Authority in Christ

Authority in Christ

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 27, 2020

17th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 21:23-32

 

As many of you know, I have had a spiritual director for most of my ministry.  Because of my appreciation for the practice, a few years ago I earned a certificate in Spiritual Direction from Shalem Institute in Washington, D.C. And just recently, I started facilitating a Spiritual Direction Clergy Support Group for our Presbytery. Since meeting with a spiritual director is not a common practice, you might be wondering what it’s all about. Well, a spiritual director is a friend with whom you sit in prayer and in quiet conversation, together trying to discern the direction the Holy Spirit might be leading. It’s less like a counseling session and more like a “spiritual listening” session.

 

As a minister, I can honestly say that meeting with a spiritual director has been invaluable. Doing so, helped me find my way into the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It helped me hear God’s call to Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church and then, over 4 years ago, FPC of Valdosta. The practice of spiritual direction has helped me to become more courageous as a leader on behalf of God’s kingdom work. It has helped me claim the authority I have been given (through my baptism and ordination)—authority to live fully as a seeker of God’s face—authority to encourage others to do the same.

 

Authority. It is the issue at hand for Jesus in our gospel reading. The chief priests and elders have been watching him. By this time, in Matthew’s telling, Jesus has entered the temple, overturned the tables of the money changers, and in righteous indignation proclaimed, “My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers.” While we might imagine Jesus as meek and mild, here we witness him at the onset of his ministry, as a truth-teller who stirs up trouble with the powers that be. And the powers that be do not relinquish their control without a fight—never have—never will. But that does not stop Jesus.

 

In today’s reading we find Jesus again in the temple. And the chief priests and elders approach him with a question: “By what authority are you doing these things?” Make no mistake, they are not acting out of curiosity. They are acting out of a desire to bring Jesus down to size. In today’s vernacular think: “Who said you could do that? Who do you think you are? You’re too big for your britches. You need taking down a peg or two…”  When it comes to questioning someone’s authority, it is rarely an act of observation or casual interest. Rather, as in our story today, there is an ulterior motive at work. In the case of the chief priests and elders, they have come to trap Jesus. But what do they hope to accomplish by questioning his authority? Their motivation isn’t clear, but there’s one thing that is—things don’t turn out like they plan.

 

In the commentary, Feasting on the Word, Charles Campbell, Professor of Homiletics at Duke University, tells the following story:

A few years ago, while channel surfing, I paused and watched part of an interview with television psychologist and celebrity Dr. Phil. At one point the interviewer asked Dr. Phil, “If you could interview anyone in the world, past or present, who would it be?” Dr. Phil replied, without hesitation, “Jesus Christ. I would really like to interview Jesus Christ. I would like to have a conversation with him about the meaning of life.” As soon as Dr. Phil spoke, I remember thinking, “Oh no, you wouldn’t! You would not want to sit down with Jesus, treat him like an interviewee, and ask him about the meaning of life. You would be crazy to do that. He would turn you upside down and inside out. He would confound all your questions and probably end up telling you to sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and come, follow me. No, Dr. Phil, you do not really want to interview Jesus, and I do not want to either. It would not go well.

 

As the chief priests and elders discover, conversations with Jesus can be dangerous. Especially when, like a good rabbi, he answers a question with a question:

“What do you think?” he begins and then tells a story about a man with two sons. In the parable, the father asks each son in turn to go out to the vineyard to work. The first says he will not but then he has a change of heart and goes to do his father’s bidding. The second says he will, appearing to be the obedient son, but then he does not follow through with his promise. “Which of the two did the will of his father?” And the chief priests and elders say, “The first.” Herein, Jesus seems to be getting at something worth remembering: What matters is not talking the talk—it’s walking the walk. Then comes the punch line…wait for it…wait for it…“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”  Did you get that? Jesus has just told the “authorities that be,” the very “keepers of the law,” that they will enter God’s kingdom behind sinners whom they hold in contempt.

 

The Letter to the Hebrews is one of my favorite books of the New Testament. Of unknown authorship, originally, it was written to newly converted Jewish Christians to stress the superiority of Jesus to anything in heaven or on earth. Jesus is superior to the angels and heavenly beings. Jesus is superior to the prophets of old, even Moses. Jesus is superior to the priests. In other words, Jesus is THE AUTHORITY! In all that he says, in all that he does, Jesus is concerned with being the power—the power of God—the power of love! And Jesus uses his authority to model his own command: “Love the Lord your God with all your strength and all your heart and all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus uses his authority to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly before God.

