Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
July 8, 2018
Psalm 132; Mark 6:11-13
Obedience. It’s probably one of the least favorite words in the American English lexicon. At least when we apply it to ourselves. We probably like it when we apply it our children, or our employees, our pets, or our machines. Our common understanding of the word “obey” is to do what you are told. We are supposed to obey the laws of the land, the laws of nature, the commandments. We are especially incensed when we believe we are already in full compliance and someone tells us what to do. Obedience may be unpopular because we don’t like to do difficult things. But I would argue that obedience is the easiest option. Obedience is the path of least resistance. Obedience is what allows totalitarianism to thrive. Obedience is a haven from error and confusion. Obedience is what allows us to go on about our usual daily business while oblivious to injustice and oppression, loss and grief. Obedience is what allows the priest and the religious scholar to cross to the other side of the road when confronted by the distasteful misfortune in the gutter.
The rejection of obedience is probably one of the reasons religion in general and particularly Christianity is in decline in our nation. Our worship of individualism has risen to a level at which nobody wants to be told what to do. There are exceptions, of course, and we are seeing them played out in the public realm – both religious and secular. The decline of evangelicalism in America lags the decline of mainline Protestantism in part because of the centrality of obedience among evangelicals. Obedience is the central organizing principle in an authoritarian household. Obedience in such settings is often confused with loyalty. The obedient dog or child or spouse complies with the directions of the central authority, even when that obedience is ultimately detrimental to the entire household. In the secular realm, masses of people, who venerate persona and popularity, worship obedience even to their own detriment and the detriment of the common good.
We are talking about obedience because today is the culmination of my multi-year project to preach on the fifteen Psalms of Ascent. Even before Eugene Peterson began his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, he paraphrased these fifteen Psalms, and around them he built his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. He saw discipleship of Jesus Christ as a journey characterized by obedience. Peterson sums up each of the fifteen Psalms with a single word, and the word he chose for Psalm 132 is obedience. It is fitting then that this is the final Psalm in my series.
It is our inherent desire to draw near to God that motivates pilgrim people to make the arduous ascent to the city of the peace of God. That the community of believers must make this ascent to a rocky, arid, fortified hilltop is an expression of their fear of the power and judgement of the divine. In that high and mighty place was the ark of the covenant, the box-shaped throne upon which was thought to brood the glory of God, the shekinah. Inside the box were kept the broken fragments of the covenant that Moses brought down from another high place for the common good. It was thought that whoever kept the box also wielded the power of the Almighty. An aspiring warlord could capture the ark, and thus command the loyalty – the obedience and compliance – of the community of believers. As a result, its authority was vulnerable to attack and capture. David is credited with just that. He attacked Saul, captured the Ark, and ultimately contained it in the fortified city – Jerusalem – the city of the peace of God. Psalm 132 celebrates David for his obedience to YHWH. David liberated God’s glory from a self-interested warlord. David also aspired to build the house where the wind/breath/spirit could be codified and controlled – wielded for his own self-interest, and for the establishment of a dynasty. We also know David as an adulterer who murdered his most trusted lieutenant to satisfy his lust for Bathsheba.
So, we must ask ourselves, if that is what God really wants from us. Does God really call us to blind allegiance to a particular iteration of the public order, or to the authority figures in the systems in which we are enmeshed? What obedience does God require? It may help, as it often does for me, to dig into the origins of the terms we use to define our faith. It turns out that there is no word for obedience in the Hebrew Bible. When the word “obey” does appear in English translations of the Hebrew Bible, it is only one of several translations of the word שָׁמַע – to hear.
Its first appearance is when Adam and Eve “hear” the presence of YHWH walking in the cool of the garden. They cower, knowing they have not complied with God’s initial instructions. In other words, they have not understood and internalized what God most deeply wanted them to hear – that self-interest would lead to suffering and death.
שָׁמַע is the word that we know from the exodus, in which God proclaims to the community of believers “Hear, O Israel….”
And שָׁמַע is also used throughout the Psalms, to address YHWH. “Hear the cry of our hearts, O God!”
