Monday, August 31, 2015

The Sunday Sermon: The Rules and the Rule

"You can't do that, it's against the rules." When was the last time you heard that, or said it yourself, or even said it to yourself? In childhood we hear it a lot, as we learn the allowable limits of behavior. I am by nature a rule-obeyer. It makes me anxious to ponder breaking the rules, and it always has. On my last night of high school, when most of my dorm-mates broke out and went for a midnight swim, I stayed behind, out of fear of the rules. Sure enough, they were caught, and the next morning, in the midst of all the ceremony, the school principal declared that my classmates were expelled, but it didn't make any difference. They still went on to university, employment, and for the most part productive lives.

I was conditioned very early to color within the lines. "It's a rule" is a catchphrase in my family of origin, born of our father's rather rigid expectations. "It's a rule" that dinner was served at 7.30 every night. "It's a rule" that the youngest child capable of running up and downstairs would bring Dad his slippers as soon as he came home from work. "it's a rule" that we could not sample the season's home-made pickled onions until Christmas Day. "It's a rule" that the drawing room door was always to be shut on winter days.

No wonder I found my vocation in a hierarchical, liturgical church, where there are lots of rules, or customs disguised as rules, to guide us and keep us safely in the paths of righteousness.

Deuteronomy, along with the rest of the Torah, records the rules of the chosen people of God. "Give heed, O Israel," says Moses, "to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you ... Observe them diligently ... Make them known to your children and your children's children." The Israelites were moving into a land where they would live alongside other nations and races. They believed that in order to maintain their distinct identity as God's people they would need to draw bright lines between themselves and their neighbors. The ancient Jews were in love with their rules. Psalm 119, the longest Psalm of all, is a love-letter to the Law of Moses. Almost every one of its 176 verses contains a synonym for the Law: commandments, statutes, word, promises, judgments, or decrees. For the people of God, the Law isn't a burden, it is a blessing, a gift of God that demonstrates the special status of God's people.

The people of Israel lived largely by the rules for centuries. If you read the books of the Kings or Chronicles you will notice that each king is judged first by how closely he stuck to the law of Moses - and there were plenty who didn't obey. But they were always measured against the law, and this continued into the time of Jesus's life and ministry. By that time the Jews were a much-conquered people, desperately trying to maintain their identity in the face of Roman occupation and a multi-cultural Mediterranean world. It was the job of the Pharisees, the religious police, to maintain standards, to preserve the Jews' self-image as a unique and chosen people. And then Jesus came along and messed everything up.

It is much easier to run a family, a community, or a nation when expectations are clear and boundaries are obvious. Life was simpler when you could tell at a glance who belonged and who didn't, when you could run down a checklist of qualifications and know who should be in and who out. Male? In. Female? Out. White? In. Black? Out. Ambiguity was a negative attribute, and shades of grey were not acceptable.

Rules keep us safe. No guns in church - that's a rule that makes sense to me. Drive on the correct side of the road. Yes. Don't eat shrimp when it's been sitting in the sun. Yes.

And then there are rules which aren't quite as obvious, rules of convention, the "we've always done it that way" kind of rules. These rules tend to change or disappear over time. For example, men must not wear hats in church (unless they are certain kinds of clergy). Women must wear hats in church. People don't get married in Lent. You can't receive Communion until you've been not only baptized but confirmed.We have a lot of conversations in the church about those kinds of rules, which we might see in Biblical language as the tradition of the elders.

And then there are rules which we might think of as rules of nature. Children don't die before their parents. Governments don't drop bombs on their own citizens. Antibiotics are stronger than bacteria. My retirement fund will be worth tomorrow than it was yesterday. These are rules of the heart, rules that are not under our control and that cause us tremendous pain and anxiety when they are broken, seemingly at random, because randomness scares us and suggests that we are not living in a safe world. And oh how we long for a safe world.

When I heard this week of the four-year-old son of former parishioners who died because of a brain cancer, I was outraged. When I read the latest reports of refugees dying in their thousands because they are under attack by the governments of Syria and South Sudan, my sense of an orderly universe was violated. When I learned that a beloved parishioner was losing a valiant battle against illness because of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, it seemed terribly unfair. Sometimes even my confidence in God's goodness is threatened by a fear that there are no rules, that our life is a leaf tossed on the waves of a stormy sea. I want to know what the rules are and I want to know that they will hold.

The Pharisees attacked Jesus in today's Gospel because his disciples didn't keep the rules, the tradition of the elders. The traditon called for ritual cleansing after any possible contact with non-Jews, or with women (oh yes, this was a law mostly for men), or contact with dead animals or animal products, or any number of other substances or human conditions. This wasn't just about hygiene but about maintaining a guarantee against loss of purity and thus of identity, which they believed would lead to the loss of their special status with God. In a hostile world where they had little power, the law, the tradition, gave them some certainty and structure. Perhaps we can empathize.

Jesus threatened that structure, that certainty. With his all-are-welcome attitude, his open table practices, his suggestion that material wealth could be an obstacle to a relationship with God, his willingness to forgive infraction, Jesus scared the guardians of tradition. In a community where the tradition had displaced God as the focus of religion, Jesus's insistence on the essential commandments: love God, love your neighbor, be honest and kind and generous and thoughtful; this insistence was deeply upsetting to people who had honestly thought of themselves as the most faithful of the faithful.

This is a story that should rattle all of us who hold leadership positions in the faith community. When are we holding to the rules for our own security rather than for the sake of God and God's people? When does tradition become the end rather than the means of our faith? If, as one reporter has written, 400 religious leaders across America are resigning their posts today because their names appear on the Ashley Madison adultery hookup site, what if anything have we learned about hypocrisy in the 2000 years that the church has been studying this story? And, closer to home, if we are standing in the way of people coming to know Christ simply because of certain beloved traditions, are we being faithful stewards of God's grace or are we falling into the same trap as the Pharisees?

The letter of James speaks of true religion being the care of the vulnerable and the nurturing of a sense of inner integrity. The perfect law, the law of liberty, is that which Jesus taught and lived, the law of love. I pray that each of us may come to know and trust in that law, through the example of our loving and giving Savior.

The Very Rev Penelope Bridges
30 August 2015

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