 

One biblical scholar makes an interesting observation[i]: Jesus has authority because it is given to him by his Abba Father. In point of fact, authority is always given. This is the primary difference between power, which is the sheer ability to do something or bring something about—and authority, which is one’s ability to do or say something because they have been given that ability. In other words, a person has the authority to do things because he has been authorized to do them by the author, or the one with the actual power.

 

Authority may always be given—but it is given in two ways. Authority is given by those “above” with the power. It is just as often given by those “below” who decide to accept it. And here is the thing: in about 99% of the cases of our lives, those with authority over us have it only because we give it to them. The colleague who slighted us, the child who disappointed us, even the spouse or parent who abandoned us—yes, in each case the person in question may have actually done something harmful, even devastating; nevertheless, the way we regard that action and person over time is something we get to determine. If we are still angry, hurt, disappointed, or upset, it is because we have decided to give authority to that person or event to continue to influence and even dominate our lives. We may have been victimized, but we choose whether or not we will live as a victim.

 

When it comes to the religious rulers who question Jesus, it is easy to jump on the bandwagon to ridicule them. But it might be wise to take a moment to consider how we use or misuse our own authority. We are, after all, baptized believers, and through the work of Jesus Christ, we have been given authority. So how are we using it? Are we following in the path of Jesus? Do we use our authority in God’s kingdom work—in whatever measure we have been given—to look to the interests of others, rather than our own? Do we have the same mind that is in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited?

 

Love, selflessness, humility, regard for the other, vulnerability—these are not at all the characteristics associated with authority. But such is the way of Jesus who uses his last ounce of human authority to gaze upon those who’ve put him on the cross and say with all the strength he can muster: “Forgive them Father. They know not what they do.” This is love in action. This is power with a purpose.

 

As we walk in the path set before us by Jesus the author and perfector of our faith, day by day may we, too, grow into the authority given to us at our baptism—to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Adapted from blogpost by David Lose at http://www.davidlose.net/2014/09/pentecost-16a-open-future/

*Cover Art Christ the Savior (Pantokrator) via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Employed by God

Employed by God

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 20, 2020

16th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 20:1-16

 

While Presbytery meetings are generally informative and worthwhile, I am sure to enjoy them more when we have someone being examined for candidacy as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. You see, at this point in the ordination process, men and women are given an opportunity to share their call story. It is amazing to hear the various ways God has worked in their lives, thus far. For me, call stories echo the truth that the Spirit is still on the move, nudging, awakening, compelling… And no two stories are alike—God is creative like that! Some folks recognize a call in their teens. Others hear the voice of God calling them during college. Others, like me, enter ministry as a second career—in quite unexpected ways.

While I enjoy all the stories, I admit my favorites are from the young folks who have just completed college and are in seminary. They spark a romantic notion within me of a future filled with possibilities. Honestly, though, there was a time when I reacted to their stories with a twinge of regret on my own behalf—somehow wishing I had showed up earlier for the party—envisioning what it would have been like to set out on this road in my 20’s with a clearly defined call. But that is not my story and I have accepted it—more than that—I’m pleased about it. For, overtime, God has opened my eyes to the importance of diversity in all things—even in something like when, where, and how, a person accepts a call into ministry. We all have different roles to play. While mine is not one of the starry-eyed glow of youth, I still have something to bring to the party. I have life experiences; I have a sense of humor for which I thank God! And I am humbled when, every now and then, God uses me to speak a word of wisdom.

As a community of believers, we all have a part to play. We all bring something different to the party. Isn’t it wonderful? Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 12. Hear these words as translated in The Message:

God’s various gifts are handed out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various ministries are carried out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various expressions of power are in action everywhere; but God himself is behind it all. Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful: wise counsel, clear understanding, simple trust, healing the sick, miraculous acts, proclamation, distinguishing between spirits, tongues, interpretation of tongues. All these gifts have a common origin, but are handed out one by one by the one Spirit of God. He decides who gets what, and when.

