Sunday, March 12, 2017

Obedience makes us powerful

Homily: 2nd Sunday in Lent – Cycle A
          Last week, as we celebrated the 1st Sunday in Lent, I reflected on how the readings for the day seemed to indicate that God was asking us to enter into a 12-step addiction recover program this Lent.  I reflected how the journey through Lent can be like a journey through a 12-step program, as we acknowledge that we have sinned and have fallen short of all that God expects of us, that we, by ourselves, are powerless to overcome our sinfulness, and that we must give ourselves completely to the will of God (and his mercy)—particularly through the sacrament of reconciliation and the renewal of our baptismal promises at Easter—so that we can break free from the bonds of sin.  I noted how this last part is truly the key: that to hand over your will to one who is more powerful (and so, wise), yet loving—and to be completely obedient to him—actually leads to freedom, not greater slavery.
          In the Scriptures last week we saw this play out as the disobedience of our first parents (Adam and Eve) led them into the bondage of sin, while the obedience of Christ (as evidenced by his unwillingness to give into the temptations the devil presented to him) left him free and blameless before his Father.  This week, we once again encounter this theme of obedience in the Scriptures.  In the first reading, God commands Abraham to move from his native place to a land he doesn’t know based simply on a promise that God will give him blessings beyond his wildest dreams.  In the Gospel, we read how, at the transfiguration, Peter, James, and John hear God's voice identifying Jesus and commanding them "Listen to him".  This "listening" is much more than "hearing”.  Rather, it is a "listening" that results in "doing", which is obedience.  And so, in this way, it's like God is saying "This is my beloved Son … be obedient to him."
          But “obedience” often carries with it a negative connotation, right?  The common definition that many of us might give to obedience is “being subservient to the will of another”.  In this definition, obedience seems negative as it is often associated with one person’s domination over another.  Slaves and other servants are “obedient” to their masters, just as good children are “obedient” to their parents, grandparents, teachers, etc.
          The word obedience, however, comes from the Latin verb oboedire, which translates literally to mean “to listen towards” something, like when you lean in to listen because you value what is being said.  In this definition, obedience, implies a relationship between the one who speaks and the one who hears.  This is an affectionate relationship, since one would not “lean in” to listen to someone who he or she didn’t think had concern for him or her in return.  And so we see that obedience involves a level of intimacy between the one who speaks and the one who hears.  In a very real way, therefore, obedience, if it is true, is really an act of love.
          Given this, let’s think about Abraham’s obedience for a second.  If we take the reading literally (which can be a little dangerous to do), we see that Abraham didn’t say anything to God as God told him what to do and what he would give him for doing it.  Abraham’s response (“Abram went as the Lord directed him”, the Scripture says) would be crazy if he didn’t already have a relationship with God and knew his voice.  And so we must assume that he did have a relationship with God and that Abraham already trusted him to be a loving Father, who wouldn’t give him a rock when he asked for an egg or a scorpion when he asked for a fish.  With this loving relationship, therefore, it was easy for him to obey, even when that meant that he would suffer some hardships because of it.
          The apostles, too, would find that, because they spent three years with Jesus while he taught about the kingdom of God and worked miracles to demonstrate that it, indeed, had come to fulfillment in him, it would be easy to “listen to him”, because they already had a relationship with him and they knew him to be a loving master: more like a brother, than a boss.  Thus, they could give him their full obedience and not fear that they would ever be led astray.  Their obedience was not servitude, but truly was an act of love.
          Well, okay, Father, if obedience is love, then why is it so hard?  Well, perhaps it’s because we haven’t correctly understood love, either.  The love that we speak of here is so much more than affection (that is, good feelings for another person).  Rather, the love we are talking about here is the willing of the good (that is, happiness) for another: even if there is no reward (and, perhaps, even suffering) for yourself.  Obedience, therefore, often involves self-sacrifice.  This component of self-sacrifice is why we often view it as being slave-like.  We think, “I have to give up what I want in order for that other person to get what he or she wants.”  But true love doesn’t count the cost—it doesn’t count what I lose so that the other can receive something good.  This is why Jesus could say “No one has greater love than this; to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”.  And this is why Saint Paul, in our second reading, could remind Saint Timothy to “bear your share of hardship for the gospel”, because love sometimes asks us to bear hardships.  Obedience, therefore, willfully given, is really an act of love; and most especially when it involves some sacrifice of one’s self.
          Former farmer and US Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson once said that “When obedience ceases to be an irritant and becomes our quest, in that moment God will endow us with power.”  Jesus is the Father’s “beloved Son” firstly because he was obedient.  Thus, the power on display in the transfiguration is the power that is available to us who seek to follow our Lord’s example of obedience.
          And so, my brothers and sisters, let us acknowledge that Lent calls us back to obedience; which means, then, that we are called to restore our relationship with God the Father through Christ Jesus.  And so, let us not spend this time of Lent in works that won’t draw us closer to God.  Rather, let’s engage works that lead us first to acknowledge our need for repentance (and, therefore, our need for God) and that help us, then, to submit our wills completely to his, because he has never proven to be anything but a loving Father who cares for us.  Because, when we do, we will see the power of the blessings that Jesus has won for us made manifest in our lives; the power that comes through true obedience; the power that comes to us here in this Holy Eucharist.

Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – March 11th & 12th, 2017

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