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  • Writer's pictureFr. Daniel S.J. Scheid SCP

What is Father Dan Thinking? 1-30-24

Here is the manuscript of last Sunday's sermon --


Fr. Daniel S.J. Scheid, SCP

4 Epiphany, Year B – January 28, 2024

All Saints’ Episcopal Church, San Francisco

“Respect my authoritah”

 

Yesterday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Some ten-million people – men, women, and children – were rounded up into concentration camps and exterminated by Nazi Germany during World War Two.

 

Six-million were Jews: by far the largest group singled out by the Nazis for persecution and death. The Nazis made them wear yellow Stars of David to shame and identify them.  

 

Fifteen-thousand were homosexuals: gay men, mostly. The Nazis made them wear pink triangles for the same reason.

 

Kate and I went to Pink Triangle Park in the Castro yesterday to bear witness to these fifteen-thousand at an annual ceremony convened by the Alexander Hamilton Post 448 of the American Legion – the only self-identified gay legion post in the country. One of our own – Stephan Steffanides – is a member of Post 448, and was kind enough to invite me to participate for the second year in a row.

 

I wasn’t the only one in religious garb. Sister Enya Streets of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence was there to say a few words, too. Sister Enya painted a pink triangle on her face; the pink was nicely accented by her white face-paint and her black lipstick, mascara, and penciled-in eyebrows.

 

Pink Triangle Park – if you haven’t been there, you should go – is a small slice of land just west of where Market Street and Seventeenth Street intersect Castro Street. Park planners erected fifteen stone pillars, each topped by a pink triangle. Each pillar represents one-thousand of the dead the Nazis feared and hated enough to capture and torture and kill.

 

The pink triangle has since been reclaimed from its scandalous past. Every June, when you look west from the Castro and other districts in our city, you can’t miss the giant pink triangle that sits atop Twin Peaks. What once was a symbol of shame is now a symbol of pride.

 

I fear that, one day all too soon, the pink triangle will need to become a symbol of resistance, as twenty-first century neo-Nazis, fascists, and other far-right parties in Europe and in the United States are on the rise.

 

Like their predecessors in twentieth-century Germany, these groups use fear of the “undesirable other” to whip up resentment and hatred. They prey upon the anxieties of sizable minorities of their electorate to gain political ascendency, to claim political legitimacy, and to seize political power.    Authoritarians in Western democracies are real, and they’re back.  

 

+++++++

 

Authority, like power, is a neutral word; it’s neither good nor bad. Power is the ability to perform or act effectively – for good or for ill.

 

Authority is power that is given to act within set parameters. The canons of the church, for example, give me, as the rector of this congregation, authority to do certain things that my ordination empowers me to do. In your own occupations, no doubt, you are given authority by someone to perform certain tasks. You don’t have to seek permission, over and over again, to attend to whatever your job entails, just like I, for example, don’t need the church’s permission, from one day to the next, to administer the sacraments.

 

Without power and authority, our lives would be ones of endless frustration.

 

Authority also suggests a confidence that arises from gained expertise. One who is seen as an authority in the arts or sciences, say, is one who has a proven track record of credibility and success, based on years of experience. We turn to authorities for insight, for guidance, for recommendations.

 

And we are free to take, or leave, what the authority says. When we do, we risk only delight or disappointment.

 

Authoritarians, on the other hand, require, and even demand, that we do what they say. Disobedience itself is the greatest risk. Do as I say, or you’ll be ridiculed. Do as I say, or you’ll be ostracized and otherized. Do as I say, or you’ll be silenced and imprisoned and killed.

 

Authoritarians gain respect, genuine or feigned, by threat. People either fear the authoritarian, so they obey to avoid worse consequence; or they respect the authoritarian, so they obey to become part of the movement, to back a winner, to feel better about themselves.


Several opinion pieces in The New York Times have tried to explain what makes the authoritarian appealing, especially in the Western democracies of Europe and North America.

 

People interviewed for these pieces say things like:

 

It’s good not to be liked. Being strong is better.  

 

He’ll stand up instead of rolling over.

 

He’s authentic by speaking his mind, even when he’s insulting and cruel. That makes him honest and strong.

 

The qualities that they admire include: strength, control, an ends-justify-the-means leadership style, and having a personality that is both charismatic and supremely confident that they alone have what it takes to fix the problem.

 

If a person feels that their own lives are going down the tubes and that their country is going off the rails, the authoritarian leader’s promises sound awfully appealing.

