Authority

The Rev. John Lane. This sermon is based on Mark 1:21-22.

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.

Who was once called “the most trusted man in America?” Walter Cronkite. His catchphrase was “That’s the way it is,” and we believed him. Hired by Edward R. Murrow, he spent 19 years as the CBS News Anchor. He retired from that position in 1981, and nobody has been as trusted since.

Walter was a self-taught expert on the space program, and told of NASA’s successes and failures. He cried on the air when he reported the death of President John F. Kennedy. In early 1968, after a special trip to Vietnam, he came home to say the war was unwinnable. It mattered. A month later, LBJ said he would not seek re-election but spend all his energy seeking peace. You might not like what Uncle Walter reported, but nobody dared call it Fake News.

The Vietnam War and Watergate made many of us more cynical about authority. We discovered we had been lied to, repeatedly. The lies were made obvious by the Pentagon Papers, published first by The New York Times in 1971 and soon after by The Washington Post. If you want a replay, the current film “The Post”, with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep tells the story quite well.

There is a difference between authority and power. Power comes from holding a job, a political office, or a loaded gun. It can be used for good or for ill. Authority is earned and depends on trust.

Back some decades, we trusted Bell Telephone, Sears-Roebuck, the power company, the President and Congress, the police. They all had earned their authority.

Today, we have Dominion Power, the President and Congress. And one company has made the list of the 10 most-hated companies in America for more than 5 years. They have a large local presence. Anyone? Anyone? Comcast. No one trusts them. They have great power, a near monopoly, but little authority.

Though he had no earthly power, Jesus taught as one having authority. His followers trusted him, and his enemies hated him. He didn’t kowtow to anyone.

Over the last several decades, who was the most trusted person at Trinity Church. Who had earned authority? Anyone? Hands down, Dennis Case. I wouldn’t have had successes without consulting him. My failures generally came when I hadn’t asked him. Like E.F. Hutton, when Dennis spoke, people listened.

Where do we look for spiritual authority today? Pope Francis has been an interesting figure, though he did lose some points with his recent statements in Chile. Billy Graham befriended many Presidents. He thought Nixon was a fine man, but he wasn’t sure whether Jimmy Carter was a real Christian. My view of Jimmy? Mediocre President perhaps, but a Christian worth copying. Billy Graham? A celebrity preacher with a great speaking voice. Pay attention to Jimmy, not Billy. Jimmy has authority today.

In my experience, most Episcopalians know the importance of being open-minded about spirituality, being willing to seek ways to truth. The Buddha, Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama are among those worth consulting. So are Dietrich Bonhoeffer and C.S. Lewis.

Not surprisingly, so is Jesus. And Paul. The way to get closer to Jesus is to read the Gospels, not rely on preachers and other “authorities.” This is the year in which Mark’s gospel is featured. Read it from start to finish. It ought to take a couple of hours. Read it as you would any other book, a chapter or two every day. 16 chapters, so you ought to be done in a week or two. For Paul, try Galatians—6 chapters. A chapter a day for a week. Repeat.

A number of years back, I would occasionally run into people on the street or at parties, and they would say, “I’d go to your church, if I went to church at all.” The scripture I cited was “the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.” I’d ask why they didn’t attend church, and I’d get a number of fairly predictable answers. “I grew up Catholic and that ruined me.” Or “I grew up Baptist.” Or Sunday morning is the only day I have for the gym, golf, Trader Joe’s—yes, that’s right, Trader Joe’s!—doing my laundry. A dedicated, but often ineffective evangelical, I’d keep trying.

In New Orleans, we had a member named John, a man who had suffered the agonies of Job. When his son was 19, he was hit by a car crossing the street. He had a head injury and he was never the same. In fact, some years later, John Jr burned down the family house. I found John Sr at the house the next day, like Job literally sitting in the ashes, trying to find anything worth keeping. His biggest lament was the loss of family photos. He showed me melted silver. John’s wife went into depression, and was never the same.

Every Sunday morning, John did not head to the gym or the golf course or Trader Joe’s or the laundry. He was in church. He told me he hadn’t found God yet, but thought church was the best place to look. When he died some years later, he may not have found God but everyone knew God had found him. The church was full with his fellow believers and fellow seekers. He was respected and loved for honesty and his perseverance.

Get to know Jesus, not the Jesus of your youth, of the Catholics or the Baptists, or of Trader Joe’s, but the real Jesus of the Gospels. He is what we seek. Not power, but authority. Read Mark. Repeat.

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.

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