St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany
February 3, 2019
“He is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”
THE COLLECT today reads: “O GOD, who knowest us to be set in the midst of so many and great dangers, that by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright; Grant to us such strength and protection, as may support us in all dangers, and carry us through all temptations; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” As with most Collects, the prayer begins by stating facts about God, citing a situation and His character, something settled in our faith about Him. Then the prayer makes a request. In this prayer, we say that God knows the many dangers that surround our lives, and our vulnerability in such a violent and wicked world. We can’t defend ourselves by ourselves. That’s true enough.
So we request that He might strengthen us and protect us, supporting us against every threat to our peace and uprightness, and that He would see us through all temptations. All we ask by the Person of Jesus Christ, who is our mediator and advocate. Then we say, Amen, so be it.
When we ask in prayer something that has already been established about God, a thing that we know and believe, like His knowledge and goodness toward us, then we may ask a related thing and be pretty sure that He is well disposed toward granting the prayer we ask. It’s not a scientific certainty: God is not a vending machine that must dispense the drink we’ve selected and paid for. But such a prayer teaches us something about God and prayer, and the relationship that’s established by making such a prayer puts us fairly in the path of its being granted to us.
But what have we asked for? Protection and strength. Divine authority is stronger than any danger in this world, and certainly better and more loving toward us than the hatred of any enemy that focuses his evil attentions on us. God is stronger. It’s good to remember that at times when we feel overwhelmed.
We’ve prayed for the very fruits of authority. A common mistake we make these days is to resist and distrust authority whenever we’re faced with someone more powerful than we are. The old bumper sticker read “Question Authority,” meaning you challenge any authority’s right to interpose itself during the course of your life. A police officer shows up to ask a young person questions, and three young street lawyers get out their cellphones, start a video feed to Instagram, and shout objections about the officer’s right to stop their drunken party. A mob in a city park shout “pig!” at a passing patrol car. A father comes home from work only to hear his teenager spit curses at him then slam the door. We have lost our sense of what authority is for.
And occasionally for good reason. It is true, though rare, that our authorities overstep and abuse the badge, the office, the honor that they bear. The hateful reaction all authorities in our nation get at times is a result of some of these authorities failing to know what their authority is for, and how it is to be used.
Authority is a vertical ranking of roles, assigned by the highest person or being in that chain. If we’re speaking of God and ourselves, God is the highest in that chain, then human authority structures that He sets up for us. The power comes from Him, whether it’s in family, or government, or armies, or the church. He is the pinnacle of all power and authority, and under Him we may be assured that authority is intended to be used for our benefit.
The pledge of allegiance used to end by saying: “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower got Congress to add “Under God.” This was not a ploy to establish a national religion, but to join the Founding Fathers in their dedication to the premise for our new nation that our Creator grants certain human rights, and that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not issued by any government of men, but by a benevolent and all-powerful God, however He is worshipped. After Ike fought the Nazis in Europe, he didn’t have much use for human authorities that did not first look to the skies for their orders.
Every human authority first comes from God. We therefore derive our power to rule by our own Ruler. And our marching orders, the nature and usage of any authority, must come down from above, be obedient in all things, subject to the ultimate King. Authority is obedient; it comes with humility. It can’t be used to oppress or to prey upon the innocent. A bully is not an authority: he’s just a thug. True godly authority is put on earth to oppose bullies and protect us from them.
Jesus commended a centurion above all His fellow Jews. He had just heard him saying, “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority,” and he went on to say how authority works. I have fully stopped in my reading of this familiar story to wonder why Jesus had such admiration for a commander of a Roman garrison. It wouldn’t be that he asked for a healing. Many people asked that and were granted it. But this man spoke of authority, knowing how it worked in his job, and he knew it was working in Jesus’ miraculous works in the same manner. Jesus got His power and authority over sickness from His Father. He even said so later, that “the Son can do nothing by Himself, unless He sees the Father doing it. For whatever the Father does, the Son also does.” Jn 5:19
The soldier said he was a man under authority, not that he had authority. He said that he lived within a matrix of power and obedience, that he obeyed his general, who in turn obeyed the powers above him. Thus the authority wielded by this centurion was felt by his men. They saw the Emperor in their centurion. If he should ever step out from under the rule of his higher ups, he knew his servants could rightly disobey any of his illegal orders. So, authority is obedient. It is empowered by the one above you.
