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Plymouth United Church of Christ
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Eau Claire, WI 54703
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“Rules, Schmules”
Sermon, Year A, Lent 4, March 30, 2014
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber Focus Scripture: John 9:1-41

Whenever I read this passage, I think of that age old maxim, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Jesus heals a guy. Gives a guy his sight. And you’d think that he’d killed him, for all the brouhaha that ensues.

It enrages some of these people. He broke the rules! Forget that he healed someone. Forget that he gave someone their sight, someone who had always been blind. What is important here, to some of the people around Jesus, is that Jesus broke a rule. He healed on the Sabbath! A day that you’re not supposed to do work.

No good deed goes unpunished.

And it is easy to become obsessed with rules. With how things are supposed to be. Especially religious ones. Easy to get caught up in. I fall into that trap. I’m sure we all do. I’ve fallen into that trap as a minister, when I have an idea or a situation and I think, “Well, the right thing seems to be this,” I will think, but while thinking that, I’ll have the thought, “But it kind of goes against the rules. What are people going to think? Maybe it goes against tradition. Maybe it will annoy my clergy peers. Maybe they will see this as me going too far out of line. Or violation of some church code.

Even though we aren’t a creedal or doctrinal church, and have no “official” position or things we have to believe, we still are in covenant with other churches. Other UCC churches, certainly, but also other denominations. There is still some unwritten sense that there are rules about what makles a proper baptism, a wedding, a funeral, how to do Communion, lead worship, or be in the world. We want also to be good covenant partners. So we don’t have a set of rules that some churches have. But we still want to adhere to some set of expectations, ideas.

It is easy to get these rules get stuck in the head and its easy to forget about the people who are in need, and think more of the rules. A couple years ago we had a funeral here, and the family wanted the final song, “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life” to Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” during the funeral. If you don’t know the song, I won’t sing it for you since it has swear words in it. In most times, it would be inappropriate in a church. But for the man who died, and that family, it would have made sense to use that song in the funeral. I said “No”, though, because I was worried about the rules of propriety. More worried about that than the needs of the people in front of me. I wish I had allowed it to go on. I did say that they play it at the luncheon meal after the funeral.

I’ve also had times that I get requests to baptize a baby of someone who isn’t a church member. I struggle with what to do. Or weddings. These are kind of dilemmas that ministers fall into. You’re probably not often confronted the dilemma of whether to baptize someone. But I’m sure in your workplaces, in your schools, in your daily life you are confronted at times with these situations of feeling like the right thing to do seems to against church rules or doctrine or something that you’ve been taught at some time. They can trap us. “Can I do this and still be a proper Christian?” is the question that we are faced with.

Can Jesus heal on the Sabbath? Healing is a good thing, but the Sabbath is a day that you’re not supposed to work. It’s a holy day! And so on the Sabbath, no, you can’t heal. Not appropriate. I can see, at some level, from the Pharisees’ point of view – the guy has blind since birth. He can wait another day. Jesus didn’t have to heal him on the Sabbath. What would have been the harm of waiting another day and respecting the sanctity of the Sabbath Day? Waiting until tomorrow isn’t going to hurt him. But we don’t always get to wait until tomorrow. That is not always an option. The needs that are in front of us are, well, in front of us when they are.

So there is that nagging question, “Is this Christian? Is this appropriate?” Or perhaps we can word it as, “Can I do this, and still be a good Christian?” or “Be within continuity of Christianity?”

As I thought of this passage this week, and even thought over the past couple of years about how to be a more relevant church for today, to be the kind of church we need in the 21st century, I’m wondering more and more if the question, “Is this Christian?” is the wrong question. Or the wrong way of coming to the question.

This text, and much of what Jesus says, haunts me because he doesn’t care about rules. He cares about compassion, the ultimate rule. He cares about love, the ultimate commandment. Those ought to be the deciding factors. So maybe the question isn’t, “Is this is a Christian thing to do?” or “Can I do this and be a Christian?” Maybe the question to ask is to spin it a little bit and ask, “Is this in continuity with Jesus’ teaching and Jesus’ example? Is it faithful to being a follower of Jesus?”