 

In respecting the authoritarian, people respect themselves. It feels good to be seen, to be fought for, to be lifted back up from whatever depths one has fallen, or, more likely, been pushed.

 

+++++++

 

The animated television series “South Park” has been part of American popular culture for a quarter of a century. It revolves around a quartet of perpetually ten-year-old boys, their classmates, and the adults who live in their small town.

 

My mother most definitely would not have allowed me to watch South Park. And, while I rather like the show – as part of my sense of humor is that of a ten-year-old boy – I find that if I watch more than three episodes in a row, I need to take a shower.

 

If you’ve never seen South Park, don’t feel that you have to go right home today and watch it. That’s too heavy a burden to put on my conscience!

 

I bring the show up because, despite its crudity, its social commentary is spot-on. It skewers that which needs to be skewered with a sophistication that transcends the simplicity of its animation and the heavy-handedness of its message.

 

One main character in particular – Eric Cartman – is written with perhaps every malign maliciousness present in our country today.

 

He’s a racist and a misogynist; a manipulative, power-hungry Hitlerian whose currency is cruelty and who breathes bigotry. Given an inch, he takes a mile. Given authority, he becomes an authoritarian. He demands obedience, or else.

 

“Respect my authoritah!” is his cry.

 

Eric Cartman is a credible character because he is believable. Yes, his exaggerations are a lampoon; but, like all good satire, they follow the truth wherever it leads.

 

However uncomfortably.

 

In him we see politicians and public figures who confound and anger us. In him we see people we know who trouble and vex us.

 

And, perhaps, what makes us squirm the most, is that there’s something about him that appeals to us. Tell me that you’ve never, even once, wished that you could be an awful human being if you could get away with it.

 

Eric Cartman, like all authoritarians, proclaims an anti-gospel. They preach bad news that they twist to sound good.

 

+++++++

 

My goodness – I’m four-and-a-half pages into this sermon and I have yet to mention Jesus!

 

He’s showing up now because we are in desperate need of a savior – the savior with authority who is not an authoritarian.

 

Many of the leaders in Jesus’ day, and the systems they built and functioned in, became authoritarian over time. “Power tends to corrupt,” Lord Acton famously wrote, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

 

History teaches that Rome, once a republic – of elites to be sure – became an authoritarian empire ruled absolutely by a divinized Caesar.

 

This empire occupied Judea with an iron fist and boot-heel. It brooked no dissent, and dissidents were crucified.

 

The Gospels teach that Judean temple authorities put law and ritual and tradition above the needs of the very people whom God chose to love above all others.

 

The one who violated any of these norms risked expulsion. Early on in Jesus’ ministry, his opponents looked for ways to silence and stop him. And they and the Romans succeeded.

 

The religious reformer became a political liability, and Jesus went to the cross, which was the punishment reserved for enemies of the state.

 

Jesus did not respect their authoritah.

 

+++++++

 

But the people who surrounded Jesus were hungry, oh so hungry, for relief from that which and those who oppressed them. They were ripe for a messianic leader, the longed-for king who would break their bonds, smash their shackles, and set them free and on a new and glorious course – let’s make Judea great again.

 

The synoptics’ stories of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness show Jesus refusing the authoritarian bait Satan cast in front of him. All power will be yours, the devil said, if you sell your soul and follow me. Jesus wasn’t having it. That’s real political courage.  

 

Saint John’s Gospel tells us that, after Jesus fed the five-thousand with a bit of bread and fish, the people wished to carry him off and make him king. Jesus wanted none of that. He eluded them, and when they found him the next day he taught them what divine leadership is really like, and most of the crowd walked away from him, disappointed yet again. And yet Jesus didn’t rebrand his sagging campaign, and publicly chastise his aides and send them packing.

 

Jesus gave them the choice to stay or leave. They stayed. “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Peter said. “You have the words of eternal life.”

 

In today’s gospel, when Jesus’ ministry was in its infancy, still in Saint Mark’s first chapter, Jesus astounded the people by his authority. He taught in a way that was different from the scribal authorities. On the sabbath, he cast out the unclean spirit who challenged him – the spirit of scribal authoritarianism, perhaps? – with a rebuke and an authority of his own that was different from what the people, and the demon, had ever seen.

 

But, given the advantage this authority inspired, Jesus didn’t press the point. That evening, after sabbath’s-end, people flocked to Jesus for hope and healing, for liberation and relief. The next day his disciples begged Jesus to stick around. But Jesus said it was time to move on. He wanted to give others the chance to receive, or not, the message and the messenger.

