Second Sunday of Advent
December 8, 2013
Rev. Sarah Mount Elewononi
You better watch out, you better not cry, better not pout I’m telling you why:
Santa Clause is coming to town.
He’s making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s been naughty and nice.
He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake.
He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.
This top ten popular Christmas song is about obedience. At least it’s about a secular view of obedience, the idea that if you are good, good things will come to you, and if you are naughty all you deserve is a lump of coal in your stocking. Parents and teachers use this kind of logic with children this time of year to try to get them to calm down, be polite, play quietly and eat all their peas.
And at other times of year parents use a similar logic as a tool for disciplining their children. Eat all your broccoli and you can have some dessert. Get good enough grades to be on the honor roll and we’ll take you out for ice cream. Clean your room and you can have a sleep over. Or conversely children hear threats, if you don’t eat all your broccoli no dessert for you! If you don’t make it on the honor roll this quarter you are grounded.
This method of fostering obedience is not dissimilar to Pavlov’s dogs, trained to do tricks at the sound of a bell, by being rewarded with food when they did it right. After time, Pavlov discovered, you could ring the bell and get the desired behavior even with no treat.
We generally want to have obedient dogs, and many people think it’s a good idea to have obedient children. Doing what they are told. Behaving according to the directions of the person in charge of them.
But when it comes to applying obedience to adults, to ourselves, we generally bristle at the thought. It conjures up images of a meek woman who has given up all her individuality to her spouse, or of soldiers in Hitler’s army who were just following orders as they abused the inmates of the concentration camps. Such a reaction to obedience is not new. Thoreau penned the words “whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” In the common understanding of obedience it is best left for dogs.
So why does the term stick around in the church? Why do our Advent Devotional readings for this week urge us to “walk in obedience?” I’ve you’ve glanced at it already, you might have been put off. Sunday: Mary and Joseph obey a decree; Monday: obedience to the government; Tuesday: Obey our pastors and teachers. If we think about just these three in relation to recent events we are led to question obedience.
The current Book of Discipline decrees that no United Methodist pastor may conduct a wedding or any other blessing of two men, or two women, and furthermore no United Methodist congregation can provide hospitality for such a wedding on church property. But as it becomes more an more accepted in our country that some people are just born to be attracted to partners of the same gender, and just as heterosexuals are born the way they are, and as people realize that homosexual couples are as capable of keeping the covenant of marriage as heterosexual couples, this decree against celebrating gay marriage seems unjust and uncaring. Some Methodists, like my parents’ pastor, may not agree with the decree, but feel it is important to obey it, while working within the church to try and change the rules. His niece, who is engaged to a woman, recently asked him if he would conduct her wedding and he carefully explained that he could not because at his ordination he promised to follow the Discipline and he could loose his ordination if he is disobedient. On the other hand the media paid attention last month as Rev. Frank Schaefer, a United Methodist pastor in Pennsylvania was put on church trial, convicted and sentenced for his act of ecclesial disobedience in presiding over the wedding of his son to another man here in Massachusetts in 2007. Though his orders have not been taken away yet, he is being given 30 days to decide whether he will denounce same sex marriage, and if he does not he will be defrocked. This issue has created a great divide within our own church over the past 20 years, and it is threatening to split us in two. It calls into question whether Christians should be like Mary and Joseph and obey decrees.
Just this week Nelson Mandela died at the age of 95. Mandela was know for committing and promoting acts of civil disobedience in South Africa in protest of the laws of Apartheid and he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1962. His followers continued to protest the unjust government and finally Mandela was released in 1990. In 1994 apartheid was abolished and Mandela was elected the first black president in a majority black African country. His life causes us to question the idea of obedience to the government.
Closer to home the town of Foxboro has spent the past year coming to grips with the revelation that teacher, swimming coach and scout leader William Sheehan sexually abused children under his care decades ago. And instances of clergy abuse in our region have had devastating effects on many Massachusetts churches. Hence the advice to simply “obey our pastors and teachers” feels simplistic and even dangerous as we seek to help our children stay safe.
Yet, here we are with that word. Obedience. Walk in Obedience. So we are called to look more closely at what this word means for the life of the church.
