Independence and Obedience

by The Rev'd Dane E. Boston

At my wife’s instigation, I have recently been reading a book on parenting. It offers some very interesting reflections on the inverse relationship between command and compliance: namely, the lived truth that the less I bark at my children the more likely they are to do what I ask. In any case, it put me in mind of this old sermon, preached three years ago on the Fifth Sunday in Lent.

A Sermon Preached on the 5th Sunday in Lent, March 25, 2012

By the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut

Texts: Hebrews 5:5-10; John 3:14-21

“Although he was a son,

Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered,

and having been made perfect,

he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

When was the last time that you enjoyed the charming, exhilarating, life-affirming experience of passing through security at an airport? Think back to it now, for a moment. Savor the memory.

A few months ago, I attended the priestly ordination of one of my best friends from seminary. He is the curate of the cathedral out in Denver, so air travel was a necessity. The flights, both there and back, went fine. Denver is a relatively easy trip, I was glad to learn. But that whole business of getting through security was about as frustrating and infuriating as you can imagine. I was shunted from line to line, ordered to take off my belt and shoes by one surly worker, and then scolded for not having done those tasks fast enough by another surly worker. The other passengers around me were similarly miserable, similarly powerless. We all bristled at the sharp, unfriendly instructions, the rude orders, the bossy, impatient commands. But bristle was about all we could do. Confronted with the absolute authority of the Transportation Security Administration, all we could do was obey.

What I noticed about myself in those few minutes (and in the end, it really was only a few minutes) was the re-emergence of an emotion and an accompanying phrase that I had not known for many years. Slowly coming through the line, receiving commands and orders from every side, I found myself muttering under my breath that classic expression of childish independence and frustration: “You’re not the boss of me!”

“You’re not the boss of me,” I thought, looking grumpily at the TSA workers in their bright blue shirts with their latex-gloved hands. “You’re not the boss of me,” I murmured as I read the imperious, uncompromising signs declaring “These items not permitted on board,” and “Your bag must be this size to carry on.” “You’re not the boss of me,” I growled to the surrounding symbols of authority—in a voice only I could hear. “You’re not the boss of me.”

Now in that actual moment, that phrase and that feeling were more than childish: they were obviously, demonstrably false. In that airport security line, those TSA workers really were the boss of me. If I hoped to get where I was going—if I wanted to get on my plane—then I had no choice but to listen to them, and to follow their orders. And yet something deep down within me resented and resisted the plain, practical necessity of obedience.

I have come to believe that I am not alone in that resistance, that resentment. It seems to me that we all, as individuals and as a culture, resist and reject the concept of obedience. Turn on a television, log onto the internet, and you will find myriad preachers of a Gospel of no-rules, no-limits, and perfect personal freedom. The myths that we imbibe each day—the myths that we breathe in every time we encounter an advertisement or listen to a political stump speech—all tell us to idolize and emulate the rule-breakers, the mavericks, the pioneers: those who took the initiative, who made their own rules, who wouldn’t be stopped or slowed-down by obeying outmoded regulations and expectations. What’s more, these myths tell us that that power—the right of self-determination and self-fulfillment—belongs to each of us as well. And we can claim our power if only we buy the right products or vote for the right party. Be a bold, independent innovator, the myths whisper. Don’t follow the crowd, don’t listen to the rules. Don’t obey.

We know those myths are powerful, because advertisers wouldn’t use them if they weren’t. They are powerful and effective because they tap into a deep resistance—a deep suspicion we all share of any command to obey. But where does that suspicion come from? Why do we resist obedience? Why is it that, when we are asked to obey, some iteration of “You’re not the boss of me,” rises so naturally, so readily, to our lips? This morning, I’d like to suggest that the reason we resist obedience is twofold.

First, the call to obedience shatters a lie that we all cherish: the great lie of our own self-sufficiency, our own independence. Obedience, whether it’s the obedience required in the line at airport security, or the obedience required by the Ten Commandments, breaks down the illusion, the utter falsehood, that we are in control of our lives. The very idea of obedience forces us to recognize that we are not, in fact, the masters of our own destinies, or at least not in the way that we thought. Obedience reminds us that there is someone, somewhere, more important and powerful than we are. Just as I stood, powerless but defiant in the airport security line, so all humankind stands, shutting our eyes and clenching our fists against a great and terrible truth: our lives are not our own.

And this dreadful realization leads us to another, even more terrible question: If we are not our own, then whose are we? The answer, though we resist it, is plain to us. It is written in the pain, the violence, the suffering of our lives and the life of this world. It weighs down our hearts and darkens our brows. It shatters our dreams and hems our opportunities. It makes real the frailties of our bodies and makes false the fantasies of our souls. It binds us with an unbreakable chain, and forces us to walk the same long, winding line—not through security, but to the grave—trod by every generation before us.

For the truth, beloved, is that we are not free and independent. The truth is that we are, by our very nature, slaves. We are bondservants of sin and death. And because the call to obedience—any call to obedience—leads us to face the horrible reality of our own limitations—because the command to obey makes plain the unbearable truth of our slavery to great and terrible powers outside of ourselves—something deep within us turns away in disgust, rises up in rebellion, and urges us to reject the command and to resist the call. We hate obedience, for it reminds us of a truth we wish to forget.

But the good and gracious news this morning—and there is good and gracious news this morning—is that God himself has intervened on our behalf. God himself has entered our story. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus has become our obedience. We hear this morning the Gospel, the Good News, that when our disobedience—our resistance to obedience, our refusal to recognize our own powerlessness, and helplessness, and need for God in our lives—when all this had taken us far from God, God came to us! When rebellion deep within us made us slaves to Sin and Death, God, incarnate in the flesh of our Lord Jesus, accomplished what we could not hope to accomplish. God, at work in the sacrifice of the Cross, achieved what we could not begin to achieve. God, in his vast, unending, incomprehensible Love, acted when we were powerless to act.

My friends, this morning we hear news of deliverance declared to an unruly, disobedient people: Christ has become our obedience! This is what grace means, this is what the Gospel is all about: what Christ has accomplished, we now share, though we did not merit it, though we could not earn it, though we may not always remember it, or believe it, or live it. Christ has won for us the gift of obedience.

This is what Lent is all about. God does not call us, through suffering and self-denial, to free ourselves from our bondage. Instead, this is a time when God calls us to live into the freedom that he was won for us. He calls us to train ourselves, to discipline our bodies and souls and minds that we who were born to disobedience and death may begin to live into the obedience and life that Christ has won. Having been justified, having been made righteous before God through Christ, having been made new creatures by water and the Holy Spirit, having been set free from the tyranny of our sins: God now calls us to the joyful freedom of his obedience.

This is the challenging paradox we hear in the Gospel lesson this morning. We go from obedience to obedience. We pass through the slavery of Death and so become sons and daughter of life. The startling, scandalous Good News is that if we die with Christ, we will live with him. This is the process by which we leave behind the old, dirty, dingy, worn-out, threadbare clothes of our former lives, and begin to put on the clean, shining garment of righteousness that has been washed in the blood of Jesus—the garment that God himself places upon our shoulders.

God’s call to obedience is not like our slavery under Sin and Death. God’s call is not a command from a tyrant on high. It is, rather, the gentle invitation of a patient parent. It is the soothing voice of a loving father, encouraging us to relax our white-knuckled grip on a few broken down old toys, so that he may put into our open hands the good things we really need. To obey God is to give up a power we never had. It is not our undoing, but our unclenching. Make no mistake: Christ’s call to death is real. To obey God does indeed mean a death. But it means the death of a lie. It means participation in the death of Christ, so that we may, at last, begin truly to live.

So the next time you stand in the security line at the airport, I hope you will be grateful for that horrible, wonderful reminder that your life is not your own. Then say a brief, thankful prayer to the One whose you are, the One who holds your life in his good and gracious hands, the One who calls you now and always into his obedient service—the One “whose service is perfect freedom.”