Sermon on Proper 16C, Luke 10: 13-17

Delivered at St. Stephens Pro-Cathedral, Wilkes-Barre 2013 August 25

 

Listen in on the following conversation between a teacher and a student:

“This is how it’s done,” said the teacher to the student.

“Why is it done that way?” asked the student.

“Because this is the way it has always been done,” said the teacher.

“But,” said the student, “nothing has always been done a certain way. Everything in this world has had a beginning, a starting point, going back to the first act of Creation. Somebody made up a certain way and maybe we’ve just gotten used to it because it’s so old.”

The teacher responded, “Now you’re just causing trouble, making things difficult.”

“Well,” said the student, “that’s something that is very human, since Adam and Eve caused trouble right at the beginning. They made things difficult by breaking the rules.”

“Ah,” exclaimed the Teacher, “and that is why this is how it’s done. It follows the rules.”

“But can’t the rules be changed?” asked the student. “Can’t we find a better way?”
“No,” stated the teacher. “This is the best way, tested and proven by years of my teaching and experience.”

“I want to try a different way,” said the student.

“No,” said the teacher, “this is how it’s done.”

“I’m going to try anyhow,” says the student.

“If you do it how you are supposed to you will succeed; do it your way and you will fail.” declared the teacher.

“Either way,” said the student, “I will learn something.”

“True,” granted the teacher.

Their conversation ended and they turned to doing something. Our conversation about doing something continues. And today’s story from the gospel offers an interesting perspective on rules and doing something.

I’ll admit, I’m a rules kinda person. I’ve usually followed the rules, and I’ve even written rules— constitutions, by-laws, motions made, guidelines, guides, syllabi—I’m just finishing the syllabi for the classes I’m starting to teach this week, and they are pages and pages of rules.
They are full of things I want the students to do.

We could talk about rules in the context of teaching. We could talk about rules in the context of constitutional law and politics—my goodness how many current news stories would flesh out that conversation? But let me just limit myself, this morning, to a conversation about rules in the Church. Because that’s what Jesus is doing on that Sabbath so many years ago, trying to talk about the rules, in the community of believers.

Let’s just note some of the details of the story, so we can understand the gospel better. The synagogue was the meeting house where the Jews, and Jesus was a Jew, met for sharing prayers,
hearing scripture, and learning about the will of God. Jesus was teaching there, acting like a rabbi, or teacher. He saw a sick woman. There is no description of why she was there; whether she tried to make herself noticed; that she came to be healed. For all we know she was just there—well it was the Sabbath after all, and she was supposed to be at the Sabbath somewhere. But Jesus took notice of her, we the listeners are to take notice of her—one translation I like which better reflects the Greek which says to us “look you”—we are supposed to see her.

Do you see her, bent over? Maybe not. Maybe as a member of that synagogue you are used to her being there, you have seen her stooped over for eighteen years after all. It ceases to be news or noticeable after all that time. It is just background.

But lo! Look! There she is and Jesus heals her.

She did not do anything to deserve Jesus’ help that we know of. He just did it. She did not have to work for or earn it or show good behavior or donate to correct charity or stay sober or spend her new health wisely. She did not ask for it. Jesus just gave her grace.

Now the archon of the synagoge –here the title is roughly translated as president. But could we say rector? Or senior warden? – anyhow the archon of the synagogue objects, proclaiming to the crowd that no work of healing should be done on the Sabbath. “Remember the Sabbath Day and Keep it Holy” says one of the biggest rules of all, one of the Ten Commandments. And priests and rabbis have added many more rules as commentaries and declarations to define and clarify that rule. There were plenty of rules about the Sabbath, which the crowd, and especially Jesus should know full well. Jesus did know the rules, of course. Jesus does correctly point out that there are exceptions to not working on the Sabbath, such as caring for dumb animals. They should not go a day without water. And maybe the miracle that Jesus worked wasn’t that much of an effort for him? I don’t know.

It certainly wasn’t the first time he broke the Sabbath “rules,” though. But most scholars, and I myself, think he is saying something grander. Rules are NOT more important than people.
Or, to put it another way: people are more important than rules. That’s something hard to remember.

Since, rules are good things too. Surely many rules are created for the benefit of people. Rules give us structure and order which can make life easier.

But when it comes down to specific instances, some cases, certain events, sometimes the rules don’t work so well. To be humane, I love that word, to be humane, there are times when rules and regulations need to be ignored. And Jesus shows us one of them.

Now our Church is full of rules and good ones, but there are two problems with such rules.
The first problem is that sometimes the rules don’t even exist.

Here’s an example.
As a supply priest who goes from church to church, I experience this especially with the liturgy. Every church has its own quirks and ways of celebrating the liturgy.
One is dependent on space—and some questions about space I almost always ask when I come to a church is how do I get in and how do I get out? Because the only rules for liturgy that really count in our church are in the Book of Common Prayer, and there are no instructions for how the celebrant, or anyone else, gets into or out of the service. Really. Take a look sometime. The whole liturgical instructions are really rather meager: pages 322 and 406 of the BCP and rubrics throughout the service; not always printed in our service leaflet, which also adds things not in the BCP.
Now I often go along with whatever a Church says that “these are the rules,” but really, somebody made that stuff up somewhere, sometime.
It hasn’t always been done that way.

The Episcopal Church has plenty more rules, called the Constitutions and Canons -- they’re available online, you could download and read them, and I especially recommend it as a good way to put yourself to sleep, but even they don’t cover everything and every possibility. So rules and policies get made up to deal with unique and individual problems.
If a rule becomes necessary, well, more can be added by resolutions made at our National Convention for the national church or diocesan convention for our own diocese or at our vestry. There’s always room for no rules to become rules.

The Second problem with rules is that sometimes to be humane we should bend or even break them.
Rules can become straitjackets, torture devices, cruel and heartless things, depending on the circumstance.
As one commentator I read this week put it [Barclay, Luke, 183]:

“In the world, and in the Church, we are constantly in peril of loving systems more than we love God and more than we love [people].”

We must measure most rules against the greatest of divine commands, loving God and loving our neighbor. Unfortunately, being human, we will come to differing interpretations about when a rule’s enforcement may be necessary or when not. There have been many such disagreements in the past, there will be many in the future.

But above all, loving God, loving our neighbor has to be our duty. As much as is humanly possible, or maybe even more, when confronted with choice, we must choose the path that best serves loving God and loving our neighbor.

So think, sometimes, about doing things differently, doing things better. And whether we succeed or not, maybe we’ll learn something.

Last Updated: 2013 September 6
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