To Whom do We Yield?
Holy One, Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, our rock and our redeemer. And let the Holy Spirit produce in us strong convictions. Amen.
I first heard the beheading of John the Baptist when Diane Hutchinson was the interim pastor at Immanuel in the summer of 2015. I don’t remember a thing about her message, but I do remember the beheading. So, at the very least, in my one and only chance at preaching to the full community in the 4 years I’ve been serving this congregation, I wanted it to be memorable.
Today, I want to share a message with you about authority. What it involves, what it invokes, and how it shapes our decisions and our desires. Judith and Herodias might seem like askew characters to think about authority—since neither of them are particularly obedient to anyone (and certainly not to the political rulers of their days). But they are perfect examples to illuminate just how squishy authority is—that in fact, living good lives and making good decisions is not as simple as just doing what we’re told by people we perceive to be in positions of authority.
When we think about authority, some things come to mind quickly:
- We pay our taxes
- Follow the speed limit.
- Children are taught in schools how to behave: to listen to adults, to their parents, to most elders
After all, authority is defined as the right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience. So, we know we’re supposed to follow rules and abide the law.
But there’s another subset entirely, a way of thinking about authority that captures more than just rules, laws, and bosses which include the structures, the norms, and ideologies that are a part of the very air we breathe. These sneaky, invisible structures like gender, racism, and capitalism, construct and constrict how we relate to one another. These are structures masquerade as simply the “the way things are.”
These traditions are just as authoritative as any law. So we don’t end up questioning public school funding that comes from property taxes which effectively bars most children from poor families from accessing the socio-economic ladder of a good education because that’s just the way things are and we also don’t quite understand trans youth or anyone who doesn’t map neatly into a gender binary. So often, doing what’s right involves bucking tradition, opening up our empathy, and following those tiny voices in our head that make us question those in charge.
As Christians, we think of God as the ultimate authority. And the triune God: Jesus, God the creator, and the Holy Spirit who continues to work and reveal God’s self to us in the world today. And if you were thinking that, well then DING DING DING you got the right answer!
I titled this sermon: “To whom do we yield?” But the immediate follow up question is “Is that even enough?” Knowing that we should follow God isn’t the tricky part. Knowing what to do next is…
We don’t know what God’s will is in the world— and in fact, when we think we know exactly what God wants and how God wants it done— is probably when we can be sure that we’re just completely wrong. We can make idols of our own cleverness. And hurt people in a single-minded pursuit of our own vision of justice. But how do we know what God wants for us in this world?
Judith is quite confident that her decision to kill Holofernes is God’s desire for her. But how does she know this?
She prays a lot. That’s for sure. But still, there is no guarantee that those who pray a lot come to the same conclusions about God’s will. That’s how we end up with committed Christians protesting outside of abortion clinics AND committed, prayerful Christians protesting the protestors! Prayer does not necessarily lead us to unified conclusions.
When I first mentioned authority, and what with us all being inside a church right now, I’m sure that many minds jumped quickly to scripture. But which parts of scripture? Anyone who’s read even excerpts from the Bible know that it is a messy collection of contradictory stories over more than a thousand of years. Christians will often site the New Testament as the way to get around Biblical contradictions— “that’s just an Old Testament thing!”— without recognizing that there are JUST as many inconsistencies and disagreements within the New Testament. Just look at the entire gospel of Matthew, Mark, and Luke that tell the same story three different ways.
Scripture is definitely a site for guidance, and its disagreements can be sifted through to find real highlights and themes that poke out beyond any discrepancies. In scripture we find narrative threads of people living together in community, of fighting and disagreeing and nonetheless committed to the shared project of building a life together; we find people extending hospitality and inviting in strangers and refugees; we find stories of people sharing their resources.
If we look to the texts for today: what are these stories telling us about authority? They are giving us a muddied interpretation! Neither of these women have authority to kill the men they seek. Herodias needed to outwit her husband and subvert the hierarchy of their own relationship so he couldn’t dismiss her desires. And Judith is prayerful and devout but an angel of the Lord doesn’t come to her and tell her to murder Holofernes and bring his head back in a food sack. Beheadings are important in this question, because as far as rules go: Thou Shalt Not Kill is QUITE high on the list. And yet one of these killings is lauded as justifiable.
Judith sees the suffering of her community. The faux Assyrian army has closed in on Bethulia, the people are starving, and the town elders don’t know what to do other than to sit and pray for deliverance from God. Judith is lauded as brave and courageous—she takes a risk that is violent but measured. Holofernes has killed thousands of innocent people as the leader of this army. She takes a big gamble that by killing him, the rest of the army will fall into disarray, but killing him saves the lives of her entire community and prevents the deaths of everyone to the south of this invading army. Her single action ends an entire campaign of war.
In contrast, Herodias is vilified. I actually sort of feel for Herodias. Her power is threatened, maybe even her life and that of her daughter—who knows what exactly would happen to a disliked and dethroned ruler. But Herodias acts selfishly. She acts in her own self-interests and self-preservation: she makes herself her only authority. The only authority she abides is her own desire. But at least she’s consistent! Herod doesn’t want to kill John the Baptist, but he feels compelled to because of the oath he made to Herodias’ daughter.
To be clear, I’m not recommending that you kill your enemies. Importantly, the book of Judith is a work of fiction; and it is an all-too-clean narrative device that killing the general of the army ends the war. We know from our own modern history that ideology can take on a life of its own; that conflicts are never as simple as killing a single person to end it; and that often violence backfires.
As my time at Immanuel Presbyterian ends, I find myself reflecting on authority frequently. This is a very unique congregation filled with highly powerful and influential people. Many of you run successful businesses and are the best in your fields: this is a congregation of people for who law and order, authority and rules mean something quite significant. Just ask anyone who has volunteered to be the worship leader—who receives 9-pages of instructions—to know that this is a congregation that loves its orderliness and its rules.
I started here when I was only 25 and almost immediately you entrusted your children to my literal care, really without any second-guessing. I fully anticipated on each and every trip I led that at the first sign of distress a “real adult” would interject and push me aside.
If you’re wondering what a “real adult” is (as Lynley Ogilvie asked me on our last Habitat trip), it’s someone who wakes up early enough in the group to make the coffee for breakfast, instead of my rolling out of bed 15 minutes before we have to leave like a teenager.
In 2019, I led a 20-person trip to Honduras with children, youth and adults—a truly intergenerational trip. At the airport on our way home, the flights were delayed and the airport in San Pedro Sula wasn’t communicating where passengers needed to be to get through security and customs in time. As I walked over to speak with some of the airport personnel—nervously, in Spanish—I looked over to where the Immanuel group was sitting propped up on their luggage. I fully expected at least 4 adults to be marching their way over to deal with this problem themselves, but instead when I glanced over, I saw 19 people chatting away cheerfully, eating snacks, seemingly without a care in the world. And I thought, “Huh, what a wild thing that these people trust me enough to get them home. Little do they know that I have no idea if this is going to work out…” Of course, it did work out. 14 of the 20 made it home that night; and the remaining 6 of six had a fun sleepover at Houston international airport before getting home the next day.
This congregation has always respected me—and dare I say— my authority. It has been an absolute privilege to work in a place where as a young woman, but also just as an opinionated person, I could’ve easily been written off or just not taken very seriously. But that is never what happened. Instead, my commitments, my concerns and the ways that I have wanted to nudge this congregation have always been honored. In my two years leading the Women of Spirit Bible Study, that conversation has grown and stretched, and the participants of this group have been open to new ways of thinking. They really don’t seem to get upset when I nudged the conversation in a different direction, or give a note of historical context that totally changes how we think about the story. Instead we’ve been opening up each other’s’ hearts and minds to new possibilities while we talked about Original Sin and Justification by Faith, and what to do with all this violence in scripture and in the world.
Additionally, the families in this community have been on a wild journey throughout my time in Youth ministry. I have been so delighted that whenever I’ve said alright, let’s do a trip or a service project, or talk about what this means, the response has been a resounding: “Cool, let’s do it.” We have packed care packages and had Christmas parties and gone on mission trips with Habitat for Humanity and gone to Honduras and done so many things together in an effort to cultivate Christianity in young believers who can then be propelled out of this congregation and into the world: where we get to practice building our empathy muscles—if I can steal a line from Sheryl Pardo that she told me back in 2018. This is what it means to be led by God’s will for the world—to find a place to practice more empathy. To get out of our comfort zones, and get proximate with new people.
I’ll admit that the real reason I chose the scripture for today is simply because like the hymns, it’s my last Sunday and these are my favorites. I love the story of Judith beheading Holofernes. I grew up in the young adult literature revolution: where young people and young women in particular have learned that they don’t need to be saved. We have Katniss Everdeen and Hermione Granger. People who don’t follow the regular channels of authority, who don’t need permission to do something bold and save their communities.
So what do we do about it all? Authority is necessary for creating an orderly world. We need rules, we need to know (clearly) what we can and cannot do. But quickly, authority becomes a structure of domination—it is designed to make the delineation between those who make rules and those who follow them. Between the subjugator and the servant.
It’s important to not just follow rules, but to identify the right kinds of authority to respect (and even challenge!). The good news is this: God’s will alone is the one type of authority that does not create dominion. Instead, God’s will is so closely aligned with our goodwill, with the goodness and wholeness of not just our lives but that of our community, and creation and the world, that submitting oneself to God’s will is not a method of subjection under coercion— it is an expression and alliance with goodness in the world and for the self. We can find wholeness and yes—JOY!—by seeking out God’s will for the world via the pursuit of love, grace, mercy, and justice. And here’s the trick: we have to have to have to—absolutely must engage in this project of seeking out God’s will together, in a diverse community that includes our trans siblings, and people of color, and undocumented folks coming to build a new life. We need everyone’s input on how to build a fairer, more just world that is free from “just the ways things are” thinking. God doesn’t need strict, unquestioning obedience—traditions and denominations and even scripture tell the story of people trying to discern God’s will: but any community is going to get at least some things wrong.
I am not standing up here saying that your call today from this pulpit is to identify the right kinds of authority and then obey them. And I’m certainly not saying that MY authority is the answer to all these questions. No one person has all the answers or the right steps you can follow that will keep you out of trouble and happy and healthy; we see that well enough in our stories from today—that Judith didn’t have to kill Holofernes, no one told her what to do (although she did exercise her authority over her servant and require her maid to accompany her into the dangers—see: no one is perfect).
No, there are no shortcuts in trying to discern God’s will, but there are friends.
Thanks be to God.