You and What Army? – a sermon

Sunday, September 28th, 2014 – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Matthew 21:23-32
Hymns: “Come, Thou Almighty King”, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”, “Trust and Obey”, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”

You and What Army?
So in a few hours, I’m going to be getting on an airplane and flying east, to Columbia, South Carolina. I won’t be back in Gower until a week before Thanksgiving, which just seems a little crazy.
Now, the last time I left Gower for an appreciable amount of time, I came back married. There will be nothing so drastic this time. Yes, I’ll come back one rank higher than I am now, and I’ll be entitled to wear a little device on my uniform that signifies that I’m part of what’s known as the Fleet Marine Force, but there won’t be much else different.
I spent a day or so earlier this week trying to figure out what might be a good sermon for me to preach before stepping out of the pulpit for seven Sundays. I thought about John 11, wherein Jesus tells the Apostles that 1) he’s going away, and 2) he has to, because if he doesn’t leave, another cannot come take his place. That having been said, I’m not Jesus, and the ministers who will be filling in for me, while good ministers of the Word and Sacrament, don’t exactly qualify as the Holy Spirit.
Another route I figured I could take would be to do what’s known as a “mic drop” – deliver a sermon so hardcore as to leave you all just absolutely silent and blown away, drop the microphone on the stage, and stroll out the door, not to return until November 20th. However, I didn’t think that was a very good idea, because I’d basically have to channel eighteenth century theologian Jonathan Edwards and get all “sinners in the hands of an angry God” up in here to do a proper mic drop, and well… that just wouldn’t be appropriate. Y’all don’t deserve that!
So instead, I turned to the very thing that has so bedeviled me the last two weeks (and judging from some of the sermon reactions I’ve gotten, it’s bedeviled more than a few of you, too): the Revised Common Lectionary. And guess what? It’s actually a pretty good passage to preach on the day I head off to the Navy chaplain school.
You see, today’s Gospel passage deals largely with the matter of authority. This particular passage takes place on Palm Sunday, the day of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. He’s just entered the city, did some driving out of merchants and moneychangers from the temple, and cursed a fig tree that didn’t have a snack for him. As you might expect, the chief priests and elders of the temple are mildly perturbed by this trouble-making rabbi, and they have a few questions for him.
Chief among those questions: “By whose authority do you do these things?”
Now that’s a good question to ask, isn’t it? And you know, it’s one that I’ve found myself asking from time to time since I’ve been in the Navy: by whose authority am I a Navy chaplain?
And this question presents a bit of a problem for me. You see, there’s this pesky little thing in the Constitution called the First Amendment. It deals with questions of freedom of speech, the press, religion, and assembly. And thanks to the First Amendment, every time I put on my uniform, I’m a walking contradiction.
By whose authority am I a Navy chaplain?
If I say by the Navy’s authority, then I have a problem, for you see, that is a case of the United States government “respecting an establishment of religion”. I can’t be given religious authority by the United States government; it is a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
Likewise, if I say by the authority of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I have a similar problem. That would be a case of the United States government allowing a church body to grant authority to an officer of the federal government. Once again, we see a problem with the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
But there’s another part to the freedom of religion part of the First Amendment: the restriction clause. That clause says that the government shall not “restrict the free practice” of religion. And that is why the United States military has chaplains. You see, in many, many cases, active duty members of the military have no way in which to freely practice their religion, especially in the Navy – sailors are generally thousands of miles from a congregation of their chosen religion on Friday afternoon, or Saturday morning, or Sunday morning – whenever their religion worships. And so, the government provides those chaplains in order to facilitate the free practice of religion.
And so, those of us ministers who don the uniform of the United States military must hold those in tension – our authority is granted to us by both, in order that soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines might freely practice their chosen religion.
Now, in our own minds and practice, of course, it’s a lot easier. Our authority does not come from any institution of man; rather, our authority comes from God. But for the purposes of our service, we have to recognize that our authority comes in part from our commissioning by the United States government, and in part from our endorsement by our various church bodies.
We’ve got it a lot easier than those chief priests and elders, though. You see, we can acknowledge that our authority to do ministry comes from God, and our authority to do so in service to the military comes from two man-made bodies – the church and the government. We don’t have a problem with answering it, which those chief priests and elders absolutely did.
“From whom does your authority come?” they ask Jesus. And Jesus, never content to make things easy for those in authority themselves, responds, “What do you think?”
