St. John’s Episcopal Church
207 Albany Avenue, Kingston, NY 12401

Sermons

  • About Those Rules – The Rev. Michelle Meech

    August 29, 2021

    Jesus said, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites… You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

    Jesus tells us the rules about washing and defilement are a human tradition, a human invention, created for a human purpose and is pointing out that the rules we create and cling to so dearly, are not of God.

    Obey God and Live (A Vision of Heaven), woodcut by Elijah Pierce, 1956

    Rules of behavior are how we organize ourselves as humans, how we ensure some kind of order for the sake of living in community, in society.  They are actually necessary. However, when we come to finally learn, as the collect says, the love of God’s name – this is true religion.  This is when we can begin to see that the rules we have created are not always about love.

    As a matter of fact, rules are often about restricting access, creating borders, marginalizing people… to ensure that others have so-called freedoms and rights and privileges.  This is why Jesus has such a problem with rules.  It’s not that it’s a bad idea to wash food and dishes and hands.  It’s a good idea, particularly during times of pandemic and disease, which is highly likely why the rules came about in the first place.

    It’s the same question we might have concerning rules about masks and social distancing and vaccinations right now.  It’s these practices that are saving countless lives right now. But when we lose sight of the reason for rules, and worship the rules themselves, saying that the rules are God… this is when we become hypocrites.  When we use rules to exclude people, we must examine exactly what it is we are doing and why.

    Every year we tell the Christian story of the Resurrection, the story that reminds us that everything we think about how the world works, is not as certain as we think it is. The Resurrection story tells us that God is creating life even in the face of death.  God is showing us new ways of being all the time, doing something new all the time, And God wants us to join in this new thing… all the time.

    It’s hard for us to say yes to new things… because of the rules we have created.  We have agreed, as a people, that this is the way we will understand things.  This is the way things are.  And when the way things are is called into question, all of a sudden, our understanding of reality is called into question and things feel very unsure, very shaky, very chaotic.  So rules give us a sense of order, a way to belong.  Following rules gives us a way to demonstrate unity and solidarity.  We think it’s what keeps community together.  And just like that, we prefer keep to the rules rather than to open up to something new.

    Jesus doesn’t have a problem with the rules themselves, you see. Jesus has a problem with the worship of the rules.  He has a problem with our preference to belong to the rules, rather than belong to God.  When we worship rules, we belong to them, we are owned by them.  We belong to our need to be comfortable, our own certainty of how things are. And we’ve stopped belonging to the God who is always doing new things, always yearning for us to join in that new thing.  And when we stop belonging to God, we stop belonging to one another.  And that is really how community falls apart.

    The Resurrection tells us that God overturns things all the time – to make a new creation.  So, what keeps us bound to the rules of society?  What gets in the way of us seeing the new things that God might be doing?

    If we read further, Jesus tells us that we get in our own way when it comes to this.  He explains that it’s not about the rules, it’s about all the stuff we believe about ourselves.  He says, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but… it is what comes out of a person that defiles.  For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

     What gets in our way is the belief that we aren’t whole.  The belief that we aren’t secure.  The belief that we don’t have things to offer.  The belief that we don’t belong.  I know I preach about this all the time because it’s true all the time and Jesus knew this.

    When we have “evil intentions” it’s not because we are evil, it’s because we don’t believe in our own belovedness.  So we believe we need to protect ourselves from other people or demand our right to be free of our inherent responsibility towards other people.  And this is where so many of our rules come from.  Because if we don’t believe in our own belovedness, how could we believe in anyone else’s belovedness?

    Ana and I watched a movie called Crip Camp the other night.  It’s a documentary on Netflix about a summer camp called Camp Janed that started up in the 1950’s for disabled teenagers… right up the road in Hunter NY at the foot of Hunter Mountain.

    At this camp, run by people who wanted to give these teens the ability to just be themselves for the summer, the campers were able to experience a liberated life, free from the social rules that made them outcasts in “normal” society.  For them, it was a utopia – a place in which they experienced themselves as fully human.  They talked about things they had never talked about before.  Being free from the rules of the world, helped them to experience their own innate worth, to know their own belovedness.  They started to ask, “Why can’t our lives be better?”

