Sunday, January 29, 2012

With Authority

“With Authority”
Deut 18:15-20; Psalm 111; Mark 1:21-28; 1 Cor 8:1-13
A Sermon preached by Carla Pratt Keyes
at Ginter Park Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
January 29, 2012

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
Mark 1:21-28

Before I read today’s epistle lesson, I’d like to draw your attention to the Greek word for authority: exousia (ἐξουσία). It’s used twice in the story you just heard. The crowds recognize that Jesus teaches as one with authority (unlike the scribes, who occupy positions of authority, but do not teach “with authority” according to the text). When Jesus commands an evil spirit to come out of the man in the synagogue, his action is a kind of teaching – again, with authority. With power, you might also say. In our epistle reading the word exousia is used again, in verse 9. There it’s translated “liberty” or “freedom.” Here Paul is the one teaching – with authority, I’d say, though his is certainly different than Christ’s. Paul is trying to help the church understand its exousia (its authority, its power, its freedom) in Christ, especially as the Corinthians face particular problems – new issues in their life together, things Jesus had said nothing about (at least, nothing anyone remembered or had written down). Here is what Paul says in First Corinthians Chapter 8.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.
Thanks be to God.

A few years ago poetry slam champion Taylor Mali made a playful exploration of authoritative speech. He said:

Mali’s poem made me laugh, somewhat self-consciously – aware that the invisible question marks of which Mali speaks find their way to the ends of my sentences at times – an indication of uncertainty or insecurity or something tragically cool; I’m not sure which.

I heard an interview with actor Tina Fey recently. She was talking about the same thing in relation to the rules of improv – the rule about making statements, instead of asking questions. Say a problem has surfaced in the scene you and some friends are improvising; you want to be part of the solution to that problem. When you ask a question (Who are you? What’s in that box?) it puts the pressure on other actors in the scene, because now they have to answer the question you’ve raised. It’s more helpful to make a statement. Fey says this rule applies to women, too: speak in statements instead of apologetic questions. No one wants to go to the doctor who says, “I’m going to be your surgeon? I’m here to talk to you about your procedure? (1)

Nice example, I thought, because yes, when we are feeling threatened, especially – when we are sick or worried or at risk – the bandwagon of uncertainty is not one we want to join. We want doctors and lawyers, teachers and leaders who speak with conviction . . . who have the answers . . . who take the pressure off of us. It’s why the urge toward fundamentalism is so attractive right now, with so much of the world feeling stressed and disoriented. There is a desperate yearning for someone to solve the problems . . . to say with clarity this is the truth . . . to provide with authority the direction and protection and order we need. (2) Israel knew that yearning back when Moses was appointing priests and predicting prophets. The people knew that yearning when Christ took center stage in the synagogue and Paul was writing his letters. Many people know that yearning today – the yearning for direction, protection, and order we can trust.

As some of you know, I’ve started working with a coach – someone who will help me both to make statements and to ask questions (the good and productive kinds of questions) – to become, in general, a better, more adaptive pastor. Last week my coach asked me to watch a lecture on “Leadership, Adaptability, and Thriving.” It was given by Ronald Heifetz of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard. Heifetz talked about the way that structures of authority develop naturally out of the need people have for those three things: direction, protection and order. Actually, Heifetz started not with people, but with animals. He described how a group of animals will wake up hungry and in need, and they’ll look to the alpha female chimpanzee or the silverback gorilla (the one who is older, with more experience and know-how). They will keep an eye on that alpha female or that silverback gorilla and follow when she or he is ready to go. The one with authority provides direction. Say they come across a leopard. They’re in danger. Again, they look to their leader. She decides what to do. Run . . . or stay. They order their lives in response to their leader, too. Where will they sleep? Near the silverback, or on the periphery? When conflict breaks out, the silverback will intervene. When behavioral norms are violated, the alpha female will provide correction. Authority structures like this can provide stability for social groups – for years sometimes, when things are peaceful. But what happens when a new problem arises? Say, a hunter comes with a gun. The silverback knows what to do about a leopard, not a hunter. His identity has been shaped around knowing what to do. But there’s a new moment now, a challenge he knows nothing about. All eyes are turned to him. In the past, he has always known what to do. Now he acts like he still knows what to do. Then we’re in trouble, says Heifetz, because the group has invested all its intelligence in this structure of authority, but the system no longer has the know-how. (3) The system only works when the individuals in authority can solve the problems at hand – when their speech and actions in response to those problems attest to their power, their authority, their exousia.

