Our Gospel for today finds Jesus in Capernaum where he teaches in the synagogue and heals a man possessed by an evil spirit. In Mark’s Gospel, this story is virtually Jesus’ public debut. No one has ever heard of him before this moment. Capernaum is 40 miles from Nazareth, where Jesus grew up. In Nazareth, Jesus is Mary and Joseph’s son. In Capernaum, Jesus is nobody. But when he teaches, the way he speaks and what he has to say carries with it a power, a truth, a deep meaning that makes people perk up and pay attention. Mark says that he taught them as one having authority. As one having authority…

This morning I want to ask the question: What has authority for me? What has authority for you? Where can we find real authority in our nation today?

A couple of weeks ago I came home late on Friday afternoon and found a slip of paper in my mailbox letting me know I had a piece of certified mail waiting for me at the post office. What really got my attention was when I looked at the corner of the notice and realized that the sender of this certified mail was none other than the IRS. How many people just got a chill? Well, I certainly did. I don’t think I have ever gotten a certified letter in my life and I certainly have never gotten one from the IRS. Immediately, my imagination went wild. As far as I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, but I couldn’t help myself, my mind was taking off in all kinds of unhelpful directions. I thought, if the IRS is sending me certified mail it can only be bad. They must be auditing me, or I must have seriously miscalculated something and owe them a bunch of money. To make matters worse, it was Friday afternoon, Monday was the MLK holiday and I wasn’t going to be able to do anything about it until Tuesday. That left me with three days to stew and stew I did!

When Tuesday rolled around, I headed off to the post office at my first free moment. I signed for the letter, went back to my car, opened the envelope and braced for the worst. What I found wasn’t an audit notice, it wasn’t anything terrible at all. Turns out, I owed the government $197.60 and they wanted it right away. Why did I owe the IRS $197.60? I have no idea—and frankly I don’t care. The whole experience freaked me out so badly that I simply wrote the check as quickly as I could and mailed it right back to them.

By my reaction you can probably tell that the IRS is a real source of authority for me. It probably is for you too. As the old saying goes, the only two things you can count on in this life are death and taxes. But what else is authoritative for you, for me? Where do we find authority? Do we place authority in the right things?

We are living in strange times, friends. Everything seems up in the air, out of place. We’ve got news and fake news, facts and alternative facts. We have a President who says things we never imagined the President of the United States would ever say, a Congress that is largely dysfunctional, the Russians meddling in our elections and a country so divided that we can’t even talk to one another.  So, what do we do when so many sources of civil authority seem to be weakening? What do people hold onto and how are folks supposed to orient their lives?

Jesus taught them as one having authority. My brothers and sisters, as people of faith, I believe we have a special and unique role to play in our world today. If we have faith in a God of love, a God of justice, a God of peace—then we have a different, a higher authority to proclaim and the world needs us now more than ever. After all, Jesus taught us to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us and to pray for those who abuse us. Therefore, during these confusing times, those of us who claim this higher authority need to speak up and speak out. We need to be the non-anxious presence in the room, the folks who hold the center, the people willing to listen and extend the hand of peace and understanding. As followers of Jesus, yes, we work for justice, but we also honor the dignity of every human being. Yes, we fight against injustice but we also strive to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Senator John Danforth, the retired Senator from Missouri, who is an Episcopal priest, once said, “The question is not whether people of faith should engage in politics, but how we go about doing so. Beyond the obvious choices of whether we are liberals or conservatives, Republicans or Democrats, is a more basic decision … in the practice of our religion, are we a divisive or a reconciling force for our country?”[1]

Are we a divisive or a reconciling force for our country?

Friends, as people of faith who see our Lord Jesus Christ and his teachings as a primary source of authority, I think we are called to orient our civic life in four ways.

First, we must never be afraid of the truth. No matter how badly we think we are right, no matter how much we want to be right, we have to be open enough to look for the truth regardless of where it takes us. Because, wherever we find truth we will also find God. If we allow there to be truth decay in our country then we will not be able to hold together. Jesus spoke the truth, God loves the truth and we must also.

Second, we must fight fear. Parker Palmer in his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, writes, “If American democracy fails, the ultimate cause will not be a foreign invasion or the power of big money or the greed and dishonesty of some elected officials … It will happen because we—you and I—became so fearful of each other, of our differences and of our future, that we unraveled the civic community on which democracy depends.” Fear is what drives us apart from one another. Fear is what leads to violence. Fear tears apart, it does not unite. Fear kills generosity and mercy, fear encourages self-centeredness and cruelty. There are leaders in our country who use fear of the stranger, fear of the other, to divide us, to convince us to be less than loving of our neighbor. There is no room for fear in our faith. The Bible tells us over and over again—do not be afraid. If the God of love is the authority in our lives, then we need to remember what St. John says in his letter: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”

Third, as disciples of Christ, we are called to be bridge builders, reconcilers (as Senator Danforth reminds us). After all, that is what Christ came to do—to reconcile us to God, ourselves and one another. As people of faith, as the National Cathedral, we have to be a place that is willing to build bridges between people. Yes, we must stand up for what is right, we have to defend the truth, but we have to do so with open hands and hearts, willing to embrace the other even when we are positive they are wrong. Building bridges is tough and lonely work. As someone I admire reminded me not long ago, if you are going to be a bridge builder then you have to be prepared to be walked on because that is what bridges do, they span the divide and get walked on.

And that leads me to the fourth and final point, humility. Brothers and sisters, as people who claim a higher authority, we must remember that God is in charge and we are not. We must remember that our job is to be faithful, our job is not to be right. Our faith teaches us that we are sinful and fallible creatures, we don’t have all the answers and we often get things wrong. We can be faithful Christians and be conservatives. We can be faithful Christians and be liberals. The problem is not that Christians are conservative or liberal. The problem is that some of us are so confident that our position is God’s position that we become dismissive and intolerant of others.[2] When that happens, we are no longer part of the solution, we are now a very big source of the problem. This has been religion’s fatal flaw (among others) and it is not the Way of Jesus.

Friends, the IRS notwithstanding, we have to be careful what we consider authoritative in this day and age. If we are going to find our way forward in this country and help others do the same then our faith in a loving, redeeming, just God must be our source of ultimate authority. We have to seek the truth, fight fear, build bridges and remember to be humble. I may be wrong, but I believe these are critical tools for discipleship at this point in our history. There are some who would say that Christianity in the Western world is impotent and irrelevant, that it has no constructive role to play. I completely disagree. I think the Way of Jesus is more important now than ever because in Jesus we have the way, the truth and the life and in the end, that’s the kind of authority we all desperately need. Amen.

[1] Senator John Danforth, Faith and Politics, Viking 2006, p. 12.

[2] Senator John Danforth, Faith and Politics, Viking 2006, p. 10.

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