A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B
Last week, when spring announced its arrival in my yard with apricot blossoms and bumble bees, and everything seemed to grow an inch overnight, I decided it was time to clear my garden beds of their winter cover of turnips. My youngest daughter Lucia joined me in the work, both of us barefoot on the earthworm tilled ground, softer than any carpet. We pulled and sorted the crop, some heading for the compost pile, some for the kitchen, ready for a feast of greens and crisp roasted turnips fresh from the oven. Alongside the turnips in the garden, here and there, clumps of dark green grass had begun to grow. It was wheat from the straw I’d used to mulch the bed. What was seemingly dead last fall, was now verdant and vibrant, forming its body from sunlight and air, soil and the nutrients mined by microbes.
It felt good to be doing this work, my hands and feet bare, and my daughter beside me. It was one of those all too fleeting moments when I sensed that I was a part of something larger than myself. I was joined with the bees and flowers, with the wheat and worms in a common reality—life bursting and flourishing, creation enacting its fullness. It felt, for that fragile moment like we were participating in God’s glory, receiving and reflecting it, by simply living into what we were made to be.
“A tree gives glory to God by being a tree,” Thomas Merton once wrote, “For in being what God means it to be it is obeying Him.” And that is what it felt like we were all doing on that spring evening—we were living into the yes of what we were made for; we were being obedient to our being.
Obedience may be a jarring word here. We are a people who are taught that our fullness comes when our identity is freed of constraints. Our minds are formed by the philosophies of the Enlightenment which Immanuel Kant defined as the call to “think for yourself.” We like to pretend that we do, adopting whatever mode of thinking for ourselves is on offer from the peddlers of authenticity. We are free, we tell ourselves—walking down the grocery aisle, surveying the varied choices and knowing that we can pick what we like, say what we like, do what we like, at least up to a point.
And yet, in our freedom, disencumbered from the claims of others, obedient only to our own desires, we find ourselves isolated and alone, allied only to the most abstract realities of nation and commerce, liberated to choose and yet dissatisfied by the choices. Maybe the way to find our fullness isn’t through the negative freedoms the Enlightenment gave us, the ability to act without constraint and yet without guidance. Maybe we need a pattern in which we can live, a way that helps us love and belong and flourish into the people we were created to be.
The ancient Hebrews had such a way. They called it the Law, the Torah, and it set forth a pattern of life that would form them into the people of God. When followed rightly, it was a path toward fullness and peace, happiness and delight.
“I have taken greater delight in the way of your decrees
than in all manner of riches,” says the Psalmist.
These are the words of someone who has found freedom in obedience, fullness in bowing to the Creator. The problem is that such obedience is hard to maintain, the pattern difficult to follow. There is is something inside the human person that draws us away from doing the very thing we know we should want. Obedience takes struggle, its far from the easy way out.
Artists know this truth. It’s always easier to let the paint stay in its tubes, the page blank, the piano keys untouched, than to do the work of fulfilling one’s talent and training. In her essay collection, Having and Being Had, Eula Biss shares a conversation with a writing student who works as a professional composer. When asked about his day, he talked about the long struggle to write just a few lines of music. Biss could relate, she replied that she could spend all day writing and barely have completed a page. Another student, overhearing the conversation, asked why they would keep doing the work it if it was so hard. “Casting about, I come up with service,” Biss writes, “We’re in service to the art, I tell my student, bent to it. There’s pleasure in this posture, in being bettered by the work. It isn’t the pleasure of mastery, but the pleasure of being mastered.”
Our art is to be human, to cultivate fully human lives against all of the death dealing alternatives that make us both more and less than creatures. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury once wrote that, “being a creature is in danger of becoming a lost art.” It is not lost for trees, or flowers, nor is it lost for the soil microbes teaming beneath the ground or the birds now migrating their ancient paths. It is lost for us, it is humanity that has forgotten the art of being creatures before God. And it is only in obedience that we can recover that art and live again into our fullness.
Jesus is the one who embodied this fullness, living with the law written on his heart; it was he who mastered and renewed this work of being human. Jesus was, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, the obedient one who made possible our own obedience, showing the way to a new possibility for human life. His is the way down, the humble path of letting go of our godlike ambitions, our self-serving wills, and living again as creatures embraced and enlivened by love.
Our work is to be apprentices of this art of being, following Jesus on his way. It is along this way that we will find the pattern of God’s laws etched within our hearts through the well-trod path of obedience. “Obey now,” writes the Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly, “Use what little obedience you are capable of, even if like a grain of mustard seed. Begin where you are. Live this present moment, this present hour as you now sit in your seats, in utter, utter submission and openness toward Him.”
When we bend down as creatures, living our lives in obedience, we will be like seeds falling to the ground, a death making way for new life. In the secret silence of the soil, God will take the offering of our humility, and turn us toward growth, our lives rising toward the radiance of God’s ever shining love. In that light, we will be fully what we were made to be.
That evening in the garden the sun began to set southwest over the horizon as bats took to the sky, hungry after their winter sleep. I gathered my tools and bent toward the ground, smelling the earth from which I was formed and to which I will return. The word that formed within me was thank you; thank you that I am a creature in your creation, thank you for obedient trees and bees and flowers who express the life for which you made them, thank you for coming here in humility, that we too might learn to be obedient, joining in the art of being human, going up by going down, and shining forth with the beauty of being a creature. Amen.