Now, the last couple weeks, a few of you have, on the way out the door, asked me various questions about forgiveness, and I’ve responded, “What do you think?” In response, I’ve gotten looks that are a little irritated and a little rueful, but mostly amused. After that, I usually get the answer, “I was afraid you were going to say that.”
And here’s the thing – y’all aren’t trying to entrap me. You’re just trying to get answers – answers that I’m trying to get you to come up with on your own. The chief priests and elders, on the other hand, are trying to figure out a reason to either lock Jesus away or string him up like a nineteenth century cattle rustler. So when he asked them, “What do you think?” they surely must’ve been a little irritated – and then he made it worse!
“Who gave John the Baptist his authority?” he asked them. That presented them with a real problem. You see, they regarded John the Baptist as a heretic, so much so that they made not a peep when King Herod had him arrested and subsequently executed. They were more than happy to let Herod, a.k.a. Rome’s puppet, do away with this bug-eating, desert-dwelling, pain in the keister, because it meant THEY didn’t have to do it.
That was the thing. Even though John was a real thorn in the side of the leadership of the Jewish people, he was also extremely popular with the people themselves. Many of the Jewish people had begun following his teachings, and subsequently Jesus’ teachings, as he was seen by many of John’s followers as “the One” whose road John had come to prepare.
Thus, for the chief priests and elders to have had him executed would’ve likely resulted in a popular revolution against them. And Rome could not have possibly cared less – an internal squabble, they would have said, and let the Jewish people beat up on one another. Thus, the position of power of the chief priests and elders was really highly tenuous. They would keep that power only so long as the people were content with their leadership.
But now they had this troublemaking rabbi, this Jesus, asking them where John got his authority. They couldn’t say God, because that would be admitting that they were wrong and John was right. And they couldn’t say man, because to do so would anger the legions of followers who had basically sainted John since his death, and their stranglehold on the Jewish people would evaporate in the blink of an eye.
And so, they decided to take a route that’s become very popular in a certain legislative body that meets in Washington, DC. “We don’t know,” they said.
Actually, I take that back. The 535 members of the United States Congress would do well to say, “I don’t know” from time to time.
But I digress.
You see, Jesus was a smart dude. And I’m not talking about his divine knowledge, because obviously that was greater than all of human knowledge combined. I’m talking about the fact that, as a human being, he was one clever individual. The chief priests and elders had asked him a question that would either lead to heresy charges or the loss of his followers, and not only had he turned it around on them, but he had basically shut them up as well.
Much like a military chaplain, Jesus knew that his authority came from BOTH God and man. His authority to teach the word of God, healing people and performing miracles, came from God. His authority to continue to do so among the people of Israel came from those people. If they chose to not listen to him, he would have no authority in that place. And Jesus recognized that.
Right about now, though, you’re probably sitting there, asking yourselves, “What does all this matter? We know where Jesus got his authority.” The reason why it matters is as it pertains to YOUR authority. Where do YOU get YOUR authority?
You see, ever Sunday, when you leave this building, you walk out the front door of the church, passing under a sign that Bob Elliott posted some years ago – “You are now entering the mission field,” it says. And when you go out into that mission field, your mission is to live out one of the key doctrines of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – the idea put forth by Martin Luther of the priesthood of all believers. I may be the pastor of this congregation, but every one of us is a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
And when you take that Gospel to the people, your authority may be questioned. “Where do you get your authority?” they may ask you. “Does it come from God, or does it come from man?” And of course, all authority which each member of the priesthood of all believers holds comes from God – authority given through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, authority given when we are commissioned into that great priesthood on the day when we confess our faith in Jesus Christ. But to simply say that our authority comes from God isn’t necessarily going to work.
No, sometimes, the best example that we can follow is the one that Jesus provides in Matthew 21. You see, he spoke, he taught, he gave his wisdom, and then, rather than answering the question directly, he asked the chief priests and elders, “What do you think?”
And the reason we should follow that example is this: no person can be MADE to believe by the actions of any other human being. They must decide for themselves to follow the leading of the Spirit. No, what we must do is teach them: we must present to them the Good News of Jesus Christ. We must teach them what it means to be a follower of Christ. We must teach them what it means to live in the world as Christ did.
Then, when they ask us from where our authority comes, we simply say: “What do you think?”
May the Spirit of God guide each of you as you go out into the great mission field today. Amen.

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