— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ 17th Sunday after Pentecost ~~~
Then he (Jesus) was back in the Temple, teaching. The high priests and leaders of the people came up and demanded, “Show us your credentials. Who authorized you to teach here?”
Jesus responded, “First let me ask you a question. You answer my question and I’ll answer yours. About the baptism of John – who authorized it: heaven or humans?”
They were on the spot and knew it. They pulled back into a huddle and whispered, “If we say ‘heaven,’ he’ll ask us why we didn’t believe him; if we say ‘humans,’ we’re up against it with the people because they all hold John up as a prophet.” They decided to concede that round to Jesus. “We don’t know,”they answered.
Jesus said, “Then neither will I answer your question.”
(From The Message: The New Testament in Contemporary English by Eugene H. Peterson)
“We don’t know.”
“I don’t know.”
“That question is above my pay grade.”
“What a great question;
I’ll get back with you because
I don’t know the answer to it.”
“I could fake an answer, but, truth is,
I don’t know the answer.”
In lots of situations “I don’t know” is a perfectly legitimate answer; in fact, I think we religious professionals would be better leaders and more faithful leaders if we would be more often ready to admit – “I don’t know.” Being a pastor or a scholar of religion is a fine thing, but all the learning in the world does not diminish the fact that we are dealing with mysteries in church.
I think Huston Smith, the great teacher of world religions, was right when he wrote –
The greater the island of knowledge,
the larger the shoreline of mystery.
As we know more we become more in tune with the grand mystery that is this wonderful and wild life on earth in space and time. It is fairly safe to say that What I don’t know – even as your well educated, highly vetted pastor – What I don’t know about the Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer of all that was, is, or ever will be – What I don’t know… is … a lot!
So, the answer given by the high priests and leaders “We don’t know” in and of itself is not a bad answer. This was, however, a bad answer because the religious professionals thought they knew the answer but they were just afraid to share it. They did not think the baptism of John came from heaven; rather, they thought it came from a deranged ascetic who by his eccentricities was attracting gawking crowds of gullible spiritual parasites. They were certain that John was some kind of human freak show that would fade away with exposure and time. But at the time of Jesus’ question John was all the rage; so, they answered with false humility – “We don’t know.”
Had it been real humility, well, then it would have been a good answer and Jesus’ response, I think, would have been completely different.
Even so and as you might expect, I find myself a little sympathetic to the professionally religious in this story. The high priests, the leaders were lettered; they were the ones with credentials. They were trained. The faith community had given them authority because they had demonstrated aptitude for holy things, they had passed all the course work, they had followed the well established and well tested pathway into the society of religious fellows. Those guys, like me, had been to “Divinity School” and they, like me, had earned in some form or fashion the lofty title “Master of Divinity.”
And let me just say on my own behalf, Divinity School is not trip to the candy store. Divinity School it torturous. For a Presbyterian it is at least three years of work and right around 90 semester hours. Your classes include Hebrew and Greek language, Old and New Testament Studies, Theology from lots of different perspectives, Pastoral Care, Field Study, Homiletics, Biblical Exegesis, a thesis, and for many of us a summer spent sleeping near an Emergency Room in some major hospital in a large city as “on call” chaplains for horrible tragedies. Divinity School is a grind that breaks down your body and soul and faith structures in such a way that you have to revisit all your inherited norms.
And you add onto Divinity School all the denominational hoops you have to jump through in order to be an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament, a “Teaching Elder.” Once you finish the schooling and the psychological testing and the polity courses and the content testing, only then are you allowed to put your name out for consideration to be a pastor in a local congregation. Only after all of this are you handed the minuscule amount of authority afforded Presbyterian clergy.
And it makes sense. It makes sense that we are so careful about who can be a leader in our religious communities because even though we are only given small amounts of institutional authority we – in our administration of the sacraments, preaching, teaching, pastoral care – are dealing with holy mysteries and with a story that has been handed down through thousands of years. We in the church don’t want to put any Tom, Dick, Harry or Jane behind the pulpit or table because this is important work that can lead to wholeness and well-being or can led to great destruction. Religion, as we are all aware, can be toxic or wonderfully transforming, and the people we put up front do have impact on which direction it goes. All of us have a hunger for a deep and satisfying spiritual life; so it makes good sense to be discerning and careful about who we allow to lead our spiritual communities.