This is wonderful if we grasp it. We have current day examples of this feature in our local law enforcement agencies. Sheriff Kory Honea has twice ordered evacuations of large numbers of people due to threats to their lives. Two years ago, the Oroville Dam was about to break. 180,000 lives were threatened. He had to act on the advice of his analysts that the emergency spillway area was eroding at 40 feet per hour, and that only 40 feet remained of the embankment that held the concrete weir in place, in turn holding back 3.5 million acre feet of water. If we lost the dam, there would be no evacuation. Thousands would just die on is watch. It was up to him. He had to act. It was messy, and costly, but he used his authority for the safety of others. He has lately commented that no one could predict that order was only the dress rehearsal for the real event. I also know that he ordered his entire department to the downtown of Oroville, to aid the evacuation, and that every one of them obeyed, not fleeing the scene, but set themselves directly in the path of danger for others. And they did it for him, and he feared he might lose every one of them.
On November 8th of last year, we all know the terrible challenge he faced as the population of over 50,000 residents of the ridge had to get out of the path of the deadliest fire in California’s history. The question of how many lives were lost was written on his face for weeks. He lived with the burden of responsibility and he applied to God’s mercy and grace to protect as many as could be saved. Kory is a man of faith and humbly wears the badge and gun that he knows are there to protect and not abuse. In like manner I’ve personally known Chief Mike O’Brien of the Chico Police now for 20 years. His faith in God, and obedience to serve and not abuse his power, guides his every decision. We are blessed to have such men in authority over us.
This Thursday evening, you have a chance to meet them both, along with the CHP commander and University Police chief, here in our sanctuary at 6:30 p.m. for an evening of prayer for our law enforcement agencies. We do this twice a year. They tell us their prayer needs and we pray. My position as a chaplain makes this sanctuary an obvious choice. Our focus will be on the aftermath of the Camp Fire and its effect on policing. You will also hear Nate Smith sing his song, One of These Days, about Paradise after the fire. Please come.
That’s NOT an order. But orders may be given at need. Sometimes I have been called on to use my authority, as a priest and now as a bishop, and I use it sparingly. I use it only to protect the flock, and to heal those who are out of order, if they will allow themselves healing.
St. Paul admonishes us to be subject to rulers. “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad… do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.” Rom 13:1-4
Four times our chaplaincy has gifted one or another police officer with a real sword for mounting on his or her wall. We use such scriptures to denote the meaning. They do not bear their sword in vain, but as a reminder we are protected by them. They don’t carry the means of violence to harm the innocent, but to protect them.
Several times in my chaplaincy I have been called in after officers were forced by the situation to use deadly force. It’s a serious and frightening event, and one seldom faced by line officers in their entire career. Our land, even our fair city, have become more violent places and we put our police officers on that thin blue line to defend us from violent people. Like the parolee that brought a gun down from Susanville to sell in Chico, and would not be taken alive by cops as he attempted to drive over them at a gas station. Or the gang member that shot and wounded Officer Tony Ferrara as the gangster attempted flee arrest for a car burglary.
We can hide from the real events, and fear the men and women wearing heavy equipment belts and radios, but they are there for your good. Love them. Respect them. They serve you, and their authority is from above, with godly leaders and the ultimate source of all power guiding their way.
We may not always like our authorities. They are as frail and unworthy for office as we might be. All the more reason to pray for them. A man or woman in such an office bears a heavy responsibility, the lives and fortunes of many, and a divine office under God. Under God. Under God and indivisible. Let us not be divided by the voices that defy authority. A thankful and respectful people honor God through their appointed authorities, and we give Him thanks in our prayers for giving us such protection from the dangers.