Authentic Authority

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Mark 1: 21-28

Jesus greets us today as the voice of authentic authority, in our own experience.

Three aspects of his authority are announced today, in the Gospel According to St. Mark.   We shall trace their emergence in our hearing, and attempt to apply them to our spiritual benefit.


First, notice the lingering power of tradition.  Not traditionalism, but the forms of inherited tradition.  The dominical voice of authentic authority whistles through the willow branches of tradition.

Jesus speaks.

When does he speak?  On the Sabbath. Where does he speak?  In the synagogue.

How does he speak?  As a teacher.

All three of these aspects of his speaking are named for us, though we might have inferred two of the three from just the mention of one, or another.  They go together—holy time, holy space, holy words.  The gospel means to emphasize by repetition.

There is, at the outset, a regard, a lingering respect for what has been, for what one inherits.  For tradition, though not traditionalism.  The Sabbath is the occasion.  The synagogue is the setting.  The role of teacher frames the message.

A time of rest and refreshment, Sabbath, here receives Jesus’ blessing, at least in the manner of his recognition and participation.   Sunday can be a time of Sabbath rest.  A time for sleep, for recovery, for reading, for gathering.   We are a sleep deprived people, somnambulant in a sleep deprived culture.  So a traditional occasion, a time for retreat and renewal can feed us, if we let it.  There are none so weary as those who will not sleep.

Following my sermons, some arise inspired and some awake refreshed.  Both are good outcomes.

Likewise, synagogue, a coming together, is a traditional form.  It means, a gathering together.  Blessed are the hosts, for they shall be called the cooks of God.   When you have had a hand in gathering together a gathering together, you have brushed close to something good, something godly.

The other Sunday, a cold one, I made the mistake of walking to worship without a hat.  Brr!  I put my hands over my ears.  I hurried on to come here, eager to see who would be with us in church, eager to hear a response from the listening congregation, eager to be nourished by the ministers of music, eager to be gathered into a warm, inviting, loving, embracing community.  When it is cold enough, you can really appreciate a heated church home.  When it is relationally cold enough, you can really appreciate a gathering together.  When someone finds a church family to love and a church home to enjoy—when the gathering together holds—there is a holy moment.

So, too, the role of the teacher.  A familiar role, a familiar social location.  It is not in some exotic form that Jesus greets his hearers today.  The form is familiar, the teacher.  We may sometimes look too far, too wide for what we most want and need, when nearby, familiarly so, our health awaits.

Sabbath, synagogue, rabbi.  Tradition.  Here Jesus is more than willing to don the raiment of inheritance, to be harnessed by the yoke of tradition.  Jeremiah recommended the old paths.  Matthew prized every jot and tittel.  We hunger for those voices that will help us translate the tradition into insights for effective living.

Some memories of college years, here, will be connected to the particular sound of our choir.  Some recollections of exams passed or nearly passed, will be held in earshot of a meal or a trip or a talk, here.  Some remembrances of things past, even of hard moments of loss or regret or disappointment, will have about them a shaft of light through stained glass, an echo of truth through scripture read, an admission of prayer needed and offered.

Our gospel today, which announces Jesus’ voice of authentic authority, notices the lingering power of tradition.

It is in the midst of this house, this lineage, this inheritance that Jesus speaks, not absent it.

His hearers are astonished.  He is not confused in their hearing with their hearing of the scribes, his usual opponents in the flow of this gospel.  They know a different voice when they hear it.  A voice of authority, authentic authority.

But we are not told what exactly made the voice authoritative.

Like last week, in the calling of the disciples, the two sets of brothers.  We are told nothing, there, about what made them move, what caused their decision, what set them free.  And this week, in the authorization of teaching, we are told nothing about what made the sermon so good.  Only that it was.

Over time, we all finally decide what constitutes authentic authority, what such authority sounds like.

Sometime a bit of old tradition can sound and seem like a new teaching.  Our neighbor at Boston College, Kerry Cronin, teaches students about an old fashioned tradition called ‘dating’.  She gives them a script.  She advises:  women should ask men too; ask in person not by twitter; if you ask, you should pay; enjoy talking for an hour; make it alchohol free; you cannot pass her course without going on a date.  “If we can retrieve from the old dating script a set of low level expectations…that would be great…The script can ultimately give you more freedom. (CC, 1/25/12, 29)

Jesus greets us today as the voice of authentic authority.

Three aspects of his authority are announced today, in the Gospel According to St. Mark.   We shall trace their emergence in our hearing, and attempt to apply them to our spiritual benefit.  First, tradition.


Second, notice, and how can you help it, the centrality of confrontation.  Here there is an unclean spirit loose, loose amid the holy time and place and role.

Authentic authority calls out his nemesis.  We are straightway here in the realm of apocalyptic, cosmic apocalyptic, battle.

