The Problem with Authority

The Problem with Authority
preached for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing
by the Rev. Kathryn A. Bert
January 27, 2013

I got a question last week in the reception line about the flowers that were hanging on this wall underneath the word of the month, Authority.  They’re gone now, and we have our banner here, but someone last week asked me what the flowers had to do with authority…  I said I didn’t know, but that I’d ask Kathy McWilliams, the woman who is really in charge around here.  Kathy is our administrator, and she does lots of things like make sure the word of the month gets posted here in the Assembly Hall and banners get hung for the 30 days of love, etc.  Turns out, it was just pretty.  They were left over from an event last fall.  Kathy used the authority of her position to decorate the Assembly Hall.  I wanted to follow up since I thought that was a pretty good question.

…and Frankly, this is one of those sermons that I approach with some degree of trepidation.  It feels like I’m preaching to the choir – since you all know what the problem with authority is.  Member Bob Teed showed me the button on his shirt last week which says, Question Authority, a button or bumper sticker I would expect to see displayed at any gathering of Unitarian Universalists.

Of course, the reason is quite obvious:  Unitarians and Universalists are heretics by definition.  Heresy is any belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs or customs.  Beliefs or customs become established because they are favored by those in authority.  So, out of the Christian tradition, because the Catholic church determined that the Trinity – a belief that God is three in one – those who maintained a belief in a unified, single God without parts or aspects, were called “unitarian” and were declared by the church authorities as heretical.  Same idea with universalism – as the authorities settled on a belief that some people were condemned to hell everlasting, and others to a heaven, those who maintained that God is too good to condemn any of her children to hell, were called “universalists” and were declared by the church authorities as heretical.

So we have good reason to question authority – the authorities have often declared our ways to be dangerous and forbidden.

On the other hand, and this is where it gets hard, we are interconnected.  We are beings who are relational.  None of us exist wholly unto ourselves.  We are not complete without others; we cannot survive without others; we are interrelated, interdependent; and need others.  Therefore, sometimes we can be in charge, and sometimes we have to let others be in charge.

When we’re little, for example, we need parents or adults to care for us.  Mammals nurse their young – and even though humans have developed additional ways to feed their young, our young don’t survive without human care and feeding.  None of us would have survived without the care of others.
Many people experience some time in our lives in which we can delude ourselves to thinking that we’re independent, when we can care for ourselves nearly without aid…. but it is always a delusion, and it hardly ever lasts.  Most of us also have cause to remember at some point in our later lives that we are interdependent and need one another.  All our lives we are in need, and others are in need of us.
We learn from others, and we learn who we are from others.  At early points in our lives, we have to trust our caregivers in order to survive.  But at some point, we have to learn to trust ourselves first… I remember one such moment in my life, learning to drive.  I was going through an intersection and my mother, who was a nervous passenger even with a skilled driver, shouted out some instruction which because I trusted her words over my own experience, I nearly caused a crash.  As any skilled driver knows, however, the person in the driver’s seat must be…well, in the driver’s seat.  And now, 30 years later, when I’ve now been the mom in the passenger seat… my empathy for my own mother has increased somehow.

When do we listen to the authority of others, and when do we pay attention to our own?
I wonder how many of you heard two weeks ago the National Public Radio series called Losing our Faith – it was on Morning Edition, and you can access it online also.  I’ll share with you the titles of the stories, so to give you a glimpse of the content:
·         More People are moving Away from Religion: but why?

If you heard these stories, I wonder if, like me, you wanted to tell the reporters and the people in the stories about Unitarian Universalism?!  Doubt and respect, only one spouse believes in God, standing on the side of love with social issues… - all week, I wanted to shout our good news from the rooftop!
…and then I humbly remembered Fred Muir’s words from the Berry Street Essay last June:
“Fundamental to our future,” said Muir, “is recognizing that our way of faith - from its ministry to its members - has been supported and nurtured by a trinity of errors leading not only to ineffectiveness but an inability to share our liberating message; which is to say, while Unitarian Universalism’s gospel is good news it is losing its vitality and relevance.”
He defines this trinity of errors as:
·         disturbing and disruptive commitment to individualism
·         clinging to a UU exceptionalism that is often insulting to others
·         refusing to acknowledge and treat our allergy to authority and power

I believe that this disturbing and disruptive commitment to individualism is related to our delusion that we operate independently, and that we’re not relational, that we exist as selves separate from other beings.  That kind of individualism then insists that our actions don’t affect others very much and that we can judge the effect of our actions by turning inward – that we don’t need to check our understanding with others.  This is the kind of individualism that declares that I have rights, but no responsibility.  The world is here to serve me; I am not here to serve the world.

Exceptionalism is related to this individualism, this idea that not only are we separate from others but… we are better than others, we are exceptional.  I want to read two sentences from Mark Harris’ book, Elite, which describes this particular error of which Muir refers.  speaking of our congregational forbearers, he writes : (p. 104) “They wanted a democratic society, but they believed they were the ones who were best equipped to lead that society and should determine its parameters.”  speaking of the present he writes, “We want a democratic faith that embraces all, but in our efforts to extend this liberal religion, we frequently embrace only those who are like us.”  Exceptionalism.

