“The Authority of Possibility”

September 28, 2014


Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

Matthew 21:23-32


By what authority are you doing these things?

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 conscience.

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.

Across Clinton 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 things?

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 socially relevant.[i]

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’ 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.

What is that authority?

Jesus tells a quick parable about a man who had two sons.

“Go work in my vineyard,” he tells both of them.

“Sure thing,” says one. But it wasn’t a sure thing.

“No way,” says the other. And then he finds a way.

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:

Tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of heaven before you.

Criminals and 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.

I 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 college.

And 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 want!”

This 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.

We seek to change our lives for the better. We seek to change our world for the better.

How dare we? By the authority of possibility.

[i] Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology, Vol. 1, pg. xxiii.