Ruled By Rules
Text: Luke 13:15 “...ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day?”
Here is the rule: People who are physically disabled should not be part of the community. We don’t know why they have become disabled; there may be some understandable reason for it, but it might be the devil that has come into them and made them disabled, however they have been handicapped. So the first rule is, no handicapped people. If they get healthy, if they no longer seem disabled in any way, then fine, they can come. But otherwise, they’re just too suspect.
Here is another rule: No sporting events on Sunday. No softball games, no kayaking, no skiing, no golfing—oh, and no watching sporting events on television, too. At least on Sunday.
Here’s another rule. No one who is baptized should receive communion. Actually, what we may do when the fall comes is have everyone who is not baptized leave the church and head into the Parish Hall during the announcements, so that it’s just baptized people here in church.
Oh, and one other thing. We’re going to have a rule against speaking to people from other churches, and especially from other faiths. I know this may be hard if you live next to someone who doesn’t go to Saint John’s, or if you work with, you know, those kind of people. But we need to protect ourselves against dangerous outside influences.
You may be listening to this and thinking that I’ve finally lost it. Okay, so these really aren’t going to be the new rules of Saint John’s. But each one of those sort of odd ideas has in fact been a rule of the church at some point in history. And in some places, rules just like these still endure.
It’s not that rules are bad by themselves. They serve an important purpose; they help communicate very powerfully and efficiently what a community is and what it stands for. Rules have the function of creating boundaries, or perimeters.
In our day and age, we’re instantly suspicious of those kinds of boundaries. We’re suspicious because we’re suspicious of any claims to special privilege. The simplest and maybe the silliest example that comes to mind is what our Latter Day Saints friends call the Temple Garments, and what everyone else calls Mormon underwear. This became a momentary subject of fascination for the press during the last presidential campaign.
But the simple fact is that the wearing of these garments is part of Mormon tradition; it’s something many Mormon folks do, and pretty much no one outside that community does. It is a boundary marker; a way of telling people that they are part of a community, and that others are not.
We’ve had rules like that too. Maybe not in so obvious a fashion, but just as effective nonetheless. And over the past fifty years or so we’ve done away with many of them.
Used to be you couldn’t receive communion if you’d been divorced. Used to be you couldn’t be remarried in the church if you’d been divorced. Used to be you had to have been confirmed to receive communion. Used to be you had to be baptized to receive communion. Used to be you had to be a man to get ordained. Used to be gay and lesbian people were seen as somehow unequal in the eyes of the church.
Pretty much all of that has gone, and just in the space of my lifetime. And I’m not that old. We look at it from this perspective and sort of wonder why we ever held to those ideas, but the fact is we’ve made tremendous changes in giving up our rules in a very short amount of time, at least from the perspective of history.
It’s good that we have; but it can also be disorienting. After all, one of the reasons for the rules is that we need identity in community. We gain our sense of identity by virtue of being part of communities. Some folks need that so much that they seek out communities that have more rigid rules simply to have a clear sense of who they are. And when those rules are so rigid that they cut people off from the rest of society, we call those communities cults.
But back in our community, as the rules have lost their power we’ve had this sense of losing our identity. I often hear people say that they don’t know what it means anymore to be an Episcopalian. And I hear even more often the crack that it’s easy to be an Episcopalian because we don’t really stand for anything or believe in anything, except maybe the Church Pension Fund.
I am not so sure.
In the gospel lesson this morning Jesus takes on the power of the rules we create in our communities. The specific rule in question is the one against working on the Sabbath. Jesus heals a woman who would have been kept out of the synagogue and regarded as unclean, because her physical deformity was seen, as the text tells us, as a spiritual disease, and a potentially contagious one at that.
So Jesus breaks two rules, really. He deals with someone he shouldn’t deal with at all; and he does a work of healing on a day of rest. And you know how the rest of the story goes.
Jesus is challenging the idea that we should be ruled by the rules we make. As is so often the case in the stories about Jesus, and especially the stories from the gospel of Luke, the lesson Jesus is teaching is one about perspective—about getting the point that one of the ways we show our sinfulness is by giving the rules we make the same weight and significance as the rules God has made.
And that’s the point to take home from this. It turns out not to be true that there are no rules in the church. The upshot of all this is not that any rules should be thrown away.
The lesson is about the relationship between rules and power. Rules that we make tend to be about protecting the power or the privilege of some people at the cost of other people. There are obvious examples of that, like the Jim Crow laws of fifty years ago. And there are less obvious examples—even some examples from which we benefit unfairly over and against others.
But rules that God makes are instead about recognizing the limits of our essential nature, and the ways in which we should live if we want to realize all we have been made to be. God’s rules are things like the commandments—rules that guide our relationships to God and to each other. They aren’t arbitrary, they aren’t unfair, and they aren’t unreasonable; they’re actually sort of written into the basic code of who we are.
Jesus teaches again and again that the basic rule is the rule of compassionate regard for others, rooted in an awareness of God’s compassion for us. That rule trumps all of the rules we make up for our comfort and our sense of safety in the communities we create; and that’s why living as disciples, if we get it right, will sometimes make us notorious. Amen.