The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
<em>The people in the synagogue were astounded at Jesus’ teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.</em> And in a dramatic demonstration of this authority, an unclean spirit recognized Jesus as the Holy One of God, and upon Jesus’ command, came out of the man he had been tormenting.
What a scene. Can you imagine? No wonder the people were amazed, asking one another who this Galilean might be. They were accustomed to a different kind of authority, like that of the scribes. That kind of authority is more about position and power, but Jesus’ authority came from within; it was given by God. He had an unmistakable and irresistible strength of spirit.
Have you ever known someone with this kind of inner authority? Someone who didn’t have to demand your trust, because they commanded it? Perhaps it was a parent, or a grandparent. One of those people in my life was Nettie, who was the imposing nanny, cook, and housekeeper in my mother’s home when she was growing up. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, Nettie still lived with my grandmother. I would visit in her bedroom so that we could listen to the San Francisco Giants on the radio, hoping that Willie Mays would hit another home run.
Nettie was a person not to be trifled with. I don’t remember her ever raising her voice. She didn’t have to. She had wise, kindly eyes that didn’t miss a thing. When she spoke, which wasn’t often, you listened. As a child I wouldn’t have known why I listened - it wasn’t fear - but looking back on it, I know it was because she had depth and wisdom, and because she loved.
Sometimes I encounter a stranger, just in passing, who carries this kind of authority. It can be a child or a waiter in a restaurant. It’s in the eyes, the posture. In my office, I have a photograph of Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen teacher. The picture was taken 40 years ago, but he looks alive, radiating clarity, strength, humility, wisdom, and compassion. Now there’s a person I would listen to. That’s what Jesus must have been like. That’s what astounded people when he taught. That’s why the unclean spirit recognized him as the Holy One of God.
In people that I have known who exhibit this kind of inner authority, in the gospel story we just heard, there are two qualities that are always present. First, a paradox: even though this authority is confident, it is humble, because it is born out of self-emptying. Second, it is always used in the service of others.
What do I mean by self-emptying? Most of the time when we consider growing in one way or another, we think of adding something to ourselves. We work out at the gym to build muscle. We invest money to increase our net worth, or at least we used to. Similarly, some people approach their spiritual life this way.
They think that by reading books, learning prayer techniques, attending classes or retreats, they will add spiritual stuff as an enhancement to their existing life. But the life of faith is really more about subtraction than addition. The whole point is to remove, by God’s grace, whatever is standing between us and God - our insistence that life be the way we want it to be, our fear of the future, our resentments, and our unwillingness to trust. Spirituality is a process of dying to the false self, so that the true self, or God’s life within us, can rise up, unencumbered.
So the more we offer to God our obstacles to faith and love, and the more we focus on God’s presence instead of our problems and desires, the more we become an empty vehicle for the Spirit. Spirituality is about subtraction, not addition.
When we experience this self-emptying, we can have confidence, but it is not the self-confidence of pride, which is always insecure, puffed-up. Instead, we have confidence in God. We are secure in the knowledge that as we continue to self-empty, God will continue to rise up, ever with us, supporting us, supporting everything, bringing good out of every situation. That, I think, is the paradoxically humble power of spiritual authority that Jesus carried, that people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu carry. It is irresistible, because it not about them.
And unlike mere power, which is used in the service of self, spiritual authority is always used in the service of others, in the service of the greater good. If we’re involved in the spiritual process of dying to the false self, there is simply less baggage to get in the way of whatever might be needed in order to serve others. And so we can be open, available, ready to respond to whomever or whatever God places in our path.
These days, the word “spirituality” has been overused by those who merely hope to have a nice experience for themselves. In our aggressively consumerist culture, it is no surprise that spirituality has become objectified, a personal product to attain and enjoy for oneself: peace of mind, happiness and joy. And it ends there. This is simply narcissism in a spiritual guise.
Jesus wasn’t connected with God so he could feel holy. He was connected with God in order to serve. One day, God placed in his path a man who had been tormented by a demon. And because Jesus was centered in God rather than in his own ego-centric needs, he turned to him, had compassion, and healed. It was a natural, spontaneous act.
And so genuine spiritual authority is paradoxical: it is humble and self-emptying, yet confident in God’s presence and power. And it always manifests itself in service to others; that is its nature when we are out of the way.
Today we will have our Annual Parish Meeting. We will read and hear reports from a wide variety of leaders and ministries that we do. You will be amazed at the scope of dedication and good works - on behalf of children and youth, in the beautification of this house of worship, behind the scenes making sure the whole place is clean and orderly and sufficiently financed, feeding the hungry and visiting the sick, caring for the divorced or the grieving, offering high-quality classes, retreats, concerts, and art shows, and much more that never gets reported - like those who serve at the funerals of people they didn’t even know.
If you step back and look at this from a distance, it is quite impressive. St. Michael’s is known around our city, our diocese, even nationally among Episcopalians, as a place of real depth of spirit. We carry some spiritual authority. Because of this, people notice, listen to, and trust us.
But just like individuals who have spiritual authority, it isn’t about us. Whatever confidence we might feel is not self-confidence - “aren’t we wonderful.” It is confidence in the Spirit, who moves through us. Together, we continually learn how to empty ourselves towards God, to die to our false selves, to our agendas and fears. We make it about God, not ourselves. And in doing so, God’s life rises up through this community. And that life manifests, naturally, in service towards others.
I am grateful to be a part of such a place. I pray that we will continue to walk this paradoxical path of self-emptying and spiritual power, and I expect that this path will lead us into acts of even greater service in the year ahead.