So, when a guy who has never been to Divinity School, never gone through a Committee on Ministry, never undergone psychological testing starts attracting huge crowds made up of your congregants and then he has the audacity to overturn tables in the holiest building in all the world, then it makes sense to ask – “Where are your credentials? Who authorized you to do these things?” Some of my sympathies lie with those High Priests and leaders of the people who were asking for diploma, certificate, some kind of endorsement for the things Jesus was doing in the Temple.
The question from the high priests and religious leaders reminded me of a passage in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead where the Reverend John Ames, a Congregational minister who is nearing retirement and death and who is writing some of his reflections to be passed on to his son who was born late in John’s life. Here’s what Robinson puts on the pen of the Rev. Ames who is writing about the church where he is pastor and has been for a long time (the year is 1956 or thereabouts):
Two or three of the ladies had pronounced views on points of doctrine, particularly sin and damnation, which they never learned from me. I blame radio for sowing a good deal of confusion where theology is concerned. And television is worse. You can spend forty years teaching people, said the Reverend Ames, to be awake to the fact of mystery and then some fellow with no more theological sense than a jackrabbit gets himself a radio ministry and all your work is forgotten. I do wonder where it will end (p. 208).
From the perspective of the professionally religious of that time and place, John and Jesus were dangerous interlopers. I do not think the question of the High Priests and Leaders of the People, had it been an honest one, was a bad question to ask. And I think, had the question been posed in the right spirit, Jesus would have said: The Love that created all that is, all that has ever been, and all that will ever be has given me the authority to do what I am doing. Jesus would have said: “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”is my authority!
When I was toward the end of Divinity School and all of the denominational hoops I needed to go through to be ordained, I was in the final meeting with the Committee on Ministry. They asked me the usual things about my theology, my understanding of Scripture, my sense of denominational polity… all the things that are usually asked. At the end of the interview there was an elderly minister there who hadn’t spoken much. He looked me in the face and asked – “Bob, do you love people?” He might have said, “Bob, you have a good education, but do you love people?” He might have said, “Bob, you know how to work the system pretty well, but do you love people?” He might have said, “Bob, your about to be given authority in the church, but do you love people?”
Let us make it a little more direct today. In the place of my name put your name before the questions – “….do you love people?” “….you have a good education, but do you love people?” “….you have worked the system pretty well, you have a nice house, a good retirement, but do you love people?” “…. you have some authority over people at work, at your home, in your community, you have some influence, but do you love people?”
The question of the source of authority is best answered by the love questions. Will we love the ones who mourn the loss of a beloved spouse, partner, friend, parent, child? Will we love them as we scatter the ashes or lower the body into the ground? Will we love the ones who are struggling in their relationships? Will we love the ones who are dealing with children who have made bad choices? Will we love the ones who vote like us? Will we love the ones who do not vote like us? The question of authority does have something to do with training, but it is more foundationally a question of self-giving love. Where there is self-giving love then there is a place to bow the knee, the head, the will and the heart.
So, from where comes Jesus’ authority?
How we answer that question really makes a lot of difference
in choosing those to whom we will give authority
in our lives today.
If the answer is that Jesus’ authority came from
the Self-Giving Love of God,
then where we see such love now
is where we ought to place our trust and allegiance today
and in the days to come.
Give us eyes, O God, to see true love
and the will to follow where that love leads. Amen.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the notorious RBG,
garnered a great deal of authority in her life on the bench.
From where did her authority come?
The authority was not based on physical stature.
The authority was not based on the abuse of power.
The authority was not based on perpetuation of the status quo
or on bending to the will of the wealthy and well-positioned.
RBG’s authority was based on what her rabbi called
“compassion for those who live in the shadows.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s authority did not ebb and flow
with her legal victories or loses;
her authority held steady through both
because she had integrity in victory and in defeat.
She spoke truth even if it would make her life difficult.
Her legal opponents saw the integrity and respected her for it.
Authority has been given in life and in death
to Associate Justice Ginsburg
because she embodied
integrity, truth, and love’s tender-hearted sister – compassion.
May she rest in peace,
and may leaders with her kind of authority
be allowed to rise up to lead us.