By What Authority Are You Doing These Things?
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-8; Matthew 21:23-32
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church September 27, 2020 – 17th Sunday after Pentecost
Where does our power to do anything come from? By what authority do we do anything? Where do we get the right to do whatever it is we purpose to do? Who gives us permission? And where do those people get the right to permit it?
If you drove to church, it was legal because you had a driver’s license. If you plan to vote in the election this fall, you have to be a citizen and you have to register to vote.
But our question this morning is deeper than that. You can go anywhere to church and worship as you choose because your American government allows it.
As Americans, we tend to take it all for granted, but it isn’t that way everywhere else. We should pause each day and give thanks…simply be grateful…for something as invisible as our birthright of freedom.
Now, let’s flip it. How can you tell who has the greatest authority in a community? It’s the one everyone turns to…or complains about…when they need or want something.
That is Moses in our Hebrew Bible reading this morning. He has the authority as the leader of the body of Israel the Lord God has delivered from bondage into freedom…in the desert…and there is no water where they camp.
“This was your idea,” they remind him. “Did you bring us out here just to kill us and our children and our livestock?” Moses is thirsty, too… and hungry…and tired.
He’s doing the best he can, and he is taking the same risk they are. So who does he complain to? “They are about to stone me.” he tells God.
And then he listens for an answer. It comes. He is to take some elders and the staff the Lord gave him to confront Pharaoh, and he is to go to a certain place with it…and he is to strike the rock.
He does not question God and he does as he is told to do. Water comes out of the rock he strikes. The day is saved. The people have their water. Moses gathers even more authority… because of what he has done…out of obedience.
All the predictions he made while they were in Egypt and all of the signs he foretold make the people trust him has come to pass. But the trust of the people is conditional, based upon how it comes out today.
No matter how much he has done already, he is still on probation. He was not elected to be their leader for a specific term or for life. He only has what sociologists call “informal authority.”
There is a guy in his story who had formal authority. That was Pharaoh, and he had all authority in Egypt and that part of the world because he was Pharaoh, chosen by God to be the Sun King, he believes, to rule…for life.
When we elect someone to a public office, they have the formal authority and the power to perform all the duties assigned to their office for that term.
But we know today, with our reading of the Word that not even Pharaoh’s formal authority is absolute. He cannot command Israel to stay against their will. The more he tries to prove that he can, the more he brings about the very circumstances that he is, desperately, trying hardest to avoid.
I have said to you many times that we don’t have power. Power has us. When you use it, you must do so in a way that is not harmful to others …or it wanes…then you lose it.
You are even expected to use it in a way that is helpful to the people who gave you the authority you hold. This is true of teachers, doctors, lawyers, pastors…anyone in a position of trust.
The more helpful we can be to the people who gave us power, the better job we have done…the more likely we are to to receive more power…like Moses this morning.
But you will also attract attention from those who want the kind of power you have, and think they can simply take power from you…and put it in their own pockets.
Here is the other side of the of truth that says we do not have power. It is power that has us…only so long as it deems us a worthy vessel.
This morning, the Chief priests and elders confront Jesus and ask him the old, old question. “By what authority are you doing this and who gave you this authority?”
Our Jesus is a rabbi from the hill country…completely without formal authority. He has just made a grand entry into Jerusalem. He has followed that up by cleansing the Temple of the moneychangers. Then he has cured the sick and the lame.
He has taken power from the powerful…and he has given power to the powerless. He is dangerous… and wonderful.
So the powers that be come to examine him. If they can find fault with him, they will get power to punish him. But they don’t have power. Power has them.
Jesus knows this and understands it. So he says, “I will answer your question if you answer mine.” He moves the debate with this sally, from formal to informal authority.
Because there is a crowd watching …and only because there is a crowd watching…the authorities agree.
“Where did John get his authority to baptize people, he asks, “from heaven or from earth.” He has them now because they have to answer in front of everyone.
It is the crowd who has power now. Jesus has given power to the people.
They know one answer will lead to another question about why they did not believe him and the other answer will make the crowd angry. It turns out that in this situation it is the crowd that has informal authority that is even greater than the authority of their leaders.
That is the way we do it today in our country, too. In the New World, our leaders govern only by the consent of the people they govern.
If there is one principle that sparked the American Revolutionary War...if there is there is a truth that this country was founded on…this is it…as true today as it was 200 years ago in America…or 2,000 years ago on the streets of Jerusalem.