We all have a role to play but sometimes we fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others. We begin to feel that since we are not gifted with A, B, or C, we have little to offer. And if we keep going down this path, we will find ourselves adrift in the story of someone else, wishing that their gifts and their successes were ours. Margaret Thatcher once said, “The spirit of envy can destroy; it can never build.” And Proverbs 14:30 tells us, “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” To grasp the fullness of this statement, let’s consider some context provided by a modern-day writer.

Bones were a reference to the whole body, the fullness of life. To say that envy rots the bones is to say that it breaks down and destroys the whole self. It tears life apart. Beyond that, the word used for bones in this particular verse comes from the Hebrew word meaning “where the strength is.” Bones provide structure, stability, power. Envy infects and decays that strength like an infectious disease. As with anything that opposes life, it is deceitful. It keeps us staring at others, resenting our apparent weaknesses, but meanwhile, it is literally boring a hole into our strengths, ripping apart the meaningful stories we are created for…When we look at the talents, titles, successes, and influences of our peers with anything less than pride and support, trying to mold ourselves into their image, we choose to let envy drill away at our God-given purposes.[i]

In today’s gospel reading Jesus offers a description of the kingdom of heaven. It is like a landowner who gives jobs to those who have no work. Some he hires at 9 in the morning, some at noon, some at 3 in the afternoon, and some at 5. But when quitting time comes, the landowner has such a big heart—he pays everyone a day’s wages. They get the same amount—no matter whether they worked all day or just a few hours. Of course, the human sense of fairness can’t stand such generosity so some of the workers grumble against the landowner. But the landowner comes right back at them with something like, “Wait just a minute here, friends. You agreed to the daily wage—so take it and get out of here. I will give as I see fit—it’s my money! I can be generous to whomever I wish to be generous. What business is it of yours?”

Jesus gives us an interesting story to ponder. Likely, you have heard sermons over the years dealing with one detail or another. Maybe you have heard it preached from the angle of the Pharisees and Jews who are jealous that with Jesus on the scene even the Gentiles have a place at the table of grace. Some have looked at the text and reflected on the struggle in certain churches where some people feel they pull the lion’s share of God’s work while too many others sit idly on the pews. Good, hard-working people look at the story and wonder what kind of God would be so unfair as to give the same reward to those who have earned it and those who have not. It boggles the mind, really. But as God reminds us through his prophet Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways…For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”[ii]

While our human nature may lead us to look at the story through critical eyes and wonder how in the world God got to be such a lousy bookkeeper, it might behoove us to stand back and behold the broader picture Jesus is painting of his Abba Father. For in the kingdom of heaven, God gives everyone work to do. So instead of getting caught up in our favorite pastimes—comparing ourselves to others and grumbling against God—we might give thanks to God for the prize that is ours. Being employed by God is our reward—in and of itself! We are on God’s payroll.

Surely there is no better way to spend our time, talents, and treasures than in the pursuit of bringing the kingdom of heaven to all the earth. And the kingdom of heaven is not just some place to which we go in the sweet by and by. The kingdom of heaven is now. And in this time and this place—there’s work for us all to do. It isn’t work that we are bent on getting out of—rather it’s work to be honored. We have the profound privilege of laboring and serving in God’s vineyard. With God as our employer—it is the job of a lifetime. And it is a waste of energy to compare our work with someone else’s work. Instead, let us cultivate our talents and passions. Let us celebrate and even complement each other’s gifts! Let us foster a spirit of gratitude because the Lord of the Vineyard so generously provides for us all. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] http://www.relevantmagazine.com/life/problem-with-purpose-envy#yrc4dhjIWdLtb6Hk.99

[ii] Isaiah 55:8-9, NRSV

*Cover Art via Unsplash, used with permission; Music CCLI 20016020/13

Endless Love, Boundless Mercy, Amazing Grace

Endless Love, Boundless Mercy, Amazing Grace

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 13, 2020

15th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 18:21-35

 

On any given Sunday, as disciples of Jesus we gather virtually or in person to worship God, to encourage one another, and to be equipped to return to the world to fulfill our Lord’s command to love God with all our heart and mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. During worship, in response to God’s word for us, we pray The Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” When we do so, when we call upon the name of our great and glorious God, are we cognizant of the sacred ground upon which we stand?

