Jesus the Rule Breaker: Sermon for August 21, 2016

Luke 13:10-17
13:10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath.

13:11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.

13:12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”

13:13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

13:14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

13:15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?

13:16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

13:17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

As a child I was a huge rules follower. I liked having them all laid out for me. I knew exactly what I could do, and exactly what I couldn’t. This made life very simple. Don’t run in the hallways of school. Don’t cut in line. Don’t take what isn’t yours.

Following rules, especially rules made for our own protection, is generally a good idea. These were the kind of rules I encountered as a kid, and so I thought all rules were like that. You didn’t run down the hall, because you didn’t want to get hurt. You didn’t cut in line or take what wasn’t yours because it wasn’t fair.

But one day I started to realize that sometimes rules could be wrong. And that was a problem.

One day in sixth grade I came to school and started hearing that our social studies teacher had instituted new rules. If you had blue eyes, you got to sit at the front of the classroom. If you had brown eyes you had to sit at the back. If you had blue eyes you didn’t have to do all the homework. If you had brown you had to do extra.

All day I kept hearing about these rules and by the time I went to social studies class at the end of the day, I was ready. Before the bell even rang I cornered the teacher. I was a shy kid, so this was unusual for me. “This isn’t right,” I said to her. “You can’t do that.” The Supreme Court may have been mentioned.

“Oh yes I can do that,” she said. “Because I’m the teacher and I make the rules.” She sent me to the back of the class where for the next hour I fumed.

Now, you may have figured out by now that the teacher was recreating a classic experiment, one that divided children on eye color, as a way to talk about discrimination. She was trying to show us, in a less-than-perfect way, what it felt like to live under an unfair system of rules.

I’ve never forgotten that day, and the frustration that I felt. And since then, I’ve known in a real way that rules aren’t always perfect, or even good.

Today’s story reflects that well. Jesus is approached by a woman who was bent over, and unable to stand. She’d been that way for 18 years. And Jesus sees her and he calls out to her and says, “you are healed!” And right away she stands up straight, and praises God.

jesus-healing-the-woman-with-a-disabling-spiritSo, amazing, right? Except here’s the problem. Jesus did it on the Sabbath. And so the leader of the synagogue, the guy who was in charge, yells at Jesus and he says “look, there are six days a week you could have healed her, but you know the rules…no healing on the Sabbath”.

To be fair, those were indeed the rules. They were right there in the Ten Commandments. Everyone knew them. No one questioned them. Jesus broke the rules, no argument.

But Jesus shoots back at him, “You’re a hypocrite. You’ll give your donkey water on the Sabbath, but I can’t heal this woman? It’s been 18 years…she’s a child of God…shouldn’t she be healed?”

Jesus’ disciples rejoiced but the others, the Bible says, were “put to shame”. That fact didn’t help Jesus later on. They didn’t forget that he had violated one of the most fundamental of laws and humiliated the religious authorities in the process.

I still like rules a lot. Especially when things are confusing. They often set good boundaries and are good guides. But rules are not the same as God’s will for us. I learned that in 6th grade. And from that day forward I decided that there were times when rules had to be broken.

Growing up in the South I learned that many others had discovered the same thing. Breaking rules, rules that were codified in law, became the catalyst for change as people sat at lunch counters, or refused to sit at the back of the bus, or resisted any of Jim Crow’s other rules.

Because they broke those rules, the school where I learned that lesson, one that for decades had educated only white children, became integrated.

But something else bothered me that day. And it had to do with the fact I had brown eyes, and not blue ones.

You see, it was easy for me to call that system unfair. It directly impacted me. It meant I had to sit at the back of the class and do what the blue eyed didn’t. And so, in a real way, I was fighting for myself.

But afterwards I wondered…what would have happened had I had blue eyes?

I thought about that a lot. Would I have done the same thing? I hope so. But I don’t know.

I thought about that a lot in years to come whenever I read history. Would I have been a part of the resistance that hid Jewish neighbors in Germany in the late 30’s, or would I have kept myself safe and looked the other way?

Had I lived in the antebellum South would I have worked on the Underground Railroad or stood against slavery, or would I have signed up for the Confederacy like my great-great grandfathers had? After all, slavery was a law they’d known their whole lives, one that was even preached from Southern pulpits as God’s will.

I hope I would have done the right thing. But I can’t be sure. None of us can.

But we can remember this: sometimes the rules need to be changed. Not because we rule this world, but because God does. God’s rules come from a place of justice and love, and so they will always trump our own.

