Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

In the name of God who calls us, grant us grace.  Amen.

For the last couple of weeks, the focus of the Gospel was “call”.  This week it’s “authority” and “leadership”.

One time, before I was ordained, I was chatting with my mentor about leadership in the church.  Growing up in the United Methodist Church – and in a clergy household, at that – I understood bishops to have incredible power.  They were the ones who were solely responsible for the placement of clergy.  So each spring, in our house, we would wait for a call from our bishop to tell us whether we would be moving or staying that year.  So I have this sort of “built in” respect for the office.  It was ingrained in me from childhood.

But the Episcopal Church works differently than that, and my mentor was explaining to me some of the nuances of that difference.  She explained to me that our bishops don’t automatically have a lot of authority.  Most of it has to be earned.  Aside from the canonical responsibilities that they hold, their real authority is in their ability to lead people – their ability to bring the people along with them.  And in the Episcopal Church, people – either clergy or lay people – don’t just go where we’re told to go – we have to go willingly.  A bishop’s real authority rests in her or his ability to discern the will of God and the will of the people; and, to show people how they’re aligned.  That authority must be earned through action.  It is not simply a trapping of the office.

The same is true for all of us, really.  Authority is a gift from the people – not a dictum from on high.

It’s only natural that “authority” and “leadership” should be studied in the wake of a couple of weeks about “call”, because they are the natural next step.  Once we’ve prayed, and studied scripture, and listened to the will of our community, then we can begin to discern a call.  But to exercise that call, we need authority.  And authority doesn’t just automatically follow without effort.

In the story of Jesus, we hear about him teaching in the synagogue – but not just teaching: he taught “as one having authority”.  And it astounded the people.  Not just surprised, but “astounded” them. They couldn’t believe it.

But he followed up the teaching with action.  When he discovered a man with an unclean spirit, Jesus cast the spirit from the man – leaving him healed and whole.  Then he began to have authority.  He didn’t just sound like it, he had it.

I sometimes wish authority would come from call – that it would just be a part of it.  And there’s a degree to which it does sometimes work that way – at least in part.  As a part of discernment, we listen for the will of God as it is expressed in and affirmed by our community – and that process gives the people some stake in our calling.  But even so, that’s only enough to get us started.  Next, we have to work to reaffirm the calling in all that we do.

Most of us probably won’t be casting out unclean spirits – at least not in the literal and dramatic way we read about from Jesus.  But we still need to earn our own authority.

As Christians, we do that by behaving as we believe Christ would have us behave.  One of my favorite things to teach – and I’m sure you’ve heard it from me multiple times – is that being a Christian isn’t just about being “nice” to one another.  Sometimes it’s about speaking truth to power – even when that’s uncomfortable.  Sometimes it’s about holding our brothers or sisters accountable.  It’s often about doing hard work.  But even so, kindness is a part of it.  We can show ourselves to be people of authority, and we can begin the process of earning that authority by being pillars of kindness and love in a world that makes those choices so rare.

But another aspect of how we earn our authority is through dedication.  During the height of pandemic lockdown, something I thought a lot about was how a major ministry of this church is the ministry of presence – that simply being a prayerful presence in this community gives us value.  Even if we couldn’t open our doors, we could still be a home for prayer.  For a while, that was all we could do.  Just keep the prayer happening.  Even if most of us had to do it from home, we could still show up in our commitment to prayer.  Well, the same is also true for just about every way God calls us.  One of the first things we can do to earn the authority of our calling is to show up – to be present.

As Christians who are called, the first thing we have to do is show up.  To worship.  To social events.  To meetings.  To mission projects and activities.  In every way that we can, to every place that we can, we have to show up.

Think about the leaders of this parish.  They first became leaders by demonstrating a dedication to this community and its ministry.  They showed up, again and again.  And then, once they got here, they delivered.  They did the work.  They built the relationships.  They engaged.  They dreamed.  They planned.  And they earned their authority.

That’s exactly what we’re all called to do.  We’re called to give ourselves over to the ministries God dreams for us in our own lives.  That’s how we become people of a Christian call who have authority.

We’ve all seen the “flash in the pan” leaders – people who talk a big game and make big plans and have big ideas – but then we discover that that’s where it stops.  People who say “yes” to the call, but then don’t live that yes into reality.  Jesus needs more than that.  The church needs more than that.  The people of God, whom we have been called through our baptism to serve, need more than that.

We’ve all been called.  There’s no question.  We are called to serve God and the church and the people of God.  That call is always growing and changing, and sometimes it’s hard to recognize, but even so you should never doubt that there’s a call.  God needs you and is calling you into service.

The next step is finding your authority.  God is calling prophets from among us to lead us.  We haven’t been – and never will be! – left alone in the desert.  So we listen for that still, small voice; and then we act.  We show up, and we act.  God promises to be with us when we do.  And God will give us the authority.  Amen.