September 27, 2020 (Proper 21)
Lessons for Proper 21 (Year A): Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
There’s an well-worn story (if not a somewhat trite one) about the former governor of Massachusetts, Christian Herter, attending a church barbecue at the end of a particularly grueling day of campaigning during his reelection bid. Campaigns are generally difficult affairs for candidates but this day was particularly arduous and Herter arrived at the barbecue having missed his lunch. As Herter moved down the serving line, he held out his plate to the woman serving chicken. She put a piece on his plate and turned to the next person in line.
“Excuse me,” Governor Herter said, “do you mind if I have another piece of chicken?”
“Sorry,” the woman replied. “I’m supposed to give one piece of chicken to each person.”
“But I’m starved,” the governor said.
“Sorry,” the woman said again. “Only one to a customer.”
Governor Herter was, by character, a modest and unassuming man, but he decided that he would try to throw a little weight around. “Do you know who I am?” he said. “I am the governor of this state.”
“And do you know who I am?” the woman said. “I’m the lady in charge of the chicken. Move along.”
In the lessons provided by the lectionary today, the common theme of authority runs throughout. In Exodus, we find the authority of God manifested through Moses as the Israelites quarrelled and tested the LORD at Rephidim. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the ancient hymn speaks of Jesus not taking for granted his authority but rather becoming a servant. And then, in the gospel lesson, the chief priests and elders, misunderstanding and misusing their own authority, take issue with Jesus’ authority. And through the parable, Jesus describes two sons who challenge their father’s authority.
But those two sons aren’t the only ones with authority issues, are they. Yes, I’m talking about you. I’m talking about myself. We all have authority issues! Usually, when we talk about authority, we understand it only as a measure of credentials and expertise, a thick resume, years of education, successes and accomplishments, status and reputation. Or else it is a measure of one’s position held in relationship to another. We generally assume that authority comes from some external force or circumstance outside a person. In this understanding some have authority and others do not.
When I was a kid, I used to like to tell my older brother, “You’re not the boss of me!” Of course, when I used that phrase, my brother had (more often than not) been left in charge. “Who do you think you are?” “What gives you the right to tell me what to do?” Phrases like this represent our usual way of understanding authority and they reflect our usual issues with that authority. We don’t like someone else teaching us, correcting us, or telling us what to do. You can hear the same authority issue in the challenge of the chief priests and elders to Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” You can see the issue, each manifested in its own way, in the responses of the two sons when asked to go to the vineyard.
This is the usual understanding of authority and the resultant issues that we have with authority arise from this understanding. And, this is where our understanding too often stops, revealing a fundamental misunderstanding of what true authority is and, for Christians, where true authority comes from. You see, this usual understanding only sees authority as coming from some external circumstance or relationship. There is, however, another issue with authority at play in today’s lessons – the issue of our failure or refusal to recognize, claim, and exercise the authority within you and within others.
God is the Author
And I’m not talking about God being the boss of you. Frankly, if you think God is the boss of you, you misunderstand authority. God is not the boss of you. God is not the boss of me. God is not the boss of us. God is our author. Every day, God authorizes us! Every day, God gives us authority to enter the vineyard, to act in the world with and through the gifts that God has bestowed upon each one of us.
Seeing it this way, authority comes from within. True authority comes from our creation as an interior force or quality divinely given, not from an exterior circumstance or relationship. In the gospel narrative, the chief priests and elders failed to understand the source of authority. Maybe that’s why Jesus was so aggravated with the religious leaders. The chief priests and the elders exchanged their God-given authority for human power.
Sometimes we do too. I think that is perhaps what is happening in much of our world today. Wars and conflicts dot the political landscape because people and nations seek power in the absence of authority. Racism and misogyny run rampant because the privileged want to retain power but have not the authority. The poor are abused because money seeks power without authority. You see, as Paul’s use of that ancient hymn clarifies, true authority empties itself and takes the form of a servant. Power looks after its own interest; authority looks to the interests of others.
Think about the people in your lives who reflect authority – who demonstrate the authorization given them by the author of their lives. For me, those people were never concerned primarily about themselves. They never dominated or controlled. Instead, they inspired and called forth faith, hope, and trust. They expand my world, they open new possibilities, and they bring forth life. But above all, they empower the gifts in me that were placed there by the author of my life. That sounds a lot like Jesus, doesn’t it.
To me, it also sounds a lot like one of my mentors, Monsignor John Caulfield. I thank God for the authority of Fr. John. He did have that usual kind of authority – the kind borne from his position as Pastor, but Fr. John never played that card. No, the authority that he manifested was that grounded in his character – joy, patience, presence, and wisdom – divine attributes that created space and place for me and for others, that invited us to discover our own authority, that showed us the way to the vineyard of our lives.
There are people in this parish who have no leadership position, title, or theological credentials and yet they have such great authority because of the divine life evident in their being. It is evident in their compassion and gentleness, in patience and forbearance. It can be heard in the way they pray or read the sacred story. It can be felt in love and compassion. It is found in the way they show others the way to the vineyard. That’s what authority does!
From God, For the World
God has authored in each of us God’s own divine character. It is an authority given to be shared. That means every one of us has authority. As a priest in this parish, I do not have more authority than you. I do not have better authority than you. I just have different authority. God gives each of us authority unique to our lives, and, make no mistake, God is generous and extravagant with the gifts she gives and the authority she shares. The difference isn’t that some have authority and others don’t. The difference is that some recognize and exercise their authority and others do not.
God knows and sees the authority he has given us and waits for us to see and know it too. And when we do, we change our minds and go to the vineyard. What is the authority God has given you? Are you living that authority? Are you going into the vineyard?