Last week we hosted a memorial service here in Marsh Chapel as now we do three times or so a month.  With some of our BU family we grieved, remembered, accepted and affirmed.  As is not uncommon in some religious traditions, though perhaps not common for many of us here today, as the service began we heard a long, low wail.  The crie de couer continued, ramped up in volume, split out in thunderous cacophony, then trailed off again, only, again to ramp up in volume, split out in thunderous cacophony, and trail off again.  I can remember the first burial, now nearly thirty years ago, in which such wailing occurred in my hearing.  It was startling, as, for many, here, it was last week.  But it was true and real.  That is, now and then, people still ‘cry with a loud voice’, sometimes, in church.

Our worldview is not cosmic apocalyptic confrontation.  We do not see a convulsive as one demon, of an unclean sort, challenging another Jesus demon of an authoritative sort.  We are late modern people, women and men who do not cry out in public, unless we are at a sporting event, drinking heavily, or about to call the police into a domestic dispute.  Maybe, in compensation, that is why sports and drinking and all become so central to us.

Authentic authority involves confrontation, not just pleasant courtesies of disagreement, but  genuine squaring off.  To your roommate you finally say: ‘One of us is wrong and I think it is you.’  To your boss you finally say:  ‘Look, do you want to do my work or will you let me do it?’  To your political economy (known by the way for good reason as ‘capitalism’ not ‘laborism’, because capital rules labor in capitalism) you finally say:  ‘One way or another my son needs a job.’  To your good friend, gently, you say: ‘I am sorry you feel that way.  Goodbye’.  To your spouse you say:  ‘You can have me or him but not both at the same time’.  To your warring world you finally shout:  ‘My son is not your cannon fodder’.

One thing I truly admired about my dad was how he easy he was around confrontation.  A man would stand up and shout and carry on a church meeting, walk out of worship the next Sunday, or send a blistering hand written hate note to the pastor, and my dad would shrug and smile and say, ‘I like to see him get worked up.  It is worth the price of admission just to see him so angry.’  Less naturally and more slowly, I too have learned to honor and receive anger.  Mark would understand.

Here Mark is starting his gospel, with a confrontation.  The verb here rendered ‘be silent’ (so polite) means ‘to muzzle’.  Be muzzled.  Shut your trap. (so J Marcus, loc. Cit.).  Matthew begins his public gospel with the Sermon on the Mount.  Luke begins his public gospel with the sermon in Nazareth.  John begins his public gospel with the wedding in Cana (again, Marcus).  But Mark?  He begins with demons and confrontation.

When we get angry we get in touch with something deep inside, something not necessarily at all related to what we think we are angry about.  We are not so very far from the ‘unclean spirit’ of Mark 1.  We are complicated creatures.

You see and hear this again in the current play, ‘Freud’s Last Session’, an imagined conversation between Sigmund Freud, the great psychologist, and C. S. Lewis, the great apologist.  Bombs are falling on London.  Freud is suffering with mouth cancer.  Lewis is struggling with his young man’s sexuality. And through it all—the question of God.  Freud and Lewis confront each other. They lock horns for 90 minutes of verbal combat.  Each memorizes and delivers the equivalent of two Sunday sermons.  They square off and argue.  Good.

Lewis:  ‘in pleasure God whispers, in pain God shouts’.  Freud:  ‘just why are you living with your best friend’s mother?’  Lewis:  ‘I got on my cycle an atheist, and got off a believer, all one day’.  Freud:  ‘you might want to see somebody about that’.  Lewis: ‘faith is most reasonable thing on earth’.  Freud: ‘yes, such a good God—bombs, death, disease, pain’.  Lewis: ‘I will pray for you’.  Freud:  ‘you do that’.

Yet at the very end, though Freud has turned the radio off to mute the music in carries for much of the play, and of course Lewis, in good Freudian fashion, has asked why the good Dr. cannot listen to the music, and has given his spirited and spiritual analysis, at the end and alone, dying and in pain, the great psychoanalyst slowly turns up the music, and Mozart rings out.

There is no resolution—how could there be in 90 minutes?  But there is confrontation that exudes an authentic authority.

Jesus greets us today as the voice of authentic authority.

Three aspects of his authority are announced today, in the Gospel According to St. Mark.   We shall trace their emergence in our hearing, and attempt to apply them to our spiritual benefit.  Second, confrontation.  It takes the exorcising power, the authentic authority, finally, of love, to move us.


Third, response.  Notice the response.  The emphasis falls on an acknowledgement of authority, authentic authority.  ‘With authority…a new teaching…he commands…even the demons obey…his fame spread throughout the north country’.   It works.  Whatever he said, whatever he taught, it helped somebody.  We wish we knew what it was!

