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Homily by Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon

Ordinary Sunday 26, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
September 25, 2011

Exodus 17: 1-7; Matthew 21: 23-32

By what authority?’

It is interesting to ask ourselves about the nature of authority – how it is given and received, how it is assumed or exploited.

Obviously Moses had led his people to freedom, through all sorts of barriers and struggles. They had given him authority probably because they found him to be good to them. They now acted as though he should provide all that they needed and felt betrayed if he didn’t.

Jesus was often challenged by the various religious and political authorities of his day. Maybe it was because he was young and had not risen to power through the processes with which they were familiar. You will see on the front of your liturgy today, a young face of Christ. We often forget that he was only about 30 when he died!

Maybe a young person could colour in this picture of that Christ. It might also remind us that authority can come from all sorts of people and of all ages, cultures, religions and life-styles. In fact a child will often face us with a truth, precisely because they haven’t noticed authority around them which might inhibit them.

The interchange between Jesus and his challengers is interesting. The fear of the chief priests seems to be related to the possible responses of the people around them – people who were obviously accepting of the authority of both John the Baptist and Jesus.

There are many situations in life when the authority of someone is dependent on the recognition of that authority by those around them. If you think about it, leaders in community and political and religious life can be divested of their authority if people decide that they don’t accept it. Churches and synagogues can become empty, with leaders talking into space. Political and community leaders can lose the vote of people or other means of support. In that sense, authority is given to people, rather than simply assumed.

Having said that, of course there will always be leaders in these contexts who claim leadership for themselves, attracted by power, egotistic enough to feel certain of their own views which undergird their leadership. Sometimes they become those who offer to people what they want to hear, rather than what is truly authentic and true. They may last for a while if those they claim to serve are prepared to affirm that sort of leadership and feel rewarded by it.

Of course, there are always some people who like to be led, especially by those who speak with absolute certainty and who only say nice things. It makes their followers feel safe and saves them from needing to have the courage to decide about life and faith for themselves. They give authority to the leaders and fail to question whether that leadership is wise and true and how it sits with living with mutual respect and self-respect.

Self-respect is important – not the idea that we are always right but that, if we believe that something is wrong in some way, that we are brave enough to challenge it – even if we do that in fear and trembling. This is about living with integrity, about moving towards maturity and about caring enough to take risks in standing our ground.

Of course none of us could claim to do that all the time, but it can be one of the hopes from which we live.

Leadership is complex. I recall a period of leadership in my own life, when I was asked to take the position of National Director for Mission for the Uniting Church. I remember moving all over the place in my life journey. One minute I felt flattered to hold that title and task. Then I would be exhausted by all the responsibilities that lay within my job description. Most of all, I found that I, who liked to please people and be loved by others, had to look my staff in the face and invite them into hard places.

I used to put off the day for doing that, spend sleepless nights trying to find an easier way through and then, finally face the fact that the authority which I had been given demanded that I assume responsibility. After I had done or said what I needed to do, I would feel the weight of it all and had to learn ways of restoring myself.

In sharing this, I am suggesting that authority, even appropriate authority, often carries with it a costliness. The authority which Jesus exercised, in the end, cost him his life. Had no-one around him recognized his authority, he would not have threatened those in power and he probably could have gone on living.

The story of the two brothers which Jesus tells in response to those who were challenging him is both interesting and encouraging. The authority of the first brother lay in his actually doing what his father asked him to do, even if he had originally had a rebellious moment.

The second brother had, if you like, bowed before the authority of his father – in theory given him authority, but then done nothing. In fact, his bowing before that authority meant exactly nothing. It was meaningless.

In religious life, it is all too easy to be like the second son. We can come to church each Sunday, enthusiastically pray and sing and listen to homilies, but unless these activities change our lives and translate into action which comes from our obeying the authority of good in God, then they are meaningless.

The authority which comes from God and goodness is both brave and humble. I remember meeting that in people I have known like Nelson Mandela and Fr. Ed de la Torre who spent many years in prison as he made his stand for the freedom of his people in the Philippines. Both these men had a humanness and humility about them and a powerful flow of love for others. The authority which they exercised originated not from their own power, but from the very nature of the love and justice which lay within it.

So we are called to do two things – to look carefully and prayerfully at the type of authority which others exercise and give due respect when it is appropriate and then to take responsibility for taking our stands when that is required and adding to the authority which changes the world into a different and compassionate place.

In saying this, I don’t want to lay upon each one of us a way of life which is unrelentlessly dutiful. I was brought up a bit like that – very Methodist. Ali taught me to play! It is about striking a balance and honouring a God in Jesus who laughs, adds wine to weddings and also retires to think and pray when needed. The water of life flows from this Christ and is offered to all of us for our survival and renewal.

Our calling today is to take authority seriously, both ours, that of others and, of course, of God. We will do that best if we dare to honestly dialogue with each other about what might be right, what might have Godly authority and then encourage each other to take the authority of the truth as far as we can perceive it. After that, we can hold each other as we take the risk of exercising that authority.

As we do this, the water of life will flow towards us, like that which Moses gave to the people and which was born of a gift from God.

As we complete the homily together:Let us in the silence reflect on what authority of love and justice we long to add to the life of the world and share that, if we wish. Or maybe we have seen or enacted a moment of that sort of authority and would like to share it.

As we share, let us pour a little water on the earth as a symbol of the life which can be given as we live with true authority.

 Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon