A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on January 7, 2007.
(Epiphany 1, Year A).
I’m an obedience school graduate. Well, actually Delilah is. I took a class with her after we first adopted her. She’s slightly better trained but something must have rubbed off on me since Bryna swears I’m much more obedient around the house. I actually enjoyed going. There’s something about the dog/master relationship that’s good for the male ego. I am the Alpha Male. At least at obedience school; at least on those occasions when Delilah listens to me. She’s a lab/husky mix and the husky part can be a bit stubborn. “Sit,” I command. And Delilah sits. Unless she’s being sassy; then she’ll stare at me for a while, walk around in a circle, and eventually sit. Still, it’s empowering.
One of the themes in this morning’s gospel passage is obedience. But when it starts out John the Baptist seems to be having a Candid Camera moment at the River Jordan. Jesus comes to John and asks to be baptized. And as John protests you can imagine him looking around for the hidden camera. It must have felt like a set up. “Me baptize you, what are you nuts? Is that Alan Funt hiding behind that rock?”
But Jesus was serious. He had come to be baptized by John and it must have felt like the ultimate role reversal. Matthew tells us that “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” Talk about feeling unworthy. And yet John submits to Jesus just as Jesus submits to the will of God. Because that’s what this whole exchange is really about: obedience.
We don’t like to talk much about obedience in our culture. It’s seen as a form of weakness; we view obedience and strong character as mutually exclusive. To be obedient is to be subservient; it’s to check your mind at the door and simply follow orders. We see obedience as a virtue reserved for monks. Let them walk around in their flowing robes with their heads down. Monks can have their obedience and their poverty and chastity for that matter. And, of course, obedience school is for dogs. That’s really our general view of obedience: to respond on command. Sit, stay, roll over, beg.
But of course that’s not the obedience were talking about. Because obedience to God is neither meek, nor mild, nor for the faint of heart. Obedience to God is empowering; it is bold; it is life-giving. It’s not about giving up freedom but gaining it. Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you and I will give you rest.” Obedience is not a yoke of slavery but of spiritual freedom.
But of course this is oxymoronic. The freedom comes not from doing something you wouldn’t want to do but by joining your will to God’s will. So that service to God and neighbor becomes not a burden but a joy. It is what gives meaning to life. Spiritual obedience is the synergy that takes place when God’s will and your own come together. And in it is true freedom and joy.
But an important distinction here is that while obedience to God is a virtue, blind obedience to human authority is not. Our initial aversion to obedience is because we too often relate it to the human realm. And so we think of military recruits or Jim Jones-like cults or fraternity hazing. And, yes, I served in the army and was in a fraternity so I’ve seen this first-hand. Though I haven’t, to my knowledge, ever been in a cult.
In a few moments we will baptize Lucia Stoynoff. And spiritual obedience is an important piece of this. One of the questions asked of the parents and godparents on Lucia’s behalf is, “Do you promise to follow and obey Christ as your Lord?” This, of course, gets at the heart of obedience to God. In baptism we promise to obey Jesus Christ as Lord. And we do this, in the words of the baptismal covenant which we will all renew, by continuing in the apostles’ teaching, persevering in resisting evil, proclaiming God’s word, seeking and serving Christ in all people, and striving for justice. So we continue, persevere, proclaim, seek, serve, and strive to obey Jesus Christ as Lord. That’s a tall order. An impossible task without God’s help. But it’s what we all try to live into when we live out the Christian faith. At times we stumble and fall away but the bond established in baptism is indissoluble. And God always welcomes us back with open, merciful, and loving arms.
Through his baptism, Jesus models spiritual obedience for us. He submits because it is the will of God that he be baptized. Or as Jesus puts it, “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus’ baptism isn’t an act of magic; it doesn’t suddenly give him superhuman powers – that came by virtue of his being God’s Son, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased. But when Jesus submits, his will becomes one with God’s will. And this prepares him to carry out the work he has been given to do. He is empowered for mission; which is precisely what our baptisms do for us. Once that bond of relationship is established, we can go and live out our faith in the world. It simply takes obedience to the living God.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2008