I am preaching at Red Hook United Methodist Church, 4 Church Street, Red Hook, NY 12571, this Sunday. The service starts at 9:30 with a hymn sing starting at 9:15. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 29: 15 – 28, Romans 8: 26 – 39, and Matthew 13: 31 – 33, 44 -52.
Many years ago, in a time long past and a place far away, I was a football official. I officiated junior high games on Thursdays, high school games on Fridays, and elementary school age level games on Saturdays. Most of the time, I enjoyed doing these games. They were fun to do and I would see things happen that very seldom happened in college or professional games.
But it was also frustrating, especially with the elementary school age level teams and coaches. At the beginning of each season, the officials’ group would send officials out to every team and go over the league rules, highlighting the changes and reminding the coaches of the differences in the game since they played. But, as the season played out you could see that many of the coaches had their own ideas about the rules and what the officials could do with those rules.
Many of the coaches coached the game as they were coached when they played the game some twenty years before and, quite honestly, they didn’t know or care that some of the rules had changed since they played their last game. In addition, many of the fans also were not aware that the rules for games played during the week are often different from the games they saw on Sundays. It has been said that the most common words uttered by game officials on Saturday are, “this isn’t Sunday, coach.”
And like any activity that one participates in, there are moments to remember. Such as the time we called holding on number “00” only to be told that his number was “88”. It was hard for us to tell because half of the jersey was stuck inside his pants. Oh yes, did I mention that it was one of those Saturday morning Pee-Wee games?
And, yes, there were instances that challenged my love of the game, such as the time a father of a cheerleader attacking the referee over a call (the father was banned from the games for the rest of that season). I probably would have moved up to officiating college games on Saturday afternoons except that I forgot a basic rule of kinesiology; a knee can bend in only one direction and damage will occur when the knee is forced to do otherwise. I injured my knee trying to get out of the way of a developing play and suffered the proverbial career-ending knee injury.
Rules, especially in football, are meant to protect the players. And those who do not know the rules or seek to bend the rules and find some advantage risk damage that goes beyond the boundaries of the playing field.
The same is true in life as well. It helps if we know the rules, whether they are the rules of sports or the rules of life.
We impose a speed limit on cars and trucks traveling on our roads and highways because there is a safety factor involved and we are required to wear seatbelts for the same reason. Of course, that doesn’t stop us from traveling faster than the posted speed limit. There are motorcyclists who don’t like the laws that require helmets but the reasons for such laws become apparent only after an accident. Not knowing the rules often leads to results and consequences neither anticipated nor welcomed.
Today’s Old Testament reading relates how Jacob worked for his kinsman for seven years in order to marry Rachel. It was only after he had worked the seven years and the marriage ceremony that he discovered it was the custom of the people to marry off the oldest daughter first. Jacob’s life might have been a little better if he had known what the rules were concerning marrying a younger sister. But because he didn’t know the rules, Jacob, who had tricked his brother out of his inheritance, found himself marrying Leah. To Jacob’s credit, because he loved Rachel, he agreed to work for Laban another seven years so that he could marry Rachel.
I am not going to say much about what he must have been thinking when he thought he was marrying Rachel but ended up with Leah. Nor am I going to say much about those who argue for Biblical marriages when Jacob is married to two sisters and has children by both of them as well as their maids.
Can we have a life without rules or laws? Of course we can’t. Laws are the fabric which holds society together. But problems arise when we forget why we create laws or develop rules for behavior.
We speak of the Ten Commandments as being the basis for our laws. But we forget that God gave these ten basic principles of life after he brought the people out of Egypt. God did not pick out a group of people wandering around in the desert and say, “follow these commandments and I will save you.” Rather, He said, “Because I have saved you, these are the rules by which I expect you to live.”
He also explained what would happen when we followed these new rules and what would happen if we chose not to follow them. This was the basis for the Law Covenant, the agreement between God and the nation of Israel as the Abrahamic Covenant was an agreement between God and Abraham. And, as a covenant, it established a relationship between God and the people.