The powers that be don’t like either choice…the only choices they have been given… and they say they don’t know. That is not an answer, Jesus points out to them…and the crowd…so…he says that he will not answer their question either.
Anyone who has formal authority and uses it wisely gathers more and more informal authority…and receives more latitude to exercise the power that has been entrusted to them.. Those leaders are rare and precious.
Something happened to me toward the end of my Army career that is as good an illustration of what we are talking about here as I know. I had a month’s leave and while I was on that side of the world, I tried to get to Australia on a space available basis with the Military Airlift Command …just to see it.
The military was moving a lot of hazardous cargo, though, and I was not certified to handle hazardous cargo, so I got stalled at Yokota Air Base, just outside Tokyo, Japan.
This was 1978 and Mike Mansfield was in his second year as Ambassador to Japan, so I called to say hello, thinking I might get to chat with him a bit. I was wrong.
“You have to come in,” his secretary said. I asked if he had time on his calendar, but she just said, “You are from Montana. Now he knows you are here. You have to come in.”
So I called and found out it was a $100 cab ride to downtown Tokyo. That is like $400 today. I sat for a bit and then I called the motor pool and said, “This is Captain Addy. I used to work for Ambassador Mansfield in Washington, D.C. and he wants to see me. Do you have anything going downtown this morning?”
Ten minutes later there was a two-star general’s car out in front of the terminal to pick me up. I sat in front and the general sat in back and he quizzed me just long enough to find out it was a social visit, then spent the rest of the ride talking to his driver in Japanese.
The Ambassador was ready for me when I got there. He had made a pot of coffee just for us…one of his trademarks…and we sat down at his coffee table.
This was just as they were starting to print overseas editions of major newspapers. There on the coffee table was that day’s New York Times, that day’s Washington Post and that day’s Wall Street Journal.
That was pretty impressive, but the one that stunned me and caused me to gasp was that there in front of me was that week’s edition of The Hungry Horse News. I glanced over at him and he was looking away with the little smirk he got when he was having fun.
We talked for an hour and a half. I kept asking if I was taking too much time, but he kept brushing me off because I had come a long way. There was talk about taking the ground troops out of Korea then. I told him that the North and South would be in a shooting war in six months if we did that. But it was more about Montana that he really wanted to talk.
I had him sign a little paperback book of his foreign policy speeches my mother had sent me. I had heard that someone was writing a book about him and she promised to send it to me.
When she found this little book, she wrote inside the front cover, “Kelly, how about this until the other comes off the press.”
I asked him to autograph it back to her. He got that little smirk on his face again and he wrote, “Jane, how about this until the other comes off the press? Mike Mansfield, U.S. Ambassador, Tokyo, Japan.”
When we were done only problem I had was that it was still a $100 cab ride back to Yokota. So I went down to the Defense attaché office on the 4th floor, showed them the stuff he had autographed for me and asked if they had a way for me to get back.
Thirty minutes later I was saluting a four-star Air Force General as he was getting off his helicopter…then I got on and sat in his seat. Flying over downtown Tokyo I thought, “This isn’t bad for a kid from Shelby.”
But then it hit me…what had been happening all day…where I had gotten the authority…the word I had used as the great sesame that opened all the doors.
The word was “Mansfield”, and I said to myself, “Not bad for a kid from Butte.”
I understand now, too, that the great man got his batteries recharged talking to people from Montana. Power had him, but it was the people who had trusted him with it…that fueled his person and made him feel like the luckiest guy in the world…and he was still giving it back to them…even to me.
So where do you get your authority? What is it that fuels your tank… charges your batteries? It comes from outside, but it also comes from within. When what is going on outside matches what is going on inside the light of life opens up…and we are gifted to do great things even though we are mortal…and become the great gift to the world God hoped we would become.
There is a great sesame, a word you can use to open doors and light your way in the dark, too. The word is “Jesus.” You can use it any time and all the time.
I have a habit of saying it as my breath-prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” I say it when I am driving in traffic or through a storm or have a long way to go.
Here is the one who received all authority from God…and used it every day he could…every way he could…to bring good news to the oppressed…to bind up the brokenhearted…to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners..to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and to comfort all who mourn.
We have been given much treasure and much authority to lift up, to heal, and to show the world our Savior wants us to live to so as to bring great credit to the one who has sent us into this world to prepare all people for all that is to come.
O Lord, what is it that you want to do in the world through us… through me…this day? Amen.