 

Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard, who grew up in the Presbyterian Church, once wrote a book of essays entitled Teaching a Stone to Talk. In one essay, Dillard broaches the subject of holiness. In one of the best-known quotes from the book, she writes these words:

Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? The tourists are having coffee on Deck C. Presumably someone is minding the ship, correcting the course, avoiding icebergs…watching the radar screen, noting weather reports…No one would dream of asking the tourists to do these things. Alas, among the tourists on Deck C, drinking coffee and eating doughnuts, we find the captain, and all the ship’s officers, and all the ship’s crew…The wind seems to be picking up.

On the whole, I do not find Christians…sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”[i]

 

As seekers of the holy, should we proceed with caution? Is it hazardous to call upon the Creator of the Universe, willy-nilly? Is there danger in praying “Thy will be done,” if that is not what we really mean in our heart? In The Lord’s Prayer, we continue by asking for daily sustenance—daily bread—and then, then, things get dicey when we dare to speak the words: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Oh, my! Now we are in deep water. We may be in over our heads.

 

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells a story in response to Peter’s question about how forgiving we really need to be. In the story, a certain king realizes it is time for the end of year audit. He contacts the accounting experts in his kingdom. In no time flat, they realize there is an outlying account that needs to be settled. A certain man owes the king an exorbitant sum—one that could hardly be paid off in 100 lifetimes. The king calls the slave on the carpet. Realizing the man is in way over his head and will never be able to pay him back, the king instructs that the man, his wife, his children, and all that he owns be sold. The man falls on his knees and begs for mercy. In a shocking turn of events, the king shows him mercy.

 

The slave departs, grateful for the mercy that has been bestowed upon him. Or is he? All evidence is to the contrary for when he meets another slave who owes him the sum of 100 days of labor (a sum that could reasonably be paid back) he grabs the fellow by the throat. Even when the man falls on his knees and begs for mercy, no mercy is shown. Instead, the debtor is thrown into prison. Upon witnessing this tragic state of affairs, some of the fellow slaves report to the king what they have seen with their very own eyes. Understandably, the king is outraged. Now, any mercy that has been extended to the first slave is retracted—denied—refused.

 

Jesus concludes the story with: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

 

As a Presbyterian pastor, I am eager to preach words of grace and joy and hope. But I would not fulfill my obligation to preach the entirety of the gospel if I did not also proclaim that one day there will be a reckoning. One day we will all stand before God to give an account of our words and deeds. So, it is in our best interest to take Jesus seriously in this matter, and to ponder those familiar words, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

 

For most of us, passing judgment on others comes as easy as falling off a log. But Jesus does not call us to an easy life. Jesus calls us to a life of goodness and love—and, often, living in such a way is anything but easy. Forgiveness is hard—extremely hard. Peter knows that full well, which is why he approaches Jesus with the dilemma in the first place. And he may be quite proud of himself when he generously suggests forgiving someone seven times. But 77 times or as it is sometimes translated 70 times 7? That is nigh impossible. Surely Jesus is not serious. While Jesus may be using hyperbole—an exaggeration to make a point—he is still dead serious. The heart of his message is this: “Stop keeping score. The life to which I am calling you does not allow for small-minded, stingy behavior. Think bigger—think better—think endless love; boundless mercy; amazing grace!”

 

Through the life of Jesus, we are invited to move outside the law of self-righteousness and condemnation—into a great commonwealth of love. By telling the story of the king and the two indebted slaves, Jesus offers a picture of what it means to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” It is a brave and risky prayer that begs each of us to consider: “How willing am I to forgive the person who wrongs me? And with whatever measure I “grade” other’s behavior—am I comfortable with God using that same measure on me?

 

Unquestionably, having a forgiving spirit, is not about sweeping bad behavior under the rug. There are times when we must hold others accountable. But there are also times when, empowered by the Holy Spirit, healing can begin—day by day—step by step.

 

Thankfully, God does not deal with us in the way we deserve. Instead, God offers us forgiveness beyond measure. And as followers of Jesus, rather than tallying up the errors of others, we would be wise to enter the throne of glory, giving thanks to God AND showing our thanks by forgiving others as we long to be forgiven. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

[i] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, 52-53.