This isn’t the only time in the Gospels where Jesus breaks the law. It turns out that Jesus is kind of a rule breaker. In this case he’s doing it to save a life, even though in the end his rule breaking cost him his own. Jesus was a threat because he challenged the way things had always been done. More than anything, this is what got Jesus killed in the end.

Jesus reminds us that sometimes the way we have always done things, the way we are doing things now, might no longer work. At best it can put up obstacles. At worst, it can keep others from living full lives. Had Jesus not healed that woman that day, she would not have had the life God intended for her. He had to break a law in order to fulfill God’s higher law.

Now, don’t hear me saying that you should leave the sanctuary today and go break the law.

But, I am saying to look around and see the ways that the unwritten laws of our world might be keeping God’s love for us from breaking in more fully.

How are we walling ourselves off to God’s grace? How are we keeping God’s healing from others? How are we so tied to the way we’ve always done things that we are afraid to see a new path.

Those are the places to push a little. But beware. That kind of pushing will always cause backlash.

You may know that. Maybe you’ve tried to do something new before, and you’ve run into opinions that may as well have been the law. You’ve tried something new at work. Done things a different way. Or maybe you have just started to think about what you believed in a new way. And maybe that backlash came not just from the outside, but from within yourself?

I get that. We often have clear ideas of what is right and wrong. But then we find our old framework doesn’t work as well anymore. We meet new people. We are forced to reexamine. It’s hard and yet, like Jesus breaking the Sabbath, we find that sometimes it’s right. And so we take a risk, and we step out in faith, and we find God is there waiting.

That is what courage looks like. And that’s the kind of courage that our faith can give to us.

When I look at the people I respect the most, whose spiritual journeys are the most remarkable, I find that at some point or another this happened. They broke laws, many self-imposed, in order to live into a higher law.

Look only at relatively recent history. Nelson Mandela, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Harvey Milk, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the list goes on.

They must have been terrified, and yet, some sort of faith compelled them to break the rules that they had always known. Faith doesn’t mean being not being afraid. Faith doesn’t mean being comfortable. But faith means trusting just enough that God is with you, and God is leading you to new things and new understandings.

If Jesus is God-with-us, and if Jesus is the best example of the life we are called to live, then by our very faith we all have permission to break a few rules, and maybe in the process we can also break the chains that have bound us for too long. Amen?

Seeing the Forest for the Trees: Sermon on Galatians for May 29, 2016

So, when I was growing up my dad was a really good golfer. Almost scratch. And when I was about eight years old he started taking me to the driving range with him. We’d hit buckets of balls, and then practice chipping and putting.

It was only a couple of years later, after I had practiced a lot of hours on the driving range, and learned enough to put it all together, that he let me near the actually course. His rule was that if I was going to play, I couldn’t slow down the pace of play for whomever we played with. I had to keep up.

He would secretly relish when we got paired with two strangers who would look at me and sigh when they saw they’d be playing with a kid. He’d always have me tee off last, and then he’d send me to the first tee and say “you can out drive them”. I always loved the subtle smile on his face when I did.

Golf became my sport, and I played competitively in high school. But there was one part I wasn’t good at, and the biggest problem for me wasn’t my putting or my driving or my iron shots. It was what was happening in my own head.

You see, when I hit a bad shot, which happens to every golfer, even the pros at least once a round, I had trouble rebounding. I’d miss an easy putt and then be so rattled that I’d miss the next. Or I’d slice the ball wide right and be so angry at myself that I didn’t take the time to line up my next shot the right way.

Before long I’d be walking up the fairway, beating myself up for the shots I didn’t make instead of getting my head back in the game so that I could make the shots I could. I lost whole rounds this way, despite the fact I could have easily rebounded from one bad shot by remembering all the holes I had ahead of me.

Despite my dad coaching me to do otherwise, I had an amazing ability to forget the entire game, and get lost in the shot. Or, to put it another way, I was never able to see the whole forest, because I sent too much time focused on the trees.

It’s golf that I think about when I read this passage in Galatians. Because, like me on the golf course, these were people who in stressful moments could not see the forest for the trees.

The churches in the region of Galatia had been taught early on by the apostle Paul. He had taught them that salvation came through faith and grace, and not by works. And more than anything else, he taught them that it came from following the teachings of Jesus, and nothing more.

The thing about Paul was that although he was Jewish, and had been raised to be devout, his ministry was not to the Jewish people. That made him different from many of the other apostles. Instead he sought out the Gentiles, and told them about Christ.

