"What Gives Truth Its Authority?"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - September 29, 2002

Psalm 78:1-4; 12-16; Matthew 21:23-32

     This morning I would like us to explore what turns our heads.  What gets our attention?  What makes something extremely attractive to us?  Where does that person, object or understanding get its power to inspire us?  Our responses to such things may be automatic, but this morning let us explore the BIG question.  What causes something to stand out so brilliantly that we feel called to change our lives in order to pursue it?           

     One day in another life time I made a pastoral call on Brooksie Catrow.  She was one of our older members when I served the congregation in Arden, just outside Martinsburg, West Virginia.  One of the interesting qualities about my intuitive spirit is that I seem to know things ahead of time. In fact, I am clairvoyant when it comes to certain areas of life. 

     Brooksie had just baked 5 pies.  They had been cooling for about an hour when I came to her home.  The timing of my arrival could not have been more perfect.  The house was filled with aromas that were out of this world.  She insisted that I sample a wedge of each.  I struggled with the polite, "Oh no, it's too close to supper" but my weak protests were ignored. Her wedges were so generous that they just about went around the dinner plate she gave me.  She presented me a fork, a cup of freshly brewed coffee and I was transported into another world.

     She was one of those West Virginia women who still baked with lard. The crusts were light and the mix of ingredients was such that none was dominant.  The taste of each pie was distinctive and as near perfect as anything I had ever tasted. I ate everything and when she turned toward the sink, I actually licked my plate.  I am serious. 

     When I asked how she could create such masterpieces, she did not know. There were no recipes.  She thought perhaps she had watched her mother, but she said, "It comes naturally."  She knew how the dough ought to look and feel.  She knew the taste she wanted and just dumped into her mixing bowl the nutmeg, cinnamon and other spices until she had it.  Her truth was packaged into a creation, the beauty of which everyone recognized.   She got people's attention. 

     If we shift to another universe, there was a time when our family was traveling across America in our old 1965 Mercury Montego.  We always pulled a little Apache camper behind us. We had gotten to Wichita, Kansas when we started to have car trouble.  We managed to nurse the car into a Ford dealership where it finally stopped running.  We took the car through the intake protocols and went to lunch.  When we came back, we developed that sinking feeling.  There were seven seasoned mechanics looking under the hood. That is never a good sign.

     I asked, "What's the problem?"  One of the mechanics said, "Sir, you and your family may want to check into the hotel across the street.  We want Ben to look at this and he's not here today.  Ben knows all about 302 engines.   He'll will be in first thing in the morning."  That is what we did.  Ben was a 73 year-old who could diagnose problems on cars that did not have the computer terminals. He could understand problems simply by listening to the sounds the engine made when it was turning over.  The other mechanics told me that Ben was so good that he can tell which spark plug was not firing properly when the engine was running.  Now that is really something!

     Ben got us on the road again.  But how did he know what to do?  Again, like Brooksie, he did not know where his skill came from. He told me, "Today's mechanics have diagnostic machines that zero in on the car's problem.  I was working on cars before such equipment was available.  I had to figure things out based on my knowledge of how every part of the car worked. Your car was a challenge to fix because its problem was intermittent.  It was fun figuring out the cause, but I got her. Good luck, son, you have a fine machine there." He had the attention and respect of his colleagues in the shop.  They looked at him as "the master mechanic."  He was their sage.

     In our Gospel lesson today, the priests and the elders came to Jesus and said, "What right do you have to do these things?  Who gave you such a right?"  As we follow the story, Jesus refused to tell them unless they could answer one of his questions.  "Tell me," he said, "by what right did John baptize people?" They refused to answer.

     Jesus launched into a parable.  He spoke about two sons.  Both were asked to work in the vineyard.  The older son refused to go, but later went.  The younger boy told his father that he would go and never did.  Jesus asked the priests and elders, "Which son obeyed his father?"  They answered correctly. 

     After hearing their answer he then told them that tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the Kingdom of God ahead of them.  Why?  Their logic had been flawless when it came to obvious answers. They understood which son performed obediently. When it came to the obvious answer about John the Baptist, they could not answer.

     The priests and elders had become slaves to the orthodoxy of their beliefs, rituals, Scriptures, and traditions; they were not open to new ways of thinking.  After all, John was not like them.  He had not been educated at their fine academies.  Jesus further challenged them by saying, "Even when you saw how his words changed people's lives, you would not believe."  Even  convincing results did nothing to change their thinking.

     Think, now, about how we might respond. If someone helped us move beyond our holding on to a grudge, our inability to forgive, or our nursing some ancient wound that has haunted us for years, would we care who had trained this person?  If someone taught us a new way of doing something or a more healthy way to process unpleasant experiences, would we care by what authority they did such things?

     What gives truth its authority is what it does for us when we put it to use.  A thousand memorized Scriptures or a flawless track record of church attendance may be quite admirable, but it could also put some of us in the same level of understanding as the priests and the elders who were questioning Jesus.  They needed a frame of reference before they could understand, when most of us give "authority" to what helps us live more productively.  This is why Jesus was such a "God-send" to humanity.

