Power and Authority

Power and Authority

September 28, 2014
Stina Pope

As I read and re-read this Gospel passage, the word that pops for me is authority, which is a word which is related to power. One way of looking at authority is to do a power analysis, looking at who has the power. One of the things Jesus does over and over is to change the power differential. Think about the story of the Roman soldier who has the authority to command any Jewish man to carry his 50 pound pack for a Roman mile (longer than our mile!), and then we think about the rather comical situation of the soldier now begging the Jewish man to give the pack back to him, because he is carrying it farther than the stipulated mile, because the soldier can now get in trouble because it is over the mile – and Jesus does not have to say out loud, his audience hears loud and clear – so who has the power now?

So, when we look at who has the power in this situation that is presented to us in the Gospel, the first question is: power and authority, according to whom? According to the religious establishment, Jesus did not have authority, or at least he should not have had it. So they come and try to discredit him by asking him where his authority comes from. He does an interesting thing. He refuses to answer the question. Just because someone asks a question, even directly, does not mean we have to answer. That is a big lesson for me personally!

If we look at how people usually establish power, Jesus is a man, rather than a woman. But then, he is poor, not rich, he is from the sticks, not Jerusalem, he does not have a seminary degree, and he hangs out with all the wrong people. Did I miss anything? And when the authorities ask him where he gets his authority from, he says, sure, I will answer your question if you answer mine first. They are satisfied. So then he asks them his question. Where did my cousin John get his authority from? They back down and go away.

Over 35 years ago, the Episcopal Church decided to ordain women to the priesthood. Many people were very happy about this, and others were not. I was asked many times how I thought I had any authority to be a priest, since it was simply impossible in their minds for a woman to be a priest. Very quickly I formed an answer for these people. Come and listen to me preach, I said. If I am not preaching the word of God, then you should kick me out, no question. Usually, that was enough. But sometimes they said no, priesthood is about representing God. It is about standing in for Jesus. Jesus was a man, therefore priests must be men. This argument usually came from people who felt they had more authority. This was a highly intellectual argument, from their perspective, and I should respect and give way to their authority. I saw it as an issue of culture. That is, the culture said no, women cannot be priests. And sometimes culture can and should be changed.

So we look at culture, and power, and the church, and we see that sometimes the bishop has the power, and sometimes a little church has power. Thirty-five years ago when I was in the ordination process, who would have thought that a gaijin woman would be the priest here? No one. Even ten years ago, who would have thought that an indigenous woman would be preaching at our diocesan convention and that the Asian Commission would be leading the whole Eucharist? No one! But things change. People ask questions, like Jesus asks in the second part of the gospel reading. Who is doing the will of the father – the one who says he will do it, or the one who actually does it?

Finally, just a quick look back to the Hebrew Scripture. Remember that last week, the people got mad at Moses, and they said that he had led them out into the desert to kill them of hunger. Moses did two things, he reminded them that they were really angry with God, not him, and he asked God to give the people what they needed. God sent quails for them to have meat, and manna for them to make bread. That’s fine, but now they are complaining again, this time about water. The people get mad, because they are frightened. They have no water, and they do not know of any oasis anywhere. They do not want to die, and they are not very nice when they go to Moses and tell him he better get them some water. And Moses goes to God and, very much like last week, gives God their demand.

But here’s the thing. First, they need water. Like any small child who needs food or water, they present their demand. And like any good parent, God does not zap them for asking. This is important for us to remember. It is ok to ask. Really! Second, God produces it from an unlikely source, a rock. Now if you have been to or seen pictures of the Holy Land, you will have seen lots and lots of rocks. Lots of rocks. Not very much water. And God tells Moses to take his magic staff and hit the rock with it. And there is water. We look at the rock, and we see a rock. God can see more than we can. If we remember that, then we can look around and see lots of rocks, and say, OK God, I don’t know how you’re going to manage this, but we need water, and we need it pretty soon, or, we’re going to die.

There was one time in my life when I knew I was going to die if something pretty big didn’t happen, and I could not see any possibilities, and so I told God, OK! If you want me to die, I’m ready! I don’t really think that’s what you want, but if so, OK. And if that’s not what you want, then you’re going to have to do something that is impossible from my perspective, and that would be just fine too. That was my prayer. And then the impossible happened.

When we need the impossible to happen, we need to ask God for it, and we ask with open hands, ready to die. We’re going to die anyway, so why not ask? And why not ask anyway, because we know where the power really is, we know who really has the authority, and that’s who we can call on.