“Because I say so”: Authority and faithfulness for biblical people

Rev. Scott Summerville

September 25, 2011

Asbury-Crestwood UMC, Yonkers, NY

Exodus 17:1-7

Matthew 21:23-32

Once when our son was a little tyke his mother told him to do something that he did not want to do. He said to her, “This is not a war; you are not my commander!” I had a similar encounter with my nephew one day when he was seven years old. I found him somewhere he was not supposed to be and told him to move along. His response was, “You are not the boss of me!” 

For several weeks we have been following the wandering Hebrews in their journey out of Egypt through the wilderness on the way to the promised land. Trekking around in circles in the desert for 40 years was not exactly what they had in mind when Moses liberated them from slavery in Egypt.  At every step in the journey there was bickering, complaining, and blaming the leader.  The people complain about Moses, Moses complains to God, God complains about the people.

Every day there is a new challenge to the authority of Moses. When things are hard they blame him. Last week they were hungry and blamed him; this week they are thirsty and they blame him again:

…the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

I know it’s discouraging: you listen to all the bickering that goes on at your office, or with your kids, or with your parents; you hear the constant bickering that’s going on in Washington; you come to church; you finally have a moment’s peace; you open your ears to hear the comforting words of the Scriptures, and what do you hear? Stories of people fighting! Complaining! Arguing!  I sympathize with you, truly I do, but I did not write this book; I’m just the preacher.

In Jewish tradition there is nothing better than a good argument. So when you hear the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures, you should prepare yourself for the fact that you are probably about to hear an argument. And don’t expect anything terribly different when you get to the part of the Bible where Jesus enters the scene.  Jesus was a Jew. Almost all the people he interacted with were Jewish.  He stirred things up; he was a troublemaker; he questioned things; he challenged people; and these people he challenged were no wilted lilies — they were people used to strenuous debate. They had been debating already for a thousand years.

You heard the story just now — Jesus enters the temple, draws a crowd and begins teaching them. The temple authorities hear about it.  They challenge him: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

21:24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.

21:25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’

21:26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.”

21:27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

These are people who loved an argument!  Our version of the story of course is told from the perspective of Jesus’ followers; the temple authorities that day would have given you their own interpretation, their own side of the argument.  According our version, Jesus skillfully maneuvered the argument in such a way that his opponents were reluctant to challenge him further.  But the question that the temple authorities were asking was a perfectly legitimate question.  It is a question that we need to be asking whenever anyone claims authority:  what is your authority and where did it come from?

People claim authority all the time:  turn on the radio right now and you will hear a hundred voices of authority.  People claim authority over our lives and over the lives of others in all sorts of ways. When you are a child and someone says, “Do this,” you are not always entitled to an explanation. You have to accept that sometimes the reason the child shall “Do this” is because mom or dad said, “Do this.” As a parent you do not always have the time or opportunity to explain everything and certainly not to explain everything to the satisfaction of your child; sometimes the child just needs to understand: you are going to do this because right now it is my judgment that this must be done, and I have the authority to say so.  Of course, if parents push that button too hard and too long, they will come to regret it, because over time the child must learn through their own trials and errors as they grow to assume adult responsibility for their lives.  

Some of you knew my dear friend Rabbi Harold Swiss, now deceased. Rabbi Swiss used to teach that you are not fully a human being until you are able to challenge authority.  He used the examples of Noah and Abraham. Noah, he said, was not truly a man (Genesis 6 and 7, paraphrase):

God said to Noah, “I am fed up with this world, the evil ways of human beings; I am going to cause a great flood and wipe it all out, but, Noah,  I’m going to have you build me a boat, a large boat, a really large boat, a really really large boat. You can take your family on this boat and enough male and female creatures of each species to reproduce and replenish the world.”   [paraphrase]

Noah, doesn’t bat an eye; he goes to work, builds the boat, invites in the creatures, brings along his family, waits for the rains to fall and the floods to come, stands on the deck of the ship…. “So long everybody” …. As he watches the waters devour and drown every other living thing: his neighbors, his friends, every other human being on the face of the earth. But Noah doesn’t lose any sleep over it. [paraphrase]

Rabbi Swiss says, “Noah, he is not a man.  Now Abraham, there was a man, a human being.”

[Genesis 18, paraphrase]:   God said to Abraham, “I have seen the evil ways of the people of this city; I am going to strike it with fire and wipe the whole place out.” Abraham says to God, “God, who am I, a mere mortal human to question your ways, but consider, perhaps there are some innocent people in this city, and shall they also be slain? Far be it from thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”  What if there are fifty such righteous people?

God says, “You have a point there; if there are fifty righteous people, I will spare the city.”  Abraham says, “God, again, I do not mean to be presumptuous, but what if there are forty righteous people; would you still destroy the city, for indeed you are just God — for the sake of those forty righteous souls, would you not refrain from destroying the city?'”

God says, “Very well, if  there are forty righteous people, I will spare the city.”

And so the story goes, Abraham negotiating like an attorney for humanity, questioning the actions of God and demanding from God Almighty justice and consistency.

Rabbi Swiss would recount these stories from the book of Genesis and say, “Noah was not yet a human being; Abraham was the first human being, because he was willing to question God.”

