What Gives You The Right?


This Sunday, the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B), I am again at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY (Location of church).  The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Job 38: 1 – 7; Hebrews 5: 1 – 10; and Mark 10: 35 – 35

After I posted this, I came across a reference to another song, highly appropriate for this message (I think) in the Riddell reference I cited.  The song is “The Not-So-Righteous Cafe” by Lorina Harding (link added on 5 April 2015).

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One of my favorite songs from the early 70’s, if for no other reason than it very subtlety sneaks religion into a rock and roll song is “Signs” by the Five-Man Electrical Band. This band may be termed as a “one-hit wonder”, meaning that they had one song that was a hit and then nothing else.

“Signs” deals mainly with discrimination; the singer describes several situations in which he is excluded from something. The lyrics of the song were (and probably still are) a strong commentary about the social situation in the United States and Canada at that time. Each verse speaks of a particular episode in the singer’s life were there was some form of discrimination.

The first set of verses describes a sign in a window reading “Long haired freaky people” (meaning hippies) “need not apply” and the singer’s consequent confrontation with the store owner. The second set of verses describes the singer protesting being kept off of private property (by a sign reading “Anybody caught trespassing would be shot on sight”). The third set of verses has him being excluded from a restaurant (by a sign reading “You got to have a shirt and tie to get a seat”). Throughout the song, the signs posted everywhere seem to be symbols to the singer of these exclusionist ideas.

The last set of verses, my favorite verse in the song, is a little different. It has the singer being accepted in a Christian church and worship service, despite not having any money to contribute to the collection or being “presentable”, thus arriving at the main theme of the song: that everyone should be accepted, regardless of lifestyle, financial standing, etc., tolerance being a main facet of the Christian religion. (I used the Wikipedia for the discussion of the song.) I will not say anything about how this view of the church may not be exactly true today.

But in connection with the reading for Job for today, I could not help but think of the second verse of this song, in which the singer cries out “what gives you the right to put a fence to keep me out or to keep Mother Nature in. If God was here, he’d tell you to your face, man you’re some kind of sinner.”

I sensed that same sort of tone in the words of Job as he sought out God and demanded the right to face God and ask why all the misfortune had befallen him. But, in the words that we read today, I heard the same tone from God as he told Job, “What gives you the right to say anything to me? What have you done that would qualify you to speak with me?” In the end Job will say that he is just thankful to have had the opportunity to speak to God, to have his say.

We live in a world where those who speak out are often the target of ridicule and derision. It is better to let things alone and not rock the boat than to seek solutions. It was the mantra of society during the 60’s and the fight for civil rights. It is the mantra of society when change is suggested. We saw it in the early words from Job in which his friends told him early and often that he had no business seeking God or demanding an explanation for the troubles that had befallen him. His friends, if you can really call them that even went so far as to suggest the Job, identified as a righteous man, must have done something wrong to incur the wrath of God. That attitude is still present today when we hear many people tell us that we should not demand from God nor question what God has done.

The problem is that there are too many people who see the church as the authority figure, holding on to a set of views that requires complete and total obedience. Now, to follow Jesus is to follow completely, without reservation or hesitation; this was part of the theme of last week’s Gospel message (Mark 10: 17 – 31).

It wasn’t that the young man in last week’s story held to the commandments but that he had to commit his life, body and soul, to following Jesus. Unwilling to give up his secular life, his riches and his wealth, he could not make that commitment.

It isn’t our commitment to Jesus that is the problem with today’s church; it is the church itself. It would seem that from the very beginning, it has been the power and the control of the church that has been at stake.

I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the time line of the Gospel message because there is always some difference between each of them in terms of what happened when during Jesus’ ministry. But whether it occurred early on in the ministry or towards the end, we are confronted with that power issue in today’s Gospel reading.

James and John come to Jesus with the request that they be given seats of power in the new Kingdom. This, I would say, is only to be expected, if you see Jesus’ ministry and the new Kingdom as merely replacing the old power structure. And almost immediately after they make their request and Jesus points out exactly what they are asking for, the other disciples get literally bent out of shape.

How many times have we seen this in our churches today? I have seen church after church tear itself apart because of some non-theological power struggle. It may be over something trivial like how the towels for the church kitchen have to be ironed before being put away or it may be something major like who decides what music will be sung each Sunday. It may be over the nature of the worship service. It may be the ultimate in power sharing, letting some do what others have come to expect is their responsibility and their duty.

I have seen too many situations where one group’s view has been the dominant view for many years and it has driven off many people because their voice cannot be heard. And when it is heard, the new people in power moved quickly to shut off any dissent and opposition, taking the attitude that “we had to endure for a long time; now you must do the same.” And it can and has gone beyond the local church.

The Western church today is defined almost exclusively by the power and control that it demands. Throughout the history of the church and through today, the church has used its position of power and authority, to often to limit and control the people, not to set them free.