    Why is public transit inaccessible?  Why can’t simple accommodations be made so that we can have jobs?  What are these invisible rules that give me no rights to be a full citizen of this society?

    And the film continued to follow the tireless work of a group of people, many of whom found bonds of love and belonging to one another at Camp Janed… this group of people became the people who pushed to get the rules changed – to stop the discrimination and ensure that differently abled people could have full access to services.  They were the force behind the ADA – the Americans with Disabilities Act.

    As one woman said during the hearings, “I’m very tired of being thankful for accessible toilets. I really am tired of feeling that way. If I have to feel thankful about an accessible bathroom, when am I ever gonna be equal in the community?”

    This is what community can and should be for – to lift one another up.  Not to band together in order to tear down other people.  This is what Jesus saw in the Pharisees – a group of people actively marginalizing others while believing in their own righteousness because they washed their hands the right way.

    What saves us over and over again is our God… who knows us as beloved and precious, who delights in our joy, who yearns to show us what we cannot yet see, which is who we are being called to become because we belong.

    What saves us is a belief in our own goodness, a faith in our own belovedness, a trust that we an integral part of creation – and such a deep trust in that knowledge, that we know everyone else must be precious too.  And everyone has a place at the Table.  We all belong.

    What saves us is being in community with one another, real community.  Not one bounded by rules, but one in which we seek to love and to know love because we believe we are all beloved children of God.  A community in which we are all invited to bring our full selves because we know we are wanted.  And we know we are needed.

    A community in which we know that we will make mistakes and we will, from time to time, be in such a troubled state that we cannot see beyond our own desperation.  But we forgive one another and we forgive ourselves when that happens because, as St Paul says, Love is the more excellent way.

    A community in which people take their place at the Table, and invites others to do the same, confident in their gifts and in the gifts of others because all belong.  A community that lives according to a covenant with God – to love God and love one another as ourselves.

    This is a community that is the Body of Christ.  We become what we receive every week at Eucharist.

    But the Body of Christ isn’t broken every week at this Table so that we may sit in a building admiring our own glory or so that we can feel better about ourselves. The Body of Christ is broken every week so that we, who are at the Table, might be nourished and make Christ known in the world.  And I’m not talking about evangelism.  I’m not talking about making more members of St. John’s.  I’m talking about actually making Christ known to the world in your neighborhood, beyond the walls of this building.

    I’m talking about more than just being nice, more than just being tolerant and praying for your neighbors.  I’m talking about making Christ known – Christ incarnate in the world.  And if the rules reflect the love of God made known to us in Christ, then the rules still work.  If the rules don’t reflect this, then we are called to advocate for change and strive for justice.

    Christ is the presence that reconciles the world to God.  Christ is that which reaches out beyond borders and rules and boundaries and seeks to ensure all of Creation knows its belovedness, its preciousness, its belonging.

    Christ is a bit of a creator of chaos, an agent of change, one who makes us feel a little uneasy, one who reminds us we are called to be in relationship with one another, not with the rules, not with the human tradition of societal order, but with love.  To respond to one another in love and from love.

    Christ is that which sees the homeless person sleeping on a bench in a park on Christmas morning and knows how lonely and dehumanizing it is to be homeless… and Christ dresses like a couple of elves who plop down a decorated Christmas tree beside the bench with presents at the foot so that she may wake up to a Christmas morning with a tree and presents wrapped just for her.

    Christ is that which listens to the pain and the fear of transgender people who are afraid to walk into public restrooms where they might be bullied because their gender expression does not conform to rules and societal expectations… and Christ says, I will go with you and be your ally in that place so you know you are not alone.

    Christ is that which seeks relationships, not conversions, because relationship changes us.  Christ is the one who bridges gaps because we are called to belong to one another.

    These are the moments when God is doing something new.  These are the moments when we are called to be disciples, to become the new creation.