Jesus questioned every human authority — and questioned even God.  He challenged conventional notions of the family (you won’t hear James Dobson or the Family Research Council acknowledge that, but it is true; see Mark 3:31-35, Luke 14:26.) He challenged conventional notions of religious authority.  He challenged and defied the political authorities, and in the end it was the political authorities who killed him.  In his unique storytelling, in his mysterious parables, Jesus challenges the imagination; he challenges the assumptions we make about what it means to have a good life.  He challenges every authority.  And when they challenged him to say on what authority he acted, he tangled them up in a curious argument and ended by saying, “I am not going to tell you by what authority I do these things!”

People often think of the Bible and religion primarily in terms of authority: you shall do this; you shall not do that; you shall believe this, because it says so on the stone tablets, or because Jesus said it, or Paul said it.  But the Scriptures themselves are the product of people who love to argue and to challenge authority.  Even the two greatest apostles of Jesus, Peter and Paul, argued strenuously with one another.

You can read about it right there in your Bible. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul describes his encounter in Jerusalem with Peter and James, the brother of Jesus.  At the time, Peter and James were the leaders and the key authority figures in the church. In this letter, Paul refers to these two men, these great and awesome Saints of the church as, “those who were reputed to be something (what they were makes no difference to me),” and, describing his conflict with Peter, he writes, “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face.”

You can read verses out of the Bible and use them to control people according to your lights, but that is very foreign to the spirit of the Scriptures. You may also quote the Bible as the last word in an argument, even though this Bible is filled with so many unfinished arguments.

This week after months of reflection the Asbury United Methodist Church Council voted unanimously to place the name of our church as a signatory on what is called A Covenant of Conscience. This document and several similar to it in other parts of the country have already caused an uproar.  Some say it is an act of anarchy.  Some say it is willful defiance of the authority of the church and that those who act upon it should be subject to church trials and serious penalties.  Those who have signed this covenant have been characterized as a “disgruntled minority” who are breaking fellowship with the larger body of the United Methodist Church.

The signers of a covenant of conscience contend, however, that it is the larger church that has broken with our deep-rooted Wesleyan traditions of justice, equality, and gentleness in disputation.

I quote now from A Covenant of Conscience:

“The forcible denial of rights and privileges to gay and lesbian persons through provisions in the Book of Discipline serves as shackles on pastoral care and ministry, and in their harshly punitive application these provisions of the Discipline are not only a grave injustice; they strike at our union in affection, challenge our ability to live amicably in disagreement, and violate the sacred command to love our neighbors as ourselves. We cannot tolerate the Church’s injustice and discrimination any longer and, out of our Christian faith and Wesleyan love, we feel bound to respond and together to make the following declaration:

“Pastoral care and the sacraments and rituals of the church are means of grace by which the lives of all Christians are blessed by God. Therefore we, as congregations and as individual laypersons and clergy, declare our commitment to offer such means of grace to all persons on an equal basis. We refuse to discriminate against any of God’s children and pledge to make marriage equality a lived reality within the New York Annual Conference, regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression.

“We seek to embody the beloved community of hope by openly and joyfully affirming the lives and loves of all United Methodists, regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression.

“We, United Methodist congregations, refuse to discriminate in the sacraments and rituals provided to our members and pledge the full and equal use of our facilities as we welcome and celebrate equally all couples and the families they may choose to create.”

The thundering answer that has come from the opponents of GLBT equality in the United Methodist Church is to say:

You have no authority to make such a declaration as a congregation or as a pastor or as an individual layperson. You are violating the authority of the Bible, which clearly lays out the proper parameters for Christian marriage; you are violating the authority of the United Methodist Church, which clearly prescribes how policies are made regarding church membership and sacramental life of our church. We call upon the bishops of the United Methodist Church to exercise their authority to suppress this movement by a forceful assertion of their power to investigate and punish those who would pursue this path. If everyone has the authority to do as they please in the United Methodist Church, then we will have anarchy, and we will have no church.

The question of authority is at the heart of the struggles of our time to advance the civil rights of human beings in civil society and in the church. When we are children, we sometimes need to be told, “This you shall do because I say so.” But adult human beings have a moral obligation never simply and blindly to follow authority.

The church has claimed the authority – and claimed that its authority is rooted in the Bible – to tell churches and pastors that they shall not receive and minister to all persons in their congregations on an equal basis; they shall not, in particular, bless covenantal ceremonies or marriages between persons of the same sex.  And when persons desiring such ministries of the church come to the pastor and say, “I am ready to marry the person I love. Will you – will the church – bless our covenant?” we are obliged – we are required – and under threat of serious sanctions – to say, “No.”

Those who have signed the covenant have said, “No,” but it is not the “No” that the church demands; it is a “No” to discrimination; it a “No” to second-class citizenship in the church for GLBT persons; it is a “No” to secrecy and shame and acquiescing in injustice.

This is anything but an impulsive act of rebellion. It is the fruit of decades of efforts on the part of United Methodists trying to be faithful to their God, faithful to their church, and faithful to the Bible that challenges them to love their neighbor and not to be afraid to challenge authority.

We as a congregation long ago signed a welcoming statement and committed ourselves to living by it.

We have now signed A Covenant of Conscience and commit ourselves to living by it, declaring to the world this is a house of prayer for all people, a place of welcome and blessing for any of God’s children who wander into this place and come among us.

So be it.

Grace and peace to you.