Here are my thoughts for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 2 October 2011. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 20: 1 – 4, 7 – 9, 12 – 20; Philippians 3: 4 – 14; and Matthew 21: 33 – 46.
I will admit it – I don’t like rules. Now, I am not talking about rules that come about from life and life’s experiences. Things such as knowing that hot glass looks the same as cold glass or one should never stick your nose in something to see what it smells like (there is a technique that we teach in the lab to do that). We might call such rules common sense but they were taught to us somewhere along the way.
Of course, there are times when I wonder how we teach someone about those rules. It certainly doesn’t make sense to let a two- or three-year old touch a hot item and burn their fingers just so that they will know that hot things can hurt. And it does take some time to learn that the way you smell things doesn’t require inhaling it unless you take a whiff of something noxious and quickly learn that isn’t what you do.
We learn to play baseball, football, soccer and other games by knowing what the rules are. The rules tell us what we can and cannot do. But there are other rules that come about because someone said that is the way things are done and that is the way we are going to do it.
There appears to be a rule that dictates how worship is be done in a church, even though we have little knowledge of how worship was done in the beginning church. There appears to be a rule that states that individuals such as myself cannot profess to be a Christian and work as a chemist (this rule also appears to have a corollary that says scientists cannot be Christians or religious).
There appears to be a rule that says this planet is ours to do with it what we please. And when someone speaks of global warming and what it is doing to the climate, we are to cast aside such warnings as frivolous, if not meaningless. God did not give us this planet to do what we wanted; he made us stewards to take care of it.
The church, the very essence of the vineyard in today’s Gospel reading, is not our church but God’s. And yet we act as the workers who ignored, stoned and killed the servants of the vineyard’s owner. And the warning that Jesus gave to the Pharisees and the scribes is a warning that should be heeded by many leaders in today’s churches, no matter the denomination. They may not have killed Jesus but they have cast him out of the vineyard and decided that the church is theirs to do as they please.
I now that at some time in the past I had memorized the Ten Commandments; it is part and parcel of the confirmation process. And I think that when one starts learning about faith and religion, it is important to do so. But somewhere along the line in one’s development, it becomes important to understand that these are not rules, carved in stone, to be rigidly obeyed. They are commandments, to be lived and honored, to be a part of one’s life.
Keep in mind that in the coming chapters of the Old Testament, there are going to be many, many more rules. All of these new rules are going to be an understanding of what the Ten Commandments mean; by in another sense, they are going to be loopholes through which people can crawl so that they can say they have upheld the commandments of God while finding a way to play golf on Sunday, or find no contradiction between against abortion but for the death penalty. It is perfectly alright to say that we don’t covet our neighbor’s things because we are so busy getting things for ourselves.
Paul, writing to the Philippians, warns us those who are more interested in appearances that carrying out the words of God. They are more interested in how one adheres to the rules than how the Spirit is a part of their life. Paul says, at least to me, it is what you do with what you know that counts. Just being able to check things off and say that I have done this and I have done that so therefore I am eligible this much of God’s grace is not the way things are done. Paul recognizes that his life as Saul was trapped in the maze of rules and rule enforcement; as Paul, he knows that such a life was a prison.
Even our own John Wesley understood this. Like Paul, Wesley would probably admit that he didn’t have it altogether, especially in those months and years before Aldersgate. His life was a life of checklists and things to do, things done in the hopes of achieving grace. It wasn’t until the presence of the Holy Spirit came into Wesley’s life did it become clear how God’s grace was achieved.
There is one rule that we must follow. It is that we must repent of our previous live and open our hearts and minds to Jesus Christ. Repentance means to begin anew, to seek a new life.
Yes, I don’t like rules especially those written by others. But the words, given to the people by God, are not rules; they are a way of life. The words Jesus spoke when he began his ministry were not rules but the fulfillment of the rules and the words. They were an acknowledgement that one must repent of one’s old ways, of one’s adherence to strict and confining rules, and to begin a new life in and with the Spirit. You cannot lead a new life through strict adherence to the rule. Maybe that’s why I don’t like rules. But, in my own personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as my Savior, I have a new life and a new outcome.
The choice today, my friend, is the same that it has been every day for some two thousand years or so. Live within the rules and be trapped or let the presence of Jesus Christ enter into your live and set you free.