February 2, 2003
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” Then the Lord replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak-that prophet shall die.”

Mark 1:21-28

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching-with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

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Sermon: Who Speaks with Authority?

The theme of this Sunday’s gospel is the authority of the voice of the true prophet. The first lesson we read from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy comes from a section that has to do with prohibitions against magic and human sacrifice - child sacrifice in particular. By magic and sacrifice the ancient peoples sought to manipulate their gods into certain courses of action - action favorable to those who knew the secrets of spells, curses, incantations, rites and ceremonies.

But the God of the Hebrews was not to be manipulated in this way; in fact, God was not to be manipulated at all. God’s judgment was founded on moral principals, not ritual appeasement, and the job of the people was to hear what God required and do it:

Deuteronomy 6:4-5

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

This God would make clear what was required by raising up prophets like Moses who would speak God’s word to the people. It was by obedience to this word that the people would find blessing favor in God’s sight.

This is the background for the words of the people in the synagogue about Jesus: “What is this?” they say, “A new teaching-with authority!”

Was this a prophet like Moses, a person they should listen to, someone from God, someone who spoke a word that would lead them in the right direction, lead them into an experience of God’s blessing and favor and peace?

The question of who speaks with authority has been very much on my mind in the past months as we hear many different voices that seek to speak with authority about the right direction for our nation to take in response to the challenges we face in the world. Who speaks with authority? Who can know the right path to follow?

This wasn’t always a hard question for me. When I was young there were old timers around who seemed just by virtue of their years of experience to have a natural voice of authority. One man I’ve spoken about before was my first boss - a man named Tom Allen. Tom was a graduate of Lafayette College, class of 1923 I believe. He had been a teacher, a coach, a high school athletic director, and an institution for more than a generation at the summer camp where I worked. In fact, he was a close friend of the man who founded the camp in 1929.

By the time I arrived the founder had died and his son had taken over. He owned the camp, hired all the staff, and directed the program, so there were very few people whose authority he bowed to - but one of them was Tom. And one thing that endeared Tom to all the staff was the way he used his authority to manage staff meetings.

We had staff meetings every Sunday night - always run by owner. After the staff meetings we would break for a refreshing beverage or two and perhaps a game of cards, so we were eager to keep these meetings short. The director, however, often had quite a bit to say - and because he was the owner, no one would challenge his authority to say whatever he wanted - no one, that is, but Tom.

And Tom wouldn’t really challenge him - he didn’t have to. He’d simply stand up and say, “Now Phil, before we break this meeting up, I’d just like to say what a great job you’re doing this summer and how proud your father would be at the progress at the camp and the improvements in the program. Thanks for a good year!”

It was the nature of his authority as an old timer that every time he said that, it was the end of the meeting.

I don’t know if that kind of authority still exists. The trend might be to vest less authority in people and more authority in process. Certainly this is true in science and medicine, where assertions must be put to the test in a rigorous process that does not give special deference to anyone’s age, status, position, or prestige.

Think of what it takes to bring a new drug to the marketplace. You assume that in the first place there is a lot of basic science that goes on - making assertions about the way chemicals and compounds work through testing that offers proof and is published so that any science lab anywhere can duplicate the test and get the same result.

And then there are applications of that science in ways that must indicate a benefit to patients with perhaps not total lack of risk but with an acceptable risk considering the benefits. Then the drug is put out for trials, and evidence is accumulated in various places by various practitioners to back up the assertions of benefit versus risk.

Only when a rigorous process that everyone agrees upon in advance is followed do we think it is wise to allow a new drug to come to the market and be used to help people.

Now we know that even this system is not foolproof - mistakes are still made. And sometimes people and companies abuse the system. They might falsify results and obscure risks in order to reap a financial benefit for themselves and for their investors. Anyone who saw the movie “The Fugitive” knows this is true! Now there’s a source of authority for you!

So even with the scientific method suspicions creeps in, especially when you discover that someone has a financial incentive for the testing to turn out a certain way. I don’t know how often this is true for drug companies, but say when a tobacco company sponsors a study on the effects of second hand smoke, some little voice in the old head says - not a lot of authority attached to this process.

When I was thinking through my bafflement at the question facing our nation regarding the path to follow, I realized how little faith people seem to have in the process. People on one side of the question don’t trust the inspection process in Iraq, and people on the other side of the question don’t trust the decision making process in our own government. And it does seem that the process for making a declaration of war - which in our constitution is a power of the congress and not the President - it seems that this authority and process has been left in the dust by administrations from both sides of the aisle over the past 50 years.

The old timers, at least the ones I speak to, seem to strike a note of caution in the current debate, a concern that risks may far outweigh benefits, and so I’m left feeling of two minds. But in thinking about this topic for this sermon, it came to mind that we require more rigorous proof for bringing a new cancer drug to the American market than we do for bringing war to a region that is already on the verge of explosive destruction.

But I’m not in a position of authority to impact the process or the decision on war. In fact, I’m not quite sure what authority I have as a minister even to speak on these matters, except the authority to encourage you to consider a higher authority, the authority of the word of God and the witness of Christ.

I think we can put the prophetic word of Christ into a simple proposition - a proposition we find in Paul’s letter to the Romans: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

This is, admittedly, a counter-intuitive proposition. But you must admit it is straightforward, clear, and certainly presents an alternative path.

Whether you believe it is true, whether you believe it is practical, whether you believe it can be applied in the situation that confronts us now - all that is certainly an issue but not the really the issue I want to address today. What we are looking at is the issue of “who speaks with authority?”, so the question is, where do we find the moral authority of this proposition and what process has been put forth to prove its benefits versus its risks.

And the answer to all these questions is - Christ crucified. The cross of Christ is the foundation of his moral authority and a complete testing of the risks and benefits of believing the power of good to overcome evil.

Christ does not deliver his word of truth from behind a desk, or up in a pulpit or from the safety of a television studio - he delivers it from the cross. He does not ask us to go where he was unwilling to go, or risk what he was unwilling to risk, or suffer what he was unwilling to suffer. He confronts evil directly, personally, at the cost of his own life, not as a calculation on the lives of others. He’s not a privileged person with secret knowledge but a servant of others who stakes everything on his preaching and the example of his own life, even his public execution on the cross.

He makes clear to his followers the cost of their discipleship. He asks them: Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

This is the moral authority of the prophet, the word of God that is given so we might understand, believe, and obey. Today we recall that drinking of that cup in the sacrament of communion. We remember that Christ put his life on the line for our sake, for our salvation. He did it in this world, in this life, facing the same challenges we face, the same choices we face, the same fears and possibilities. And we like those who first heard him in that synagogue in Capernaum, are filled with wonder and exclaim: “What is this? A new teaching-with authority!  
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