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Homily by Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon

Epiphany 4, Year B
South Sydney Uniting Church
January 29, 2012

Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Mark 1:21-28

The nature of authority’

The passage in Deuteronomy is referring to the coming of a new prophet to replace the leadership which Moses had given to the people. Of course, there are the voices of many prophets over the years recorded in the books of the Bible. They often write in a particular style – as though they are forecasting the future. In fact, the word “prophetic”, is often associated with that concept that we refer to as “prophesying”. However, Biblical scholars have noted that almost all that the prophets wrote about had already occurred – it was simply a way of writing significant beliefs and insights at that time, a sort of modelling of how the living out of prophetic life could be.

As an aside, I would say that this alone warns us of the risks in literal interpretations of the Scriptures of any religion. The reality is that, down the ages, there were many different ways of communicating. Having said that, the prophets still give to us profound words of inspiration for our day.

The political leaders of the day were fearful of the way people were giving Jesus “authority”. It is interesting to reflect on the nature of authority. Of course, it can come with power – power seized through wealth and influence, or through violence. People bow to that authority because they fear it, or because they imagine it may bring rewards to do so.

Then, in a sense, we give people authority by electing them to government or other positions of power. Perhaps we think we recognize in them the sort of authority which will be good for the community.

Of course, they often betray this trust and we begin to take away any authority which they had in terms of public recognition. However, they go on acting from the original authority which we gave them. This should invite in us a sense of grave responsibility whenever we vote, or when we look for people to represent us. Fortunately, we can often eventually remove people from office if we choose.

However, even in this environment of authority, we are often tempted to give it power because it feeds into our prejudices or personal interests, rather than because it lives out the prophetic dream for the world.

In all this, I am suggesting that, in the end, authority is given rather than taken. Even in situations of terrible oppression and corruption, the only way through is for the people to refuse to bow to that and pay the price of challenging it. We can see this, over and over again, in the history of the world.

We could see those who play this role as prophets. They are always disturbing to the powers of the day, but seen by some as, at last, daring to name the truth, as having “authority.” They name the grand dream for humankind, maybe not without some fallibilities, but, in general bringing us an invitation to courage and change for justice and truth.

Sometimes we can be directly involved in trying to bring that dream into reality. More often than not, in our context it is about supporting those who stand on the ground of the struggle.

For example, decades ago, some of us, like Geoff Turnbull, led organizations here which supported those who risked their lives in challenging the Marcos regime in the Philippines. Others tried to do the same in relationship to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. We sometimes paid a price for doing that, but a small one compared to the costly prophetic lives of those directly engaged.

Looking at Jesus as one to whom the people gave authority, we might ask why they did that? What did they see in him? Sometimes, it may well have been a naming of the truth about life and faith which people recognised. Undoubtedly, Jesus must have been charismatic figure, one who understood how to communicate in parables/stories and passionate invitations to people to think again about life and faith.

Clearly there was some sense of integrity and love for them which they were seeing and hearing. He lived out what he was saying. Often prophetic truth is spoken with a courage and preparedness to suffer for naming it and this, in itself, lifts the person into another level of life before us.

That would be why those whom Jesus challenged were afraid. They were threatened by the enthusiasm of the people for this person and for principles and visions which would unseat the powerful of the day, or at least make them bring in significant changes. As they watched, they could probably also see the people themselves gaining a sense of power.

Jesus was, of course, the ultimate prophet in that he spoke and acted with the authority of God and lived out his prophetic words so strongly that those he challenged felt they had to stop him and, in the end, kill him.

So, are our churches prophetic today? I would suggest that we rarely are, or if we are speaking with that voice, we have mostly lost ways of making it heard. I don’t imagine that any of us would presume to be “prophets”. However, I do believe that we can live out prophetic moments by naming what love and justice might look like, trying to enact that and taking our stand.

If the church is already doing that and not being heard, we may need to think of my creative and imaginative ways of communicating. Of course, in modest ways, we sometimes do try to do that through our paper. As we prepare to celebrate its 100th edition, we can affirm that.

However, sometimes, we may need to be even more imaginative, or possibly braver. We tie the blue ribbons across the front of our church for ASCA. I believe that art in its many forms can invite people to think again about change for good. Imagine if we had a grand mural on canvas across the front of the church which portrayed our hopes for change in a number of areas – maybe created together by a number of people?

What if we portrayed a new Bill of Rights for our country in words and images? Maybe we could make a mural of the diversity which we affirm in race, culture, religion and sexuality? That is just one form of communication, of course. There would be many others. Perhaps we could make a sort of pathway of tiles across our driveway which invited people to tread towards justice – a sort of labyrinth?

None of these take away from the need for us to bravely speak out or even exercise civil disobedience at times, but, given our artistic talents and the hope of capturing people’s imagination, maybe there are steps which can be taken?

You are now invited to complete the homily together. In the silence, let us reflect on what prophetic word would we want to say in the name of our God today, or what stand would we want to take?

Then, if you want to share your idea, come and take a small “footprint” from the tray on the Altar table and place it before the cross as a symbol of taking your stand.