Scipture: Deut. 18:15-20 and Mark 1:21-28
The Authority of Our Experience
Rev. Leanne S. Walt
The tracing of our faith begins with a prophetic voice and unclean spirits. The tracing of our faith begins in the synagogues and on the hillsides of Capernaum, from the Sea of Galilee to the River Jordan, teaching and healing, water and soil, the space and voice of the sacred and the profane. From this vantage point we learn, question, and discern the authority of our faith.
The roots of our faith grow out of our willingness to accept the authority of Moses’ prophetic voice in the 18th chapter of Deuteronomy, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet” (18:15). The roots of our faith grow out of our willingness to accept the authority of Jesus’ healing of the unclean spirit in Mark’s Gospel. The roots of our faith are based on our willingness to accept the authority of this history and to claim it as our own.
It is not an easy thing to know which voice, pronouncement, promise, teaching, or healing to trust. It is not an easy thing to discern authority in our lives and in the world. In this election year, we know this to be especially true.
“Tan, Rested, and Ready to Win” in reference to Mitt Romney was one of the leading headlines on Time Magazine’s blog post the day after Wednesday’s Republican Presidential debate in Florida. I caught a bit of this debate and I have to say, though Romney was sporting a nice tan, I don’t know that I would be so quick to declare him the ready winner. As is the case with most political debates, it seemed that authority was bouncing around the panel like a fast moving Ping-Pong ball. A battle of quick-witted words; a duel of syntax and semantics. We are left following the empty he-said/she-said below-the-belt trail of the ball.
At one point Romney denied responsibility for an ad that had aired in Florida the previous week, which portrayed Gingrich as calling “Spanish the language of the ghetto.” Moderator Wolf Blitzer was quick to point out that the tagline of the commercial was, “I am Mitt Romney and I approve this message,” leaving Romney fumbling for words.
These debates always leave a bitter taste in my mouth. After all attacks have been aggressively and artistically launched, I walk away overwhelmed by the flood of inflammatory remarks and find myself longing for truth, clarity, and authenticity. I find myself searching for the humanity, for the common thread that binds us all together. I wonder where is the wisdom, the vision, the kindness, and integrity that can lead us onward into our promised land? I wonder where is the leader who acts with conviction, who lives for the sake of the people rather than the ego, who remains politically limber in order to best support the common good?
And I wonder where we derive authority from in our own lives, in our political systems, in our faith, and why?
We often associate authority with power and there are various ways that this power comes about. There is authority that comes from a job or title. There is authority that is the result of a particular skill set or acquired knowledge. In a sense, these kinds of authority are derived from a source external to the individual; they are bestowed upon an individual through social, political, or religious systems. And this authority is not free from corruption, we know, we have seen our leaders preach family values and yet get caught in adulterous lies, those who preach compassion for the poor while lining their own pockets.
In Jesus’ day, authority was viewed and obtained in much the same way. The scribes are the central authority figures in this morning’s gospel lesson from Mark. Their authority comes from status and title, from their knowledge of scripture and verse, of Jewish ritual and tradition.
But when Jesus, a poor, uneducated carpenter from Nazareth, enters the synagogue where these scribes hold power he asserts an entirely different kind of authority. He does not acquire his authority through any sort of social, political, or religious system or institution, and those there in the synagogue when he arrives see and understand this, for the gospel tells us, “he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mk 1:22). The people recognize in Jesus a new kind of authority, a refreshing truth, a grace-filled power. For, he invokes an authority that is derived from action rather than the fleeting breath of words alone, an authority that comes from within rather than outside of himself, an authority of character, integrity, and wisdom. Jesus enters this sacred space of teaching and faith and he sees a man tormented by internal demons. Jesus reaches out to this broken, unclean, and tortured man and he sets him free from the wicked spirits swirling within; he lifts his burdens and heals his pain.
And at once the people have seen ~ not only heard in quick-witted rhetoric, fancy rhyme and verse ~ the truth and depth, compassion, and integrity of Jesus’ authority. An authority that in Mark’s gospel does not mean power, which is a different Greek word all together, but rather the word the gospel writer uses is exousia, which is a willingness or right that has everything to do with justice served. Such authority is found at the very roots of our faith. Such authority is what compels us still today, in our own lives.
In his work on spiritual formation, Henri Nouwen writes at great length about movement of the Spirit ~ from the mind to the heart, from illusion to prayer, from sorrow to joy, from resentment to gratitude, from fear to love, from exclusion to inclusion. The authority that Jesus reigns into the world is one that provokes movement of the Spirit, one that indeed has the power to move us from word to action, from the unclean to the clean, from rhetoric to the truth, from the profane to the sacred, from self-interest to compassion, from dominance to justice ~ in our homes, in our political landscape, in our communities, and in our churches.
In late January, as we find ourselves nearly halfway in between the manger and the cross, we recognize that this new kind of authority that Jesus bears into this world is what leads him to the depth of despair in Gethsemane and is what nails him to the cross. This conflict of authority, the world’s inability to move with Jesus into the realm of authority found within our hearts rather than that which is derived from the institution or system is what leads to his death. The world kills Jesus because they fear the power of justice and benevolence, character and grace, wisdom and compassion. They fear his authority that comes from within. “It is too much to speak with such authority!” They say as they hear his Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus reinterprets the scripture “of old”:
You have heard it said of old, you shall not kill.
But I say to you, everyone angry with his brother is liable for judgment.
You have heard it said of old, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
You have heard it said of old, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
As the authorities of old tried to silence Jesus, so too today, do the authorities of this world try to silence pathways to justice and the roads that lead to the kingdom of God on earth. But we have the power to give voice and authority to Christ ~ an authority that is based on our own experience of a lived faith ~ of loving our neighbors and enemies alike, of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God. May we teach as Christ, with our actions always in keeping with our teachings, our faith inseparable from our conduct and values, holding to the integrity of our character and proclaiming with authority the truth of the Good News.
 Feasting on the Word, year B, vol. 1, ed. by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008) 313
 Nouwen, Henri, Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2010)