Sunday, September 25, 2011

The authority that shapes your life

Matthew 21:23-32 depicts a fascinating interview between Jesus and several Jewish civic and religious leaders at the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus’ interrogators, disturbed by his teachings and healings, the ruckus his presence has caused, and the threat he poses to their power want to know by what and whose authority he acts.

Jesus replies using a tactic to which lawyers and authority figures generally object. He answers their question with a question of his own, skewering his interrogators on the horns of a dilemma. He asks them whether John the Baptist, when John called the Jews to repent and then baptized those who did so as a public symbol of their repentance, acted on human or divine authority. If they replied that John’s authority came from God, the obvious follow-on question was why they did not accept John’s message; if they replied that John acted only on human authority, they would alienate Jews who believed John was a prophet.

So, Jesus’ interrogators pled ignorance and declined to answer his question. Jesus then declined to answer their question about the source and nature of the authority with which he taught and lived.

That’s good news for us, who seek to follow Jesus’ example. We do not need to tell anyone the authority or authorities upon whom we rely to shape our lives. But the question is worth considerable reflection because honestly and individually identifying the source (or sources) and nature of the authority that shapes one’s life can clarify a person’s true spiritual identity.

Nominally, most or all of us identify ourselves as Christian. We’ve received – hopefully – the sacrament of Holy Baptism through which God grafts a person into Christ, the living vine. Yet, as Jesus’ parable of the two sons emphasizes, words are cheap. The obedient son obeyed his Father whereas the disobedient son only paid lip service to the Father’s request. Similarly, telling yourself that Jesus shapes your whole life is both dishonest and stymies spiritual growth.

Actions are much more costly and far more revealing. When you really look at yourself – not your physical appearance in a mirror, but your inner self, revealed in your actions – do you see Jesus? More tellingly, do others see Jesus? Our worship includes a prayer of confession precisely because nobody fully obeys. The absolution assures us that God lovingly embraces us anyway, encouraging us to persevere in trying to walk the Jesus’ path.

On November 30, 1971, five heavily armed men shot out the glass doors of a New York City bank and entered the bank firing automatic weapons, wounding twelve people. A bank teller ran from the robbers and made it to an upstairs, women’s restroom. One gunman chased her, but he stopped at the door to the ladies’ room, shouting at her to come out. When she refused, he went downstairs to help his colleagues finish robbing the bank. He might be a murderer and a thief, but he would not enter a women’s restroom. (Adapted from the New York Post, cited by William Lutz, The New Doublespeak (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996))

In what ways does your life exhibit a similar crazy pattern of values, some Christian, and some of your own choosing? In what ways have you, liked the allegedly devout whom Jesus criticized for tithing herbs and allowing their parents to go hungry, emphasized obedience in small things and ignored the important dissonances between your values and lifestyle and Jesus’ way? In what ways are you like the child who says yes, and then does otherwise?

Theologian, musician, and physician Albert Schweitzer won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. The Episcopal Church annually commemorates his life and work on September 5. Born in 1875 in Kaysersburg, Germany, he died at the hospital he had founded in Lambaréné, Gabon, in 1965 where he lived for all but six of his last 52 years.

Schweitzer is an inspirational example of the Christian life for four reasons. First, he was obviously multi-talented. You may not have the abilities to be an excellent theologian, musician, musicologist who organized, funded, and provided medical care to patients at a 500 bed hospital. However, God values everyone; God gives every person multiple gifts and abilities with which to enrich her/his life and community. It is not the size but the use of one’s gifts that is vital.

Second, Schweitzer took his Christian commitment very seriously. Like most of us, Schweitzer’s family of origin was Christian; they lived in a culture shaped by Christian vocabulary, symbols, and values. He could easily have gone with the flow, wearing his Christianity as comfortably as an old coat. Instead, he believed that the happiness and blessings he enjoyed entailed a responsibility to serve others. Thus, he exchanged the pleasant life of a respected scholar for the hardships of life as a medical missionary in the African wilderness. His actions spoke far more loudly than his words.

Third, Schweitzer had a cosmic vision of God deeply rooted in experience. He believed that a single ultimate reality existed and that the world’s religions were all paths along which people journeyed toward that reality. That reality – God – called people to respect all life. He lived this commitment and inspired called the rest of the world to do the same.

Fourth, Schweitzer was very human. Scholars now ignore his most important theological work, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, believing his conclusions about Jesus being a self-aware Messiah who emphasized the impending end of the world were wrong. Mid-twentieth century visitors to Schweitzer’s hospital found the facility primitive and third-rate. He was autocratic and regarded most Africans as younger siblings rather than peers.

Who, or what, shapes your life?

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