The Hebrew word is – shema – listen with attention, give heed, grant the request, yield to, obey – Deuteronomy 6:4 “Here O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength.”
Obeying has an element of trust. The people in the picutre Jeff created for us today could be Mary and Joseph, but they also could be Abraham and Sarah who went out away from family and home to "a place I will show you/" They trusted in God’s call and promise and responded by going.
The Greek word for obey is hypakuo – hyp by or under and akuo listen
Listen and respond – The word shows up in the story we’ve been remembering about Jesus lately. When Jesus was with the disciples in a boat and he was asleep a violent storm came and rocked the boat and the disciples yelled Jesus, sozo! Save us! He did and they marveled saying – “even the winds and the sea hypakuo – they obey him.” The elements obey Jesus and the disciples are saved.
Hebrews 5:9 also links obedience to salvation when it uses hypakuo to describe Jesus – that “being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him.”
From these passages we can see that obedience in the Biblical sense is not simply about doing what someone else says to get rewards, or avoid punishment, regardless of whether those actions might harm another. Obedience is not about giving up personal responsibility and acting like a drone. Obedience is staying true to God’s purposes – to bring salvation to the world. To be obedient we need to listen to God’s word and respond appropriately.
Responding appropriately could mean, at times, just doing what is asked of us. But at other times to really listen we need to ask questions. Clarifying questions that make sure we really understand what is being asked of us, and questions help us know how to begin. When talking with one of my spiritual directors about my desire to remove sin from my life, she helped me once by saying that it is not so effective to violently yank at sins like weeds, causing them to breaking off the stem. What is better is to gently water the weeds until the soil is moist and pliable, and they can be gently plucked from the ground, roots and all.
Quakers shed some light on obedience and listening when they practice consensus for making group decisions. Rather than letting the majority rule, if there is dissention within the group they talk it out. They let the dissenting minority, even if it is one person, speak his or her mind, explain his or her hesitancy about going along and the group seeks to adjust their course of action in a way that satisfies everyone at the table. They see this as being obedient to the Spirit of God in each person rather than just to the popular opinion.
If Christian obedience is linked to doing God’s will, living according to God’s purpose, how can we know what that is? The reading from Isaiah 11 today gives us a little picture of God’s purposes. It is speaking of the shoot off the family tree of Jesse, the anointed descendant of king David, heir of the throne of Israel. Christians call him Jesus the Messiah. From this passage we can see in Jesus what it looks like to be true to God’s purpose.
- Spirit of Lord resting on him
- He has the Spirit of Wisdom
- Spirit of Understanding
- Spirit of Counsel
- Spirit of Power
- Spirit of Knowledge of the Lord
- He delights in the fear of the Lord – delights to do God’s will
- He is able to judge with righteousness/justice/integrity (not by outward appearances or public opinion)
- He defends the poor, weak, needy with justice
- The ruthless and wicked will be treated as enemies and will be defeated
- The Messiah will be both righteous and faithful.
Agreeing that finding the freedom to put God’s will above our own is not easy, a nun from an Orthodox order in Otego, New York writes on her blog that obedience begins with repentance, changing one’s mind or heart. This change is usually very slow. She writes, “According to our faith, to grow into the fullness of being means an eternity of such change and growth from the fallen human nature we inherit into participation in the fullness of God’s own nature. This was the first call of Christ when He began to preach: “Repent and believe the Gospel.” (Mark 1:15)
Living in Christian community can help with that work. As she sees it, “Members of a family, a monastery, or a parish should not exist only to fulfill or serve the needs, desires or whims of the person with some kind of “authority.” Christ Himself came not to be served but to serve (Matthew 20:28), and we can have no greater authority than His.”
This theme rightly comes to us in the season of Advent because in order to prepare the way of the Lord and his Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, we need to practice submitting our wills to God’s will. Whenever God’s will is done on earth, heaven invades.
