The Crisis of Authority: Religious and Otherwise

delivered by GTU President James A. Donahue on November 17, 2002, at St. Mark's Lutheran Church, San Francisco.

"Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow. I was afraid and went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours."

I want to thank the Rev. Elizabeth Ekkdale and the parishioners of St. Mark's for inviting me to preach today. As a Roman Catholic theologian, a layman, an ethicist by training, and one whose day to day responsibilities as President of the Graduate Theological Union are immersed more in the world of theological education than in the practice of preaching, I appreciate the opportunity to be with you and to share with you my thoughts on today's readings and to speak to a cluster of issues that I believe is one of the most challenging and vexing that we as Christians, as citizens in this cultural context of the of the United States at this period of time grapple with—the issues of authority, trust and risk.

My issues are quite basic and can perhaps be best posed as a set of questions I would like us to consider together and to relate to today's readings:

  • Who or what has authority in my life? Who do I trust?
  • To whom or what would I be willing to submit my own idea about what is right, true and good as a greater authority? Who/what should I be willing to risk myself for?
  • What makes an authority a credible authority?
  • Is authority earned or given by virtue of one's position and role?
  • I raise these questions not to set up the impossible task of clearly settling them with answers but to suggest that these are the questions that go to the heart and soul of what we grapple with every day.

Let's begin our search for answers by entering into today's gospel reading. I am most intrigued by the relationship between the master and his servants to whom he has given this incredible windfall gift. He has distributed these gifts in a way that is meant to suggest that there is an expectation about what they do with the gift. Put yourself in the situation of one of the servants. What are the expectations that you would have in receiving this gift and what are you going to do with the gift? It depends in large measure on what kind of relationship exists between giver and receiver and what the meaning of the gift is. Is it a gift with strings? Are expectations clear about what is going on in the exchange? What authority exists in this relationship in the sense of who owes what to whom by virtue of the roles that are enacted here?

I must admit that on first glance I thought this passage was about stock portfolios and investment wisdom. But after further scrutiny I think I will stay with CNBC or Wall Street Week for that, however. The question I want to pose is: what is the relationship that exists between the master and his servants? For this will indicate in large measure what the servants will be inclined to do. If there is a clear expectation that this sum is to be invested and increased, then it is clear that the servant who failed to do so did not measure up to expectations. But the issue is one of relationship and the authority that shapes that relationship. What do we owe to whom? What do I think about the one who gives me a gift and what are my responsibilities in light of this? Or, even more precisely, what is the authority that the servant feels an obligation or responsibility to? Clearly, 3 out of 4 felt it was clear. But are they right? If the servant is expected to take risks, I would suspect that there needs to be more than a modicum level of trust and clarity at work in this relationship. Risk without good reason for risking, just doesn't make sense. The reason we risk is that we have trust and confidence in the relationship that is the source of our gift.

We do not have to look far today to realize that the state of authority and trust in relationships is in chaos today. In many sectors of our society, we look and realize that the long-standing authority that has been invested in others has been betrayed. We look at the examples of corporate scandal at Enron, World Com, Tyco and others. We look at the clergy and the leadership of our churches that have betrayed the faithful. In my own tradition, I have watched with great pain to see how the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church has mishandled the most horrific cases of the sexual abuses of innocent children. We have become cynical to see how politics has become nothing more than telling the voters what they want to hear based on the latest tracking polls—a politics based on polls not principles. We even see how even the Olympic games have been compromised by judges bending their decisions for favor and political self-interests. In families even the authority that shapes the relationships between parents and children is attenuated. These are but some examples of incidents that more than just dot the landscape; they dominate the landscape.

But my point is not to rail against personal excesses and individual moral failures, but to raise an even deeper issue and to find direction and hope in the midst. Has the primary locus of authority become the individual self, so that our institutions and our ethical lapses reflect a much deeper problem—both religious and social? Go back to my question: who or what is authoritative in your life? Whose wisdom and authority are determinative for you in your decisions?

Many astute social commentators have pointed to the emergence of individualism in our society and the erosion over time of a meaningful sense of community, confidence and trust invested in institutions and roles that have been the fabric of American life. So much so that today the only real authority we have faith in is our self-confirming authority. ("It is authoritative because I say it is.")

Our servant in the parable says something most interesting today. "I did what I did because I feared you." "I thought you would be mad if I were to lose the money you have given me." It is interesting that fear is what led to his action. We have all seen the tyranny that induces fear, that tyranny that comes with disproportionate and exaggerated authority—authoritarianism. Our historical reaction over time to being let down by authority or mistreated by authority has been to trust less and less. As our social commentators have marked, we have made it clear that it is only the self that we shall trust. Only I can be trusted and I will support only those people, roles and institutions that advance my own self-interest. In taking on this stance we have come close to creating narcissism and an idolatry, and losing a sense of the other. We are at the center of the universe.

You can easily see the problem this presents for our understanding of God at work in our lives and a religious belief in God. Many accuse the Church and theologians today of having domesticated the idea of God and making God the benign one who affirms our deepest desires and wishes. It is a God that works for us on our terms. But what else are we to do when we have been failed so deeply by others? How do I trust and have confidence in anyone else but me? I at least can control myself and trust in my own instincts. But can we? What about our own frailties? Our own self-delusions? Our own grandiosity? Where is our God in this struggle?

Can our parable help us wrestle with this? I think so. If relationship is at the heart of trusting, then we must see that inherent in the relationship between master and servant is a promise. A promise that more will be given if we trust if we continue to have confidence, if we plow in the midst of greater and greater risks. It is a promise based on a gift that has been given, a commitment that has been made, a covenant that has been consecrated, a son in the person of Jesus Christ that has been given freely and that has identified with and models our pain, hope and ultimate joy. It is the basic promise of the Christian faith.

Let us begin by looking at our own fears when it comes to risking trust. What are we afraid of? What will make us be open to the other and others with whom we are in relationships, both close and distant? What will make us risk in our relationships and in the conferring of confidence and trust in others? It is here that we must both search for and be open to traces of the divine, glimpses of the transcendent, of mystery that we discover in our world perhaps in the simplest of ways. This is not a grand theory of authority and trust but of the simplicity of the spiritual life. It is discovered in the freedom that we experience when we risk and open ourselves, perhaps even in the slightest way or moment. We discover it in the presence of moments of tenderness, of courage and conviction, of joy, of sorrow, when we are receptive to knowing that we are in the presence of more than we see. We discover it when we look into the eyes of those we love and those who have touched us. We discover it in moments of giving and receiving when we are aware that there is more at work in this world than we can possibly comprehend. We build small and realize that the promise of much larger things lies in the reality of what we consider to be small moments and measures. Promises are like that, and this is true with God's promise to us.

Unlike our poor servant, we must risk to trust. We must put ourselves on the line when all we have is the glimmer of confidence based on our limited experience. Promises are not guarantees. Faith is not assurance. The master in our story is telling us that by risking, we will receive and be given more. What is the more? It is not necessarily more of what we want but more of the expansiveness of greater possibilities and freedom. Not freedom from or for but freedom as confidence, however small and incremental, to move forward in hope, to risk more. Do we need the data of certainty before we risk? Maybe the divine action is felt and experienced in the trusting and risking itself. That is why it is so hard. That is why the cost of discipleship, as Bonhoeffer has said, is so high. So are the returns. We trust.

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