January 28, 2024
Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation. Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful. He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant. He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations. The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness. He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.
They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
Today’s sermon is titled, On Authority.
In my twenties, I had a bumper sticker on my truck that read, “Question Authority.” It was a sticker mass produced by an environmental group called Earth First! (the exclamation point is part of the name). In my twenties I was working for the Forest Service as a biology tech and working against the rubber-stamping by Congress that allowed billions of board feet of old growth American timber to be harvested and exported to Japan. I was angry because the American public generally had no idea that such valuable and irreplaceable resources were being sold internationally. As a result, and with typical twenty-something indignation, I did not trust authority and I encouraged everyone who could read my bumper to question authority, too. Also, like a typical twenty-something, I was too busy reacting to really take the time to think about, 1) what it means to truly question and 2) what is authority, exactly.
I found some insight in a speech given to the incoming Freshmen class at Duke University by Dean of Education, Steve Nowicki. In his speech the Dean refers to the still-popular slogan “Question Authority.” He reminds the students that to question is to seek understanding, and he proposes that the most important authority to question is ourselves. He concludes with the following statement: “My point is this: To question authority productively, to question authority wisely, we need to realize that to question something really means to seek an answer, and that ultimately authority is never really separate from us, it is us.”*
I have never before taken the time to carefully consider the word authority until this past week. Twice in our reading the word is used to describe and compliment Jesus’s teaching, but what does the word authority mean? The root word, author, comes from the old English word auctor which means “originator” or “promoter.”** And the older, Latin root of auctor is augeō ; listen to the meanings of augeo: “to increase, expand, enlarge, enrich, lengthen, raise, honor, and praise”***
Authority can be used to our collective benefit, growth, and prosperity. Authority can also be used to diminish, restrict, and separate. In 1896, the highest court in our land, the Supreme Court, with more authority than any other body, upheld that state laws of segregation mandating the separation of blacks and whites on the railroads did not violate the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Fourty-five years later, in 1954, the Supreme Court issued an opposite ruling on the 14th Amendment in their decision on Brown vs. the Board of Education. The court overruled state laws of segregation in public schools. One court, one amendment, two opposite rulings. People can use authority to separate or unify, to oppress or to liberate.
The word authority is used twice in the passage from Mark we heard today, so it is difficult to miss. Biblical scholars regard this passage in Mark as the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry. He teaches in the synagogue and we read that the people are “astounded at this teaching because he taught them as one having authority.” In this passage we read for the first time that Jesus uses his authority to liberate a man from ill health, restoring him back into the community. Jesus is using his authority to bring wholeness, health, unity and peace.
This particular kind of authority is in a realm of its own, according to the late linguist, Emile Benveniste. (Stay with me here; it will be worth it.) Benveniste was the first scholar to delve into the use of that Latin word augeo that we were talking about earlier. Augeo is the original root word for both author and authority. Augeo means “to increase, expand, enlarge, enrich, lengthen, raise, honor, and praise.” We only have the one word, “authority,” that we use rather casually and that’s unfortunate because the word “authority” should be used to describe what Benveniste calls “a divine conception of power” that is the result of a person’s character. A person of impeccable character is a person of authority because of who they are, not because the job they hold offers them authority. When the author of the Gospel speaks twice of Jesus’s teaching with authority, we should read this with our deeper understanding of authority as a “divine conception of power.” “There is no authority except that which God has established.” Romans 13:1
You may be wondering what difference all this makes. Well, here’s the thing: it matters in whom we vest authority. This past Tuesday, the eyes of the nation were on our primary elections. In exercising our right to vote, we were vesting authority in our candidate of choice. In our Annual Meeting today, we will be voting on the budget and on the slate of individuals who have graciously accepted the call to serve the church in the coming years. We will be vesting them with the authority to act on our behalf. In upcoming town elections and town meeting, we will again be using our votes to vest authority in our neighbors serving in town government. It matters in whom we vest authority. If January 6th taught us one thing, that was it. Authority can be used to separate or unify; authority can be used to oppress or to liberate. It matters in whom we vest authority. Jesus used his authority to liberate, to bring health and wholeness to those in need of healing. Jesus used his authority to call for integrity. In Luke 16:10, Jesus says, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” It matters in whom we vest authority.
In closing, I lift up the deeper meaning of authority that we can now carry, authority as exemplified in our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, the “Holy One of God.” There is an authority that comes from a divine conception of power. We will know this authority because it will be used “to increase, expand, enlarge, enrich, honor, and praise.” This authority will be used to liberate, not to oppress; it will be used to unify, not to separate. This authority will seek to benefit the many, not just the few. So be it, Friends. Amen.
God of the stillness, we thank you for the quiet spaces in between. Help us to push back the world and create a safe harbor for ourselves where we can reflect and rest. When problems and concerns are looming large in our minds and hearts, Lord, remind us to begin within, to seek your calm and your peace. From this centered place, we can see the world, and all our brothers and sisters in a new light…a light that comes from you. From this centered place within, we find a depth of understanding and a clarity of purpose that reshapes us in your divine image. From this centered place, we can lay down our expectations and learn to trust that through your grace, we will have all the love we need, even in grave adversity. Help us, Lord, to feel deserving of such grace, so that we may fully receive what you intend for us.
I leave you with these words from Psalm 91
“To his angels he has given command about you, that they guard you in all your ways; upon their hands they shall bear you up.”