24 Trinity 2008

To Love, Honor, and Obey
Kenneth S. Kubo, Lay Reader

Trinity XXIV in the Octave of All Saints, 2 November 2008
“…a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name. And they shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them…”– Malachi 3:16b-17a

The old words of the celebration of Holy Matrimony included the phrase, “to love, honour, and obey.” These words survive in ceremonies to this day, although that “o” word is becoming increasingly unpopular. It’s far more common to hear “to love, honor, and cherish.” (It should be noted that the Anglican rite has traditionally used the words love, comfort, honour, and keep – obeying was apparently a touchy matter even 400 years ago). There is nothing wrong with cherishing – but what is it about the word “obey” that raises people’s hackles?

We as Americans – and moreso, dwellers of the Wild West – are taught to admire individualism and the pioneer spirit. We do worship in a building named the Pioneer Church. To obey – to follow orders or instructions given by another – means sacrificing some of that boundless freedom. It does not come easy to us. But this attitude is not unique to our time or place.

The Prophet Malachi was speaking to the Jewish people around a hundred years after the end of the Babylonian captivity. They had been allowed to return, to rebuild the Temple, and to recreate the walls around Jerusalem. While they lived under Persian rule, the Jews had considerable freedom to live and worship as they saw fit. They had recovered and restored their homeland and now lived in relative safety from their neighbors. Their then–current peace and prosperity gave rise to complacency, and they forgot the trials and sacrifices that their forefathers had suffered through just a few generations prior. They became materialistic and even the faith that had sustained them through the captivity grew less important. Worship became mere rote observances, and adherence to the Commandments an afterthought. Even the priesthood was not exempt, becoming indifferent or, worse, venial and even wicked. The thought of obeying God and his Laws was inconvenient and irrelevant. Unfortunately, those characteristics are too familiar in our modern society as well. Truly spoken, there is nothing new under the sun.

Malachi was sent to recall his people to a relationship with God, to remind them that they owed their current place in the world to the Lord’s mercy and to ask them to honor that. His point was that the Lord remembers those who keep him in their hearts and minds.

Today, being in the octave of All Saints’ Day, we remember the example of some of those whose names and deeds are written in the book of remembrance. The saints are very much with us, from the St. Christopher medallions and dashboard effigies popular with travelers and truckers, to the blessed St. Mary whose name graces our congregation. In the Apostles’ Creed, we avow that we believe in the “Communion of Saints.” But who and what were these saints?

Were the saints extremely good people who were very patient and nice to everyone? That’s the basic definition of the phrase “saintly.” Some of that blessed company fit that adjective, but you can look at St. Peter to see an example of impetuousness and impatience. St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the architects of Western Christianity, led a hedonistic lifestyle in his youth and was, in fact, a reformed heretic. So lifelong goodness is not necessarily a requirement.

Were the saints, then, extremely well-spoken advocates for the faith? St. Peter and St. Augustine certainly fit that bill. But many of the saints were innocents – as the song runs, “one was a shepherdess on the green.”

The Roman rule for the canonization of a saint requires several qualities, including:

  • proof of a real fleshly existence (had to be a real person)
  • an actively virtuous life generally marked by good works or at least death in a state of grace
  • some number of miracles ascribed to the person’s intercession

A less legalistic summary is that a saint is a person who serves as an example of a proper relationship with God and practices notable virtue in adversity. As the book of Revelation says, “These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Saints are those who have gone to martyrdom for the faith. Saints are those who have kept themselves pure in devotion to God. Saints are those who have preached, taught, guided, and shaped. Saints are those who have demonstrated abiding faith by their lives and actions. Saints are those who obeyed God when obeying wasn’t cool.

Most importantly, saints are real and contemporary. Even in this increasingly materialistic world, there are those who shine as spiritual beacons, leading lives that clearly show that quality of notable virtue in adversity. During our past Lenten study series, we read of several cases of these “Modern Heroes of the Church.” But moreover, everyone who seeks to follow the Way of Our Lord is, as it were, a saint-in-training. One notable historian once wrote of the early church that the instantiation of the sacrament of Penance changed the Church from being a community of saints to a “reform school for sinners.” We are all sinners to some degree. Luckily, Our Lord maintains no “three strikes” rule in his judgment of us. In fact, his Church does not even have the 18 month restriction that traffic school does – although I’m guessing that there are some of us who do go more than 18 months between receiving the sacrifice of Penance! The object of this reform school is that we’re learning to be better, with the hope that we will graduate as saints ourselves. As another hymn states, “And there’s not any reason…why I [and you!] shouldn’t be one too.” Now there’s a diploma I’d be proud to hang on my wall! As our Lord said, “… but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:20)