In my own head, when I consider a question like, “Is this Christian?”, what I get spinning around in my head is questions of orthodoxy and polity: “Would the Division on Church and Ministry accept it? What’s the historical church teaching on this? What do other denominations say about this? What is the official policy of some other denomination? Will it get me in trouble? Is it too unorthodox? How would I defend this if questioned?”

When I ask the question, “Is this Chrsitian”, I get abstract academic stuff in my head. Worries about right and wrong. Does this fall within the rules? Does it fit in that neat tidy box called Christianity?

But if I consider a question the other way, “Is it faithful to being a follower of Jesus?” then the questions that pop into my head are not the academic or abstract questions. The questions that come into my head are, “Is it compassionate? Is it the loving? Does it bring dignity to someone? Does it remove shame or guilt?” If so, then it is worth breaking the rules. Or sometimes, because I can be anti-authoritarian, I might ask, “Will this bother the Rules Police?” and if so, then maybe I ought to do it!

“Is it Christian?” makes the situation to be about me. At least, when I ask that question. It makes it about me. The repercussions to me, about my need to cover my butt, or to protect God (who does not need my protection), or to be a Defender of What is Right And True.

“Is it faithful to Jesus?” makes it about the other person or people – about their needs – or the greater good of the community.

So I don’t want so much to be a Christian, though I will continue to use that word, it’s a good word, but I want to be a faithful disciple of Jesus. I want to be a faithful follower. Not that they can’t be one and the same, but it can be easy to think of the faith as a set of intellectual propositions about belief and pious behavior, and less about being like Jesus.

Jesus sees this man who has been blind since birth, and Jesus is driven by compassion, and heals him, even though the rules say “You can’t do that on the sabbath.” Jesus doesn’t care. There is someone blind in front of him, he heals him. What Jesus sees is a blind man. He does not see rules about the Sabbath.

The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.

Beliefs can help, beliefs are good. Our Confirmation class looked at the first drafts of their faith statements this morning. Nothing wrong with having beliefs. A belief structure can help us. The beliefs we share in common have merit, but they can get in the way sometimes. They can get in the way

I grow stronger in my conviction that the church of today and of tomorrow needs to be a church that does know its traditions, that does know its orthodoxy, but isn’t afraid to break them for the sake of compassion and human need in the name of the One – Jesus – whom we claim to follow!

I think that’s what the church needs to be. I think that’s the church that the unchurched, or the anti-church, or the burned-out-on-church, or burned-by-church, have been wanting us to be. Living our mission to serve. They know the words of Jesus. They know Jesus’ words and they want to see us live them. And they might even join in if we’re living them. They may very well want to come along and do good for the world.

I’ve taken communion out on the street ministry, which is a powerful experience! Some might say that’s not proper. Communion outside the context of worship is not a proper thing to do. But the experience of being the church going to where the people are, and to see the looks on the people who have been served Communion. Their thankfulness, their appreciation. Not just that it’s me serving them like I’m some kind of hero, but to see in their faces the recognition that Jesus has come to them saying, “You are worthy, you matter.” To be reminded that they matter to God, which for the homeless, the poor, and others, too often don’t feel that.

I think of some of the baptisms we have done in the past year for some of the members of our congregation on the street. Powerful experiences. We as a community coming together for them, and with them, and them with us. Powerful moments of grace and love. Moments of Jesus’ presence being very real. That’s where Jesus is.

That’s what it’s about.

The man who was born blind sees God’s truth so much better than those who spend all their time studying and talking about God and constructing a Box of Right Belief. He gets it. And some in this story of healing finish the story at the same place they began in the beginning. No change in their lives at all. But the healed man’s life is transformed. That’s what the Church does. It transforms lives. The healed man’s life is transformed and he finds himself a new person in a very different space. A space where Jesus already was and where Jesus already is.


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Plymouth United Church of Christ
2010 Moholt Drive
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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