October 1, 2023 “Inner Authority and the Hero’s Journey”
Lisa Wiens Heinsohn
My paternal ancestors were Mennonites who had a long history of moving from country to country. According to family tradition and historical records, Mennonites were valued because they were good farmers, but they were resented and sometimes got in trouble because they were also pacifists. So my dad comes from a long line of ancestors that knew what it was to live in a countercultural way. At a young age he became the manager of a plant in southern California, and he was much younger than most of the people who reported to him. This made it challenging for him sometimes. My dad once said something that struck me. He said, “There are a very few times in life when you have to be OK being the only one who is right.”
Well, right away you can see the problems with that philosophy. Thinking you are the only one who is right could very well mean that you are just dead wrong. In a world where democracy is a core value it doesn’t much matter if you are right if everyone else disagrees with you. But there is a scary, risky, volatile core of truth in my dad’s words. There are times when you need to make a decision, and the decision you make might be really unpopular or difficult. Our former Rector, now the Bishop of Washington D.C. Mariann Budde has recently written a book called How We Learn to Be Brave: Decisive Moments in Life and Faith. The book opens by describing that moment when the former President Donald Trump stood in front of St. John’s church in Washington, holding a Bible,
and denounced the uprisings of people across the nation protesting the death of George Floyd. Bishop Budde talks about what it was like to need to respond to that moment with courage in a way that countered what our national leadership was saying. In fact, Bishop Budde is going to join our own Bishop Craig Loya and former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak to have a three-way conversation about this book here at St. John’s on November 15. Information about that event is coming out in our e-news and on our website soon. I hope you will join us.
The point is, I think all of us hope that should such a moment come to us, that we would have the wisdom to know what the right thing to do would be, and then to have the courage to do it. How do we come by these things—the wisdom and the courage to do the right thing, even when it is really hard, when few people understand your choices?
In today’s gospel reading, the chief priests and elders approach Jesus and ask the following question: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Unfortunately the gospel reading should have started earlier in the chapter. Jesus had just had his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, just as Pontius Pilate, the most powerful representative of the Roman Empire in Palestine, entered Jerusalem on the other side of town with all his military might and entourage. A few days later Jesus went to the Temple and drove out everyone who was buying and selling there. He turned over the tables especially of those selling doves, which were the sacrifice made by the poorest people since they were the cheapest.
So when the chief priests and elders said “who gave you authority to do these things,” the “these things” they were talking about were Jesus’ scandalous entry into Jerusalem, mimicking and thereby critiquing the action of imperial Rome on the other side of the city, and then his outrageous actions in the temple. They were essentially saying, “who gave you the right to act this way in our sacred space?” By what authority was he doing what he was doing?
As I’ve shared with you in the weekly e-news, I am beginning a small group that studies the four gospels as representing four universal questions about human transformation. If you’re interested in this group please reach out to me. According to author Alexander John Shaia, Matthew’s gospel, which this gospel reading comes from, addresses the question “how do we face change?” Dr. Shaia says that this question is the entrance into what Joseph Campbell called “the Hero’s Journey”. Matthew’s gospel invites each of us to face change as not being about transition only, but about transformation, as Rena said in her recent e-news article. The Hero’s Journey is the invitation to answer the inner call of God to venture into unknown territory for the sake of something larger, which we can’t always see clearly. It is risky. There is loss involved. But it is absolutely core to human transformation. It is core to following Jesus’ Way of Love. Our tradition is full of such stories. God called Abraham to leave everything he knew and set out on an unknown journey, based solely on this inner guidance. We know the story of Israelites leaving Egypt, to wander forty transformative years in the wilderness while they learned to trust God for guidance and sustenance and learning a new way to live.
In today’s gospel reading when the priests ask Jesus by what authority he is doing these things, he flips the question around and asks them what authority they thought was behind John the Baptist’s actions. They recognize the political trap he put them in and refuse to answer. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell this story. But in Matthew alone, Jesus continues by telling a story about the two sons and which one does the will of his father. He continues a theme that repeats throughout Matthew’s gospel: the difference between what we say and what we do. Over and over again Matthew’s gospel insists that what you say is far less important than what you do. Jesus is telling the priests that the authority to do what he is doing rests on his deep, integrated, inspired understanding of the will of God, and his willingness to carry that out.
There are times in the life of the world that the call of God comes to us. It speaks with an inner authority that may often seem to be countercultural. Jesus had deeply digested the teachings of his tradition and made them his own. To an outside observer his actions in the temple looked like blasphemy. They were offensive. And yet they were his own deepest response to the call of God to be faithful to what God had taught him. And they were the last straw for the religious leaders of his time. After that they sought his death, and he was crucified a few days later.
St. John’s is facing change. Some of the change is coming to us whether we like it or not, through forces far beyond our creation or control. But some of the change is our intentional effort to seek to be faithful to the call of God, together as a community. This goes beyond what is convenient for any of us, or what our personal preferences might be. There is an inner stirring of the Holy Spirit that is asking us to embark on
a Hero’s Journey as a community. There is joy and a deep sense of relief and rightness in saying yes, even though there is also risk and also loss. We don’t know where God is leading us. What we do know is that when God called Abraham to leave everything he had known, as Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann put it:
The purpose of the call is to fashion a human community in a world gone awry, to embody in human history the power of blessing. (1)
With all our talk about change, there are some things that never change. What never changes is the presence and love of God for us: the gospel that Jesus taught, which is that love is stronger than any other force on earth, and we are called to learn to embody that love every minute of every day of our lives, to heal the world.
Each one of us can learn to listen to the voice of God speaking deep in our souls. What is your role in the journey to which the Holy Spirit is inviting St. John’s? How might you spend time, every day, making space to listen and then to follow what you hear? What is God saying to you, and asking you to do? Amen.
1 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Preaching and Teaching (Atlanta, John Knox Press 1982) at 105, as quoted by Mariann Edgar Budde, How We Learn to be Brave: Decisive Moments in Life and Faith (Penguin Random House 2023) at 12.