This meant his ministry was different. He wasn’t talking to people who already knew the Hebrew Scriptures and about the God they worshipped. The new converts didn’t follow those customs, and they weren’t looking for a Messiah. Mostly they followed other religious practices and philosophies. So that meant his teaching looked a lot different than the teachings of the other early apostles.
And in Galatia that meant teaching them about Jewish tradition, but not asking them to convert to Judaism. And when Paul had left that region he thought that they got it. They needed to understand the tradition, but they were called to something different.

Except after Paul left, other teachers came. And these teachers told the Galatians that in order to be real Christians you first had to convert to Judaism. And so there were all these debates in the churches over things like what you could eat, when to observe the Sabbath, and even if the adults now needed to be circumcised.

And, like all church arguments, it was getting bitter. But more importantly, it was distracting them from what really mattered. They had forgotten who they were.

That’s why Paul is so angry in this letter; perhaps more angry than in any other he wrote. He tells the Galatians that he is “astonished” at how quickly they’ve forgotten what he taught them. He says that they are following people who “pervert” the Gospel and confuse them. And he tells them hat he proclaimed the Gospel he received from God, and that it is a Gospel of grace.

In other words, while you are debating the finer parts of the law, you are missing the larger message of Christ’s love and grace. You have forgotten the forest, because you now only concentrate on one or two trees.

This emphasis on legalism, and on secondary things, did not end in Paul’s time, of course. Churches still do it today and ironically, they often do it using the very words of Paul. Women, be silent in church, for instance. Or they twist his words into a condemnation of gays and lesbians. Or, not so many years ago, into justifications for slavery or segregation.

Christians have done horrible things in the name of our faith, and in the name of Jesus. And almost every time it has been because the Gospel of grace that proclaims God’s love for us has been supplanted by a gospel of pettiness that forgets the bigger picture.

So right now it would be easy to say “well thank goodness we are not like those other Christians”. We are, after all, a progressive church in a progressive denomination. We have been Open and Affirming for over twenty years. We responded to the Civil Rights movement. We stood up for the abolition of slavery in the years before the Civil War. We were even founded by people who eventually broke away from the Church of England in order to focus on what they believed really mattered.

Paul’s not talking to us, right?

Except, maybe he is. Because progressive and mainline churches, despite our social witness, still sometimes manage to spend way too much energy on our own small section of trees, forgetting the reason we are even in this forest at all.

Every church needs to have infrastructure to operate. We need committees. We need a budget. We need to talk through the big questions of how we best use our resources, and where. But churches, particularly churches that are relatively comfortable which, make no mistake, this church is, sometimes can get so tied up in what is secondary that we forget what is primary. We forget why we are really here.

To put it another way. We worry so much about the shot that we just played, or maybe even the one we are about to play, that we forget about the whole game ahead of us, and why we’re even on this course in the first place.

That’s okay. We’re human. God knows, literally, that I do it too. I can get so focused on details that I forget what matters.

And that’s why this summer I want to try to do better with that. Summer is a time when things slow down a little at church. We have fewer meetings, a lot of our ministries go on hiatus for a few months, and we all take a deep breath.

That’s wonderful Sabbath time. And it’s also a time we can use to refocus, and to take in the bigger view. We can remind ourselves that the shots we’ve taken are one small moment in the larger game.

logo-smThat’s why this summer I have a challenge for you all. Downstairs, in the Vestry, there is a table set up with dozens of New Testaments. They are Common English Bible translations, both scholarly and readable. And they are free for the taking, and there are enough for everyone to have one. There’s also a piece of paper to take. And on it you will find a description of what I am calling the Congregational Church in Exeter Summer New Testament Challenge.

Here’s the idea. Take a New Testament and from now, Memorial Day weekend, until Gathering Sunday, right after Labor Day, take the time to read it. If you only read a little a day, you can do that easily.

Here’s why: By the time we convene for a new program year this fall, I want us to take time to remember who we are, and why we are here. I want us to read the story of our faith, from Jesus through the days of the earliest churches, and realize that we are not alone, and that we are a part of a long line of people doing our best to follow Jesus. And I want us to stop, soar above the day-to-day, and see the forest for the trees.

I’ll be taking this challenge with you as well. And my hope is that it will be a little like those days I spent on the driving range, learning the basics of the game, and learning how to tee back up when I hit a bad shot and try again. This is about learning how to focus on what really matters, and leaving behind what doesn’t.

May this summer be one in which you explore the whole forest, and learn to love it for what it is, without getting lost in the trees. Amen?