The Rules (Sermon for July 28, 2019)

Linda Tirado is an author and a journalist. And she told this story to some people at NPR:

In 2008, Linda and her husband moved to Cincinnati. They didn’t have much money, so they got a cheap basement apartment. And then a summer storm came through and the flooding ruined a lot of their stuff and the mold destroyed the rest.

Tirado was eight months pregnant at the time and all she wanted was a place to sit down, so she started calling around to churches and charities, asking if she could get a chair.

So she gets a hold of a nonprofit, and the woman on the other end of the phone says that they’ll give her a chair if she will come to a resumé writing class. And the woman gives her a couple of times that she can take the class. And Tirado explains that she has a job and that she has to work at those times.

And the woman is insistent. “We can’t give stuff to just anyone,” she says, “you need to attend this class so that you can find gainful employment.”

And Tirado just keeps explaining. “I have employment,” she says, “I need a chair.”

And it’s ridiculous. And it’s ironic. And it’s a little cruel. When Tirado talks about it, she says that this woman was part of a system that’s designed to humiliate people living in poverty and teach them their place.

And she’s not wrong. But I also know the position that woman was probably in. There’s a mission to help people; and there’s a policy that says that people have to take a resumé writing class in order to get help. And if she fails to follow the policy, she gets in trouble. And if she fails to live up to the mission, no one cares.

So she follows the policy. And she ignores the mission… just a little. And everyone gets on with their day.

I’ve said it before. I’ll say it now. I’ll probably say it again in the future. Every church is a little consulate of the Kingdom of God. And every Christian is a representative of the one who called us. We are all the hands and feet of Jesus Christ.

And a lot of being a Christian—a lot of that lifelong endeavor that we call faith formation—is trying to figure out what on earth that means.

And wouldn’t it be nice if there just… I don’t know… a handbook… or some rules… or some policies… clearly laid out and bullet-pointed in clear plain easy-to-understand language? Some kind of how-to guide to being a good person. Some kind of Getting Into Heaven for Dummies. Some collection of basic instructions before leaving earth.

Wouldn’t it be nice?

Today’s reading is from Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians. Later in this epistle, Paul is going to get to some rules.

Some of his rules are nice rules: bear with one another and forgive each other, clothe yourselves with love, teach and admonish each other in wisdom. And sing. And some of his rules would make us uncomfortable: wives, obey your husbands; children, obey your parents in everything; slaves, obey your masters.

Some of his rules are about loving each other. And some of his rules are about maintaining the power structures of his culture.

And in the passage we heard today, Paul is telling us which set of rules we should listen to.

Paul knows that there are people who will give us rules. 

“If you want to get right with God, if you want to get into heaven, if you want to be a good person,” they will tell us, “here’s the list.” And some of them are hypocrites and hucksters. And some of them are wise and well-meaning.

And in a world where we long for the certainty of salvation, rules can be tempting. Even in a world where we long for popularity or power, rules can be tempting. Even in a world where we long to just not get in trouble at work or at school or at home, rules can be tempting.

If I do these things, and if I don’t do these things, everything will be okay. If I just follow the rules, everything will be okay.

But Paul also knows where that can end up. Because Paul followed the rules. And Paul knew that following Jesus was against the rules. It was against the rules of the Empire. It was against the rules of the religious authorities. And Paul stood there and checked coats for the people who stoned Stephen.

Paul knows that, it turns out, following the rules can hurt people. Following rules can fail to help people. Following the rules can mean that someone who needs a chair can’t get a chair.

Following the rules can mean that someone dies.

And so Paul writes this:

You have received Christ Jesus the Lord; live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in trust in him. He lived and died and rose again, and made you alive with him, and forgave your debts and wiped away the rules. Every ruler and every authority is under him. And he has disarmed them all.

So don’t worry about human rules. Live under the rule of Christ. 

And you and I know that the rule of Christ is love. You and I know that the rule of Christ is grace.

And that means that if there is a choice between following the rules and love, we choose love. If there is a choice between following the rules and grace, we choose grace.

It there is a choice between following the rules and feeding someone who is hungry, we feed the person who is hungry. If there is a choice between following the rules and welcoming the stranger, we welcome the stranger. If there is a choice between following the rules and caring for the prisoner, we care for the prisoner.

If there is a choice between following the rules and giving someone a chair, we give someone a chair.

That’s true when the rules are official: when they’re typed in policy manuals or written in law books or carved in granite. And that’s true when they’re unofficial: when they’re etched in the opinions of our friends and colleagues and supervisors and society-at-large.

When there is a choice between following the rules and love, we choose love. When there is a choice between following the rules and grace, we choose grace.

That is what we live in. That is what we are rooted in. That is what we are built in. That is who we are.

And I know… if what you’re looking for is a how-to guide for being a good person or some kind of Getting Into Heaven for Dummies or some collection of basic instructions before leaving earth… ‘choose love, choose grace’ doesn’t help.

Choosing love in the abstract is easy. And sometimes, choosing love in the particular is easy.

But, a lot of the time, choosing love in the particular—choosing to take a risk and love that person, right now, in front of all those other people—is hard. It can be almost impossible. It can be so much easier to huddle up in the warm cozy feeling of not-offending-anyone, of not breaking the rules, of saying, “It’s out of my hands.”

It can feel so much safer to follow the policy—whether it’s written in the handbook or in the opinions of our friends and neighbors—and ignore the mission… just a little. And get on with our days.

But that is not who we are. We do not live in going along to get along. We are not rooted in getting on with our day. We are not built in keeping our heads down and our noses clean.

No. Our faith is in, our trust is in, our allegiance is to the God who saw that this world is broken, and set glory aside, and became one of us, among a dispossessed people in a backwater province of a great empire. And when that empire hung him on a tree, and when a disciple buried him in a tomb, he got up again and kept going… and disarmed the rulers and authorities… and forgave us… and said, “I’m not done with you, yet.”

And we are his hands. And we are his feet. That is who we are.

And because that is who we are, we go out and we choose love. We go out and we choose grace. People speak well of us: they say, “See how they love everyone!” And we love them. People speak ill of us: they sneer, “See how they love everyone!” And we love them. And we’re wonderful at it, and we’re terrible at it, and we get better at it.

And it’s not always easy. And I’m not sure it’s meant to be easy. But this is the work that defines us: to hold fast to the God who became one of us, and who continues to nourish us and hold us together; to be wild and dangerous and full of grace.

So we go out and we choose love. We go out and we choose grace. People speak well of us: they say, “See how they love everyone!” And we love them. People speak ill of us: they sneer, “See how they love everyone!” And we love them. And we’re wonderful at it, and we’re terrible at it, and we get better at it.

And one loving act at a time, no matter what the rules say, we make the world a better place. Because that is who we are. Always. Amen.

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