Preached at the evening service of the Episcopal Church of Princeton University.
I am a rule bound person and have been ever since I was a kid. My parents had very clear rules for my sister and me and I had very little problem following them. We did our homework before we played. We went to bed at 8:00 PM. We had to eat at least one bite of everything on our plate. No motorcycles, no tattoos, and strangely, no pierced ears. Life was ordered and made sense. I even liked imposing rules on others. When I was eight and in the school play, before the play started, the only person you could hear from the audience was me hushing my fellow actors saying, “Shhhh. Shhhh. The play’s about to start.”
I became a Christian my last year of high school, through an evangelical group called Club Beyond. I continued my life as a Christian in college through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. There, too, the rules were very clear. Being a Christian meant going to large group meetings and bible studies, being kind to others, not drinking, smoking or having sex, and telling your friends about Jesus. As a new Christian my brain really liked the clarity. I was told what to do and what not to do and my rule-following mind was calm.
So, I have some sympathy for Ben Sira, the author of Ecclesiasticus, who tells us in our Old Testament lesson today that “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.” At first, this seems plausible. The commandments are laid out throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, so there is no mystery. We don’t have to guess at what the commandments might be. Hypothetically, it’s entirely possible to follow the commandments to the letter.
And Jesus seems to be reinforcing this message on the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has been doing all kinds of radical things and people are starting to wonder if he is going to tell them that the Hebrew Law is invalid. Instead he tells his follower that they need to follow the Law even more diligently than the scribes and Pharisees! And the scribes and Pharisees were serious, serious rule followers. Not only that, but in our passage today, Jesus raises the stakes. Jesus raises the stakes considerably.
Jesus clarifies that according to the law, you weren’t supposed to murder someone. But now, you’re not even supposed to insult anyone. Even idiots.
Jesus clarifies that according to the law, you were not supposed to cheat on your wife. But now, you’re not even supposed to check out a hot girl’s boobs, even if she’s wearing a low cut top!
You’re not supposed to divorce, you’re not supposed to promise to do something you don’t intend to do. The rules are getting stricter and stricter.
And our reading today is not even the end of the list. You’ll be hearing more about the high stakes that Jesus wants from his followers next week.
Suddenly, Ben Sira’s words don’t seem that easy. I can go through a day without murdering someone without much a problem. But, going through an entire day without insulting someone behind their back is much more challenging. There are so many bad drivers and generally inconsiderate people in the universe that deserve my scorn!
And if a really handsome guy walks into the room, I might check him out before I even realize I’m doing it!
Jesus is getting at something really uncomfortable. Jesus is telling us that living a holy life is not just about following rules. Living a holy life is about the content of our hearts and minds. We can follow rules to the letter and be hateful, mean spirited people. We can follow rules and completely miss the spirit of what the rules mean.
I ended up leaving the evangelical church for a variety of reasons, but partly it was because the rules started to not line up with the Jesus I was getting to know. Now, I am not talking about the explicitly stated rules of the community, I am talking about the implied rules. We were not supposed to be gay or have gay friends. We were not supposed to have normal dating lives: we were supposed to pretend like everyone we dated was going to be the person we would marry, and court them. We were not supposed to be Democrats. We were supposed to be really concerned about middle class values. We were not supposed to have non-Christian friends unless we were actively trying to convert them. We were not supposed to believe in Evolution. If we were women, we could have leadership roles in the campus groups, but not in the churches we attended. And we were supposed to be happy all the time, especially when worshiping.
These rules started to chafe at me a bit. They did not line up with the Jesus I was getting to know. The Jesus that seemed to really enjoy the company of outsiders. The Jesus that seemed to flout convention. The Jesus that seemed much more concerned with the content of people’s hearts than their outward behaviors. The Jesus that loved and respected women.
A friend of mine invited me to the Episcopal church around this time and I fell in love. Sermons were not just about conversion—they were about how to live in a complicated world while still following God. The music expressed a whole range of emotions—light and dark. One of our priests was a woman–a brilliant woman. Another volunteer priest was a world-renowned geneticist, who saw the wonder of God in his work as a scientist. The intellectual life of the community was rich and vibrant.
I knew I was in a whole new world one Wednesday night when I first went to a church supper before a catechesis class. At the dinner, they served wine. I about fell over. There was wine. . .at church. And not just at communion. What kind of rule breaking church was this?
At first I was giddy with the freedom the Episcopal Church offered me. But soon, my interior rule follower started to get really nervous. I realized, I did not know how to follow Jesus if I did not have a rule book to follow. I did not know how to be faithful if the priests were not going to tell me what to do about dating or sex or drinking. I was a little freaked out!
Finally, I realized that I needed to pray. About everything. If no one was going to tell me what to do, I needed to study Scripture and bring my life before God and use my own reason and instinct to make decisions about my own life. Rather than follow a cookie cutter pattern of what it meant to be holy, I needed to be actively engaged in my own life and take responsibility for my choices.
I also needed to come to terms with the fact that I was never going to be perfect. There were parts of my personality—like my anxiety and my tendency to be swift to judge—that I was going to have to wrestle with my entire life.
As Episcopalians, we live in tension. We know the dangers that come with strict rule following, but we also want to follow God. We know that the Bible is not an instruction manual, but we still seek wisdom about our own lives in its pages. We know that Jesus’s primary rule for us is to love God and love our neighbor, but we also recognize in ourselves a congenital inability to love consistently.
And thankfully, this is where grace enters the picture.
God did not choose to be incarnate so that he could come to earth and give us a list of rules in person. There are more efficient ways to get that done, even before the days of email and facebook. God chose to be incarnate so he could deepen his relationship with us and rip the veil that separates us into pieces. He tried for generations to give us solutions to deal with our own sin. He gave us rules and leaders and prophets, but nothing seemed to make us any better. We’re still not any better. We still shoot up fraternities in Ohio and send men with camels and whips into crowds of peaceful protesters. We still betray our lovers and snap at our best friends. We still use alcohol and drugs to dull our boredom and pain. We’re still pretty rotten in a lot of ways. Rules or no rules. We even got so irritated with God-incarnate that we killed him.
But Jesus came back. Even at our murderous worst, God decided he still loved us and wanted to be in relationship with us. He resurrects his murdered Son. He continues to pursue us and love us, even at our most rotten. He defies the rules of logic and physics and biology for no other reason than to show us that he will pursue us and be in relationship with us no matter what it takes.
Being a Christian is not about being good. Being a Christian is about being loved. Being a Christian is about acknowledging that there is a God who created the Universe who, inexplicably, wants to be in relationship with us. He wants us to pray, to ask questions, to challenge, to argue. He wants to show us the parts of us he created and the parts of us that are broken. He wants to heal us and use us for good in the world. And when we’re done in this world, he wants to be with us forever in eternity. Rules or no rules.
Grace can free us from our anxiety about following God’s rules perfectly, yet somehow free us to follow the ultimate commandment—Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. As we realize that God’s grace extends to all of our icky and broken parts, we begin to be gentler and less judgmental about other people’s icky and broken parts. As we realize God wants to reconcile with us after we stray from him, we begin to seek reconciliation with others. Grace offers us freedom to accept ourselves in all our glorious messiness, so we can begin to accept others.
Grace allows us to be in a free, loving relationship with God and with our neighbor, which is what the rules were supposed to do all along.
Thanks be to God.