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Another Hard Word: Obedience

Another Hard Word: Obedience


Put on your seat belts, bring your seats to an upright position, stow your tray tables. This is going to be a bumpy ride.


I see the fear of God differently than most moderns. I have written about the theophany I was graced with. “Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, (Prov 9:10a KJV)” is not an empty and slightly ridiculous phrase. It is my heart, my faith. And the love of God, his love for me, isn’t a teenage crush. It is an orgasm of the heart.


We see it everywhere in scripture, that God loves those who fear him. In the Psalms there is much fear that God has turned his face from the Psalmist, and if the Psalmist actually is David, there would be plenty of good reasons for that fear. And there is a lot about fear of enemies. People who spread false rumors, destroy the Psalmists reputation. Fear of invading armies. These are worldly fears. But the fear of the Lord is a heavenly fear, one so overwhelming that Moses looked away from the burning bush, and when he emerged from being with God his face shone, and he had to cover it before the people unless he was acting as God’s herald. Then there was the Transfigured Jesus on a hilltop with his confused, frightened friends, and his Father. That is the overwhelming God whom we fear. And that made Moses the leader to be obeyed, as we are expected to obey the doctrine and discipline of the Church. And Jesus, whom we confess in our Baptismal vows as our Lord and our God, to whom we cling, who is our Saviour. And  yet we submit to very human and often deeply sinful leaders. We sometimes have to in order to let the true teaching seep through. To keep the church intact through time and politics and social change. 


And at the same time we tug at the leash for total freedom. We seek higher mountains, steeper ski slopes, sheerer cliffs to jump off, acts of individual courage or stupidity, but ones which proclaim our freedom from parents, secular or religious superiors, bosses. Or the consensus of a community, which has its own pitfalls, a community which may not be guided by the Spirit so much as their own security and comfort. Or a God whom we have transformed from timeless, unchanging, to mutable and somehow more under our control.

Salvation history is based on submission. Abraham is ready to sacrifice his son. Mary allows herself to be impregnated by a powerful stranger. Jesus allows himself to be ordered to his death. And before that, even Jesus submits to to be half drowned in a river by his crazy fanatic cousin John. And the call of the prophets is no better, and few of them die in bed, happy and old. One of the most powerful human experiences, sexual orgasm, is an act of submission and trust. And at the same time we have created a society that demands total freedom and independence. And it is only a short hop from yielding to a protector to submission to a bully. My basic objection to stripping from the Trinity the words Father and Son in favor of job titles, genderless ones at that, is that it strips the Trinity of the complexity of human relationship. And one that makes the Holy Spirit so important in that the Spirit is the wisdom and guide who shepherds us down the narrow path between God and what 1 Peter warns of, the Devil in a God suit prowling to trick us.


Today’s second reading, 1 Peter 5:1-14, addresses the dialectic between obedience and loving protection. He begins with an exhortation to the elders in power not to abuse their positions. Don’t lord it over your charges. Be an example. Let your oversight bring your charges to righteousness willingly, even eagerly. It is an act of love, love under obedience. And to the young: obey and be humble. Quite a charge to the unruly youth today, a youth that wants to hatch into the world fully fledged and can’t wait to fly, to own the world, ready or not The letter goes on to charge that all humble themselves under the mighty hand of God. God will exalt us in due time, in the end time. But human life is not the time for us to break God’s rules, to claim the power of God, the authority of God. Put all your anxieties on God who cares for you. That care is love. We are cared for, protected, as a father protects a child. In Canon, the priest of a parish, the vicar of a mission, and overall the bishop of the diocese has the cure/care of the souls under his or her rule. It isn’t an easy job, and not one for immature persons in a collar to be fun and jolly and encourage superficial adherence to Jesus as Lord. And when we use that language of hierarchy and gender, oh, boy, is there pushback from the modern Church. I am not a child, they cry. I am an independent adult, who controls his or her own destiny. I rule the world. How did that turn out? Is this obedience to a God who made and blew up stars, and still found it in his merciful heart to come to us as an ordinary man, to show us his face in the real world, a world of hate and anger, and teach us love and mercy? Did not Jesus, as both man and God, obey his heavenly Father unto death on the Cross? A modern Jesus would have gathered a crowd and protested in front Pilate’s and Herod’s palaces, and before the Sanhedrin, and then headed to the hills for protection. But he didn’t. And John kept right on baptizing and speaking God’s truth to power. They obeyed and feared God. Not human rules. And it was scary. And only the Love carried by the whispers of the Spirit sustained them and sustains us. But Love under authority.


We can’t have it both ways. It can’t be all love and no obedience, no fear, no discipline. We were given a gift beyond gold already. Jesus grants forgiveness now. Confessed, repentant, we are absolved. It isn’t kept in some heavenly double entry bookkeeping system to punish us later. But even that grace is up to God to bestow. We don’t own it. Fear God. Submit to God,  Trust God, because in the Spirit we are given, shown, feel God’s love. God’s love is the passion of an orgasm, the “little death,” as it once was called. It is the ecstasy of giving birth. It is Real, the only reality. It includes obedience to and fear of God. And, yes, it takes practiced discernment to recognize and avoid the Devil, who, like a roaring lion, will gladly have us for lunch.


Many of us have been locked at home for over a month. And restless, as the endlessness of the pandemic hits. Now is the time to rest in Jesus. To be disciplined. To obey the hard rules with grace. Fearing and trusting in God even the pandemic, with its death dealing consequences, will banish fear. Hang in there. We are not alone.


Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.


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