Even today, this power and authority has become abusive as many church leaders have attempted to teach the people to accept their word and their authority blindly and without question; to say that if their authority is questioned, it is an affront to God. As Michael Riddell in his book, Threshold of the Future (pages 67 – 68), points out, it is abusive for a person or persons to claim to speak the word of God and not allow that claim to be subject to the discernment of the wider community.

It is an abuse of power when decisions are made in secret by a small group who proclaim that such decisions are Christian in nature. It is an abuse of power when differences are demonized and departure from a prescribed moralistic lifestyle is portrayed as sinful or evil. It is an abuse of power when control is exercised to ensure the maintenance of the institution.

The result of these abuses has been that many people of integrity and faith have found themselves marginalized and dehumanized by the structures and the processes of the church. It is one thing to experience discrimination or contempt from the people by society’s rules (as perhaps outlined in “Signs”); it is an entirely different think when it is done in the name of God by people proclaiming themselves to be God’s people.

As Riddell states in his book, there are people who believe in a caring God, a creator but who are not interested in Jesus or the church. They express the idea that the church is designed to mess you up but setting the rules on how to live and telling you how to live. You end up repressing your real feelings and opinions simply to be accepted.

We are never going to get away from human authority but we have to recognize is that such authority has limits. The one thing the writer of Hebrews is telling us today is that those who were the high priests during the Gospel times (and those who have taken on such symbolic roles in today’s times) are no different from each one of us.

No matter what the title, any person who leads a community of believers must recognize that they are dealing with their own sins just as much as they are with others. And again, time after time, we see how this always seems to be that person’s undoing.

The writer of Hebrews will, in the coming verses, rather emphatically point out the difference between the permanent eternal nature of Jesus’ priesthood and the temporal, weak nature of the Levitical priesthood. The writer will tell us that the position of the priesthood in Jesus’ time was a matter of the law. We know from our own study of the Bible that these priests would make the law unchangeable and any threat to the law would be seen as a threat to them. That is why they always seemingly opposed what Jesus was doing in his ministry. Their disagreement with Jesus came about because they saw His ministry and His approach as a direct threat to their power and their stature. They could not imagine doing what Jesus suggested that the leaders of the new Kingdom had to do, to first be servants of the people.

Going back to the comments by Michael Riddell, we can see a situation where the future of the church will be determined by how the people, both in the establishment and outside the establishment, view their own power and authority. Do those inside the establishment have the right to decide what is best for the church? Or is it a matter for all the people to decide? One has to be careful on how one views this idea.

You cannot preach the Gospel through democracy but your church, being a body of people, can be a democracy. You may wish to institute new forms of worship but it must be done with an understanding that such new forms are not going to take on the patina of authority themselves.

We need to hear the words from Job in a new light, not just the expressions of a bitter man. Job’s story is not a traditional telling of the relationship between man and God. The writer William Safire viewed the encounter of Job and God as a victory for Job, because Job called God to account. It was a dialogue between a powerless individual and an all-powerful authority. It was the model for the things that Gandhi, King, and Andrei Sakharov would accomplish. Safire concluded that injustice in any form need not be accepted; rather, justice must be pursued and established authority be confronted. One person can make a difference. (Adapted from http://www.jewishjournal.com/home/searchview.php?id=13244)

The words of Job are the words of the people of the church, who seek the hope and justice and righteousness that the Gospel promises. The words of Job are the words of a people who see a monolithic power structure that does not respond to the needy and the poor, the outcast and forgotten.

It is important that we see how Jesus worked against the traditional power structures of His day. Jesus respected the Scriptures, perhaps more than did those who worked against Him and those who would hold the Scriptures as inflexible and unviable today. But Jesus went far beyond the tradition that was the Scripture; He goes deep into the heart in order to show what lies behind the tradition. This is neither a liberal approach (in terms of hanging loose from Scripture) nor is it a conservative approach (justifying current religious practice through the use of Scripture). Just as Job presented an alternative view to the relationship between man and God, Jesus’ approach is a radically new approach. It seeks to return to the roots of tradition and draw attention to the intent of God concerning humanity.

The true value of the Scripture is that it provides a means or an access to the heart of faith. No matter how we may view the church community today, no matter how angry we are with the powers that be, as long as the Scripture is there, we have the opportunity to change the church and our own very being from being regulated, restrictive, and objective to generative, reforming, and life-giving.

That is why we come to the table today. Our access is not limited by who we are or what we do; no outside authority can say to us, “go away, you are not wanted here.” We cannot be denied access because someone doesn’t like the length of our hair or the color of our skin or the nature of our lifestyle. We are reminded as we gather at the table today that Jesus died for us so that we may live.

Our right to come to this table is God’s grace, not human authority. All we must do in order to sit at this table today is acknowledge Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. And when we leave this table today, when we go out into the world, we do not have the right to tell others how to live just because we say we are Christians. What we do have is the obligation and the responsibility to lead a life that shows Christ and is of Christ.

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