Authority (Sunday Worship 1/29/12)


Mark 1: 21-28



When I lived in Atlanta I went to a massage therapist.  The first time I showed up at her home office, I noticed that she had her massage therapist certification framed on the wall – and it was from Boulder!  Colorado.  Even though I was in an extra room in a ranch house in suburban Atlanta, I knew I had come to the right person.


There was the certification in Boulder:  what better place for a massage therapist to hail from than crunchy, hippie Boulder?  Then there was her name:  Zora.  Sounds made up, I know, but she came by it honestly, from Eastern European parents, I think.  There was the Tibetan singing bowl on its satin pillow.  Everything about the place made me simultaneously alert and relaxed, eagerly taking in the exotic surroundings and ready to melt into the massage table while she played cool instrumental and nature CDs.


Zora’s practice, after giving a massage, was to come back in once you were dressed again and then sit with you and tell you about anything she noticed about injuries or knots of tension.  She also talked about anything else she picked up on – grief, anxiety, depression.  As she worked on someone she noticed more than just what she could feel with her hands.  I remember her talking to me after one early session about 3-legged stools and balance in life.  She seemed to know – in some deep part of herself – things an ordinary massage therapist wouldn’t have picked up on.


Obviously, I ceded her a great deal of authority on Boulder alone.  But that wouldn’t have lasted long if the certificates and the Tibetan bowls and all that were just props.  I would not have come back if she hadn’t been the person she is.  I described her to friends as the wise woman of the village; I wanted to sit at her feet and learn what she had to teach.


As I thought about authority this week Zora came to mind.  I recognized a certain authority based on her training and what was in the massage room.  But her real authority was in who she was.  I recognized her as the wise woman of the village because she was.  She exuded wisdom and compassion and insight.  It made me trust and respect her.  And it made her an authority.


Have you know someone like this?  Maybe a professor who didn’t even have to make it through the whole lecture before you respected him and recognized he was the right teacher for you?  An unconventional coach you knew was onto something, even though it was completely opposite training advice from anyone else you’d known?


Or maybe you’ve known the opposite.  A doctor with so many degrees and titles but who you just didn’t feel comfortable with?  A boss who had authority over you in the job but who could never capture your respect and trust?


There are authorities by virtue of position or rank or age or role.  And then there are people like Zora.  And Jesus.


I used to wonder, when I read this passage from Mark, what the big deal was.  Didn’t they hear teaching in the synagogue every week?  Weren’t scribes authorities?  Was Jesus acting professorial?  Was he so confident and grand that no one could refute what he was saying?  What did they all hear and see that marked Jesus as the one who was truly teaching with authority?


Mark doesn’t tell us what his teaching was that day.  But he spoke with authority – with the authority to represent God.  He spoke as the very embodiment –incarnation—of God’s Word.  This is what the scribes and the others that day caught a whiff of – and what worried them (The People’s New Testament Commentary, p.110).  His authority didn’t come from his training in Boulder or Nazareth, but from who he was.  If they had recognized his authority based on his carpenter’s license or college degree, then anyone else with the qualifications could command the same authority.  But when it comes from who you are, there is no way to compete with that or usurp it.


Who represents God?  That’s what the scribes were concerned about.  That’s what people still worry about.  Who represents God?


The world still gets into a lot of fights about this.  The church fights about this.  I have heard a lot of painful stories from people who no longer feel like church is a place for them.  I know a single mother who has tried to follow a God-trail through her life, sometimes fainter and sometimes easier to pick up.  When she had her child and went back to the church of her childhood she was shooed away because of the circumstances in which her child was born.  Well, someone was throwing some authority around, to shoo her away, but it doesn’t seem much like Jesus.


Who represents God?


It’s interesting to me that on this particular day in the synagogue Jesus teaches and heals someone.  He teaches for a bit and it says that everyone was “astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (v. 22).  Scribes were professionals.  They were official scholars of scripture and of Jewish tradition.  That was their authority – knowing the rules and regulations inside and out.  Esteemed rabbis were older, experienced, wise teachers who could get at the meaning of the rules and regulations – the spirit of the law.  Jesus at about 30 years of age didn’t have the training of either of these professions and he would have been too young to be considered an esteemed rabbi (  And yet here he was, teaching as one with authority – as one who understood the spirit of the law, too.


Everyone gathered is already astounded by his teaching.  Then the man with the demons comes in and the malevolent spirit within him recognizes who Jesus is and that Jesus has the power to destroy it and make the man whole again.  And he does.  Jesus heals the man.  And even though everyone was already commenting on his authority now they are all atwitter.  If they had been impressed by fancy talk before, if they had any doubts about their take on the situation, now they could see that Jesus walked the talk.  His teaching wasn’t only astute and wise rhetoric, it was embodied in who he was.  It flowed over into the way he acted.  He had authority over things we don’t even understand, things we are afraid of.


Who represents God?  This is what we still fight about.  With this story fresh in our minds, we can say, “No one does.  Jesus was God so no one else can have that kind of authority.”


But is that all we can say?  I’m thinking again about last week’s text.  Jesus was rounding up disciples, promising to teach them how to fish for people.  And this is the next story Mark tells.  Was this the first lesson in people-fishing?  Was this their first formation in discipleship?


No one has the kind of authority Jesus had, the precise “stuff” that made the people in the synagogue sit up and take notice that day.  But our mission is to follow him and try to be like him.  To model our talk and our walk on his.  When our words and our actions are aligned, when all of who we are is in synch, we are getting closer.


When we ordain people in our church, the one being ordained kneels with hands on the Bible and the hands of family and colleagues on his or her head.  The bishop then puts his or her hands on the ordinand’s head and, among other things, says, “Take thou authority.”  Take thou authority. The church is asking you to act with authority for us.  We expect you to live like you mean it.  You have it in you.

Ordination, like every other way of living out our call from God, flows from our baptism.  That’s our first and abiding mission to live for God in the world.  No more permission is required.  That’s when we leave our boats and follow Jesus.


We expect you to live like you mean it.  You have it in you.  “Take thou authority” – someday you might be the Zora in someone’s sermon.


Thanks be to God!


© 2012 Deborah E. Lewis