“The Authority of the Human One” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on October 29th, 2017. (Readings for 25A: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18, Psalm 90:1-6,13-17, I Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-46)
In our gospel today we hear: “(Jesus) said to him, ” ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 23:37-40)
That sounds clear, simple, and comprehensive, at least as long as we understand that we need to love ourselves if loving our neighbors as ourselves is going to mean anything. And yet so often we don’t love God with all our heart, mind and strength, so often we don’t love our neighbors as ourselves, so often we don’t love ourselves.
Last week we delved into the issue of authority and how we need to exercise our authority in terms of things like discerning what claims the government or other authorities are making on us and whether they are legitimate or not. How we collectively love our neighbors in this community, the state, our nation, our world, has so much to do with whether or not we are exercising our authority in terms of being clear about how we want others to be treated.
And I want to suggest today that this issue of authority, whether or not we have it, whether or not we exercise it, is at the heart of the Jesus’ revolution. That is in Jesus, in the Jesus’ story, in Jesus’ teachings, people in general, but especially poor people, marginalized people, slaves and women, discovered their inherent human dignity and this awareness of their fundamental dignity led them to treat themselves and other differently and to expect that others should treat them differently. On the basis of discovering themselves to be children of God, every bit as divine as the Roman emperor himself, they then began to critique the world and its cultures and its social systems and social practices in terms of what honored people’s basic dignity and what did not.
That poor people’s movement, that movement of the marginalized, the demeaned and the discounted, shook the world and it continues to shake the world wherever people hear the good news. But it’s also a testimony to the degree to which we haven’t really heard, haven’t really understood the good news that so many of us have such a hard time exercising our God given authority, that is that authority that comes to us not because of any social position we hold, or particular background or training we have, but simply by virtue of the fact that we are human beings. This difficulty we have exercising our authority has dramatic implications for the degree to which we love God, love others and love ourselves.
You will not be able to love yourself if you do not exercise your authority in relationship to things like all those nasty voices that live inside of you that tell say you are nothing and no good. You will not be able to love yourself if you do not exercise your authority vis an vis all those different feelings that one minute are telling you to do or think one thing and the next minute another. You will not be able to love your neighbor unless you are able to exercise authority over that part of you that’s been trained to see yourself as better or worse then them. You will not be able to love your neighbor if you are not able to exercise your authority in relationship to all the contradictory feelings you have about them. Our lesson in Leviticus today says if are neighbor is doing harm and we don’t reprove them the guilt is on us this means getting ourselves to a place where we really can see them clearly.
Further, we are subject to all kinds of external authorities. For these authorities to function well we also need to exercise our authority. How often do the those we look to for judgment fail us because they were unable or unwilling to listen to us: the doctor or therapist or preacher whose got a preconceived idea of what’s wrong with us or won’t listen to us when we insist our symptoms don’t fit their diagnosis, the teacher whose reached some judgment about us or our child that is totally off, a judge who won’t or can’t listen to our testimony about ourselves or someone we know and who is therefore off in their judgments. Other times those failures happen because we have failed to really insist that we be heard.
Being a patient in a hospital these days is a great example of this. Our hospitals are filled with experts, people who have so much knowledge in so many areas, but if you aren’t vigilant, if you or others don’t speak up for you, so many many things can go so terribly wrong. I’ve found this to be so true that I strongly recommend anyone going into the hospital have some kind of advocate with them to speak up when they are not being heard or when people are telling them contradictory things. Though a little less true, I would also say that’s also been my experience of the school system. It doesn’t work well unless you have someone whose helping to advocate for a child.
In neither case do I want to malign the people who work in these institutions. I just think no system can address all the complexities that come with dealing with the human body, or the human mind, much less a whole person. Then on top of that, when you add the fact that these systems have so many different working parts, that often aren’t communicating with each other, it’s easy for vital information to be missed or overlooked unless someone is there to call attention to it. In many ways, everything depends on us exercising our authority in terms of our being able to reflect on our own experience and learn whatever truths it reveals to us and then act and speak on the basis of those truths.
Now, obviously this can become an excuse for the craziness of arrogance. One of my good friends has been a plumber for many years here in Ann Arbor. He continually encounters people who think that because they have more degrees then he has they know more about plumbing then he does. They don’t. Claiming our God-given authority doesn’t mean going around claiming we know more than everyone else, or more than we actually know, which is tempting in a world of experts. Frequently it means discerning who knows more than you about one area or another and going to them for help or judgment. I am utterly thrilled when I encounter someone who really knows something about something because there are so many areas where I know almost nothing: like what’s wrong with a car, or why my computer does or doesn’t do something, or even how to make my TV remote control work. But I’ve also learned that even with people I love and trust, sometimes they are missing some bit of information, or some insight, I have which is important if they are going to be able to help me.
If loving God, loving our neighbor, loving ourselves depends on our exercising our authority, the question I want to pose for you today is what keeps you from exercising or claiming your authority. In what situation do you find it easy to claim and exercise your authority? It what situations does it seem difficult or impossible? What’s the difference between those contexts that makes it easy in one and difficult in the other. You might think of how you feel, for example, at work, or raising your kids, or being a patient in the hospital, or dealing with someone helping you with your computer.
I’d like you to divide into groups of three and then share for a few minutes each when, where, and why it’s harder or easier for you to exercise your authority and then let’s come back together and see what we’ve learned.