Yet, when the Israelites were first told about the Law, they rebelled and turned against God. And since that day so many years ago, humanity has demanded a rulebook by which to live instead of seeking a relationship with God.
The Law was never instituted to replace our relationship with God. It was meant to increase our relationship with God. But throughout history, people have missed the meaning and spirit of the Law and embraced the letter of the law. So fearful were the Pharisees that they might inadvertently break one of the Ten Commandments that they created 613 additional laws. 365 of these new laws began with “don’t” while the remaining 248 began with “you can do this”. But each law was a degree of control.
The Law was supposed to reveal sin and cause the people to turn to God. Robert Schuller wrote “God gave us these ten laws to protect us from an alluring, tempting path which would ultimately lead only to sickness, sin, and sorrow.” Yet more often than not, in our attempts to follow the law rather than the Spirit, we still end up in sin. Instead of setting us free, the laws we create enslave us.
Like the Pharisees before us, we are so afraid that we will lose our access to heaven that we make rules and laws that control our lives and the lives of others. While there is a clear need for laws and rules, it must be understood that laws should never be so constructed as to harm others. Laws should be made to prevent injustice, not cause it.
When I was growing up in the South, I saw the consequences of laws designed to continue the effects of segregation, even after segregation was illegal. In Alabama, students had to buy their own books rather than have them provided by the school system. If your parents could afford the books, then you had the books. If your parents couldn’t; well, you just suffered the consequences. In Tennessee, all music programs got the same amount of money each year but what was given was barely enough to buy the sheet music for one song. If you wanted more, or if you needed instruments for the band, then it was up to the Band Boosters to get the money. So schools whose students had parents with the financial resources got the better instruments and the better uniforms. If the parents didn’t have the financial resources, then the band didn’t get the better instruments, uniforms or other equipment.
The trouble is that we often see laws themselves, be they spiritual ones or societal ones, as the means to achieving success. Obey the laws and success would be yours. Disobey the laws and you fail. And we see salvation as our ability to successfully follow the laws. Salvation can never be determined by how well you follow the laws of society or the church but by your relationship with God.
And while many times the Israelites had the right actions, they still missed the whole love relationship with God. In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus is not giving us a set of rules but rather an explanation of this relationship. He is moving beyond the simple statement of the law to the idea of what we are to do with our lives.
We are called Methodists for a particular reason. When John and Charles Wesley began the movement that would become the church, they felt that they had to do certain things in order to be successful. Among these were daily prayer and regular Bible studies. But the Wesley brothers, raised in the church, quickly found that this model would not work. Only after coming to Christ, only after knowing that Christ was their Savior and that He had died for them, did the structure of their own personal lives take on meaning.
This makes the passage from Romans that we read for today a very interesting passage to read. Paul writes that there is a path laid out before us, a path laid out by God long before we were ever born. This can mean one of two things. Either that the path that we walk through life is fixed and God already knows the outcome of our life or God knows where we are headed right now but there is an opportunity to change that direction.
The first option, a form of what is called Calvinism, is, to me, essentially a “no-win” solution. It says that God already knows who will be saved and who will not; there is no choice in the matter. But we don’t know which we are. If this is true and the outcome of our life is already decided, then we don’t need to worry about the rules for life because it doesn’t matter. We are either going into heaven or we are not and there isn’t a single thing we can do about it.
Personally, I have a hard time with that view. For if there is no choice in the matter, then why did God send His Son? Of what value in our lives was Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross? It seems to me that if God sent His Son, it was because He loved us and He was willing to show His love. That is the basic rule of life; that is the rule that we need to be thinking about today and tomorrow. Whatever we do, whatever we say must come from that single fact that God loves us. It brings the Law back into perspective and it shows us the relationship as it is supposed to be.
