people question our authority and wonder if they should listen to us. I would suggest that a problem today is that too many people do not question the authority and reliability of those to whom they are listening. I believe that both Moses and Aristotle understood authority is negotiated between the speaker and the listener. It is a complex relationship. Moses wanted to be able to tell the children of Israel who had sent him. But he also knew that they were going to question him. And Aristotle taught that, in the end ethos, the reliability of the speaker would be the most persuasive.

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As unsettling as it was that first Sunday after I was ordained, standing in front of a silent congregation, I came to understand an important lesson. After years of seminary and exams, an ordination by not one, but two bishops, and even though I now wore the stole that told them I truly was a priest in the Episcopal church, that was not enough. I could not assume that they would grant me authority to preach and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. That silent congregation taught me that every time I stepped in front of a group of people, I had to earn their trust.  

It was not an easy lesson to learn. I suspect that, had I been a thirty-one-year-old man, the congregation would have immediately responded, “And blessed be his kingdom...” But I was a woman, and at that point in the opening years of the 1980s, only a few women had been ordained to the priesthood. Although the diocese and bishop declared me appropriately ordained, there were still many bishops and people who would not accept my ordination. I recently was reminded once again that, for many, conferred authority is too easily dismissed. It was painful to watch the Supreme Court hearings when Judge Brown Jackson came before the Senate. Many were not willing to concede that she would be an appropriate Supreme Court justice despite the fact of the many years she had served admirably as a federal judge. 

We live in challenging times. The questioning of one’s authority happens to so many—women and men, judges, clergy, politicians. A recent book explored these times, declaring “The Death of Expertise.” Even though he had served at the NIH for almost four decades, people still questioned Dr. Fauci’s expertise and guidance.

As you look out at a group of listeners, it can be unsettling to realize that they may be asking themselves, “Just why should I listen to you?” But here is the good news, even though they may not agree with everything you are going to say, they are there. And most are willing to give you their attention for a little while. So, how do you use their attention wisely and respect the question they are asking? We do that by asking it of ourselves first. By whose authority are we speaking?

First and foremost, God has called us. We stand in the long line of women and men called to proclaim the good news. It is important to remind ourselves that, as we write our sermons, and step before our listeners. We do so because God called us to “go and tell.” Perhaps it will help you to sit in silence before beginning to work on your sermon, listening for or feeling that presence of God that is with you all the time. Our lives become so busy we lose sight of that relationship that is central to all we do. Is God surprised that we question our call? Not at all. However, we need to remind ourselves that God is waiting for us to remind of that call. By what authority to we preach? God has granted us that authority. Listen for that reminder.

By whose authority? After we listen to God, the second source of our authority is our listeners themselves. That was the lesson I learned early in my ministry career. I came to understand that there were so many ways I would earn their respect and acceptance. 

There are many paths that people walk to arrive in a pulpit. Many have gone before boards of ordination, attended seminary, given their “First Sermon.” The reality is that official recognition, however it occurs, is only a first step. Our listeners are reviewing and judging us continuously, whether they are aware of it or not. We should not view this as a problem. Rather, it is a reality for all speakers; for all in authority. It is when we forget this that we get into trouble.

We respect our listeners by reflecting upon, not only what God would have us say, but also what questions do they bring to worship? Do we speak in a language that they can understand? As one woman reminded me years ago, “God said feed my sheep, not my giraffes.” Am I using illustrations and examples to which they can relate?

And finally, after reflecting on God’s call and the call from the congregation, you must grant yourself the authority to proclaim the message of God’s grace and love. Too often we are the very ones who get in our own way.  We are afraid to answer God’s call. 

At the outset of his call to ministry, Peter was ready to jump out of the boat. But that was not going to be the only time in his journey with Jesus that he and Jesus encountered a rocky (pun intended) moment. “You are the Messiah—don’t say anything about suffering!” “I don’t know the man!” “What? You know that I love you!”

Through my many years of teaching, I told my students that one of the things of which I could guarantee them as preachers was that they would question themselves and their authority. And that was alright. But that it should not stop them from answering their call to “go and tell.” By what authority? It is a circular relationship. In those moments of questioning, they were to return to the first source of their authority—God. They were to remind themselves of God’s love for them and remember that it was, it is God who has called them. Answer that call. 

By what authority are you doing these things? By our loving God. By God’s loving followers, and by the grace of God given to us each day. By the authority of our listeners. And finally, do not be afraid to put your trust in yourself. I learned that my first Sunday morning when I was met with that resounding silence. I kept going. I said their part and carried on—for 40 years.

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