Zoom Church Service, March 21, 2021, Lay Leader Pete Toot– On Obedience and Freedom
Message – “Do As You’re Told”
Good morning everyone. I see you all showed up as you were instructed. So you see there are some times when being obedient is not something we are aware of. Well, I would not say you are here because I told you to; but something in you wanted you to be here – and you obeyed that. Good job! The awareness issue may turn out to be a big deal, as we will see later. But first I must tell you a story about a famous Buddhist Zen master, Bankei, and a talk he was giving. He was a real person, but who knows if the story is true…
Master Bankei gave talks that were attended not only by Zen students but by persons of all ranks and sects. He never quoted any sutras nor indulged in scholastic dissertations. Instead, his words were spoken directly from his heart to the hearts of his listeners. However, the fact that he attracted large audiences angered a priest of the Nichiren sect because his adherents were going to these talks to hear about Zen. This Nichiren priest came to the temple, determined to debate with Bankei.
“Hey, Zen teacher!” he called out. “Wait a minute. Whoever respects you will obey what you say, but a man like myself does not respect you. Can you make me obey you?”
“Come up beside me and I will show you,” said Bankei.
So the priest pushed his way through the crowd to the teacher. Bankei smiled. “Come over to my left side.” The priest did so. “No,” said Bankei, “we may talk better if you are on the right side. Step over here.”
The priest proudly stepped over to the right. “You see,” observed Bankei, “you are obeying me and I think you are a very gentle person. Now sit down and listen.”
It was obvious to us right away, but not so obvious to the priest that at least in a small way he was indeed being obedient to Bankei. We can analyze what happened in this story, but I will give you the short version. He did exactly what Bankei asked him to do, but why he did it has, in my opinion, more to do with him following the need to be seen as a reasonable, socially correct, well behaved gentleman. He did not sense that Bankei was actually ordering him around. He didn’t realize they had gotten to the obedience part of the discussion. Think about some times when you have followed instructions even when you weren’t really thinking about being an obedient person. Maybe you got called to dinner, even if you weren’t ready, but went anyway… That ever happen? What motivation was strongest?
Well the Bible is full of places where it is essentially said “Do as you’re told!” Are we not told to follow the Ten Commandments? Are we not told to make a joyful noise to the Lord? Are we not told in Deuteronomy to not do all sorts of things, like “do not eat any abominable thing!” So for your diet, no pork chops – no ostrich steaks – no rabbit stew. And in the New Testament reading, we heard James say, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” – Do what it says! Not only that, but in the next breath he says, “whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it … doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.” “…the perfect law that gives freedom…” And there we have it – the paradox I promised to put before you today. Do it, obey the law, the perfect law, this law that gives freedom, and you will be blessed. Just do what you’re told, and that’s freedom, and it’s good for you. How can that be? Is it just a jumble of words that don’t really fit together? How can obedience and freedom be the same thing? Isn’t freedom doing what you want to do, whether or not it agrees with this law or that law. Isn’t it being free of having your behavior dictated to you? [Refers to the reading from James 1:19-
Those of you who have children may have heard the complaint “You are not the boss of me!” It is a common child ailment – parents call it rebellion. It is a cry for freedom! Emancipation! Mom! Dad! Enough of this child slavery! … Well we know that there are certain maturity issues related to children that make it in the best interest of the child that they be told what to do. Don’t run into the street! Stop kicking your brother! Eat your vegetables! You cannot wear that to school! … Because I said so. There are laws for adults, too, that are in our best interest. Stop! That’s a red light. You get it. We don’t think of that as slavery – most of us don’t – we think it is practical way to organize a cooperative society.
But a law by any other name is not a rose. Many laws have been abridgements of freedom,
depending on who you are. Like, no, you can’t vote, you’re a woman. No, you can’t use that
restroom, you’re black. So there are good laws and bad laws, and some in between. And having a law to obtain fairness doesn’t mean it will be followed. We could discuss the social issues all day, but the point is that when we talk about obedience and freedom, the critical question is obedience to what, and freedom from what? And to whose interest? It is clear these questions apply when we talk about civil laws, but what about religious laws?
