This week’s Christian Century tells a wonderful story of a pastor from another denomination on a Sunday which was designated their once-a-month communion Sunday. The pastor was in the pulpit, giving his sermon. The altar/table was set for communion with loaves of fresh homemade bread and vessels of juice. Then in came Harriet, who entered through a side door, crossed in front of the pulpit, and began down the center aisle to take a seat in a pew…but not before she noticed all the fresh bread on the altar. She immediately turned, walked to the altar and began to eat. Once she had filled her hands with pieces of bread (and the sermon had been slightly sidetracked) she took a seat, and the congregation began to relax…but then Harriet rose again…and went back to the altar table. The fresh, warm bread had tasted very good to her. A deacon, sitting nearby joined Harriet at her side, wrapping her arms of love around Harriet’s slight frame, and there they stood until Harriet had had all the bread she needed. In union they then turned together, returning to Harriet’s place in the pew, sitting side by side.
Somewhat like Harriet, Jesus had been making many people uncomfortable, disrupting the accustomed way of doing things. By what or whose authority was he operating? They asked him. Were his actions permissible? Allowable? Harriet, like Jesus, causes us to think, “What is she doing?” “That is not allowed…” “She should not be doing that…” And, with those thoughts, we may be missing the whole point.
The patterns of our past, and in this case, the patterns of our worship, our liturgy, are well-entrenched in us, and so, just like Harriet in this story, Jesus is stirring things up.
On the day prior to what he hear in the lesson in Matthew, Jesus had entered Jerusalem to the shouts of “Son of David” and then he drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, knocked over the tables of the money changers, and called the temple itself a “den of robbers.” Tensions built between Jesus and the temple leadership in all of this, and they asked him, ”By what authority are you doing these things?” And, I suppose it is a fair question. Jesus had caused a stir, drawn attention to himself, and undone protocol -not good.
Their own authority in Israel, after all, had been given to them by God in the time of Moses and passed down for generations, so for Jesus to reply, “by God’s authority” would have been easily refutable, based on scripture. So, he challenged them to consider the baptism of John – divine or human authority? And they could not answer…no answer worked for them.
In antiquity, authority to act in public came by way of one’s relative honor ranking, as in how the community saw the person. That honor ranking was a product of several things….one’s birth ranking (parental honor level) but it could also be won (as in something acquired by action.) Whatever the source, a sound honor ranking, based on what one did and said in public, would have been required for public credibility. Anything outside of those standards, and one’s authority would have been connected with evil. Since Jesus had a relatively low birth status, his questioners would have assumed that he might have been given authority by a high-standing patron, a wealthy, or high-standing patron, who sent him to do his bidding. Not so. Instead, Jesus forced his challengers to see it in a new way… and that he already had credibility or authority in the eyes of the people, and then he shamed them by asking a question they could not answer. His honor was enhanced, and he earned the right to speak. (Malina and Rohrbaugh, 108-109)
Authority seems to be the issue here. Though we vary from the ancient people in how we assign it, we all, at times, wonder about it. Who has it, who should have it, who has too much and who has assumed some authority that they didn’t earn? All good questions. It happens in most of the systems to which we belong. It is the question that the congregation I just spoke of were asking. By what authority did Harriet go to the altar and eat the bread? We don’t do it that way, a clergy or minister or priest needs to go there first - because, authority is part of the system of protocol, isn’t it? Authority is assigned – or earned, as in the case of Jesus. It is a human ideal, and we generally follow the one with the authority, the one, who is notably part of the system which we are. But, authority, and who has it, is often, in the words of a colleague, “squishy.” That is to say, outside institutions authority is often hard to pin down, and I think that’s what Jesus was getting at.
Just listen to how he began the parable that followed. He asked ALL those who were listening, “What do you think? What do you think, those with authority,” (the leaders of the temple and all who were listening) because, one need not be an authority to listen, hear, think, respond.
What do you think? Here’s what I think. What about you? Consider the two sons, one who responded positively to his father’s request, and then neglected to do what he said he would, and the other, who said no, irritating his father (especially in that first-century context), but then went and did what he was asked to do. Which one did the will of his father? And they answered as we would – the one who DID the will of his father. And there, FOR ME…, is the point. Authority, a human construct – and necessary for most situations, can be mishandled, misunderstood, and inflated to the point that it hurts other humans. What is important, in all circumstances, is the doing. Walk the talk…you know?
Communion, in the Episcopal Church, is always officiated over by someone with authority, either a bishop or a priest. We have established that in our tradition, because it insures consistency and careful care of our liturgy. That person who has authority, bestowed by the church, is not the only one with authority in attendance, however. Considering the depth, the substance, the grace in this act of praise and thanksgiving, the doing, by the body, of what we remember in the liturgy, is the vital part. That is to say, that if we make communion each and every Sunday morning, if we are lost in the mystery of the liturgy and the music, if we serve at the altar or sit in the pew, we do this together, and Christ is with us. But, if we do all these things, but do not embrace and share what we receive with others, in whatever way we understand, we are like the son that said “Yes,” but didn’t do what his father asked. It is vital for us to take from this communion and then to do. The deacon who rose and went to Harriet at the altar, who embraced, and accompanied her, but resisted the all-too human urge to snap her back into societal or liturgical expectations, did exactly that. She understood the grace in the communion…and probably understood the liturgy as well. She applied it, she did what she understood in the liturgy.
One Sunday years ago, I served as a transitional deacon at the altar at Christ Church, Anacortes. It was the Sunday of their mass-on-the-grass, and the officiant, the one with authority, was the Rev. Vicki Wesen, my friend and mentor. Our music that morning was supplied by a guitar trio out of Seattle, and they brought wonderful praise music with them. The folding chairs on the grass were filled, as many members had invited friends and family to join in the worship that day. A sublime feeling of the Spirit filled the worship as we sang and praised God and then made communion. During the communion, folks lined up and came forward for the bread and the wine, and I noticed a sweet, small boy, who received, with his grandparents, but, instead of returning to his seat with them, he got back in line for more. I watched to see what Vicki would do, and, of course, she smiled at him and gave him another “Body of Christ,” and then he returned to the end of the line again. I felt myself feeling anxious, for it had been my job as deacon to make sure we had just the right amount of wafers on the paten. I had counted, added a few extra, but I wasn’t sure where we were in terms of numbers, and, besides, this was highly irregular. Quietly I whispered to Vicki….”He’s coming back a third time!!” As the child came again to the front of the line, she smiled gently and said to me, “There is always enough communion for everyone.”
I had preached, just the week prior, about God’s abundance…and today, I was counting wafers like tomorrow would begin a worldwide famine. I had lost track of what the communion was about. I had forgotten to walk my own talk.
That is what I think about the parable. What about you? My authority, bestowed at my ordination is shared as we, together consider together God’s goodness, love, and grace in scripture and in our day-to-day lives.
Giving attention to authority, protocol, rules, the way we’ve always done it, is important – it keeps things going, but it is not our focus. Rather, our delight, our center, as followers of Jesus, is in the gifts God gives us at this table and in creation; It is the knowledge that God is always inviting us into deeper and further encounters; It is in the caring and doing, the “walking the talk” of our baptisms. It is in delighting in God’s will and walking in God’s ways. May it be so.