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Speaking With Authority

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Year B

Based on the readings from Deuteronomy 18:15-20 and Mark 1:21-28

During the season of Epiphany, we have been exploring the many ways and times that God calls us, not only on a personal level, but also as a Church, and as a nation. The readings this week continue the theme of call, as they explore how God speaks to us through other people. They explore the whole concept of authority. How do we determine God’s truth? How do we determine who is speaking with integrity?

I came to a new realization about what authority meant a number of years ago when I participated in a healing circle. I felt a sense of embarrassment and complicity in being white in this otherwise aboriginal group. We were encouraged to pick up a stone that was placed in the centre of the circle and say what was in our hearts. I spoke of feeling honoured by being part of the circle. I expressed my own hurt at the residential schools and my sense of complicity in having taught in the system. The Elder who was leading the group let out a whoop as I finished. It took me by surprise. I was not certain what it meant. Another woman picked up the stone and explained that they were accepting me as a member of the clan, that I was a sister. They heard my words as being authentic. It was a true revelation to me as all in the group embraced me because an Elder, one who had authority, spoke on my behalf.

The question of authority was critical for the people of Israel. Prophets and priests claimed to speak and act in accordance with God’s will, and yet conflicts and disputes arose. They grappled with how God speaks to us. They settled on certain criteria. The prophet needed to be an Israelite. He was called to speak as God commanded, and then what was spoken had to be realized in the events that ensued. It needed to be confirmed.

We sometimes have the wrong idea about prophecy. We think that it is about foretelling the future. But it is far from that. The word prophecy comes from the Greek, prophetes, "one who speaks before others” or from the Hebrew “one called to speak aloud". The prophets were called to speak what had been discerned through the closeness of their walk with God. A prophet was one who listened to God. Their call was to speak with authority as the Elder in the healing circle spoke. The root of the word, authority, is literally “to make to grow”. What they said should help people grow in the way in which God intended.

There are prophets in our age. Sometimes in fact, they are much-maligned. Take for example, meteorologists who work at predicting the weather. A friend of mine retired now as a meteorologist, once told me an interesting anecdote about predicting the weather. It seems that when Pope Paul was planning his trip to Los Angeles he wanted to know what the weather would be like during his visit. A weather consultant was hired by the Vatican to make some recommendations. He looked at the last thirty years of weather in Los Angeles at the same time of year as the Pope's visit was to take place. He came back and said to the Pope, "At the time of your visit it is likely to be very hot and dry." The Pope made his plans accordingly and the trip went off as expected.

That is the basis of long term weather predictions. That is why there is no true certainty about the weather.

Scripture too looks at past history. So often the story begins with God recounting to a prophet all that God has accomplished for God's people in the past. "Wasn't I with you at the Red Sea? Did I not provide you with manna in the desert? Now go and tell my people...” and the prophet is able to speak with authority. "Thus says the Lord:” The prophet is able to challenge the people on a moral level. He is able to speak what needs to be heard in the light of past experience.

Jesus was known as one who could speak with authority. Hearing him speak in the temple gave people an understanding of their potential, of the possibilities. He did not talk down to them. He treated them as friends and equals. He taught them to be realistic about themselves. He helped them to know that God had called them to greater things than they could imagine. His authority made them do what all authority should do. It helped them grow.

Sometimes the person who bears authority is misunderstood. It was so with Jesus. A demented heckler shrieked at Jesus at the top of his voice. Jesus confronted the situation. He healed the person.

This scene is not as foreign to us as it seems. It is played out in our modern world. Jesus was saying something new. New things are often exciting, but at the same time they can seem threatening. Those who bear the prophetic word, those who advocate change, are often rejected or even attacked for their beliefs. The attack on such people can become quite personal. A spirit of open communication is essential in living out our life as a church community.

Bishop Poole loves to point out that there is a statistic that by the year 2160 if we keep on the same track the Anglican Church that we love will no longer exist. We will have died out. It should come as no surprise that we are a church in decline. Many congregations are made up of the elderly. Sunday is no longer a day of rest set aside for attending church. Many people work on Sunday as they do on any other day. Our competition is not other denominations, but rather the arena and the shopping mall. We live in a world where many are unchurched.

My last parish was in Mississauga, which of course is multicultural. I was asked by a community group that works in the school system to give a presentation at St. Francis to a group of children in grade 5 and 6 about the Christian faith. They were making visits to various religious institutions. They came from many backgrounds. Not one child had ever been inside a church before. They were intrigued, even hungry. I took them on a tour of the church and asked them to observe and figure out what was important to us in our faith. Of course, they remarked on the plain wooden cross which dominates the sanctuary of the church. They noticed the font and recognized that it was a bowl for washing and wondered why it was in the church. They loved the pictures in the stained glass windows. And so we were able to piece together the important elements of the Christian faith in a way that these unchurched children could understand. It led me to reflect once again how vast our Christian mission is.

Perhaps the most challenging and transforming call of Christ when it comes to authority is that we must learn to give up our own freedom and power for the sake of others. We church folk tend to hold on to power. We do not want things to change. After all, we are the ones who have supported the church with our wealth. Don’t we deserve to have the same liturgies that have sustained us through our own lives? We want the same hymns. We want to hear the same comfortable words. If they come to our church we want children to be seen but not heard. We want newcomers, but we want them to be just like us, upholding the traditions that we hold dear.

If we are truly following Christ and are committed to the Mission of the Church, if we wish to bear the prophetic word, if we wish to answer God’s call to bring healing, then we must be follow the authority of our Saviour who was the servant of all.
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