Then, finally, this allergy to authority and power that often results in the misuse and abuse of power and authority…

As I mentioned before, there is good reason we are skeptical of power and authority – as heretics.  We have all experienced the abuse of power and authority.  No wonder I am recalling my adolescence when I talk about this topic, because that is the stage of life in which we have to learn to individuate….we move from being mostly dependent to more independent – always being interdependent.  I remember skipping class in high school.  I can’t remember why; but I do know it was a pretty rare experience for me.  Anyway, I was not in class, I was by my locker, when the principal walked down the hallway.  Naturally, I was nervous, but the principal greeted me warmly, never suspicious that I wasn’t where I was supposed to be.  A few lockers away was another student with a different reputation, and immediately, the principal started questioning him about where he was supposed to be and why he wasn’t in class.  As I remember it, the principal wound up dragging him to his office, as I watched.  I think of that as a critical moment in understanding the injustice of the world.  That I was the one who got away with skipping class didn’t change my critique…

Just because the principal got it wrong in that moment, doesn’t mean we don’t need to put power and authority into the office of the principal – in order for schools to function.  But we need to hold each other accountable to that power.

The problem with authority isn’t that we shouldn’t grant it, or accept it, but rather that we need to be held accountable to it and responsible with it.

Bob Swanson, chair of the internship committee, last week reminded us of our congregational polity – that the power of this institution lies within the congregation itself.  Members of this church elect their minister and lay leaders, you elect delegates to annual meetings who represent the congregation, you not only create the budget with your own money, but then decide where to put that money by adopting or changing the budget put together by the leaders you’ve elected.  We have a congregational meeting here in this room today at 2pm.  Members of the church who are able should be here.  This is your business we’re conducting.  There are three major business items, and two extra things to be discussed this afternoon.  [SHOW SLIDE]  The business items include electing delegates to regional and national business meetings, and deciding whether or not to sponsor Greg Martin for the Unitarian Universalist ministry, and adopting the budget.  We’re not voting to ordain Greg, but to recommend him to the fellowship committee for entry into the UU ministry.  [NEXT SLIDE]  The extra items which we’ll do after the meeting adjourns include a one-time opportunity that has arisen for grant money, which we could use to get a hearing loop system in the Assembly Hall that would help those in the congregation with hearing aids.  And finally, a building update – yes, believe it or not, we are still looking for a new accessible home and there are some prospects we will tell you about.  I encourage you to all attend this afternoon’s meeting at 2:00pm, and claim your authority as a member.  All are welcome to the meeting, but of course, only members can vote.  [NEXT SLIDE]

I agree with Fred Muir that is important that we get over this trinity of errors – this letting the needs of an individual consistently trump the needs of the group, this belief in our exceptionalism which directly contradicts our message of universalism, and to cure our allergy to authority by taking responsibility for the authority we’ve been granted.  We do these things, and I believe National Public Radio, in order to do responsible journalism, will have to report that there is a church:
·         for The 'Nones'
·         for the People who are otherwise moving Away from Religion:
·          Nonbelievers finding Ways To Cope after tragedy
·         Young People who Show Both Doubt And Respect for religion
·         who takes loving stands on Social Issues
The problem with authority isn’t that we shouldn’t grant it, or accept it, but rather that we need to be held accountable to it and responsible with it.
If we learn to practice the authority we have, and hold accountable others in authority, I believe there is just about nothing we can’t do.  I don’t believe we need less power in this world, but rather more.

Everybody says don't walk on the grass,
Don't disturb the peace,
Don't skate on the ice.
Well, I
I say,
Walk on the grass, it was meant to feel!
Tilt at the windmill,
And if you fail, you fail.
Come on be brave.
This time a ripple,
Next time a wave
Sometimes you have to start small,
Climbing the tiniest wall,

Everybody says can't fight city hall,
Can't upset the cart,
Can't laugh at the king!
Well, I
Laugh at the kings or they'll make you cry.
Fall if you have to,

Fall if you have to, because you are not alone in this.  Others can help you up, we depend upon those around us to keep perspective, to fill in the blanks, to sometimes be in charge – we can lean on a friend, question authority, practice authority, and claim that higher authority whose other name is Love.

In these 30 days of Love between the celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Valentine’s day, let’s practice our authority – claim our heresies, and accept our responsibility.  In his letter from a Birmingham Jail, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. writes,

“ButthoughIwasinitiallydisappointedatbeingcategorizedasanextremist,asIcontinuedto thinkaboutthematterIgraduallygainedameasureofsatisfactionfromthelabel.WasnotJesusanextremistforlove:Loveyourenemies,blessthemthatcurseyou,dogood tothemthathateyou,andprayforthemwhichdespitefullyuseyou,andpersecuteyou.  WasnotAmosanextremistforjustice:Letjusticerolldownlikewatersandrighteousnesslikeaneverflowingstream.WasnotPaulanextremist:IbearinmybodythemarksoftheLordJesus.  WasnotMartinLutheranextremist?HereIstand;Icannotdootherwise,sohelpmeGod.AndJohnBunyan:

conscience.’  AndAbrahamLincoln:Thisnationcannotsurvivehalfslaveandhalffree.AndThomasJefferson:Weholdthesetruthstobeselfevident,thatallmenarecreatedequal…’Sothequestionisnotwhetherwewillbeextremists,butwhatkindofextremistswewillbe.  Willwebeextremistsforhateorforlove?Willwebeextremistsforthepreservationofinjustice,orfortheextensionofjustice?”

Extremists for Love, extremists for the extension of justice….

and because we don’t have to be extremists alone, would you please rise in body or in voice to sing hymn #1021 Lean on Me?

Sermons are meant to be spoken and not written.  I have not edited this sermon to written form.