With Authority

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

On Wednesday I had a really great opportunity to sit down with the congressman who represents Messiah’s area in the U.S. House of Representatives. If you live in the 14th district, he’s your congressman, too: Randy Hultgren. This meeting was organized by the communications director for Refugee One, a resettlement organization Messiah has partnered with over several years. They were good enough to invite me and another pastor and some members of Messiah to talk about the importance of refugee resettlement to our faith communities.

This is an urgent issue for churches and church-related organizations because the limit on refugees that could be admitted into the U.S. was dropped in 2017 by over half. And even that lower number—45,000, out of the millions of people who qualify as refugees worldwide—is much higher than the actual total, because bureaucratic delays are slowing down the approval of people who are thoroughly vetted and cleared. The Christian and Jewish organizations that have helped refugees resettle in America for decades are having to lay off staff, close offices, or go out of service entirely. And of course the consequences for parents who are stuck in hazardous refugee camps with their children, or for children who have lost their parents, are much more severe.

The congressman has made some wise and compassionate statements about refugees, and we wanted to urge him to take some steps to ensure that we meet our commitments as a country. Scripture is clear, from start to finish, that communities are judged by how they treat outsiders who are in need. “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me,” as the Son of Man tells the condemned nations near the end of the Gospel of Matthew. And as Americans, we have a special relationship with people who are fleeing destruction and persecution, as so many of our ancestors did.

Now it happens that I genuinely like politicians, for the most part. I grew up around them, and I think they are more serious about the common good than we usually give them credit for. They may have very bad ideas or serious misunderstandings of the world, but their views are sincere and they usually think they are doing what is best. I have also observed that politicians are good at listening. They’re good at looking for some bit of common ground with the person they’re talking to, however small. And they’re skilled at looking for what is good and empathetic in the person they are talking to. Most of them have to do this if they want to keep getting elected.

Representative Hultgren is no different. He is warm and affable and a good listener. And because he is good at being a politician, I assumed he could tell within a minute of meeting me that I was not a likely prospect to support him. But since I knew he would have my number, I was glad to have people from Messiah along who would be harder to see through.

And I had to acknowledge, to myself and to him, that refugee policy is an issue with a very limited political upside. There is no industry that benefits from it, just some non-profit organizations that run on a shoestring. The beneficiaries can’t become voters for quite a long time, and they may never become campaign donors. There is no national or ethnic or religious bloc of voters that is connected to refugees as whole, who come from all over the world. The case for welcoming people who have had to flee their homelands for their lives is a matter of pure morals, pure conscience. Someone in a position of power and responsibility needs to do it  our of a charity that cannot be rewarded in the usual ways.

I mention all this not to fill you in on my week. I mention this because we hear today, in the Old Testament and the Gospel, about authority. Moses promises the children of Israel that a new prophet will arise among them, who will teach with authority. The people are astonished at Jesus’ words and actions, because they come with authority. Unlike the words and actions of the scribes—the religious professionals.

And I mention it because when I show up to talk to an elected official or a public servant or whoever in my clerical collar and with my title as “Pastor,” I am engaging in something of a confidence game. As I have said here before, when I wear these clothes and stole inside these four walls, it is a way of saying “I am obligated to give Jesus to anyone who asks—in preaching, in the sacrament, in the forgiveness of sins.” Out there, it means something different. It means “Trust me. Or there will be consequences.” As if the clothing or the title makes what I say more plausible. Because my colleagues and I are, after all, rather like the scribes. We are the group tasked with preserving and interpreting the message of the prophets and the apostles for the world—for everyone, from the wealthy and powerful to the poor and despised.

But here’s the thing: Jesus, like Moses, did not come before the people as a religious professional. He did not come in special clothing or wielding a special credential. In Mark’s Gospel, which we hear today, there is not even any annunciation to Mary, dream for Joseph, or Bethlehem or wise men. There is only Jesus. His words and actions are not a confidence game. They don’t borrow their authority from anyone or anything. They have their own authority. 

When Jesus declares the coming of the kingdom of God, the demons always understand. They know who he is. The humans struggle. They believe or they do not. They are brought near or they resist. The demons know they are being attacked and driven out. The humans wonder whether Jesus himself might have a demon. Jesus speaks the truth. Jesus does the truth. And those who hear it, or see it, must decide for themselves whether to believe it or not.

And for good or ill, I can’t make that truth any more plausible. Anything I add to it is an illusion. I can only do my best to represent Jesus and his acts and his message with the urgency and the immediacy it had in that Galilean synagogue two thousand years ago. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, people will sometimes tell me that they are not persuaded by this or that aspect of our faith, when what they really mean is they are not moved. Or they do not wish to be moved.

And that is not a new problem. People could go home from that sabbath service in Galilee and put the miracle out of mind. They could say, well, miracles happen. Or maybe the kingdom of God is not so close at hand for me or my community or the world. Maybe I can be deaf to God this one time, for some good reason. They could do that then. We can do that now. Here, at home, at work, and even in the halls of congress.

But God’s Word to us vouches for itself. It authorizes itself. It calls us to change our minds, to change our actions, to change what we love, to change what we trust. It calls us to ask for our demons to be cast out from us—demons of fear and hatred, demons of envy and addiction, demons of illness and sin and death. And it calls us to trust the one who does this, and who has never ceased to do this. Amen.

One comment

  1. […] I mentioned in a recent sermon, I like politicians. My great-grandfather was a state legislator in Wisconsin from 1930 until his […]

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