Today’s epistle reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans adds to our understanding of obedience. Paul also encourages Christians to live in accordance with Christ, who is the perfection of God’s purposes for us. In chapter 12 we find the famous quote, “Be not conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is the good and acceptable, and perfect will of God.” In the reading for today Paul recognizes that submitting our wills to God’s will is not easy, and assures us that God gave us the scriptures to instruct us and God encourages us to keep working at it. “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
And then, Paul tells the insiders in the church in Rome that Christ doesn’t just want them to grow more and more into his likeness until they reach perfect love. Yes Christ did come as a servant of the insiders, but God’s purpose for Christ extends the blessing to those outside of the community as well. God’s plan and purpose is that everyone, insiders and outsiders will experience God’s mercy and show appreciation to God. Paul even quotes the Isaiah 11 passage. “There’s the root of our ancestor Jesse, breaking through the earth and growing tree tall. Tall enough for everyone everywhere to see and take hope!”
The nun from Otego, NY writes, “In a monastery, as in a family, a parish or other church organization, wonderful, blessed things can happen when each and every person listens and responds appropriately to what is asked of them. Truly God is in the midst of such a place and there are no limits to what can be done in love for His glory and for the salvation of all [humankind].” This is the kind of church I want to be part of. How about you? So we need to continue to seek to be obedient to God’s will.
That being said, the church has not always been obedient to God’s will in every time and place. Church leaders helped to support the institution of slavery in this land, coming up with a warped way of reading scripture that would somehow justify their own desires to treat other human beings as if they were animals. Church leaders have read scripture in a way to keep women out of leadership. Church leaders went along with Hitler’s plans even when obeying the government was clearly violating God’s plan that human beings live in harmony with one another. At such times it may be necessary for acts of ecclesial disobedience to help the church to change and conform more closely to the image of God in Jesus Christ.
In the Methodist tradition brave women like Anna Howard Shaw broke the rules and preached without a license, being obedient to the call of God on them and paving the way for other women to eventually be ordained as deacons and elders. In 1836 Orange Scott refused to follow the order of Methodist Bishop Elijah Hedding to stop writing and lecturing about abolition, and was demoted from his position as the Presiding Elder of the Providence District (DS), and in 1842 Scott turned in his clergy credentials and helped to found the Wesleyan church the next year. In the 1960s Methodist clergy and laity joined with others committing acts of disobedience against state and federal laws in the name of God’s justice. And today there are more and more United Methodist clergy like Rev. Schaffer who have begun to preside over weddings of same sex couples because they believe that the rule in our Discipline is disobedient to God’s plan that God’s grace and mercy be extended to everyone.
Such times are full of tension and discord, but we can trust that with the guidance of the Holy Spirit the church is moving forward, if ever so slowly, to be in compliance with God’s will for the world. God’s will, Paul reminds us, is to live in harmony. And Isaiah gives us a picture of what that looks like:
The wolf will romp with the lamb, the leopard sleep with the kid.
Calf and lion will eat from the same trough, and a little child will tend them.
Cow and bear will graze the same pasture, and their calves and cubs grow up together, and the lion eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child will crawl over rattlesnakes dens, the toddler stick his hand down the hole of a serpent.
Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill on my holy mountain.
Translated for today the picture of the God’s peaceable kingdom might include some other pairs of enemies:
Democrats and Republicans will work together for the good of the nation.
The Tea Party will invite Rachel Maddow to share some Chai Lattes and they will enjoy one another’s company.
Gay couples and straight couples will teach Sunday School together in United Methodist churches and children from all kinds of families will grow in the knowledge and love of God together.
Nelson Mandela will dance in heaven with F. W. deKlerk.
Martin Luther will sit down at Christ’s table with Bull Connor and they will see the light of Christ in each other’s eyes.
Children will befriend those who have been sexually wounded and not be harmed; but will serve as a source of God’s healing for the broken.
No one will harm or destroy life on all God’s holy mountain for the earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Christian obedience is about allowing Christ to come to us and lead us home, and making us whole. As we prepare to offer ourselves to God in obedience to his will for our lives, let us sing In the Still of Winter an advent hymn found in your bulletin.
 The Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist p. 24
 From Holy Myhrrbearers website – an orthodox monastic community for women founded in 1977 in Otego NY
 Holy Myhrrbearers
 The Message Translation by Eugene Peterson