My friend Cynthia Campbell says that “Mark begins the story of Jesus’ public ministry with this dramatic story about Christ’s power and authority because Mark wants us to reflect on the nature and scope of that authority. His original [readers] were in the middle of a very real life-and-death struggle. Following Jesus meant that many had been ostracized from their families; others had been [imprisoned]; some had even been killed. If they were going to continue on this path, it was really important to know that the one they were following was the real thing.” (4)

Mark shows his readers – past and present – that Christ is worthy of loyalty. Jesus taught with authority, passion, and clarity. When he spoke the ancient words, they came alive, so that people understood them anew, in their own time, and in their own circumstances. “He was such a compelling presence that people walked out of their ordinary lives and fell in step with him. He was such a commanding person that people whose lives were burdened with illness and isolation and pain found themselves liberated, set free to live and breathe again.” (5) And that’s just the beginning. Christ’s death and resurrection show the extent of his power and authority to conquer any enemy . . . to emerge victorious from any challenge. Christ is one we can follow with confidence. He’s the real thing, my friend Cynthia says. The one Lord, the Apostle Paul says. The head of the church.

This statement is at the heart of our faith, and it really does solve all the problems in the great improvisation of life. How can I face the fact that I am dying? Jesus Christ is Lord. How can I forgive people who have wounded me? Jesus Christ is Lord. How can I trust that there’s a purpose for my life, and for your life, too? Jesus Christ is Lord. It is simple, on the one hand. But at the risk of sounding like, ya know, I’m not certain (?), I have to say, I believe it is not so simple day to day.

Consider Paul. He is like the silverback face to face with the hunter – you know what I’m saying? He’s confronting challenges that are new to him, and he needs to provide some direction to the people in his care. He has the love of God, the witness of Christ, the power of the Spirit, even, to guide him . . . yet you can tell he is struggling, as he works out what to say and what to do. In the chapter before the one we read today, Paul talks about sex and marriage. He is clearly giving his best advice, but (ya know?) it’s advice; it’s cautious, qualified, even a little wistful.

He tells the Corinthians, “I wish you were all as I am,”– celibate, that is. But they’re not, Paul knows, so he describes the next best thing. The next best thing, Paul says, is not a command . . . more like a concession to the people. Later on, Paul issues a command, but says: if you don’t follow it, try this or this other thing. Still later (when he gets to the part about virgins) Paul admits, “I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.” Do you know what I’m saying? Paul is doing the best he can, though he does not have all the answers.

Can you and I expect to do any better? Like Paul, we acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord. Any authority, any power, any freedom that we have comes from him. Yet today we face new challenges – different than those of Paul and the church at Corinth. Issues raised by science, by technology, by democracy, by economics. Stuff Jesus said not a word about. We are improvising faithful lives and, if we’re honest, there is much we do not know for sure. How can we exercise our exousia responsibly? How can we question, claim, and speak with the right kind of authority?

In today’s text, Paul charts his course by a couple of stars that stood out to me. One thing Paul did was to recall what he knew about God: that there was one God, from whom all things came, and for whom all things exist . . . and there is one Lord, through whom all things came, and through whom we exist. Believing this, Paul could look at the marketplace and the meat sold there and not worry about its connection to “another god,” because there simply were no other gods. This Paul said with conviction. The other thing Paul did was to think about his community – to recall each member with love, and to consider the good of the whole. He could see that while eating the meat would be fine for him, it would be disastrous for others. That realization shaped his thoughts and actions. So Paul’s authority grew, as he held to both of these things – a deep knowledge of God on the one hand . . . steadfast love for the people God had made family to him on the other hand. So Paul came to teach with authority.

How can you and I speak with authority about our faith? How can we address the problems that we face with exousia – the good and healing power of Christ? I won’t pretend to be sure. But (on my way to an answer) I keep coming back to something James Taneti said last week, at a committee meeting of the Presbytery. He described this church as a place where people live in gratitude – thankful for what God has done. We know that what we do matters, James said, but the main thing is what God has done. So we are grateful. The second thing he mentioned is the way that we care for one another. At our best, we are humble enough to listen to each other, he said, and courageous enough to challenge each other. Humble and courageous, together. As we engage the issues of our day – new questions about sex and the environment and bullying and economic warfare (all kinds of things!) – these will help us to find our way: our gratitude for what God has done . . . and our love for one another. They are limbs out on which we can walk – with power, with freedom, with authority.

