Set Free by Obedience, sermon by Pastor Kinsey
William Willimon tells a story about when he became bishop in Alabama, and reached out to get his bearings in a new place he’d never worked or lived before.
“When I arrived in Alabama as a Methodist bishop,” Willimon says, “I asked a distinguished Alabama historian to orient me to my new appointment.
“So he told me a story: ‘One day, this ole boy drove out from Birmingham to buy firewood. He stopped at a rundown house in the country that had a sign out front: ‘Firewood 4 Sale.’
‘Friend, I’d like to order a load of firewood,’ the man said to the [old timer] who was dozing in a rocker on the front porch. The old man roused himself, and without missing a beat, sneered back, ‘You can’t order me to do nothin’!”
I suppose this could happen, and probably does, most everywhere around the country. Without a context, at least, our first reaction to being ordered around, or told what to do – to be obedient – is decidedly negative.
Obedience is always a tough sell. Obey the rules? That’s so passé! Be subservient to your ideals, your beliefs, your family or faith community’s traditions? Aren’t I free to do as I please? Isn’t the sky the limit! If I want to reach for the stars, or be more like the Hollywood stars, who’s to stop me? Why should I limit myself to anything out of dull obedience?
Of course we know this attitude, this strain of American individualism, so pervasive that we must daily either give in to it, or learn to find another way. So, I think we can also sympathize with John the Baptist, who spent the last of his working days challenging the people of faith in Israel to get ready for the Messiah, by baptizing them in the River Jordan, and to turn around in a new direction. A great preacher, and a mighty voice in the wilderness, John told about the greatness of the One who was coming, much greater than he.
And then, sure enough Jesus shows up! But the biggest surprise for John was that he showed up, not to baptize with fire and brimstone, but to submit himself, the Savior, in obedience to the baptism of repentance, like everyone else! What! Said John! No way! I’m not worthy to untie your sandals. You should be baptizing me! 15But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness."
Before Jesus was born, his father Joseph was said to be a righteous man because of his resolve to divorce Mary quietly. Indeed, his legal right was to expose her for her supposed infidelity, and then divorce her as loudly and self-righteously as he wanted, pretty much ruining her reputation. But being a deeply spiritual person, a man who listened for a word from God in his dreams, and communicated regularly in prayer – he was a righteous man, a model of obedience.
Ideally, parents are all models of submitting themselves to obedience. A first child can change your life, and caring for it takes a certain amount of obedience, to that calling. Priorities must often change. Time is not your own anymore. The schedule of this new-born, is all consuming. Those who give themselves over to it in obedience, have at least a fighting chance of becoming the parents, every child so badly needs. As the child becomes a teenager, and finally an adult, parents must wrestle with how much to bend without breaking, how much to love, and how much to protect. There is no simple script to follow. Only a responsibility to discover the unique experience each child brings. And, being obedient to this calling, fulfills all righteousness, like Joseph -- if the parent survives!
Does obedience mean we give up our freedom? And, if righteousness means, being obedient to the divine will, does that mean we are enslaved, less-than, those who are free spirits, who are not attached to something bigger or greater than themselves?
At Prayer Breakfast yesterday, it was shared that a friendly encounter with a person who is an atheist, turned toward this issue of obedience. The person contended they didn’t want to be obedient to anyone or anything, because that would mean a loss of freedom. That’s why they would never believe in God. Well it doesn’t take an atheist to have the desire for freedom, or the urge to resist obedience. Like the porch-napping guy selling firewood, we all have that built into our DNA.
But does obedience to the divine will, actually require giving up human freedom? As a Lutheran, I would answer with a typical, yes -- and no!
If Jesus is our model, and the one we follow, perhaps it’s best to start there. Jesus surprises John the Baptist, I think, because, like John, we have been taught a sense of hierarchy, a false respect, if you will. A un-holy patronage which puts Jesus, the Messiah, God’s anointed One, up on a pedestal. “One who is more powerful than I is coming after me,” said John. “I am not worthy,” in his presence.
But Jesus is not that, Messiah, not that, Son of God, not that kind of ruler. He is not Emperor Augustus. If we don’t know by now that Jesus will consistently submit himself in obedience to the divine will throughout the gospel stories, there is no better time to learn that than now. Certainly, Jesus, in the Great Three Days, from the Last Supper, to his death on the cross, shows us how he is obedient. And his whole life is the same, as he lives out the mission he has accepted from God: going from town to town, preaching the good news of the realm of God, healing the sick, and feeding the hungry, the poor, and the outsider.
In his baptism by John in the River Jordan, Jesus shows us, in this very first act of his public ministry, that he will submit to God’s will for him, not because it will gain him more independence, or wealth, or fame, or star power. But because it will make the whole world more powerful in obedience, by opening up the way to abundant life – to a lasting community, founded in justice and peace.
So yes, we give up the freedom, to do whatever we please, to have no accountability to anyone, to profit for ourselves first and foremost, without taking the whole community of people we live with, into account.
But no, we don’t lose everything, because what really happens when we follow, Jesus, our baptized obedient One, is we begin the journey that now makes us fully human. Submitting ourselves to the baptism Jesus submitted to, we are freed in the most deeply satisfying way. Being claimed and named in baptism, we are equally made children of God, and by this gift, we are assured of God’s love and acceptance. In this age of anxiety, and fear of an unknown destiny, which to a degree we all have as a symptom of our humanity, we are completed and made free as a baptized people, even as we are still on the journey to greater perfection. In obedience to the promise of entering the realm of God, we are freed to be our best selves, not only to satisfy our own needs, but to fulfill all righteousness in the world in which we live, and the responsibility we have to all others around us.
Our fullest humanity is not fulfilled in perfect freedom from all things, but in obedience to the realm and world, God has made for us. We find that freedom, in obedience to the journey that begins with baptism. There, in the life giving waters, in the transformation of crossing the Jordan with Jesus, we too are led into the Promised Land, from slavery into freedom, and we find our fullness, as complete humans -- the children of God.