March 29, 2009, 5th Sunday of Lent

Sunday, March 29, 2009
The Rev. Tasha Brubaker Garrison
5th Sunday of Lent, Year B

Now my soul is troubled. What a striking line. From the lips of Jesus I hear what is often said inside my heart: my soul is troubled. Very often it happens when I am faced with hard choices or decisions, or being asked to reexamine something or change direction. Usually it indicates I am in need of repentance or am coming to a point of growth. Yes, paradoxically it can happen at moments of light and moments of darkness. Such is God’s troubling way.

The trouble for the soul that Jesus is pointing to is encapsulated by one word: obedience. It’s a word that has gone out of favor. Rather than conjuring up noble allegiance or loyalty to something greater it is seen as old-fashioned, repressive, denying of personal freedom. Obedience in application in the world has a side that can lead to bypassing ethical and moral autonomy and personal integrity. Just think how much evil has been justified by variations on “just following order”. But that is distorted obedience. Regardless, obedience is a negative word in our culture. It entails restraint, limits, responsibility to others and that grates against our culture of instant gratification, entertainment and consumption. It doesn’t gel well with an individualistic, me-centered view of the world that seems to be so prominent in our society.

When I find that conventional use of a word seems too limited I pull out my trusty dictionary. Here is what I found regarding the word obedience: 1. To carry out orders, instructions of; 2. To be guided by, submit to control of. Very interesting. And I feel that looking at the second definition may be much more helpful to me when dealing with my troubled soul. I think Jeremiah as thinking of this kind of obedience when he writes: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” To have God’s law written on my heart would mean I would be guided by God’s law, submit my will to the control of God’s will. And as God’s law is not to deny our selves, our uniqueness, our integrity it would not be that God is this internal despot, but rather that law that leads us to love God above all else and in so doing live in loving, right relationship with each other. Would the kind of law would ease my troubled soul!

The question is raised then for me, what must happen first so that the law of God can be inscribed on my heart and be woven within my soul? God’s grace and call first, but then my decision, my choice. Would it be too easy to say a change of heart?

Thinking on hearts I remembered my grandfather who died 7 years ago. My grandfather was a tough old guy. He’d picked crops as a kid during the depression and worked hard his whole life to succeed and escape a hard childhood. He was intelligent, critical, and remote in some ways. He was fiercely independent and quite stubborn. Didn’t want to let on he needed anyone or had a side that needed some tender loving care. That was how he was to me when I was quite small. One didn’t hug grandpa and one was always waiting for some critical zinger to dart one’s way. Then, when I was around 7 or 8 or so, he needed to have a triple by-pass operation. The surgery was much riskier in those days and the recovery longer. The doctors were clear that some habits needed to change. And part of what needed to change was his relations to his nearest relations, which were often a bit stressed and strained. There we were, gathered around his bed (I was fascinated by the tubes and all the equipment) trying to bumble through our words, awkwardly standing around. We can be so clumsy when we aren’t sure how to love!

When he came home his heart, and his failing eyesight due to glaucoma, meant he needed his family to care for him in new ways. And for that to happen without it being a mere duty or guilt-induced response meant that he had to change his way of being with us. He had to make some choices. He had to listen again to his heart, both literally and figuratively. There was a new direction he ought to be guided by. In the months and years after his surgery he became a new person in some ways. The hard edges were smoothed away a bit. He became much more demonstrative with his affection. He was able to receive help and not cut out others so much do his stubborn independence. He learned to be less critical. In short, he had a change of heart.

Now, I don’t want to say that he became a totally different person without any of his former shortcomings. No, those remained. But they were tempered and his choice led to new things guiding his actions and relationships. A grandpa I thought I would never be close to or have the unqualified approval of became a grandpa I grew to love dearly. He became someone who showed affection to me and appreciated me for who I was. I miss him very much. And I am glad he made the choice he made. To be obedient to a new way of living. To be guided by a new spirit.

In Jesus’ life this is much more profoundly realized, of course. Paul is quite insistent on the choice Jesus had and that obedience, submission to his calling, is central in what makes him the source of eternal life for us. Within the obedience lay the working out of the Divine’s hope for us. And that hope meant suffering, suffering for others, suffering for a larger vision than the world’s, suffering at the hands of a fallen world that wants to go its headstrong, stubborn way. Obedience to God, as best we can, is to enter into dying to this world and the ways it would have us believe it is God, the final answer and giver of meaning (note this a the social reality of the world of which I speak). The hard truth is that the discovery and gift of eternal life is the result of such obedience. There is no shortcut. There is no way to reconcile a faith that accepts the world’s values as it is, lives by then and thinks that herein eternal life is found with a faith in the Obedient One who loves and suffers for others to reveal eternal life through living a life that leads to the cross. I know deep down that to be obedient to Jesus will mean struggle and turmoil and suffering in some way. I cannot follow him at no cost in the world the way it is. It will not do. Jesus says it quite bluntly.

Such stories are out there all over the place of how individuals and groups have lived into this obedience. Recently, I read about Bishop Bell who was the Bishop of Chichester, England during WWII. In a time when any sympathy towards Germans was tantamount to treason, in a time of the mass and indiscriminate destruction of life was happening on all fronts from the death camps to the fire-bombing of Dresden to Hiroshima, he stood as a voice of witness to love and peace. He challenged some of the Allies most extreme, annihilating violence and stood for values of dignity of life, compassion, mercy and love in a time that wanted to escape into easy answers of pure evil on one side and pure good on the other which then could justify any actions no matter how horrific and conveniently forget the complex and complicit history leading to the war. It cost him the opportunity to be Archbishop of Canterbury and it circumscribed his future life, but he was a voice pointing to the light of Christ in a time of deep darkness and one who kept his eye on eternal life in the face of great personal loss.

As I approach Holy Week I am asked to walk with Jesus and make my choice to be obedient or not. Perhaps the question to be pondered in my troubled soul is where am being asked to submit, to obey, in order for God’s law to be written in my heart and his love to be known in the world? What are the choices for me around obeying God or going my own way? To what and to whom do I submit? By what and by whom am I guided in my inmost self? Is it God? Is it the call of Jesus? Or is it the power of the world: power, wealth, status, prestige, self-assertion, dominance, sex, amusement, division of the human family into the good guys and the worthless ones? Surely it is a mixed bag, and therefore the choice is still ever before me. Where do I love my worldly parts so much that I cannot bear to think of losing them, even for the grace of eternal life? Where is my faith so that I can take the hard steps of being obedient with trust in your ultimate goodness? Not a trivial question to be asked. They are rather essential, aren’t they, as I walk with Jesus towards Jerusalem and the cross. Can I be obedient, even to death on a cross? I don’t know. But if obedience becomes more a habit of soul, maybe I can, maybe I could. Obedience in small things will prepare me for obedience in big things. I pray in the weeks ahead as you come into Jerusalem, Jesus, in triumph and die in shame that you will help me see the way to lose my life in order to gain it back again.