Is It Just About the Rules?


This sermon was preached by Rev. Jill Sander-Chali on March 16, 2014, at University United Methodist Church.

O God, in the stillness, come meet us.  Amen.

I have a confession to make this morning.  Lent is the season of confessions, so this is the right time!  So, here it is: I am a rule follower.

I have always had a deep sense of obedience.  For better or for worse, I must have been born with this inclination to follow the rules.  When I was younger, I hated it when people cheated at board games.  I would proudly tattle on people when they talked in the hallway at school. 

If I had been alive when Jesus was alive, I hate to admit that it seems much more likely that I would have been part of the Pharisees than one of Jesus’ disciples.  You see, the Pharisees had a keen sense of the rules and they were offended when people broke the rules.  Breaking the rules seems to be Jesus’ specialty and he teaches his disciples to do the same.  Frankly, I would have tattled on this group rather than join them!

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus breaks the rules over and over.  He goes beyond the walls of the synagogue to bring God’s healing message to others.  Over and over he does things on the Sabbath—the one holy day of rest—that he is not supposed to do.

The first incidence that we read about this morning is when Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grain field.  His disciples are hungry and pluck some grain and eat it.  The Pharisees see this and are upset—but rather than admonish his disciples for working on the Sabbath or for taking what is not theirs, Jesus defends them.  He breaks the rules and turns them upside down.  He says, “It is lawful to eat if you are hungry on the Sabbath, even forbidden grain.”  This makes the Pharisees even madder, but Jesus isn’t done yet.

The story continues: on yet another Sabbath, Jesus encounters a man whose right hand was withered.  He knows the Pharisees are watching and just waiting for him to break the law and heal the man.  So, before he does anything, he asks them a question: Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?”  Then before they can really even answer, he goes ahead and heals the man’s hand.  Of course, the Pharisees are furious.  They begin discussing what they can do to Jesus.

You see, the Pharisees were experts in the rules.  They knew them by heart and they were obeying them letter for letter, word for word.  But, in the midst of their obedience and righteousness, they have forgotten something very, very important that Jesus is trying to tell them.

It’s not just about the rules?  If you have an opportunity to feed someone who is hungry, doesn’t God’s mandate to care our brothers and sisters trump the rule about not working?  If you have the ability to heal someone who is broken, doesn’t God’s mandate to do good trump the rule about resting? 

Jesus thinks so.  It seems Jesus thinks that it’s not just about the rules; it’s about the dream of God for all creation.

Author of Radical Welcome, Stephanie Spellers quotes the Right Reverend Michael Curry of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina who says, “God is changing things so that they finally reflect the dream of God.  It will be new to us, but it is merely the fulfillment of what God intended all along.”[1]

If we look back through the stories of scripture, we’ll see that God has been at this work of changing things so that they finally reflect the dream of God for a long time.  We worship a God who from the beginning of time was making all things new, shaking things up and doing things in a new way.  God forms all of creation out of a watery mass and people from the dust of the earth.  Something new!  God takes Abraham and Sarah and makes them parents, even when they think they are way too old to bear children.  Something new!  God asks Moses, even though he is not confident, to lead the Israelites to freedom.  Something new!

Our God is a God of new things!  The words from the prophet Isaiah remind us of this truth.  Isaiah says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing: now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

I think this could be God’s motto.  Something God says over and over in the history and future of creation and in the history and future of our lives. 

I am about to do a new thing: now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

This should be exciting to me, but as a person who was born to follow the rules, instead something inside of me wonders.  Wouldn’t life be easier and more orderly if we would just follow the rules, God?  Can’t we just do things the way they have always been done?  Life would be easier and the church more comfortable if we let things stay the way they are.  What if we just accepted that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in American life?  Why cross boundaries?  Why embrace new people?  Why try something new?

Why?  For one thing, because Jesus shows us that it’s not just about the rules.  It’s not about my desire to follow the rules either.

It’s about the dream of God and when we look at how God has chosen to act over time, we don’t have to look far to find a God who breaks all the rules by coming to dwell with humans—to become God with us, Immanuel.  This incarnation, is after all, one of our central stories as Christian people. 

God crossed the boundary between heaven and earth to take on human flesh to embrace us fully and wholly.

This radical welcome journey, this learning to break some of the rules, starts with God’s embrace of us, a deep and radical embrace. 

I have to admit that the first thing I think of here is our tagline—be you, be loved, belong.  That’s God’s radical welcome to each of us in a nutshell.  We are called and created by God to be authentically ourselves.  We are loved by God and we belong to the family of God.

Because of the way that God embraces us, we are able to embrace our brothers and sisters, especially those who have been unseen and unloved.

Since we feel in the core of our beings God’s love for us, we are compelled to share that love with others.

Yet, this is not easy.  We can get caught up in the rules and get stuck in being obedient rather than being Christ to others.

This is where conversion and repentance come in.  These are great Lenten words—these are words that help to prepare our hearts for Christ’s resurrection and the Easter celebration.  

Conversion is sometimes a scary word because it may remind us about people standing on the street preaching about hell.  That’s not really what I’m talking about here.  I’m talking about an inner change of heart, a transformation from the inside out.  I’m talking about what happened inside the hearts of those disciples as they plucked grain and plopped it into their hungry mouths, then watched in amazement as Jesus defended their brazenness. 

Got it?  So, conversion is an inner change of heart.

But how do we get there?  That’s where repentance comes in.  The most basic definition of repent is to turn around—to turn 180 degrees away from whatever direction you were going in to walk a new path, a new journey.  Repentance is always about moving us away from isolation and back into the fullness of community life and right relationship with God and those around us.

You see, in our lives, God is always doing a new thing and God is ALWAYS inviting us into this new thing that God is doing.  But, we have to be wise enough to perceive it.  We are being called to turn to a new way, a radically hospitable way that breaks through old patterns in order to usher in God’s new order of life and relationship.

This journey of repentance and conversion, of breaking the rules, makes us new and we will never be the same again.  This is a spiritual practice, a transformation from the inside out. 

This takes time.  Opening our hearts, turning away from old patterns, making new rules and allowing God to bring about an inner change inside of us takes time.  Maybe that’s why God gives us 40 days of Lent to prepare for Easter.  Maybe that’s why the journey of faith takes a lifetime. 

{C}[1]{C} Radical Welcome: Embracing God, The Other, and the Spirit of Transformation, by Stephanie Spellers, Copyright 2006 by Stephanie Spellers, Church Publishing, Incorporated, p. 29.

Copyright 2014 by Rev. Jill Sander-Chali