“The Authority of Possibility”
September 28, 2014
By what authority are you doing these
The question is asked of Jesus, but it
is posed to us as well.
Who said you
could do that?
What makes you
so sure that’s true?
How dare you?
By what authority?
If we’re going to answer a question like
that, we need to be clear from the start that we 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 look back to the prophet Ezekiel
spoke of the individual standing before God. 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.
There used to be a popular button and
bumper sticker that urged people: “Question Authority.” It was kind of an in
your face protest and it seemed made for the UCC. The minister of my church in
Boston, Joe Williams—an old Congregationalist—saw it differently, however, and
he asked in response: “Who are you to
tell me to question authority?”
By what authority?
We’re uneasy with any except for our own
Yes, we live as people of faith in a
world filled with all kinds of authority.
The signs tell
us: No Parking. Stop. Yield. Keep Left—or Right. And our obedience is both
expected and necessary for the well-being of all.
St. the various disciplines at the University have their own authorities: the
scientific method, primary sources, the beauty of a simple solution, the beauty
of art. Music well composed or well played, a story well written carries its
own kind of authority.
In a pinch parents
turn to “Because I said so!”
As we negotiate and navigate the twists
and turns of various authorities, we also recognize that they all have their
limits. Scientific revolutions overturn old methods. New art destroys old
standards of beauty. The laws of the government come up against the higher law
of conscience. And at some point parents learn that the authority of “Because I
said so,” has a fairly short shelf life.
By what authority do you do these
Christians affirm that there is one authority,
to which we must look and by which we would defend our own actions: the
revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
But we know, as well, that our
understanding of this revelation is always growing, always changing, and always
incomplete. Kierkegaard put it this way: “Before God we are always wrong.”
There’s something troubling about that. And there is also something liberating.
“Before God we are always wrong.”
In our attempts to be a little less wrong, we seek help in many places.
Some Christians look to church tradition
for insight and support. It is good to know what others have thought in the
past. It is helpful to know how others have lived out their faith.
In the confirmation class last Sunday,
we talked about the support that the United Church of Christ is giving to
efforts to reverse climate change and to care for creation. The confirmands saw
that such action is part of a longer and larger tradition in our denomination that calls us to active
involvement in the world: ordaining the first openly gay man, ordaining the
first woman pastor, taking an early and continuing stand against slavery in the
colonies and then the United States.
We aren’t just making things up as we go
along. Our tradition has an authority and informs our actions.
And yet we know that tradition alone can
become ossified—even tradition that we love and cherish. “New occasions teach
new duties,” the hymn tells us. New occasions call for new tradition.
It must be a living and renewing tradition to which we look for authority today.
Some Christians, especially Protestant
Christians, turn to scripture to give us a better understanding of God’s
revelation in Christ and to interpret that revelation for today. And so we are
encouraged to serious study of scripture both as individuals and as a
congregation as another way of getting a glimpse of what God is doing in the
world and how we should respond. Scripture often provides a helpful critique of
tradition as well.
To help us make our way between
scripture and tradition, we liberal Protestants—especially in the United
States—look to reason. We seek to avoid both a hidebound tradition and a
literal interpretation of scripture as we travel what has been called a “third
way”—defined by openness to intellectual inquiry, commitment to the authority
of individual reason and experience, as well as an understanding of
Christianity as an ethical way of life so that our faith is both credible and
Tradition, scripture, and reason all
help us to better grasp the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. It all sounds
very good, and yet we still hear those troubling words of Kierkegaard: “Before
God we are always wrong.”
“By what authority?”
Listen again to how Jesus responded when
asked that question.
And remember the context.
A few days earlier Jesus rode into
Jerusalem on a donkey. The people—maybe a crowd, maybe only a handful—spread
their coats and palm branches before him, hailing Jesus as the new leader, the
son of David come to take his rightful place as king. But this was a new type
of king. He entered Jerusalem, but he did not then stage an attack on the
occupying Roman army. He did not begin an assault on Roman political authority.
Instead he went to the temple. There he
overturned the tables of the money changers and recalling the words of the
great prophet Isaiah, screamed so that all might hear: “My house shall be
called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers!”
For a short time it was not business as
usual. In a symbolic way, Jesus was challenging the seat of the highest authority—the
very place where God was supposed to live and engage with God’s people. This
was an act of judgment—it called into question both Jesus’ own religious tradition
and its current expressions of piety.
Jesus followed this with an act of
compassion: healing those who came to him in the temple, showing in a very real
way the mercy of God that is never-ending.
While many of Jesus’ Jewish
contemporaries would have agreed with his assessments and actions, all of this
left the religious leaders both amazed and angry.
But Jesus went on his way.
The next day Jesus returns to the same
place and begins teaching. The religious leaders want to know just where he
gets off. They ask the question that that has been echoing all morning long:
“By what authority?”
“By what authority are you doing these
things—and who gave you that authority?”
Is it from God?
Is it from the devil?
There’s a scene in the movie in the
movie A Civil Action in which Robert
Duvall, a lawyer and law school professor tells his students: “Never ask a
witness a question unless you are sure you know what the answer will be.”
Now, we’ve listened to enough of the
Gospel of Matthew in recent months to know that when people ask Jesus
questions—“What good deed must I do to gain eternal life?” “How often should I
forgive?”—they never really know how he’s going to answer. Usually people don’t
get the answer they expect or the answer that they want.
This time Jesus doesn’t even really give
an answer—only 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’
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.
What is that authority?
Jesus tells a quick parable about a man
who had two sons.
“Go work in my vineyard,” he tells both
“Sure thing,” says one. But it wasn’t a
“No way,” says the other. And then he finds
Through the centuries Christians have
kept this parable as a reminder lest we become too sure of ourselves, too
self-righteous. Through it Jesus calls for some congruence between what we say
and what we do. We have kept this as a word of hope that our actions might
confirm our words.
As is often the case, when Jesus speaks
we hear both judgment and mercy:
and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of heaven before you.
addicts are turning their lives around right in the midst of you.
The greedy and
fearful are discovering generousity.
The cold of
heart are finding ways to love.
The last are
becoming the first in line.
This is the
authority of Jesus. It is what Peggy Way once called the “authority of
possibility.” It is the authority that comes not from the power that is but
from the good that might be.
The baptism of John announced that new life
is possible. John called the people to repentance—and when they responded,
lives were turned around. It was the authority of possibility.
Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection
show us that God is bringing about a new creation. What is impossible for us—as
we heard last Sunday—is possible for God.
Many times I have seen the ability of
people to reshape their lives by the grace of God, to find new energy and
purpose. This often seems to happen at those times that seem least likely—when
people hit bottom, when no life at all appears possible. You’ve probably seen
this as well—maybe in your own life.
know I’ve told you about this before, but in thinking about the authority of
possibility, I remembered the time I heard a woman talk about her life: a life
of poverty, having two children while she was an unmarried teenager. She said
people told her, “You made your bed, now lie in it.” But she chose another way.
She found employment, started helping others, and was planning on attending
I love what she said about all this: “Not only do you not have to lie in the
bed you've made,” she said, “You can go out and get a whole new bed if you
is what we mean when we talk about “new life in Christ,” or the “power of the
resurrection.” It's the authority of possibility, authority that works through
the power of love.
seek to change our lives for the better. We seek to change our world for the
dare we? By the authority of possibility.
Gary Dorrien, The Making of American
Liberal Theology, Vol. 1, pg. xxiii.