Part of walking this Way is to strive to fulfill our obligations to the Church, to live in accordance with Church teachings, and to provide for the Church’s support and ongoing mission. (Yes, this is Stewardship Sunday, so the rulebook says I need to mention this). As the psalm for today said, “I will go into thine house with burnt-offerings, and will pay thee my vows, which I promised with my lips, and spake with my mouth, when I was in trouble.” Faith – and the promises of sacrifices for the Lord – are easier in adversity. I’ve heard many promises made to the Lord in the bottom of the ninth inning. I’m not sure the winners always pay up after their victory, though. As the Jews of Malachi’s time and people of our own society have found, there’s less urgency when one is relatively secure. It’s easy to forget – or rationalize ourselves out of – our promises to God. But this is not just about ourselves. Our support is what allows the Church to continue its work in the world. Obviously, it keeps the lights on and – thankfully – supports our rector with medical insurance. It provides upkeep for the furnishings, vestments and books, music and musicians. But this is more than just for our convenience and personal salvation. Part of our giving goes to support the diocese – of which our rector is now an official – and the greater Church body, including support for our seminary and outreach missions. As Paul wrote in his 1st letter to the Corinthians, “Don’t you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.” (1 Cor 9:13-14) We receive from the gospel an incredible gift – guidance in how to maintain a healthy relationship with God. We don’t need eHarmony or Dr. Phil to tell us – and God forgives our transgressions with unconditional love. What we give to the support of the Church allows that promise to be communicated now and in the future to our local congregation and those who have not yet heard – or believed – the Word. Consider also that there are many ways to give – of your time and talent as well as your treasure. The Church has several ministries that can always use a volunteer – from Sunday school teacher to altar guild to acolytes and users to docents for our monthly open house. Skilled craftsmen have helped to maintain this building, just as volunteers helped to erect it in the first place. Our gifts come to us from the Lord, we shouldn’t begrudge returning a portion of that to Him.

“To give and give, and give again, What God hath given thee;
To spend thyself nor count the cost; To serve right gloriously…”

– Geoffrey Anketell Studdert-Kennedy

The Prophet Malachi wrote to recall his people to obeying the Lord: “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.” (Mal 3:10) Do we have faith to make (and keep!) such a bargain? I admit that it’s a large leap of faith. At the least, though, we can take baby steps of faith in the right direction, a direction that will lead us down the aisle to graduation as saints. Consider this prayerfully as you plan your giving for the new year.

And to return briefly to a different walk down the aisle, let me touch again on the marriage vows I began with. “To Love, Honour, and Obey” As Christ is the heavenly Bridegroom of the Church – a relationship which no earthly Proposition has yet challenged – what do these words mean in our relationship to Him? To Love the Lord is fairly straightforward – attempting to return as unconditionally as we can the love that the Lord has demonstrated for us. Honour means, as I just found out, the right to tee off first on a particular golf hole. But assuming that we’re speaking more generally, it means treating Our Lord with the respect due his station, which also means keeping in mind that what each of us does as Christians reflects on Him. Don’t disgrace the uniform. And then we come to that problematic word, “obey” – “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” (Luke 11:28) Are we willing? I have a bit of etymology for you. The word “obey” comes from the Latin ob audire, meaning “to listen” and, colloquially, “to listen for the purpose of learning.” As Dr. Phil will tell you, listening is the most important part of any healthy relationship. Look at that word again in that light – not the giving up of individuality, but the taking on of actually paying attention to what our Lord is saying, to listen actively for the wise counsel of that still small voice deep inside, to strive to walk in the Light – because the Light is actually lighting the best path for us, a path that leads where saints have trod, a path that leads to blessings overflowing. “For I tell you, that many prophets and kings have desired to …hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them.” (Luke 10:24) – let us strive to do more than just hear – let us listen.

Almighty Father, Beloved Son, Blessed Spirit, be with us amidst the concerns of the world. Forgive us when we stumble, and lift us up again that we may continue to walk towards that bright fellowship of all those who have run this race before us and won. Help us to obey – to listen with clear minds and open hearts so that we may continue to grow in our understanding of You. Strengthen us to honor You and Your ways, in adversity and in calm. And love us, Lord, that by the overshadowing of that matchless love, we may reflect your Light into the world. Amen.