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Authority: Talking the Talk or Walking the Walk

January 30, 2021
A beautiful house finch that we spent some time with on the Knoll-Willow Open Space in downtown Estes Park.

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (Mk 1:21-22) When the scribes heard this, I am sure that they bristled up and saw a challenge to their own authority. How could someone from that insignificant town of Nazareth have authority that was greater than theirs? If you remember the passage from John 1:46, when Jesus called Philip who in turn went to tell Nathanael about Jesus, Nathanael wasn’t impressed by what he heard. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? I imagine that this sort of thinking made the affront to the scribes all the greater. 

Who exactly were the scribes? They were lawyers who knew the law backwards and forwards. Each village had at least one scribe and their job was to interpret the meaning of Jewish law, especially the Torah for the people of the village. They were the authorities whom the people would go to for help with legal issues, especially concerning the requirements and meaning of the law. The scribes considered themselves the keepers of the law. Their authority came from their knowledge and study of the law down to its smallest detail. A rabbi was also a student of and teacher of the law. They studied the Torah and other commentaries such as the Talmud and offered their own teaching based on their studies. Jesus not only taught as one with authority, but he also healed the man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue. He was a teacher and a healer. He spent the rest of his ministry walking with the poor and the oppressed through difficult times and offered them the love, grace, and mercy of God. That was something the Scribes did not do. 

As I reflect on this passage, I can’t help but wonder about how it applies today. It makes me think about pecking orders amongst the clergy. In January of 1988 I flew to Atlanta for a meeting/interview with the denomination’s board who endorsed Presbyterian clergy for ministry as chaplains for the military and the Veterans Administration. I was a part of a group of five pastors being interviewed. The group of us were sitting at a table in the hotel restaurant eating and chatting before the interviews began. Several of the other pastors were talking about their career plans. One of them was in a very fancy tailored clergy suit complete with a collar and gold cuff links. I looked at myself in my herringbone tweed jacket and dress slacks and felt out of place. They were talking about career progression and moving up to larger churches until they became the senior pastor of a large church. I was serving two small, yoked country churches near Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Listening to their conversation I wondered if I was somehow missing something. Even though I too had gone through seminary and earned a Master of Divinity degree, passed the ordination examinations like they had, I felt inadequate. As you might guess, self-esteem was a problem for me back then. 

When it came time for my interview, we had a great discussion around the board’s table. We talked about my seminary training and the two years that I had spent in the Air Force Reserve as a Chaplain Candidate, Second Lieutenant. Thanks to that experience and the fact that I had been “vetted” by the council in 1985 when I was first commissioned, they were eager to have me come on board knowing that my desire was to eventually go on active duty as a chaplain. I remember thinking that despite my country preacher dress and appearance that my other colleague had zero experience in the military. You could say that I had an authority borne of experience that he didn’t have. 

Thirty-three years after that experience in Atlanta I now see this event from a different perspective. The conversations back then were all about having authority or power based on some sort of ranking. When I went on active duty in 1990, I realized that I had very little power and was the second lowest ranking chaplain on staff so there went my authority! In my initial training in 1985 and 1990, I learned a lot about what it meant to be a chaplain in the Air Force. The training and certifications enabled me to begin to understand the system. I guess you could say that I was learning to talk the talk as a military chaplain. As I rose in rank and was put into positions of greater authority and responsibility, I realized that it wasn’t about power or game-playing. My ministry was about walking with our Airmen and Officers through life situations and settings. They knew I was a chaplain because of the cross on my uniform and knew what rank I was because of my uniform. Somehow though, I became their padre and the “authority” that I had changed over time. The people that I “pastored” in the military counted on me to walk with them, even if the valley was particularly difficult and challenging. I stayed with them as a supporter, listener, encourager, and advocate. I was learning the difference between authority because of my rank and the authority given by the airmen because I was a chaplain they could count on. Years later I received one of the highest compliments that I could ever imagine. One of my parishioners described me in this way: “When Padre says he will walk with you, he really means it!” 

I’ve talked a lot about clergy, chaplains, and their authority; but what about y’all.  In the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition we believe in the priesthood of all believers. There are different gifts amongst us, but God is the giver of these gifts. Some of the most profound experiences that I have had in ministry is working alongside of others. They may not have the advanced degrees or special denominational titles; but they do so much more than simply give lip service to their faith. They put their faith into action as they walk with others through good times and difficult times. They share the love, justice, mercy, and peace of God in a way that words cannot express. They do more than talk about faith, they live it out. 

Every day I remind myself that ministry is about more than seminary education or experience. It is about being open to the movement of the Spirit in my own heart as I walk with others through life’s circumstances. Authority isn’t about being authoritarian or controlling; true authority is about being a servant leader and sharing leadership with others. It’s not supposed to be about me. My prayer is that as I continue to minister in the Lord’s name that I will be that servant leader who does more than preach about the Good News, but actually shares it with others by walking with them. 

  1. Michael, it’s fascinating to hear more of your personal story. And from what I know of you, especially from your words and described experiences here, I believe you already are a servant leader, leading from the heart with deep compassion for others. May God continue to bless your ministry to His His praise and glory. ❤️

  2. In my early years of ministry I was told I would do well in ministry, if I just loved the people and preached the gospel. Your congregation is blessed to have you, with your caring and loving heart.

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