March 22, 2015

Keeping Our Covenants: Covenants of Obedience


Text: Exodus 20:5-6: “I the Lord your God am a jealous God,...showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

Most of you know that my earliest years in ordained ministry were spent in a university church. The single greatest event in the cycle of the liturgical year in that place were the annual Christmas Carol services in the middle of December. There were always two of them, on two successive evenings, and people would wait in long lines just to get in. It was the kind of thing that was much more a cultural event than a religious service, but it was a religious service, and we were no small amount proud that our tradition of an annual carols service had actually been around longer than the one at the other Cambridge.

The service really was the choir’s show. There were a few opening prayers, and two readings, maybe three; then at the end there were a series of collects, three of them, sort of like Morning or Evening Prayer, for those of you who remember that sort of thing. And there was a particular tradition to those prayers: There was the collect for the Third Sunday of Advent, because the in those days was pretty much always held on that weekend; there was a prayer for the university; and there was a prayer for the nation. What was traditional about the last two were not the texts, but the topics; if you were the minister reading the service, then you got to choose what you’d offer for those prayers.

Now of course there were always people there for whom the whole experience was really more of a concert punctuated by some quaint ancient observances than it was a service of worship; and from time to time we would get letters from some folks expressing surprise, and sometimes even slight indignation, that the language of prayer had entered into the event. They came for the music, and they wanted to have it left up to them what meaning to make of it.

In one of those services that fell to me I chose a prayer for the nation that I’d never used before, and which I’d learned had an interesting history. And so it was that on a Sunday evening in December, to a room absolutely jammed to the rafters with people, I offered this prayer:

Almighty God; We make our earnest prayer that Thou wilt keep the United States in Thy holy protection; that Thou wilt incline the hearts of all citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government; and entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another and for their fellow citizens. And finally that Thou wilt most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to conduct ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without a humble imitation of whose example in these things we can never hope to be a happy nation. Grant our supplication, we beseech Thee, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

By the time I checked my e-mail later that night I already had the first of what became about a dozen indignant messages and letters from some people who had been in that congregation. To put it mildly, they were outraged that I had offered this prayer.

The idea of praying for the well being of the nation was itself problematic to some of them; but to most of them what really was really offensive about the prayer I offered was the idea of praying for the well-being of the nation in terms of the subordination and obedience of citizens to the government. One of my correspondents denounced me as having offered “the most un-American prayer I’ve ever heard, and I don’t like praying for America anyway.”

Now, I said this prayer had an interesting history. And here is that history; the words of it were written by George Washington. They weren’t written as a prayer; they were written as a farewell message to the governors of the original thirteen states when Washington relinquished command of the Continental Army.

And there is some question among historians as to whether Washington wrote these words or merely signed a draft that someone else had written them. Be that as it may, the authority of Washington’s signature appeared with the message, and the words were later adapted into a prayer, and the text of that prayer struck some of the members of that twenty-first-century congregation as un-American. You have to admit that’s pretty ironic.

What undergirds all of that to me is something much deeper than our issues with our government. It is our reflexive disdain for the idea of obedience. Obedience is something for lesser people. Obedience is something for children, but not for adults. Obedience is for people who don’t know any better—quite literally for people who can’t be trusted to know what’s best for themselves. That is the wisdom of the wise of this world.

To be in a place in which obedience is expected of you is to be in a place of submission. Democracies have citizens; monarchies have subjects. Citizens share in the responsibility of governing themselves; Subjects obey what they’re told to do. And thank heaven we dumped the language of the old prayer book that called on brides to “obey” their husbands-to-be.

The problem with all of this is that obedience is a kind of necessary condition to a covenant. Throughout this Lent, as we’ve been looking at the idea of covenant, we’ve been able to avoid this uncomfortable part of the package so far.

But it can’t be avoided. Covenants don’t work unless we bring to them a willing sacrifice—a sacrifice of some part of our freedom. To accept the terms of a covenant means to make the choice that more can be gained by giving up at least part of our possibilities in order to secure something much more valuable than anything we’d likely get with those choices anyway.

Moses comes down from Mount Sinai with the terms of the deal, and what those commandments offer is a covenant. God’s part of the covenant is to keep Israel as his own people. We’ll look at that part of it more next week.

But the people’s part of the covenant—and now our part of it—is to accept the terms of covenant code. It is to agree to limit the range of our freedom in order to gain the end of the deal offered to us—to be God’s own. It is not just to agree to the deal; it is to obey the rules God sets down, because we know that what we get in return for giving up some of our freedom is something much, much more valuable than we could ever find for ourselves.

Over the old courthouse in Main Street in Worcester there are engraved five words that summarize this whole idea: Obedience To Law Is Liberty.  A lot of people have scoffed at those words over the years, and if you search for it on the internet you’ll find a lot of ridicule directed toward both those words and that building. But it is the sort of foolishness in which there is deep wisdom. It is the sort of paradox that expresses a great truth.

Absolute freedom—an existence with no limits on our actions, no taboos, no inhibitions, no boundaries—would be an existence without any meaning. Obedience to law, observing the limits that bind us in covenant to God and to one another, shapes a life in terms of the wise restraints that make us free. We are creatures meant to be covenanted, whether to our parents or our children, to our spouses or our society; and ultimately and in all of it, to our God. Through these covenants we find the fullest expression of our human possibility, and realize the greatest of our callings: to be claimed as God’s own.

Let us pray:

O Almighty Lord and everlasting God: Vouchsafe, we beseech tee, to direct, sanctify, and govern both our hearts and bodies in the ways of thy laws, and in the works of thy commandments; that, through thy most mighty protection both ere and evere, we may be preserved in body and soul; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.