The Righteous Mind: Authority 10-26-14

In the month of October, I have given a sermon series based on the book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. We started with Haidt’s analogy about the elephant and the rider. Understanding the human mind as being divided into intuition and reason, we imagine intuition as the elephant that goes where it wants to go, and reason as the rider, which justifies where the elephant is going, where the elephant of intuition or emotion wants to go. Haidt says that progressive folks have trouble understanding conservative people because progressives rely on two moral foundations – caring and fairness, while conservatives rely on five moral foundations – caring, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. So two weeks ago I talked about loyalty, one of the three moral foundations that tends to not be so important to progressive folks. Today, I concentrate on authority. Sanctity will have to wait for another time, though it is important & I will comment on it. Listen for the Word of God for you this day from the Gospel of Matthew.
I have to say that in my Bible study, I laughed out loud at this reading when I misread the line, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites?” At a cursory glance, I read it as Jesus saying “Why do you text me, you hypocrites?”

Matthew 22:15-22 Then the Pharisees went off and began to plot how they might trap Jesus by his speech. They sent their disciples to Jesus, accompanied by sympathizers of Herod, who said, “Teacher, we know you’re honest and teach God’s way sincerely.  You court no one’s favor and don’t act out of respect for important people. Give us your opinion, then, in this case, Is it lawful to pay tax to the Roman emperor, or not?” Jesus recognized their bad faith and said to them, “Why are you trying to trick me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin which is used to pay the tax.  When they handed Jesus a small Roman coin. Jesus asked them, “Whose head is this, and whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied.  At that, Jesus said to them, “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s.” When they heard this, they were astonished and went away.

October 26, 2014    

The Righteous Mind: Authority  

My brother John took this beautiful picture on the last day of his hiking the whole of 900 miles of trails in the Smoky Mountains. Sweet picture. I would love to have been there with him. He deserved that reward after 900 miles of hiking!
John is a teacher at Webb School in Knoxville. He used to teach English. He says that he would go in on the first day of class and tell them that in this English class the first word he was going to teach them, naturally, was German. Then he’d write on the board “TATGENHORST” and work with them until they could say it properly. He told them that they should respectfully call him Mr. Tatgenhorst until they felt they got to know him and then they could call him Mr. T.
He says it was really interesting to see how these young people negotiated learning the name and then deciding when they knew him well enough to use Mr. T. At the beginning of the school year, they needed a little bit of authority to get on track. He remembers one young person who got up the courage to ask him, “Do you think I know you well enough yet, to call you Mr. T.” He said he thought that would be fine.
The Bible is full of examples of how names and authority go hand in hand. The Hebrew Bible tells about God naming Adam and Eve, and Adam and Eve naming the animals. It talks about Abram and Sara being renamed Abraham and Sarah with an ‘h’ after they received their calling. And Jacob wrestling with God, or an angel representative of God, tries to slickly gain the upper hand by asking God’s name. (there are many, many other examples.)
One’s name, they understood, is part of who you are. When you know someone’s name, it is a way of knowing them, even of having some power over them. So God does not tell Jacob a name. God only risks telling Moses that important information, “I am Who I am,” is my name God tells Moses. And Moses says to God, (in our passage for today) “You have said to me, ‘I know you by name” so I have found favor with you.”
My brother John gave his students some authority by letting them have the power over what they would call him. Calling him Mr. Tatgenhorst was a recognition of his authority and calling him Mr. T. helped to bridge the gap of that authority when the time was right. Young people in this congregation, and some of the older folks, recognize my authority as pastor by calling me Pastor David. Most of the time,however, we are so informal and non-hierarchical around here that people just call me by my first name.
I am comfortable with that. Maybe too comfortable, in fact. There is a time for respect and authority. Sometimes people really need a little authority. Sometimes I wonder if I serve the congregation well when I don’t claim the authority that has traditionally been reserved for the pastor. It is not my style. I stand down here with you rather than up in the pulpit. I create circles and relationships, rather than vertical layers of responsibility and respect.
Anne LaMott in her latest book writes about her experiments with running a democratic Sunday School class. She tried to have the children deciding what they should learn and do. She gave up. She said it didn’t work. She said people who pick their noses and wipe it on their shirt should not be in charge.
Sometimes we need a little authority.
The Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus, tripping him up with a question about authority. They asked him if it is lawful to pay tax to the emperor or not. They figured if he said people should respect the Roman authority, he would lose credibility with his followers who were fighting the empire, and if he said no, they shouldn’t pay the tax, he would get in trouble with the law.
Jesus, as you know, slyly sidesteps their trap. He asks them to show them the coin. When they produce the coin, the trap has already been turned around on them. They are the ones carrying the coin with the graven image of Caesar on it. They are the ones who have a coin that says, “Caesar, Son of God” on it. They are the ones who have compromised themselves by bowing to an oppressive authority.
To this day, this passage confounds people and makes us decide our relationship to authority. Some say Jesus was saying we should respect the powers that be and give Caesar his due. Some (like me) say Jesus was showing people a way to challenge authority without getting themselves killed. Either way, he was clearly saying that God is the ultimate and only real authority. God is the one we need to serve and follow.
Sometimes we need a little authority. And sometimes authority is oppressive. Even the church and church leaders may not always be that reliable authority we need. There is real value in knowing the name of an authority who is never oppressive and always steers us in the right direction. There’s real value in having a power in our lives that will support us to be the best people we can be, to be role models and teachers, to lead Sunday school and help young people find their way.
That power is the power of the Living God. When you need a little help, and the authorities in government let you down, the authorities in business take advantage of you, the authorities in the medical establishment don’t know what they’re doing, the authorities in the church are a little timid, and even the authorities in your family are all over the place.
When all of those authorities let you down, there’s something about the name of Jesus that has real authority, that’s totally trustworthy. I’m sorry if my distrust of authority ever gets in your way of knowing the truth – by definition, the Spirit is the One you can count on when all other authorities let you down. There’s something about the authority of God’s Word that will keep you on track. The Life and Witness of Jesus is a rock that will always hold you up – as Brian talked about last week. You can count on the Spirit of the Living God to lift you up or calm you down, to dry your tears or give you courage. Heck, you can count on the Spirit of the Living God to bring you back from the dead. That’s the power, that’s the authority you want to know something about!

Responsive hymn 171 There’s Something About that Name