Willfulness?

Willfulness?

by the Rev. John Mangels

In chapter 30 of Isaiah, the leaders of Israel have made diplomatic overtures to the Egyptians, the other great power in that era, as a counterbalance to the Assyrians. Isaiah says that God opposes this strategy, insisting on an independent path (neither capitulating to the Assyrians nor depending on the Egyptians). The leaders of the nation do not listen. They are convinced that this is an unrealistic approach to their problems.
Isaiah says to them:

“Oh, disloyal sons!
-- declares the Lord --
Making plans
Against My wishes,
Weaving schemes
Against my will ...

Who set out to go down to Egypt
Without asking me ...”
He tells them that they shall all be put to shame for depending upon a people who can be of no help or avail and will bring them only chagrin and disgrace.

Thursday I was reading a paraphrase of this chapter. It talks about how in returning to and waiting for God we will be saved. But instead: “... we would trust ourselves and stand in our own strength and we shall be ashamed upon that day. ... Blessed are they who wait upon the Lord ...”

Our gospel this morning talks about how King Herod, in Jesus’ time, also chose not to listen. He wanted his brother Phillip’s wife, Herodias, for himself. So he took her. John the Baptist, like Isaiah, got in trouble for speaking truth to power. It was a real embarrassment to Herodias. She held a grudge against him and wanted to kill him. Herod had John arrested for her, even though he feared him as a righteous and holy man. Eventually, she succeeded in having him killed.

Herod knew, didn’t he, who he should be listening to. But he chose to go his own way, trusting in himself and in his own strength, to take what he wanted for himself.

Joan Chittister talks about how members of a monastic community are called to serve each other. The spiritual life, she says, is what we do. And she notes that any family where the members do not serve one another is at best a collection of people who live together.

I say this, of course, picking up on a theme from last week, because it is in serving one another that we serve God. Benedict’s monks were called to do women’s work, to cook and clean up for one another, and the work of a slave, to wash the feet of everyone in the community. They were to form a community of love and service and accountability. It was how they served God. It is how their spirituality was lived out.

We live in a country of extreme individualism. We live in a country where we are encouraged to earn for ourselves and take what we want. We are encouraged to do what we think is best for us. We are not really encouraged to think about what is best for our community. We are not really encouraged to sit in silence and listen -- to listen for the voice of God in our daily lives.

Frankly, I’m not sure I’m better than anyone else about this. I’m still working on doing the dishes cheerfully, even when it’s not on my schedule. Talking about this with my spiritual director (some years ago) it became clear to me that, though I accepted that doing the dishes was part of my contribution to our common life, I still felt entitled to choose the time when I wanted to do them. I felt pushed and got angry, when I was asked to do them at a time that worked for other members of the family. But I think I know what God wants of me here. Who do I really want to serve?

Our spiritual life is made up of the small things we do day by day. There are many ways to learn about (and flirt with) the spiritual life. But what we actually do, and how it serves God and those around us, is our spiritual life. Who are we listening to as we make all our our every day life decisions? How are we forming and shaping our lives? Do we live God shaped lives? Or do we live lives centered around what we think we want for ourselves? That’s what I think is behind our gospel reading this morning.

Spiritual writers talk about how we have to learn to die to self so that it is God who lives in us. It’s probably better to talk about how to become our true selves, we need to learn to listen to God’s invitation for us in our lives. There is a kind of dying involved in this. But it is so that something better and truer can take root and grow in us, bringing us to greater joy and fulfillment.

Nelly Sachs talks about this in her poem, “How long have we forgotten how to listen!”:

How long have we forgotten how to listen!
He planted us once to listen
Planted us Like Lyme grass by the eternal sea,
We wanted to grow on fat pastures,
To stand like lettuce in the kitchen garden ...

Press, Oh press in the day of destruction
The listening ear to the earth
And you will hear, through your sleep
You will hear,
How in death
Life begins.

I say this to you in the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.

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