When I was a hospital and hospice chaplain, I would wear my clergy collar a lot. I don’t feel the need to wear it often in the parish because we already know one another. But in hospitals, when time is short and no one knows who I am, it’s important that people be able to understand why I’m there. The clergy collar becomes an automatic signal.
But, like any uniform, it also becomes something that people project their own meanings on to, for good or for bad. And they will tell you all about it. When I was a hospice chaplain, for instance, I was going into areas around Dorchester and South Boston where most people were raised Catholic.
Many hadn’t had exposure to Protestant ministers and, I mean, the haircut didn’t help either. So there were a number of situations when I automatically became “Father” to someone. Once I was eating lunch in a restaurant. As the waiter handed me the check he said to me, “Father…my mother’s sick. I wrote her name down on the bill. Would you pray for her please?” It didn’t seem like the right time to correct him, so I told him that I would of course pray, and I gave him my credit card. I’m not sure why he thought the Father had the card of someone named “Emily”, but if he was suspicious, he didn’t ask.
I tell you this story because it goes to show how much authority people automatically give to religious figures sometimes. I was always amazed about the authority people automatically gave me, just because of one piece of clothing and what it symbolized. I was also always a little disturbed by it.
I think Jesus would have been too. The Scripture reading today talks a little about Jesus and the religious authorities of the day. Jesus had gone into the a temple, a seat of religious power, and he had just walked in and started teaching. It would be sort of like any of us walking into another church and starting to preach. But that wasn’t even the most astonishing part. What was most astonishing was that he was teaching, Scripture tells us, is how he was teaching. “They were astounded,” it says, “for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes,” who were the regular teachers.
The story tells us that that’s when a man came into the synagogue, and he had an “unclean spirit” which was a sort of demon. And Jesus healed him, sending the spirit away. And the people are even more amazed and say, “What is this? A new teaching–with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
In other words, “Who is this guy? Where does he get off teaching in the synagogue and casting out demons?” And, even more perplexing, “Why does it seem like he knows what he’s doing?”
Jesus had real authority. It wasn’t the kind that came with a clergy collar or any other kind of uniform. Walking in that day, he probably looked like your average Joe. Nothing special. No one was coming up to him, calling him “Father” or asking him to pray for their mother. But he didn’t need those things. As soon as he started to talk, and to minister, people knew he was the real deal.
The people said he had “authority”. I hear that word “authority” and I assign a certain meaning in my head. I think about whether someone has the “authority” to do something or not. If we go somewhere we aren’t supposed to go someone might ask, “Do you have the authority to be here?” Or, we might call customer service and ask for help, and the person on the other end of the line might say, “I don’t have the authority to do that”.
Authority, the way we usually use it, is about permission and power. You with have it or you don’t.
But when you look at the root of the word “authority”, there’s something interesting there. It’s not important to remember this, but the Latin root for authority is “auctoritas”, which is the same root as for the word “author”. In other words, one who is an authority, or who has authority, is one who is an author.
Now, being a writer, that makes sense to me. The author is someone who sets things in motion on the page. When I decide I have something to write, I sit down, and start to map out my ideas. I usually get a sense of where I am heading. I come up with an outline, I put the chapters in the right order, and then…I write. A lot. Day after day, and things are always shifting under me. But, eventually, I write the last words, and I am done. I have authored something.
An author is a creator. We take pieces of what we know, and we knit them together. Our identity as an author, our authority, comes not because we are brilliant or particularly interesting, but because we dare to participate in the process of creating something.
That’s an important lesson for Christians. We are not all called to be writers, but we are all called to be authors. We are called to create something in this world. More than that, we are given the authority to create something in this world.
And here’s where it’s important to remember that authority is not a badge or a symbol of power. Authority is something entrusted to us, an obligation that makes us no better than others. Authority, in fact, is what calls us to serve others. Our authority does not allow us to control others…it only allows us to participate with God in the transformation of the world.
Christianity is not a passive faith. It is a faith for authors. It is a faith for creators and doers. Following Christ means following his example. It means claiming the authority to do the work that needs to be done. For Jesus that meant walking in and teaching. For us, that means figuring our where our world needs us, and taking responsibility to author a new way.
But sometimes walking into the world and claiming our author-ity, our call to author something new, is as radical as Jesus walking into that temple…and as scary. Sometimes we are wary of claiming that authority. But sometimes, we take a risk, and we do it anyway.
This week I was reading about a childhood classmate of mine who has made a decision about what she wants to do with the next chapter of her life. She is leaving behind a comfortable life in our hometown, and she is moving overseas to help with an international faith-based refugee organization. She will devote herself to easing the suffering of displaced people, and helping them to recover.
She does not have to do this. She could stay back in the states, pray, and send money. But she is claiming an authority that has been given to her by her faith. She is becoming the author of the next chapter of her life. And she is authoring a story that will intersect with the stories of untold others. And ultimately, she will be a part of the greatest story, which is the story of God’s love and grace; the story authored by God, in which we all play a part.
My friend proves that the authority of a follower of Christ does not come wrapped in a clergy collar. It comes in the way that we act. It comes in the way that we respond to the author-ity, the responsibility, that God has given to each of us. When we were baptized, or when we confirmed our baptisms, we received this authority. We received the charge to help write this story. Living into our baptisms means becoming authors, active creators, of the next part of the story.
You and I don’t need to board a plane to do that. We have the chance to create something right here. Two Sundays from today we will have our annual meeting here at church. Once a year, for about an hour, we have an all-church meeting. Every member of the church is asked to attend. Together, in that hour, we become the authors of all this church will do in the coming year. Over the next year we will author a new story. Every day we will write the pages, but at annual meeting we will set out our plan, decide on our table of contents and our chapters, and make sure that we have everything we need, from the right people in the right places, to enough tools in enough hands.
I know that on Sunday mornings after church you are eager to get to a long list of things to do before Monday rolls around. This year I hope you’ll give us an hour. The story we are writing together is a story where each of us has some of the words. Without you, the story will not be complete. But if each of us brings our piece to the table, if each of us claims the authority to create something new, we can author something beautiful, and something that can change our world.