The question of power echoes throughout history.
Gospel Reading: Matthew 21:23-32
For Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011: Year A−Ordinary 26
As a high school senior, I attended a large, nondenominational congregation where I felt a call to go into the ministry. I was excitedly getting ready for four years of religious studies when I went to the Sunday night church service one last time to say goodbye to my friends.
Call from Elsewhere
As the service began, my giddiness quickly faded and my heart began to ache. A male church member also happened to be going into the ministry. He didn’t have a degree and would not be earning one—but he would attend a six-week church-planting program, where he would learn everything he needed to know to be a good pastor. The hour was dedicated to surrounding him, blessing him, and sending him off.
I drove home, sorting out my experience. I didn’t expect any grand ceremony, but it was difficult to be completely ignored.
My evangelical church didn’t believe that women ought to be ministers, so there was no reason for them to recognize the calling blazing inside of me. But I couldn’t disregard it, because it didn’t seem to come from my church. It originated somewhere else. After a few years of struggling, my theology changed and I sought ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Dose of Empowerment
Some of my male emergent friends, who also grew up evangelical, don’t understand why I needed that external validation from an outside body. Why did I need that all that bureaucracy? Why didn’t I just plant a church, like they did?
It might be hard for them to see how privileged they were, with a culture surrounding, encouraging, and blessing them. In contrast, on a good day I was ignored and on bad day I was chastised for my calling.
I needed a good dose of empowerment. Though the ordination process could be infuriating, at least there was a process for me.
Plus there was the cold, hard fact that I was entering a profession with a terrible history of sexism. Even when women have all kinds of credentials, they often get paid much less than their male colleagues. At least with an R-E-V in front of my name, I’d have some chance of an even playing field. I would be able to pay off my student loans and wouldn’t have to eat dog food in my retirement.
Wrestling with Authority
Religious people wrestle with authority. Our traditions, privilege, educations, histories, gender, sexual orientation and ethnicities form us in different ways. Within the church, we struggle with questions of servanthood, power, empowerment, and calling. We ask ourselves these difficult questions: Where does our authority come from? How does authority manifest itself?
We are people who have the audacity to attempt to utter the Word of God, and we need to consider, “Who gives us that right anyway?”
The question is an ancient one. It echoes from temple, as the chief priests and elders asked Jesus, “Who gave you this authority?” It was a loaded inquiry, embedded with the understanding: we certainly didn’t give it to you.
The Hardest Question
In our current religious landscape, it’s vital that we keep asking, “Who gives us the authority to do the things that we do?” Is this an autonomous, independent calling that I received from God, without the external discernment of a community? Is it something that we earned through solely through education? Is it something that we are born into, because of the way that we look? Is it something we gained from going through bureaucratic hoops? What gives us that daring hope that we can preach the word of God?
Carol Howard Merritt is a pastor at Western Presbyterian Church, an intergenerational congregation in Washington, D.C. Western’s deep commitment to serving the poor in the city has helped to initiate programs like Miriam’s Kitchen, a social service program for the homeless which provides a hot, nutritious breakfast and dinner for over 200 men and women each weekday. Carol is the author of Reframing Hope (Alban, 2010) and Tribal Church, (Alban, 2007). Carol is the co-host of God Complex Radio with Landon Whitsitt. And she blogs for the Huffington Post. Carol is a frequent conference speaker. Her blog is at TribalChurch.org.