The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 21
October 1st, 2017
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
We live in a time in which traditional understandings of authority are eroding.
Just as rising ocean levels consume more and more of the protective areas which separate stable land from the wild seas, a swelling tide of resentment and distrust in institutions and their figureheads threatens to dismantle whole governments and the tenuous bonds that constitute societies.
Over the last century or so, our advances in communications have only served to reinforce the sense that our faith in leadership can so often be misplaced, and each time we feel let down by those who have the power to affect our lives for good or for ill, it becomes harder to trust in authority at every level of life.
This week, I read a long article in the New Yorker about the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize human rights icon who is now accused of turning a blind eye to the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in her home country of Myanmar.
The author spent great time detailing the reasons Suu Kyi had risen to prominence as a defender of human rights, and also why so many of her fellow Peace Prize laureates are shocked and disillusioned by her treatment of the Rohingya.
Kenneth Roth of the organization Human Rights Watch, analyzed the dynamic this way: “Aung San Suu Kyi has the benefit of having become an icon without saying a whole lot… She was a moral symbol, and we read into that symbol certain virtues, which turned out to be wrong when she actually began speaking.”
So many leaders in our day and age rise to power because of what they symbolize, and I would even go so far as to say that many institutions and organizations rise to prominence based on such symbolic associations as well.
But if a leader or an institution wishes to have authority, then symbols will only last so long.
It takes tangible, sustained examples of words and actions to reinforce the truth of the symbol they represent.
Otherwise, the symbol erodes and the leadership entity becomes exposed as untrustworthy, lacking integrity, and ultimately becomes ineffective in marshalling the kind of authority necessary to revolutionize the world.
Aung San Suu Kyi has lost any moral authority she gained from her previous symbolic presence due to her deafening silence over the present day genocide of the Rohingya.
And I could point to countless other examples of this “erosion” dynamic at play in our generation, from the world of politics, to the religious sphere, to the business and sports worlds.
The Presidency. The Church. Corporate Integrity. College Athletics.
We have become accustomed to grave failures of leadership in these arenas, and so many well-meaning people are searching for any last shred of authority to which they can cling in the midst of growing cultural storms.
If there is any good news for us in such a deep and global leadership crisis, it is in the fact that the Lord we follow does not ask us to blindly give ourselves over to leaders and institutions that abuse our trus, and seek to divert our attention from the content of their characters by rotely trotting out the symbols they claim to represent.
Jesus’ encounter in the Temple in today’s Gospel is a prime example of this, as he exposes the religious power brokers of his day as more interested in playing politics than in living into their faith’s promises.
Using the example of the popular prophet John the Baptist, a symbol of repentance and renewal to the populace, and a scourge to the ruling elites, Jesus makes these public symbols of faith put their words on the line.
Their choice is between protecting their power base, or to risk admitting that they were wrong about John and seek to live into his call for repentance.
Like most weak politicians, they refuse to take a side, thus further eroding their authority and moral standing among the people they are charged with leading.
Jesus’ authority, on the other hand, keeps deepening as a result of this encounter and his growing power base is the primary reason they see no choice but to exterminate him.
The short parable Jesus tells about the two sons, which hearkens back to other biblical stories about brothers who choose different paths (Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, the Prodigal Son and his older brother) has a clear message.
Regardless of what we purport to represent, or what we say we will do, our faithfulness and authority are ultimately measured by our actions.
While this beautiful church of St. Paul’s within the Walls is a symbol of a welcoming, dynamic and active Christian community, if we are not living that out together, the symbol ceases to be meaningful.
Likewise, while today we celebrate 25 years of the presence of Spanish speaking ministry and services, the value of such a community is not in its mere existence, but rather, in how much that community reveals God’s mercy, love and glory.
And so goes it in each and every one of our lives…while God’s grace is certainly larger than any of our sins and shortcomings, our authority as Christians is measured by whether or not we actually go into the vineyard to work alongside people of all races, nations and social standings or refuse to do so.
Whether we can let go of our pride, and our death grip on the reins of power and self-interest, and choose to live with integrity, or settle for a shadow form of religion that is more acquainted with repressions and oppression than with liberation of captives.
It is indeed a tall order, and as so many of the leadership figures of our day have shown, one that is rarely chosen because of how challenging and difficult it is.
As Christians, we indeed have a role to play in criticizing the broken figures and symbols or our age and in calling them to account for, and repent of, their words and actions.
Aung San Suu Kyi SHOULD be facing public global pressure to act as the Nobel Peace Prize recipient she is, and not merely as a power seeking politico who is willing to sacrifice an ethnic minority’s existence for her own political gain.
Presidents should be called out for their failures to serve as good stewards of the symbolic office to which they’ve been elected.
Bishops who invest in lavish Bavarian mansions instead of their people, and priests who overlook sexual abuses should be called to account for their misdeeds.
But we miss the point if we only use the existence of such figures as opportunities for finger pointing.
We fail to grasp the essence of the Gospel today if we let our righteous anger and social justice claims distract us from all the internal work, both in our community and in our hearts, that WE need to do in order to fully claim the authority given to us through our Baptism.
That is the work to which we have been called, dear brothers and sisters.
And consequently, it is the only work that leads to a renewal of others’ faith in us, in the institutions we represent, and in the possibility of believing that authority and integrity can still triumph in the face of such overwhelming worldly odds.
Demand authenticity and integrity of yourselves this week, choose to go into the vineyard, and you will be empowered by God to exercise true authority in confronting the failing powers and principalities of this age.
It will not be easy.
But it is the only road that leads to the abundant and meaningful life we seek.