     All we have to do is look at the array of products from the pharmaceutical industry to see that for many people the gospel is found in a medicine bottle. What is interesting is how quickly we walk down this road with our prescriptions in hand before we think about our relationship with God, before we unplug from beliefs and values that do not serve us or before we choose to leave the source of worries and stress that the medication is designed to help us tolerate. This does not make any sense!

     Recently in the Health supplement of the Washington Post there was an excellent article which tightly focused on the kind of "life-education" that Dr. Phil McGraw engages in on his new television show.  People enjoy Dr. Phil because he tries to help people understand the source of their personal problems.  We applaud such efforts, but what road do we take when the person whose life has become unmanageable is us?

     The quote from that article which I taped above my computer at home comes from Dr. Robert Leahy, a provider for the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy.  He said this, "Pills don't give you skills.  Prozac might make your mood better, but it's not going to teach you how to communicate better at the office."  Exactly! 

     What many people look for is happiness and joy 24-hours a day, 7-days a week.   We want skills without having to go through the discomfort and inconvenience of having to develop them.   We want to live confident, secure, love-centered lives without having to discipline ourselves, give up something that is bringing us pleasure or outgrow some unproductive habit that we insist is harmless. 

     When I asked Brooksie Catrow where she learned how to make her exquisite pies, she did not know.  When I asked Ben how he learned to understand older cars, he did not know.  When Jesus was asked by what authority he did such things, he did not tell them.  But the answers to these questions are obvious.

     When you take great pride in baking so that it becomes part of your identity, you learn to create wonderful things in your kitchen.  When being an automobile mechanic becomes a way of life rather than the source of a paycheck, you eventually become very informed about cars. When we walk with God every moment of our lives, we become a conduit through which God's creative energy flows into the world.  We become what we pursue.

     Such skills do not develop overnight.  They can take years to develop.  When we are traumatized by one of life's reversals, so often it is because "faith" is something we turn to as part of our crisis management.  However, when our relationship with God is an every day love affair, unwanted life events tend not to become crises.  Jesus greeted such experiences creatively because both feet were firmly planted in the Kingdom where he lived.   He said, "Follow me there."

     Brooksie Catrow loved baking. She was not the kind of baker who pulled a box of Duncan Hines from her pantry shelf, added the eggs and milk and put the mix in the oven. She was not into baking instant brownies. Baking on her level took a lifetime to master.  It was the same for Ben and, of course, for Jesus. Such lives always produce results we can see.     

     Once two of John the Baptist's disciples came to Jesus and asked, " John wants to know if you are the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"  Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard:  the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them."  What gives truth its authority is the result that is given physical form in our lives.

     Jesus would not care what we think we know.  Jesus would not care how "right" we think we are.  Jesus would not care how entitled we are to "justice," how many Ph.Ds we have, how many books we have written, or how many praise-worthy accomplishments we have completed.  To all of us Jesus would simply say,

         Until you learn how to love your neighbor AND those you perceive as your enemies, you will not be healed, nor can you enter the Kingdom of God while on earth.  It is not that I do not want you.  I do!  Nor is it that I have judged you.  I have not.  It is you who will not let go of what you are holding on to.  You feel entitled to the way you think.  As much as I love you, I cannot change that.

    However, in time you will understand that truth always bears delicious fruit in your life. Everyone around you will enjoy that fruit.  When this happens, they will know that you are following me.

         This is what gives truth its authority.

     To move ahead in life, we have to leave where we are.  The priests and elders could not do that.  Can we?


     Ever patient God, we thank you for the magnificence of our physical world.  We confess how easy it is to appreciate only what we perceive with our senses.  Often we neglect what heals the spirit, what mends our broken dreams and what would bring new insights into our recurring life-issues.  How often we need to remind ourselves that "to have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, and to be certain of the things we cannot see."  In our need for having what we want immediately, we forget the skill that our developing patience would give us.  In our quest for certainty before we decide, we forsake the greater skills of faith and trust.  As we mature in spirit, may we live lives of peace during all the dramas of life.  Amen. 


     Ever faithful God, we enter this place eager to find the peace which will still our spirits.  The highways of our minds so often seemed clogged with traffic of our own design.  There are times we must face experiences we have labeled as unpleasant and we face them with dread.  There are moments when the list of our necessary chores appears as a mountain, and our desire to climb is not there. 

     And yet, O God, how often we find ourselves being lifted by your felt presence?  How often during a moment of doubt, have we heard you whisper within us, "Trust me, we can do this together."?  How many times have we been in the midst of fragile moments when you have sent us someone, or given us some insight or strengthened us to rise to the occasion? When we move away from being preoccupied with ourselves, you appear.  Your guidance is clear.  Your love is overwhelming.

     Today, as world politics preys so much on our minds, we would ask that as the geographical  boundaries that outline numerous countries become blurred, help us to be eager teachers, diplomats, and peacemakers in our communities, at work and everywhere that the need for reconciliation exists.  Help each of us to remain examples of what it looks like to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .