06/06/21 “Obedience School: Come, Sit, Stay”

Matthew 11:28-30, Luke 10:38-42, John 14:1-3

The puppy on the cover of your bulletin is my daughter’s dog Fairley. Fairley looks a lot different now. She’s six years old, weighs 85 pounds, and stands 30” tall from the tips of her toes to the top of her head. She’s also very well-behaved. This is no accident. Peyton and Chris were committed to good obedience training from the beginning, and with good reason. Dogs who’ve been well trained are calm and politely sociable. They’re confident and secure. When their surroundings become noisy or chaotic, they don’t react with barking and jumping but look to their masters for direction.

As Peyton and Fairley went through their obedience school classes together, Peyton would tell me what she had learned. It often occurred to me that training a puppy was, in some ways, not so different from raising a baby. And, it also struck me that there are a lot of similarities between obedience training for dogs and obedience training for Christians as we learn to be obedient to our Master—that’s Master with a capital M. So, for the next few weeks, we’re going to go to school—obedience school for Christians.

In our culture, “obedient” is not a term we like to apply to ourselves. We expect children to be obedient. Members of the military are expected to obey their superior officers. We accept the need to obey the law—sometimes grudgingly. But beyond that we don’t often describe ourselves as “obedient.” We may be good employees who meet our bosses’ expectations. We might follow the rules of our workplaces and the clubs and organizations we belong to. We might honor the wishes of our parents, or spouses, or other significant people in our lives. But when was the last time you called yourself “obedient”?

We aspire to obedience as Christ lived it. We think about how Jesus was obedient to God’s will, even unto death on the cross, and we want to be as he was. But obedience suggests a submissiveness that’s not part of the American psyche. It requires relinquishing our will to another—giving up control over our own life—and we’re uncomfortable with that.

To our minds, obeying is what the powerless do. Obedience is what rulers demand of their subjects. We rightly removed the word “obey” from our marriage vows because it indicated an unequal relationship between spouses. We have a “no one’s going to tell me what to do” attitude; reactions to the mask mandates certainly made that clear. We become indignant whenever we feel like someone is ordering us around.

Of course, obedience may be exploited for evil ends. The Germans under Hitler are a good example. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing in the 1940s, described how, over the course of many years, the German people had developed a sense of obedience as a trust they freely invested in their leaders. But then Hitler exploited their obedience with disastrous consequences. We are right to shine a bright light of suspicion on anyone who demands unquestioning obedience and exploits the fear of their displeasure when they are disobeyed. But, in spite of our discomfort with obedience and its potential for evil, our faith clearly requires obedience from us.

I have to add a caveat before I go any further. My family had lots of dogs when I was growing up, but we never formally trained any of them. So, since I’m not an expert, I did some homework on obedience training, and one thing I’ve learned is that there are many schools of thought on this subject. If you have a different take on dog training than what I offer here, I ask for some grace as we focus on what obedience means for us in our efforts to live faithfully as disciples of Jesus Christ.

So, let’s get started on our first day of obedience school. Some of the first commands a dog is taught are “come,” “sit,” and “stay.” These commands have a purpose. They help the dog feel safe and secure and to live peacefully with others. They are called away from things that can harm them. They learn that their master is in charge. They’re not the alpha dogs, and there’s safety and security in that.

Jesus himself teaches his followers the same commands, and for the same reasons. When we respond to his commands to “come,” “sit,” and “stay,” we’re better equipped to live at peace with ourselves and others. We can resist things that are harmful to our bodies and our spirits. We can feel less anxious when we know we are safe in his care, no matter what’s happening around us. We know that no matter how chaotic life becomes, Jesus is the calm center we can rely on.

In our passage from Matthew, Jesus teaches us to “come.” “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” We’re prone to wandering away from Jesus’ side, and that wandering can have negative consequences. We’re drawn away by things that entice us but are dangerous for our bodies—and our souls. We’re drawn away by a society that tells us to move up the ladder, make more money, and buy more things; to indulge in one more drink or one more helping or a seemingly harmless flirtation.

We delude ourselves into thinking we can live without that Divine leading which we say we accept. That can lead us into trouble—the trouble of dissatisfaction, of confusion, of doubt, of loneliness. When we try to go it alone, we become burdened with fear and confusion and worry as we feel our own way through a difficult world.

But Jesus teaches us to “come.” It’s not so much a command as an invitation.  When we respond to Jesus when he says “come,” we find ourselves in the presence of a calm and loving Master whose great desire is to share the heavy loads we carry. He relieves us of the burden of going it alone—of following our own instincts that can lead us into things that aren’t good for us. We know that we’re safe in his care—that he’ll protect and guide us. What a great sense of relief that brings. We can rest in the presence of the one we can trust to lead us gently and lovingly through our lives.

Perfect obedience is something we strive for but have a hard time achieving. Even when we’ve accepted Christ as our Master, the sinfulness in us leads us astray. But Jesus continues to call us to “come.” We can never get so far away from Jesus that we’ll become totally lost. His voice can always lead us back to him. “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,” Jesus says. “Come.”

The next command we need to learn is to “sit.” Sitting has lots of benefits for dogs. They’re  safe when they sit quietly where their master tells them to. They’re under their master’s control, without straining at the leash. Sitting distracts them from the things that might make them react in undesirable ways. They’re polite—they don’t jump all over people, and they wait patiently to be given what they want.

Christians also benefit when we learn to sit quietly beside our Master. One of my favorite stories about sitting is the one about Jesus’ visit to Mary and Martha. There’s a lot to think about in that story, but today it speaks to us of the value of learning to sit. Martha is usually painted in a rather unflattering light—as a woman who is too busy with her to-do list to attend to the important things in life. Mary is portrayed as the saintly sister. But, rather than focusing on Mary and Martha themselves, let’s look instead at their different ways of behaving in a stressful situation.

Luke tells us that Martha welcomed Jesus into her home. She was glad he was there, but she was also conscious of her responsibility to be hospitable to her guest. That meant cooking for him (and probably for his companions), making sure he was comfortable, and all the other tasks that go along with being a good host. Mary appears to live with Martha, and so by rights she, too, should have been concerned with these tasks. But, Mary and Martha show us two very different ways of responding to the situation.

Martha’s way of responding is to jump around, trying to do three things at once. This makes her so busy and distracted that she loses all patience with Mary.  It leaves her feeling so overwhelmed that she even snaps at her guest. If she were a dog instead of a woman, she’d be straining at the leash to get at everything that moved. She’d be jumping up, darting here and there, nipping and growling at those around her. This way of responding betrays tension and discomfort.

But Mary’s response is more like that of a dog who’s learned to sit. This response allows her to sit quietly at Jesus’ feet, listening to his voice. Other claims on her attention can be ignored for a time. There’s no rushing off to the next appointment, the next chore, the next demand. her eyes and ears are focused only on the Master. Sitting next to Jesus produces peace and contentment.

Here at Zion, we rightly devote much of our time to serving each other and the world, as Jesus commissioned us to do. We engage in ministries in the community. We seek new ways to reach out to people who don’t know Christ. We work hard at being good stewards of our finances and our building. These are good and important parts of our discipleship. But, we also need to spend time sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet.

I always wonder what Jesus might have been saying to Mary as she sat there, listening attentively. What might Jesus say to us if we spent that kind of time simply sitting with him? Perhaps we’ll hear him say how much he loves us. Perhaps he’ll point out the gifts we have and describe how he’d like for us to use them, serving him by serving the world around us. He may just invite us to rest beside him, to calm our hearts and minds, and just lean against him as we wait patiently for answers to our prayers.

Or, we may hear him say something more challenging. Maybe he’ll encourage us to fully acknowledge the sinfulness that still has a hold on us—the sinfulness that makes us hold onto a grudge or react in anger or withhold from others the grace we ourselves have received. Maybe he’ll whisper that he knows we haven’t fully given our hearts to him—that we’re still holding back a piece of ourselves. Perhaps he’ll say to us, in a voice tinged with sadness that, until we relinquish that last piece of our hearts and souls, we can’t fully enjoy the forgiveness and peace he offers. And perhaps, in that moment, he’ll invite us again—in a voice filled with hope—to fully and completely turn our lives over to him and embark on the relationship with God that we were created to have. Whatever words Jesus has to speak to us, we can only hear them if we take time to sit at his feet and listen to what he’s saying. “Come,” Jesus says. “Sit.”

Finally, we need to learn to “stay.” As I mentioned before, I’ve never trained a dog. So, I didn’t understand the importance of this command until I did my homework. I thought “stay” was just the “sit” command on steroids—that once a dog is sitting, it should stay there until the master says it can get up.

In terms of our faith, I thought the connection between sitting and staying was simply a reminder that the act of sitting beside Jesus is not a once-and-done proposition. We don’t just sit down and pop up again and go about our business. I thought the command to “stay” suggested that after we respond to our Master’s call to come and sit by his side, we need to do everything we can to stay there. John Wesley called this “attending upon all the ordinances of God”: worshiping regularly; taking Communion as often as possible; making Scripture-reading, prayer, and fasting a regular and important part of our lives—all the things that keep us close to Jesus.

But there’s a lot more to the command to “stay.” The command to “stay” is not used when the dog is sitting safely and comfortably by its master’s side. It’s used when a dog’s master walks away. The dog learns to stay in its place, even when it sees its master walking away, even as the separation grows wider, even as the dog’s anxiety at being away from its master increases. It’s when the dog is separated from its master that it must remain in its place.

We, too, need to learn to “stay.” Of course, we never have to worry about Jesus leaving us. But there are times in our lives when we feel that God is far away: when the phone rings and the caller delivers grim news; when we realize with a sinking heart that a loved one is showing signs of dementia; when a child turns down an alarming or dangerous path; when the things we’ve prayed for so fervently don’t come to pass.

We wonder where God has gone when we hear of a world full of children who are starving, people who are dying from preventable diseases or have no place to live; when we hear of communities wiped out by natural causes or lives lost to violence. We wonder if God’s back is turned when we witness the cruelty inflicted by oppressive governments and fanatical movements that care only for their own power. In these times, we may begin to wonder if God has walked away from us.

Sometimes, for no apparent reason at all, prayer and worship and scripture no longer fill us with the joy they once did. We fear that God has abandoned us. We suffer through what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.” Our feelings cause us to cry out with the Psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from the words of my groaning?”

Mother Teresa knew what this felt like. She obeyed Jesus’ call to come, and she gave her heart and her life to serving the poor and the diseased in his name. But her letters describe how she entered into a dark night of her own that lasted for eighteen years. After a lifetime of feeling close to God, she endured what she called “the terrible pain of loss, of [the feeling of] God not wanting [her].”

But, during that long dark night, Mother Teresa chose to “stay.” She chose to see in her own spiritual loneliness a way to understand the loneliness that so many in the world feel. Instead of giving in to despair, she “converted her feeling of abandonment by God into an act of abandonment to God.” Even during that long dark night, when God seemed a long way off, Mother Teresa stayed.

It’s precisely during our own dark nights, when we feel that God is far away, that we need to “stay.” We need to hold fast to what we know is true: that God never leaves us. We continue in our prayer and worship and study, knowing that eventually the dark night will end and we will feel God’s presence again. We stay, trusting the promise Jesus made to his disciples as he was preparing for his death: that he will come again and take us to himself.

Come. Sit. Stay. This is the beginning of our obedience to God. We’re not commanded to offer a servile or grudging obedience.  We don’t obey as slaves avoiding punishment. We don’t obey  a manipulative, self-serving tyrant who wields fear as a weapon. Our obedience isn’t extracted from us by coercion or force, and true obedience to Christ will never lead us into evil.

Instead, we’re invited into an obedience that is our grateful response to God’s love for us. When we realize the depths of our own sinfulness, and accept Christ’s offer of forgiveness with our whole hearts, we want to obey him in all things. We obey as beloved children who have been chosen and adopted and fully included in God’s family. Ours is a willing and joyful obedience that responds when Jesus calls us to come. Ours is an obedience that helps us grow as we sit at his feet and learn how to live with love and grace. Ours is an obedience that empowers us “stay,” living in the trust that, even in our darkest nights, God will never leave us. Come. Sit. Stay. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young