(1) Tina Fey, Bossypants (Little, Brown and Company, NY, 2011) 84-85.
(3) Ibid
(4) Cynthia Campbell's paper on Mark 1, presented at the 2012 meeting of the Moveable Feast study group.
(5) Ibid.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Why I wanted a coach

So, as a next post, I want to explain why I applied for Auburn's Coaching Program, and what I hope to get out of it. The short explanation: I met J.C. Austin, who coordinates the program, at a time I was feeling completely overwhelmed. The possibility of getting some help to sort things out was a godsend, and I seized it.

I wrote J.C.:
It's becoming clear to me that I need to change the way I'm working at my church. I simply can't meet all the expectations - of others or myself. Last night a friend asked me, "How are things at your church?" and "Does your Session know you're feeling overwhelmed?" and I spent the next hour in tears! I've seen therapists before, but I believe that, at this point, the real problem is how I'm working, communicating, setting goals, and accepting limitations. So . . . a coach?

And his response was just great. He said:
I think coaching could be of great help and impact to you, because our major themes are on how to develop resilience as a leader (i.e., thrive in the midst of the overwhelmed-ness of ministry) and how to set and prioritize goals and make measurable progress in your ministry based on the agenda you have as a leader, rather than just responding to whatever seems to be the most urgent problem popping up. Sounds like that's right in the sweet spot of what you're dealing with!

J.C.'s use of the phrase "sweet spot" is what sold me. That isn't a phrase I hear very often. I think it may have reminded me of an old New Yorker cartoon titled "The Sweet Spot of Flu." In it a sick man is lying on the couch. There are two arrows pointing at him which say, "Sick enough to lie on the couch all day watching TV with no guilt whatsoever." and "Not so sick that even watching TV could be treacherous, depending." That J.C. could look at the mess I was describing and claim its possibilities was just really nice.

(By the way, it wasn't really such a mess. Four and a half years into my time at GPPC, things were going well in a lot of ways. But it had been a challenging year for me and a particularly busy fall. I was tired, and I was beginning to see that familiarity with GPPC and the rhythms of the church year was not really making things easier, as I had hoped and expected. To concentrate on my skills as a leader and administrator seemed like a worthy thing to do.)

J.C. described the comprehensive coaching program. It is Lilly-supported, which makes it affordable (THANK YOU, Lilly!). It starts with two days in-residence and continues with 6 months of bi-weekly coaching sessions conducted by telephone. The program ends in June with two more days in-residence. In my next post, I'll tell you some of the we shared last week - the useful stuff I mentioned earlier.

Thanks for listening,

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Getting Started

I have never wanted to blog. I don't exactly understand blogs. I've never thought I had the time to blog. And I'm not sure, really, it is smart for me to begin a blog. I reserve the right to stop at any time. But this week I started a coaching program with Auburn Seminary, and, in the midst of one of the workshops, I thought: this is useful stuff. I ought to share this stuff. And I thought: to journal through this six-month experience might help me to get the most out of it. Hence this blog.

As members of my church, Ginter Park Presbyterian in Richmond, VA, know, I don't even title my sermons. So . . . to name the blog was the first hard thing. (Design is the second, and I'm going to need someone's help with that!) The closing worship of our time in-residence was my inspiration. J.C. Austin (Director of the Center for Christian Leadership and Coordinator of the Auburn Coaching Institute) read the following two passages:

Can I see the buds that are swelling
in the woods on the slopes
on the far side of the valley? I can't,
of course, nor can I see
the twinleafs and anemones
that are blooming over there
bright-scattered above the dead
leaves. But the swelling buds
and little blossoms make
a new softness in the light
that is visible all the way here.
The trees, the hills that were stark
in the old cold become now
tender, and the light changes.
- Wendell Berry

And again Jesus said, "to what should I compare the kingdom of God?
It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."
- Luke 13:20-21

J.C. invited us, throughout the time we are coached, to be mindful of the changes God is already working into our lives - changes that we can't see yet or that we are only beginning to perceive. A new softness in the light. A small amount of leaven. These mark the beginning and make transformation possible. Light and leaven. If you choose, I invite you to look for them - and to experience their power - along with me.