Surely, this is not meant to portray the community of believers dictating to God, demanding that God obey their whims and desires. Instead, it consistently conveys a genuine plea – an invitation – to hear deeply – to listen with your whole being. God says to the community of believers, “Hear me, you who are torn between fascination and terror, for my heart is with you. Listen deeply to my desires for your well-being.” And the community of believers says, “Hear us, Holy Being – Being-Who-Is-Becoming – our heart yearns for you, even as we know we cannot hope to comply with your law of love.” Obedience, then, is the practice of very deep listening, the desire to know, and the intention to be at peace – to dwell in the city of the peace of God.
Aside from the broad generational and cultural rejection of institutional authority, we who think of ourselves as the community of the faithful – the followers of Jesus – may have another reason to be skittish about the word obedience. Of the dozen or so instances of the word obedience in the Greek Testament, most could also be translated “submission” or “surrender” – at which we bristle. The most familiar instance is from Philippians 2: “Your attitude must be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who, though in the image of God, did not deem equality with God something to be clung to – but instead became completely empty and took on the image of oppressed humankind: born into the human condition, found in the likeness of a human being. Jesus was thus humbled – obediently accepting death, even death on a cross!”
Jesus was the obedient one. The exemplar of God’s desire for humanity. But notice this: The Gospel accounts do not portray Jesus as being obedient to the law in the usual manner expected and interpreted by the same priests and religious scholars who walked by on the other side. Instead he taught a radical obedience – a deep listening to the heart of God – through the commandments – to what lay beyond them. The Jesus we meet in Mark is this Jesus. Mark does not elaborate on the nature of Jesus’ teaching in his home town where his authoritative teaching is acknowledged, but its source is called into question. Jesus’ activity in the Gospel Mark thus far has mostly been the healing of persons considered outside the realm of respectability – who by their nature or circumstances are categorically unable to obey the commandments. And his teaching thus far has primarily been to undermine the interpretation of the Sabbath as time in which it is appropriate to stand by and watch as the beloved of God suffer. This is threatening to those who want to cover their ears and avert their eyes and avoid conflict at any cost. This is good news for those who have been cast aside, who have been waiting for someone to notice – to hear their cries.
Last week we heard from Terri Stewart a little about The Anatomy of Peace. The authors of The Anatomy of Peace suggest that conflict and its resolution are rooted in the heart. They suggest that we are wired to think well of those around us – even the one who seems to be different – the “other.” The natural state of our heart is at peace toward the other, seeing them as a person rather than an object. A person shares community and humanity with me. If I begin to see the other as an object – as a vehicle, as an obstacle, or as irrelevant to my self-interest – my heart is no longer at peace. The behaviors that well up out of a heart at war are against our common community and humanity, and I need to justify those behaviors, and then to recruit allies in that justification, and soon the conflict seems unavoidable. However, if we cultivate hearts at peace by opening ourselves to the possibility that our life is intertwined with the life of an other, and that we can share in the common good, conflict subsides even in the face of real differences. The heart at peace is obedient to the heart of God.
Throughout these fifteen sermons on the Psalms of Ascent I have stressed the pilgrim nature of Christian discipleship. The ancient pilgrims were certain of their destination despite not having yet arrived. There was a way to get there, though it may have been difficult. We too can ascend to the city of the peace of God. That city is situated in the matrix of connections between our hearts. In recent weeks I have stressed the importance of centering prayer as an embodiment of the journey upward to the city of the peace of God. That is the prayer of deep listening. The contemporary mystic, Richard Rohr, notes that this kind of deep listening prayer is not an escape from our common life, but a means of exploring and discovering the connections between our hearts. It is not an easy practice, though there is nothing simpler. The daily practice of sitting in silence without agenda or expectation can be a little underwhelming. I have been taking 20 minutes every morning for the past five weeks. Most days do not hold a profound experience of “the Holy Other.” But every day that 20 minutes is quieter, shorter, and more deeply connected to the other.
Brian McLaren notes that “Jesus doesn’t dominate the other, avoid the other, colonize the other, intimidate the other, demonize the other, or marginalize the other. [Jesus] incarnates into the other, joins the other in solidarity, protects the other, listens to the other, serves the other, even lays down … life for the other.”[i] Why? Because Jesus is obedient to the desire of Abba God to draw us ever closer to the center and to one another.