“A New Authority”

May 22, 2016


Galatians 1:1-12

Luke 20:1-8


As I said, I’m going to be working my way through Paul’s letter to the Galatians in my sermon during these late spring days. It’s something new for me. In over 30 years of ordained ministry, I’ve never preached a series of sermons from Galatians, and only rarely have I preached from this letter at all.

But, as is often the case, I find those ancient words of scripture speaking to me—and I think to all of us—in new ways during this election year. And this morning I want to consider the light that Paul shines on authority and authoritarianism.

In this strange election cycle, people often seem to forget that each of us is called to responsibility in our public life. Too often, when people seek the common good their focus is on taking responsibility for others; or the focus is on trying to make other people act responsibly. We often fail to simply take responsibility for ourselves, for our actions, our commitments, our faith—and then live responsibly toward others and with others.

And the temptation toward authoritarianism is always there—the desire to turn over our freedom to someone else—to let someone else take charge.

One of the ongoing public discussions this election year is about the effect that  “authoritarianism” is having on the electorate and on the results in the primaries and how this authoritarianism might influence the final results in November.

This discussion is not new, of course.

Since 1992 pollsters have asked four questions to measure a voter’s inclination toward authoritarianism. They deal not with political views but with attitudes toward childrearing. Would you rather have a child who is:

1.      Respectful or independent

2.      Obedient or self-reliant

3.      Well-behaved or considerate

4.      Well-mannered or curious

How would you answer those questions?

People who chose the first option in each of those pairings—those who would want a child who is respectful, obedient, well-behaved, and well-mannered—tended to be more authoritarian. In 2008 that suggested they were more likely to favor Hillary Clinton over Barak Obama.

This year?

Well, last August, John Dean—yes, that John Dean, who has significant experience with authoritarians—John Dean wrote an article titled: “Donald Trump is the Authoritarian Ruler Republicans—and Some Democrats—Have Been Waiting For,” the subtitle of which asked: “How far can a truly authoritarian ruler go in America?”

We’re coming closer and closer to finding out, aren’t we?

Many of you might have seen the now-well-known article in Politico last January that used those questions about childrearing to show that authoritarianism, not race, income or education levels, was the single statistically significant variable that predicted whether a voter supported Trump.

In March, however, an article in the Washington Post suggested that there was no evidence that the supporters of Trump were more authoritarian than the supporters of Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio.

In April others argued that, yes, Trump was an authoritarian. But just last week, Melania Trump wrote of her husband: “He is not Hitler.” So we at least have that assurance.

On the other hand, Ron Paul has asserted that Bernie Sanders is an authoritarian; and others make the same charge of Hillary Clinton.

We are a nation founded on the idea that the people have certain rights that cannot be taken away. We are a nation dedicated to assuring that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

And we are a nation that is constantly haunted by the specter of authoritarianism—the desire for order and stability, little tolerance for deviance, obedience to strong leaders, scapegoating of outsiders, demanding conformity and traditional norms.

Studies suggest that we Mainline Protestants tend to be less authoritarian than Catholics or Evangelicals and that we are more authoritarian that secularists or Jewish people. And we’re told that people who attend church less than weekly also tend to be less authoritarian—so what’s a minister to do? Should I tell you to stay home on Sundays? Or should I be encouraging you to worship more regularly and just hope that your authoritarian tendencies are not encouraged?

Maybe that hope wouldn’t be entirely unfounded in this place. You know that Congregationalists have always been somewhat uncomfortable with authority.

Our forbearers in the faith, the Pilgrims, were known as Separatists, because they wanted to separate from the Church of England, the religious authority in their land. They were also known as Non-comformists because they could not and would not go along with the established ways of being faithful Christians.

We’ve never seen the creeds of the church as binding, authoritative statements of what must be believed. They are valuable affirmations of faith, they can help us as we try to sort out our own beliefs, but when you join this congregation—or any UCC congregation—you won’t be asked: “Do you believe…” We recognize that each individual is responsible before God and each one of us has the right of conscience to follow God as he or she understands scripture. No outside authority is going to tell us what to believe.

At our best, we’re uneasy with any authority except for our own conscience.

But—and you know this—we’re not always at our best, are we? I’m certainly not. I don’t remember what I once said to cause a divinity school professor’s assessment of me, but I do remember him saying: “You have a bit of an authority problem.”

I do.

And when I read Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, I realize that I am not alone. This letter exposes the very human tendency to hand over our freedom to someone else.

Paul’s experience with the church in Galatia, shows how ready people are to set their conscience aside and seek out other authorities.

Paul had spent some time with the early Christians in Galatia. He was not well at the time and remembers that even so they welcomed him, “as an angel of God.” He was a messenger, and Paul’s consistent and constant message was about the freedom we experience in Christ.

He describes this as being set free from the present evil age—and what he means by this is the new possibility that we discover in Christ, what one person called, “the freedom from the shadow that yesterday casts over today.” We are set free from old ways of living, set free from old ways of looking at ourselves and others. And we are set free from the guilt and shame that we’ve been carrying around. The good news, the gospel, is just this: we are not our own judges and we no longer have to prosecute the case against ourselves.

But now Paul has heard that they have turned to a different gospel—and he is upset to say the least. “I am astonished!” he writes. He can’t believe the reports he has heard. And he spends the rest of this letter chiding the Galatians, reasoning with them, imploring them, berating them—all in an attempt to bring them back to the freedom for new life that they had found.

Paul begins this letter with a defense of his work. And while the question is never really asked, he seems to be dealing with the same question posed of Jesus.

“By what authority are you doing these things?”

Remember how Jesus responds when asked that question.

Jesus doesn’t really give an answer, does he? He only offers the promise of one.

“You tell me,” Jesus says. “Was the baptism of John of divine or human origin?”

It was pretty clear right away that there was no safe way to answer that.
It wasn’t evasion on the part of Jesus. If the religious leaders could recognize John’s authority, they would have no problem recognizing Jesus’ authority.

But some couldn’t see what was right in front of them.

At the same time, there were others who recognized in the actions and words of Jesus an authority that gave new life.

The word for that authority is “grace.” It is an authority that brings freedom to individual lives and to our relationships with others. It is an authority that increases individual responsibility rather than taking it away.

This is the same authority that Paul claims: the love of God for humankind revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; the grace of God revealed in the freedom of forgiveness. This expansive, creative authority gives us the power to go forward in faith rather than in fear.

In the months ahead we will face many choices, many options as a nation and as individuals. There will be those who encourage us to give over our power, our freedom, our hope to someone else.

Living as free women and men before God there might be times when we seem unfaithful, when others will stand ready to condemn. There might be times when we will fail miserably. But God will not cut us off.

We learn in our congregation that in our personal lives and our public lives we are set free to test limits, to move in directions not defined by the past. We can question old ways and try new paths, seeking the good in ways that are limited only by our love for God and our love for one another.

We can trust in that love as we continue to live public lives as people of faith.