Proper 4b

June 4, 2018

Playing By the Rule

Mark 2:23 – 3:6


23 One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain.  24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” 3:1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.


After the sudden death of my mother from a massive stroke my father was terribly despondent. It hit us all pretty hard, but my father was lost. I think he fully expected to proceed my mother in death, and it was hard for him to figure out how to live without her. A couple of weeks after she died he was spending a few days at my sister’s house, and he mentioned to her that he was thinking about getting a dog. Well he only had to say that once. She called me and told me that we needed to find him a good dog, and we did. She did a little research and suggested that we get him a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel because they are known for being outstanding lap dogs, and that’s what we got him.


We got him this little puppy that he named Charlie, and that was about the best thing we ever did. Having a dog to come home to and to take care of basically nursed him back to life. My father sort of reengaged with life. He resumed his various interests, and that meant that Charlie had to spend some time at home alone, and my father started feeling bad about that, so he decided he should get another dog to keep Charlie company. I tried to talk him out of it because I thought it would add more trouble than pleasure to his life. In fact I remember saying to him, Daddy, you aren’t here for Charlie, Charlie is here for you.


But he wasn’t persuaded. He proceeded to get another dog from the same people, and it was fine, but I thought I made a pretty good argument against getting another dog. It was clear to me that this was a case of the tail wagging the dog, and I think that’s the same backward logic that Jesus was dealing with on a much more tragic level.


Religious institutions always have a hard time balancing the spirit of truth with the need for clear regulations. And of course we all understand this tension. God-loving people are always inclined to live highly ethical lives, and we want our faith community to reflect our sense of disciplined living. The success of the Jewish community can largely be attributed to the relatively strict guidelines that they followed. They maintained their identity through some really trying times by keeping the traditions of their community. And observing the Sabbath was a big part of how they preserved their identity. It caused them to pause each week and to remember who they were and how they were to live. There was a lot of wisdom behind this tradition of keeping the Sabbath.


But there was some foolishness as well. It became the tail that wagged the dog. As Jesus found the need to point out, the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath. It’s easy for us to point to the Pharisees and think that this was a Jewish problem, but I think we all know that this is something every faith tradition has to grapple with. And it’s a hard thing to get right.


I enjoy playing games, but I don’t like a game that doesn’t have clear rules. I can’t recall the names of any of these games, but there are some board games out there that invite some subjectivity in to the scorekeeping. In other words, you have to make judgements about whether somebody met the criteria for points. I hate games like that. They produce more anxiety within me than pleasure. People who know me well might argue that I just don’t like to lose, and I’m not so good at thinking quickly and defending my position, but I would argue that I like a game where you know if you’ve scored or not. The ball goes in the hole or it doesn’t. The cards add up or they don’t. I don’t like for some kind of judgement to enter in to the games I play. I don’t really like Olympic sports that involve judgement. I prefer watching those sports that are judged by instruments.


So I have some appreciation for people who want clear boundaries to define the way things are to be. Clear rules provide clear understandings. But life is more complicated than a game, and we have to make judgements about how we deal with the rules. Jesus clearly understood this, and I appreciate the way in which he handled the rules of life. He knew the difference between the tail and the dog.


Our denomination is in a quandary right now about the rules. I hate to bring it up because it’s such a touchy subject, but we are having to deal with the issue of human sexuality and what our policy will be in regard to marriage and ordination. It’s hard for me to see how it’s going to be resolved in a universally satisfying manner. The Council of Bishops has been charged with providing our denomination with guidance, and they’ve tagged their initiative as The Way Forward. There is a wide range of attitudes that exist within our denomination in regard to sexual orientation, and I don’t know how we’re going to move forward in a way that will respect those differences.


It’s a hard issue for us. We have some language in the Bible that seems to be very clear about this, but even those seemingly clear verses can get fuzzy when you do a little research on the context and the intent. And it gets even more complicated when you think about other verses in the Bible that we have no trouble disregarding because we recognize them as being shaped by the cultural expectations of the day.


And we have this tension between the authority of scripture and our sensitivity to human experience. Of course, we all have different human experiences, and if we let our various human experiences be our guiding principle it’s easy to see that we would sort of spin out of control. Having clear rules is a way of maintaining a clear identity.


I could never be a Unitarian because I don’t know how you focus on God without looking to Jesus for instruction on who God is. I think I could be a Muslim before I could be a Unitarian because I need a bit of an authority figure to provide me with some instruction about God. Actually, Muhammad is too authoritarian for me to want to follow him, so there’s a better chance of me becoming a Baptist than a Muslim, and there’s little chance of that. But I have no interest in participating in a faith community that has no authoritative scripture or tradition. I value the words and teachings and traditions that have come to us from our Judeo-Christian ancestors.


And one of the traditions that has come to us from Jesus is the importance of letting love be the judge of every other rule.


I have a friend who grew up in the United Methodist Church, and his life has been guided and enriched by our denomination. For most of his life he tried to live what you might call a normal life, but after about forty years of trying to be normal he came to understand that he was more attracted to men than to women. It was a crisis for him. As I say, he had been trying to be a straight man for decades and it just didn’t work for him. His understanding of his sexual orientation changed, and that enabled him to live a more authentic life, but he had a hard time reconciling who he knew himself to be with what the Bible seemed to say about such things. He was actually very haunted by the judgement that he found in a few verses in the Bible, and he told me that one day.


He was hesitant to bring this up with me because he thought I would side with those condemning verses – which surprised me, but I think I surprised him more when I told him that if those verses bothered him that much he just shouldn’t read them. I told him there’s a larger message in the Bible that should color the way we see individual verses.


We should read all scripture in light of the primary message that came to us in the life of Jesus Christ, and that light is generated by love. This is not to say that God doesn’t care how we live our lives. I fully believe that the way we chose to live has a powerful impact on the quality of our relationship with God, but none of us live such perfectly formed lives that we earn the love of God. We are able to live in relationship with God because God’s love for us isn’t contingent upon our ability to follow all the rules. The primary message of the Bible is that love rules over everything. It’s God’s love for us that enables us to live in relationship with God, and it’s that love that is to guide our relationships with one another.


This is a hard thing for us to get straight. We generally want to know the rules so that we can make clear judgements about how we are to view one another, but Jesus made it profoundly clear that there’s one rule that trumps all the others, and we are to judge all the other rules by how they measure up to that one primary rule.


I don’t know how this thing is going to play out in our denomination. I’m not retiring because of this, but I’m not sorry I won’t be figuring out how to navigate the rhetorical storm that seems to be brewing. As you can see, I’m very sympathetic to those who want our denomination to become more open-minded about this issue, but I’ve also come to believe that significant change in our denominational policy could be very disruptive to our faith community, and I don’t want us to fly apart. I’d rather for our current rules to stay in place for now than for us to change the rules and to expire. I don’t know if that will happen, but I have some fear that it might.


Of course what I know is that it really doesn’t matter what the rules are that guide our denomination or any other system that we find ourselves within. The primary challenge for us is to figure out how to let that primary rule be the guide for our lives. Jesus operated within a system that put too much emphasis on the less important rules, and he had to make some hard choices about how to balance those demands. He made some hard choices and he faced some harsh criticism. In fact you might say Jesus was crucified because he didn’t play by the rules of his faith community, but he didn’t waver from his commitment to the primary rule. It cost him his life, but his resurrection from death revealed love’s ultimate power.


So we actually have nothing to fear as a denomination or as individuals. It’s never going to be easy to allow that most important rule to be the guide for our lives, but there’s nothing that can ever prevent us from allowing the love of God to rule our lives.


Thanks be to God.




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