That is why Jesus used the analogies that we read in the Gospel passage for today. We have to see the world in a new way, with each one of us a part of the kingdom. We are not to go out to destroy the world but to build it up. We are not to be the judge of right and wrong, good and evil; that will be decided at the proper time by God.
Each of the prophets spoke about the relationship between the people and God. They cried out about how God is angry because they have not kept the commandments. The people would always respond that they had kept the commandments and made the proper sacrifices and did the right things. But, as Isaiah proclaimed, God did not want sacrifices done out of habit but rather deeds done out of love. The people then, as now, had trouble realizing that what they were doing did not make the relationship with God stronger but weaker. Their actions did not protect them from sin but made sin more of their lives.
And each of the prophets spoke of the One who was to come, the One who would bring hope and a sense of renewal, the Messiah. There was a chance for the people then to change their ways and prepare for the Messiah. The same is true today.
The task before us is not to create laws or rules that prevent or protect us. For when we do so, we simply put up barriers that keep us from God. Rather, we are to break down the barriers that laws have put between people and prevented people from reaching God.
Each of us says that we are one person and we can do nothing. But Jesus spoke of the mustard seed, one of the smallest seeds in the plant kingdom, growing into one of the largest bushes and one that provided much in the way of shelter and comfort. We may see ourselves as small cogs in a big world and incapable of doing much but consider this.
One individual walked to the Indian Ocean one day and picked up a few grains of salt from the beach where the water had evaporated. This was a violation of British laws that prohibited Indians from owning or processing raw salt. But this singular action by Gandhi was the act that began the movement that would result in independence for India and Pakistan.
A black lady, going home from work one day, was hot and tired. So she sat down in the first seat that she came to on the bus. But the law said that she had to sit in the back of the bus and not the front where the available seat was and if another person, a white person, demanded that seat, she was to give it up. That singular act of defiance by Rosa Parks on December 1, 1955 initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott which was the beginning of the Civil Rights movement.
On February 1, 1960, four young black college students sat at the lunch counter in a Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth’s lunch counter. The seats at the counter and in the booth were for the white customers; black customers had to stand if they wanted to eat there. And when they were refused service and told they had to leave, they politely said no and remained seated. This was the first successful sit-in; six months of peaceful, non-violent protests lead to the counter and seats being open for all customers, regardless of their color. The sit-in movement spread throughout the south and helped to end segregation in public facilities. It brought attention to the differences between people when we create laws and rules that control what we can do.
These were acts of non-violence; they were driven and guided by love. Yes, there was violence but it was violence by those who opposed equality and freedom and who did not understand the use of non-violence as a means of protest.
There are individuals today who take on seemingly impossible tasks. We live in a society today where violence is too often the norm and not the exception. And our response to violence is often violence in return. We seek revenge, not justice.
Do you remember the killing of the Amish children back in October, 2006? Do you remember the response of the Amish community? While some, when faced with violence, would respond with violence, this community chose to offer comfort and support to the family of the gunman who killed their children.
In my message at Dover United Methodist Church (“There Is A Choice”) two weeks ago, I spoke of hearing the message from the Catholic Mass at Fordham University. The priest who officiated that morning, Charles Beirne, S. J., spoke of a friend who sought justice for his sister, a Christian Aid worker, who was killed by government troops in El Salvador in the 1980s. Whether we are speaking of one person or several people, if they are empowered by the Love of God through Jesus Christ and not by the rules that society says that we must follow, they can make a difference.
And I should not have to remind you of one man who spent three years on this earth speaking and teaching about bringing hope to the less fortunate, of healing the sick, of feeding the hungry and bringing justice to the oppressed. And for his efforts He was branded a threat to the state and executed by one of the cruelest forms of torture invented by mankind, crucifixion.
When we say that we are Christians, we are saying that we have chosen to follow Christ and to do what He did. We are not called to die on the cross but we are called to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and bring hope and justice to the less fortunate and oppressed. We are called to do what is right; we are called to know the rules.