In our religious scriptures we find the Ten Commandments. We find similar commandments in most if not all other religions. We are told to follow them, or else! We are being told by Scripture, or by God through scripture, that these are the rules. Some of those rules have made it into civil laws, like stealing and killing, and there are penalties imposed by the legal system such as fines, imprisonment, or execution. Most of the penalties are not to protect the law-breaker – but are punishments or for public safety. But in the case of laws like the Ten Commandments, failing to obey does come with this kind of a penalty, but is more like the laws of nature – they don’t get repealed and you can get hurt if you defy them. Defy gravity and it can hurt you. Or the law of averages – think about what it is that stops you from playing Russian Roulette too many times? Are these oppressive laws? Well they might keep us from doing what we want to do, so sure, they make us less free. We are less free, but we accept it.
But let’s go back now to the Ten Commandments. I think we can agree that we are indeed being told what to do, and what not to do. If I put another god before God – what is the penalty? Say I love money more than anything else – you can say money is what I worship. Money is my god. There is no civil penalty for loving money. I can live my whole life and not be subject to disciplinary action. So now we get to the crux of the matter. We are closing in on the paradox that James presents us with. Let’s say I disobey God’s rules a lot and never get caught. How does disobedience take away my freedom? Our teachings have a lot to say about it. I’ll say a little about it.
The readings we heard today from Genesis [Gen 49:8-12] and Arcana Coelestia [AC 6333, 6374] showed the idea behind an outer and inner sense of the Word. The same outer and inner structure is true of everything in creation. We start with the definition of a human being as a spiritual person housed in a physical body. The physical person is what we know about. It has senses and memory to provide information to our brain, and it has hormones, feels pain, and does things and says things. The spiritual person is tucked away “inside” – not physically inside, but inside in the way a person’s attitudes and moral qualities are inside. If I run into a person who is caring and honest, I can not tell that by their physical appearance, a medical examination or even an autopsy. Where do these reside? They do not have a physical existence, and though they can be demonstrated by the person’s physical actions, these could be an act. Our teachings and our experience say that we spend a certain time in this world, and then we die. That is, the physical person runs out of gas and as far as we can tell, they are no longer alive. But the spiritual person keeps on going. What happens when I die is that I still possess whatever caring and honesty I developed while here in the world. I wake-up, recognize my spiritual self and can still feel emotions, think thoughts, interact with the people around me, those others who are gone from the physical realm. In many ways it is like not having died at all, but in a while we see that in many ways it is different; and as great as that discussion can be, we won’t have it now. The key thing is that if I disobeyed spiritual rules in my worldly life, the consequences are that I have to live with who I have become, in the afterlife. I am not going to go into the nature of heaven and hell, I am going to let you take it at face value that heaven is better than hell. Given a choice, and I believe I do have a choice, I think I’ll choose heaven. In heaven you get to associate with people who primarily love what God is all about and each other, in hell you get to associate with people who don’t love you and hold tight to whatever they can get. There are lots of sermons about heaven and hell, but I want to touch on the meaning this has for us in this world.
Starting out in life we only want what we want – As a newborn I am self-centered, I want food, comfort, and attention. I become aware gradually that there is something besides me in the universe, and that is a natural progression. As I grow up, that can change. The inclination I retain throughout my life to look out for myself is still there, called ego, but as I grow up I learn things, experience things, and if all goes well, ego is no longer the boss of me. This gets to a part of the paradox – doing what WE want is not freedom after all, but slavery to this hidden, sneaky ego-master. That’s not freedom, so what is? This hasn’t helped us see how obeying the law James talks about is getting us freedom. It still sounds like we either obey one boss or another, that we always obey something. Is that the right answer – there is no freedom? Emmanuel Swedenborg sheds light on this. And I warnArcana Coelestia n. 2870
you that at first it looks like we just replace one paradox with another. Swedenborg tells us that, “Few know what freedom is and what non-freedom is. Freedom seems to entail everything that is in keeping with any love and associated delight, and non-freedom to entail everything that is at variance with these. That which is in keeping with self-love and love of the world, and with the desires belonging to those loves, seems to man to be freedom; but that is the freedom of hell. That however which is in keeping with love to
the Lord and love towards the neighbor, consequently with the love of what is good and true, is true freedom, being the freedom that exists in heaven.”