 

At any point in Jesus’ ministry, he could have devolved from being a leader with authority to being an authoritarian leader.

 

Even at the end, riding into Jerusalem at the peak of his popular acclaim, a real rival to Rome, Jesus chose another way.

 

In front of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, Jesus refused to call on the legions of warrior-angels at his disposal. Jesus’ kingship, he said, lay elsewhere. An authoritarian like Pilate could not comprehend, much less handle, the Truth.

 

+++++++

 

The questions we face as modern-day members of the Jesus movement are many, and they are profound. And yet in many ways, they are the same questions that Jesus’ disciples have asked since the beginning.

 

How do we as people of the Way – as Christians – read, mark, learn, and inwardly-digest the good-news gospel of Jesus, the teacher with authority?

 

How do we do this faithfully while we live among the authoritarians and their disciples?

 

How do we avoid following authoritarians who promise what sounds good, but is a product that they can never deliver?

 

The yellow stars of anti-Semitism and the pink triangles of gay-bashing have reappeared. Fear and hatred come in a multitude of colors and shapes beyond these. Bigotry is a box of Unlucky Charms cereal. How do we resist evil and defend the defenseless without selling our souls?

 

Jesus, and many of his earliest and most-fervent followers, chose death, with the assurance of resurrection, rather than fight against or cooperate with the authoritarian powers of their day. Must we do this, too?

 

+++++++

 

The Collect of the Day claims that God governs all things both in heaven and on earth.

 

I believe this is true. The heaven part is easy to believe. The earth part takes a leap of faith, for I sure don’t see much that’s divinely governed in any political party or platform, foreign or domestic.

 

But I believe that integral to God’s governance on earth is the trust in us and partnership with us that comes with God not being an authoritarian, as evidenced by how God the Son behaved while incarnate and walking among us. God gives us choices, and God has faith enough in us to make more right choices than wrong ones, even as the wrong choices we make, over and over again, fail spectacularly to enact God’s desire for us.

 

In our time grant us your peace, we pray. In God’s time, peace is achieved. God is waiting, patiently; expectantly, even, for us to catch up; for our time to align with God’s.

 

We’ve seen this happen – rarely and fleetingly, to be sure – but just often enough to give us hope.

 

In brief, heady aftermath of the March on Washington and her husband’s “I have a dream” speech, Coretta Scott King claimed that, just for a moment, something like the Kingdom of God was realized fully on earth. Tragedy upon tragedy, of course, followed soon after. But she saw it, and believed.

 

And on the night before he died, Dr. King said he’d seen the promised land. He might not get there with the rest – and he didn’t. The assassin’s bullet saw to that. But he’d seen it nevertheless, and told us about it. He helped us believe.

 

You’ve seen it, I hope, in the conversion of heart of someone you know; someone whom who you had been praying for but had practically given up on. And then they softened and shifted after seeing the light. And you believed.

 

Our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, tells a story of his grandmother, a Black woman, and her over-the-fence neighbor, a white woman. Both lived well in Jim Crow America. The neighbor had chickens, and she pitched their excrement over the fence into Curry’s grandmother’s yard. Day after day. A contemptuous act that a Black woman of the day just had to endure.

 

One day the neighbor took sick, and grandmother took over a bowl of homemade vegetable soup; a kindly gesture, to be sure, if wholly unwarranted given the woman’s character.

 

My but this soup is good, said the neighbor. I have you to thank, said grandma. I used your chickens’ manure to fertilize my vegetable garden.

 

Something shifted in that mean-spirited neighbor, that chicken-shit-shoveling woman. She apologized for how she had acted all those years. And the two became more than neighbors. They became friends.

 

+++++++

 

We won’t affect the power of God’s converting love on our neighbors if we shovel the same load on them that they shovel on us.

 

We can’t browbeat and insult and ignore our neighbors into compliance with the peace-making good-news of Jesus Christ.

 

We mustn’t use the scriptures and the tenets of Christianity as a switch to shun and shame people into grace and the generosity of spirit we wish from them.

 

To do any of these is to become religious authoritarians ourselves. This is not the way of the Gospel. This is not the way of Jesus. Instead, it squanders the authority God gives us at our baptisms, and it negates the grace God gives us every time we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus from the altar.

 

We are called, my beloved friends in Christ, to a different way, a better way.

 

God believes in you. God trusts you. God loves you.

 

Have faith in this and believe in this, even when the evidence seems slim. God’s will be done, and in the end, it will be enough. And it will be good.

 

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