Yet, there is a quieter wisdom in the silence of Scripture here.  If we knew, we would be tempted just to repeat rather than to rehearse.  We need to have the tradition, in the moment of confrontation, translated into insights for effective living which, in response, we can use.  That is authentic authority in the full.  If we knew that he used the 100th Psalm, we would repeat it every Sunday.  If we knew he preached on Jeremiah, we would invariably do so.  If we knew he taught specific proverbs, we would ignore the rest.  No, there is freedom in the silence of the gospel, here, a freedom to live and love with authentic authority.  To respond.

Freud finally turned on the music.

And you?

I am a Christian because the best people, leading the best lives, in my experience, have been so.  I respond to the freedom and love I see in other people of faith, now 65 generations after the exorcism in Capernaum, and the response all across Galilee.  In other lives I have seen glimpses of what I could be and do, if I would only straighten up and fly right.  Some of those lives are in this room.  Some are in memory.  Some are out there waiting to be introduced.  Don’t kid yourself.  Especially, especially in a University setting, people are taking your measure.  Good.  Your example counts, matters, lasts, works.

Tradition and confrontation evoke a response.  The unclean spirit leaves.  The congregation murmurs.  The report goes forth.

Let me turn it around.  When you fail somehow, and we all you do, sometime, you know the negative influence of your own response.  Give yourself some credit then, on the up side of the ledger.  Dean Jones gave me a book.  Professor Jones listened with care.  That TA gave me the benefit of the doubt.  I will always be grateful for what Chaplain Jones did for me.  Let me say to those of us thirty years old and more:  eyes are watching, ears are listening, minds are considering what path to take.  Your example makes a difference in their response, right here, right now, right at Marsh Chapel.  We are forever teaching and learning, learning and teaching.

Someone taught you.  A High School band director?  A Latin teacher in college (Agricola, agricolae…)?  A chemistry professor who lingered with you in the lab?  Who?

Nellie responded to her Latin teacher.  Bob responded to his science teacher.  Jan responded to her history teacher.  Jen responded to her family matriarch.  Larry responded to his theology professor.  As Carlyle Marney put it:  “Who told you who you was?”

Somehow, with four growing children and a preacher’s meager salary, my parents managed to give us all piano lessons.  My teacher was a farm wife, thirty years younger than her husband.  The distance from the barn to the house, from the manger to the piano, was very short, in both geographic and olfactory senses.  I feel the warmth of that space and that tutelage today, even though those precious parsonage dollars were almost entirely wasted on me, to my regret.  I can’t play a scale, after at least 5 years of lessons.  I can though appreciate the difficulty of what others do.  And there was something more, somewhere between Lewis and Freud, in those afternoon lessons, which usually began with an honest question:  “Did you practice?” and a less than honest response:  “Some”.

You know, looking back that was one of the few places and times, week by week, when I was in the sole presence of a non-parental adult: honest, trustworthy, kind, caring.  Now where the farm was there is an auto dealer and a pizza parlor.  But the hay, the barn, the milking, the home, the warmth, the music, the teaching, the—may I call it friendship?, live on.  In her forties she died of cancer, three fine children, one great marriage, several years of crops and evenings and mornings of milking, and some less than stellar piano students later.  At her funeral the minister preached this sermon:  ‘You Are Song That God Is Singing’.  That itself is thirty years ago, but I remember it in full.  ‘You Are Song That God Is Singing’.  You are too.  And so are you.  And so are you.

The music is playing all around us, all through us, in our triumph and in our tragedy.  We just need to respond.  To lean over, and turn the dial, and set the music free.

Five winters ago a young woman in graduate school stopped to talk after worship.  She said, ‘That sermon was about me.’  She started coming every week.  She found her ministry here.  She took on a major responsibility, and then a big job.  A whole lot of you all who are here in this sanctuary this morning are here because of her outreach, her welcome, her embrace.  She heard, and she responded. Then she met another graduate student, another Texan, on the T of all places. A romance on the T.  They started to like each other. That had all that Texas stuff in common after all. Pretty soon they were in love.  Not long later they were engaged.  And then they got married.  And then moved by the United States Army to some place in Oklahoma. Elizabeth and Brian both responded and evoked response. You can too, starting today.  This is your moment.  You are a song that God is singing.

Oh, I wish they hadn’t moved.  Of course I miss them. But that doesn’t worry me.  I wish they were closer.  But that doesn’t make me anxious. I wish they were in the pew this morning.  But they aren’t and I am not concerned.  Because I know those two fine young people will let their music resound wherever they are.  And those in any chorus with them will be the richer for their presence.  Authentic authority is found in real response.

The Gospel According to St. Mark starts off with a voice of authentic authority.  When you are searching for a sense of reliable, authentic authority, then hunt around a healthy bit of lost tradition, and for a courageous and cleansing moment of confrontation and  for a real and personal, public response.

~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

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