What he says here is about behavior in the external life, that is, this freedom involves our ability to choose a path “which is in keeping with” at any given time one of what we call the four ruling loves: as he states here, “self-love and love of the world,” and “love to the Lord and love towards the neighbor” the last two being preferred to the first two. And while in our heart we are motivated by different desires at different times, these desires at their root are all driven by just one of these four, the one we love best. To outward appearances moving towards God or away from God are not what we would call freedom in the common usage we are familiar with. In both cases our behavior, whatever we think or plan or verbally support, is quietly managed by where our heart is centered. We are not in control like it seems. Swedenborg agrees. He says,
“… it must be borne in mind that in man the Lord alone is active and man of himself is merely passive; and that it is by means of the influx of life from God that man is also active. It is because this influx from God is unceasing that it seems to man as if he were active from himself; and it is because of this appearance that man has free-will….”True Christian Religion n. 110
We understand from this that there is only one life in creation, our life is a gift from the Lord and it is delivered undetected through our spiritual self. We think we act from ourselves, we think we decide what to do, but our choices are actually largely limited, as said above, to those choices which serve the desires of our ruling love. Notice that he says that we have free-will, but what does that mean?
For human beings there are two things that are truly ours, the rest is an appearance. The two things, in theological terms, are called will and discernment. In everyday terms, will is how we actually make our bodies do what we intend, and discernment is understanding our options and making plans. Our ruling love does a lot of the directing of how we think about things – because we mostly use thinking to plan how to get what we want … often what our ego wants. But the mind is more flexible than the heart. Our inner self, the part closest to God and the whole spiritual realm, is influencing our thinking, everything is not completely up to what the heart wants. The heart is pushy, it desires, it craves, but it is not doing the thinking. When we are considering things like generosity, like nurturing and protecting others, like questioning what is truth, or what is useful, we are more tuned into the better influences from our inner being. But there is a trick – to get our heart to go along with these influences, what our conscience says, or what our notion to improve ourselves suggests, we have to overcome the temptation to just follow our old way of doing things. The idea is that we cannot change our ruling love by ourselves. We have to practice living as if we already are the better person we have envisioned. If it is a big change, it is easier to say than to do. In some circles this process is called “fake it until you make it!” It is a matter of overriding an existing habitual behavior we are fond of and developing a new habit our ego resists. There are plenty of temptations to put change on hold and just stay in our comfort zone.
The result of overcoming temptation becomes a satisfaction and warm fuzzy that is due to being more closely aligned with the Divine, closer to heaven. As a simplification, we might say satisfaction comes from Divine Wisdom, and warm fuzzies come from Divine Love. We become open to the Lord changing our heart. Changing our heart is not heavy lifting for the Lord though, it is built into the creation. It can’t … not … happen. And in case it wasn’t clear, when it does happens we move away from ego-centered and selfish motivations to more people-centered and generous motivations. The practice we do is the real work. But we are not in this alone. It is helpful to be able call upon someone else to be a supporter as you practice spiritual growth. It is helpful to connect with the ultimate source of Wisdom and Love through prayer, or introspection, or listening to your inner self while reading the Word or other sources of inspiration. Even getting encouragement from someone who is also connected to God (like you are) is available from the Lord as part of God’s design. However you do that, regardless of what you call it, by whatever name or image you find helpful to you for what I call God, by whatever tools you have in your spiritual toolbox, it can bring support for change from the inside.
So the bottom line of this message is if we just think in terms of getting what we want, the
freedom we treasure is an illusion, but the treasure is real – a hidden capacity to choose to give up slavery to an insistent but very limited ego which makes us small; to turn to a life that is open to all kinds of possibilities for being more like the Lord leads us to be – to become proficient at loving others and smart in selecting behaviors that are useful. Practice, practice, practice!
I want to leave you with a few things to think about…
–Have you ever become suddenly aware that you might have made a selfish decision?
Does it hit right away, or show up after the fact?
–Have you ever changed a habit that was pleasurable, but that somehow you decided was
not a good idea? How did you decide to change?
–Have you had discussions with yourself where you go back and forth thinking about a
situation in the past or future, where you have tried out ideas about different behaviors?
Done some “what ifs?” or “if onlys.” How did that go?
What I tried to offer today was not a biblical endorsement of behaving well, nor a lament of
the possible unpleasant outcome of a selfish lifestyle, but a glimpse at the mechanics of
spiritual growth. It is just talk, though, to describe how taking such a path works, there is
work to be done to follow it. It is simple to say “avoid temptation”, and “eliminate bad habits,”but to actually do it, what you’re told, …well it’s complicated. Amen.