What Is Your Highest Authority?
Rev. Seth Patterson
July 17, 2022
Scripture: Galatians 6:7–10
Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own self, you will reap corruption, but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all and especially for those of the family of faith.
What is your highest authority? Who is your highest authority?
When you are faced with complex, complicated, difficult choices, what is the foundation of your decision-making? Where do you turn for the wisdom, nuance, boldness, resilience that it takes to live a full and whole life? What is your highest authority?
Is it God? And if so, which human conception of the mystery of God do you turn to?
Is it money or power or fame? Is it safety or comfort? Is it a political identity, a tribal allegiance?
Is it your parents or spouse, your children or friends? Is it someone you haven’t met but who enters your life through the internet, radio, television, or books?
Is it you? Are you your own highest authority?
These questions are inspired by Nina Jonson’s excellent Command to Preach submission for this week. Nina is unable to be here today as she begins a well-deserved vacation after planning and running an incredible camp here this past week. Camp Creativity: Making Art from the Heart spent the week in this building. It was beautiful to watch dozens of young people bring color, joy, and creativity into this space. I am grateful for Nina, our Director of Children & Youth Ministry, for all the love she gives to this community today and in helping build our future.
Nina submitted only one verse, which I then expanded a bit for the reading in order to put that one verse in some context. She wanted a sermon on this: “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” If you haven’t yet met Nina, this passage is very Nina-like. It is full of energy and passion, hope and exuberance.
And this passage feels like it matches the needs of our times. We must not give up, we must not grow weary, we must continue to do what is right! A rallying cry for individuals and communities, especially ones that feel as if they have something to lose. This is a pep talk from the Apostle Paul writing to the community in Galatia, and it contains a reward. If you do not grow weary, if you do not give up, if you continue to do what is right, then your metaphorical harvest will be great. You will be rewarded! Alright, come on, lets do it!
I get energized by this and then get stuck. How do we know what is right? This whole pep talk is predicated on the idea that there is a right thing to do and we should know what it is. But do we know what is right all the time? I don’t feel I do. It seems to me that it is pretty easy to determine what is the wrong answer but pretty difficult to figure out what the right answer might be.
And here we are being exhorted to not only do what is right—whatever that might be—but also to not become weary doing it. It has been my observation that when people feel certain about the rightness of something they rarely grow weary. That can be energizing, exhilarating, exciting. It is when we don’t know what is right that we give up. In the last several years I have heard countless people speak of their exhaustion connected to not knowing what is right. I have been witness to many people look defeated and weary about not knowing what is the right thing to do with climate change or white supremacy or a refugee crisis. But those who feel that they are actively doing something and it feels right, they seem energized and resilient even if they are devoting a lot of energy to their work. Not knowing the right thing to do seems more wearying than the work of doing what is right.
Where do you turn when rightness is not obvious? When you are adrift, where do you go looking for help? Tomorrow night we are doing a performance of the play Death of a Salesman in the Conn Theater, and in it Willy Loman is described as being “a little boat looking for a harbor.” I have certainly felt this way, and I imagine I am not alone. When we are young, we have people who are the holders of authority in our lives: parents or grandparents, teachers or clergy, superheroes or Mister Rogers. When we become older, the standards for authority change, and we are able to pick and choose a bit more. We can choose one source of authority over another.
So, again, what is your highest authority? Where do you turn when you are feeling weary from the pursuit of trying to determine what is right?
There are many options here. Sometimes it is a person or an institution, but often it is a concept, feeling, or an idea. Money or wealth can act as our highest authority. Power and prestige can step in as an authority. Our own comfort or safety can become elevated to a place of ultimate authority. To one carrying an addiction, the highest authority is very often the thing that holds the addiction. Sometimes other people’s expectations of us can take on a place of authority in our lives. Depending on the situation, our highest authority can change and shift, and our habits will often push us into consistent directions.
In the structure of Christianity and other Abrahamic faiths, all of these other authorities are named idols. They are seen as replacements for God and the teachings of God. They are all versions of the Golden Calf—things that make us turn away from the authority of God. And the authority of God is less and less meaningful in our contemporary culture. Even in this church we are often told that we focus too much on the Bible and not enough on what really matters.
Then there is each of us. Are each of us our own highest authority? Are you your own highest authority? Honestly, this is the one that scares me the most. What does it mean if I am my own highest authority? There is something truly worrisome if there is nothing beyond my own wants and desires to guide my decisions on what may be right. At least if money is your highest authority there is some amount of outside influence. It may be greedy, but humans are justifying creatures and if we are our own highest authority then we can justify anything. And that scares me.
What is your highest authority? When your little boat is seeking a harbor, where do you go? Where do you turn to determine what is right so you don’t become weary and give up?
If you are expecting me to tell you the correct answer, you will be disappointed. I am on this same journey with you. I am asking myself this same question and wondering the same thing. The gift of this scripture is the journey of curiosity and wonder. It is the gift of an excellent question. My hope is that you spend some time pondering this over the next week.
Since I have a head-start on you in thinking about this, I will tell you how I am wrestling with this question, not because my answer should be your answer but because it might give a little direction. My highest authority is varied, as I imagine all of ours are. It is occasionally money and sometimes a political ideal. A perception of safety certainly holds authority a lot, especially when it comes to my feeling of what is right around my child. I must also admit that I am sometimes my own highest authority and can justify anything.
What I am working to do, though, is make God my highest authority. This is not because I know anything more than the rest of us or that I have stronger faith. It is not because I can even unequivocally say that I believe in God all the time or that I know what God is. Instead I try to make God my highest authority because it is not me; it points towards an older, deeper, collective wisdom that I cannot find in myself or the things of the world. It is written that God tells us to welcome the stranger and to not stand idly by as our neighbor bleeds. It from God that we are asked to act in kindness, love mercy, and walk in humility. It is from God, through Jesus, that we are told to work to love the other as we work to love ourselves, to give preferential treatment to those who are outside of typical power structures, to see beyond ourselves. It is the authority of God that makes sure that idols do not become my sources of authority. It is the authority of God that checks me when I want to become my own highest authority. Working to make God my highest authority helps me de-center my own desires. I have found for myself that doing what is right from the authority of God makes me less weary and less likely to give up.
That may not be your answer. It doesn’t have to be. Despite the preconceived ideas about my profession up here, it is not my place to tell you what you should do. I cannot reasonably tell you what or who your highest authority should be. I ask myself this same question often! It is my responsibility though to ask you the question, to ask you to try and answer it. It can be my role to walk with you as you seek this answer, time and time again, through the many pivot points of your life. And it can be your role to walk with each other. After the sentence that Nina suggested today, Paul says this: “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all and especially for those of the family of faith.” What then are your answers? What is your highest authority? And when you begin to get a sense, let us continue to work for the good of all and especially those in this family of faith.