I have a complicated relationship with rules. As a first child, I grew up as an unashamed authority pleaser. I’d have nightmares as a third grader about Mrs. Waite changing my green good behavior card to yellow, or even worse, to red. I’d say please and thank you all the time when I was over at my friends’ houses, so that their parents always loved me. I made a point of getting to know my principal in high school and ended up getting a college letter of recommendation from him! I learned that good things came from staying within the lines. (Looking back, I think the fact that my mom was a kindergarten teacher had something to do with this!)
But going away to college popped the top off this idyllic relationship with rules. In my sociology classes I began to learn that a nation’s rules had often been used to maintain an oppressive status quo. I spent time in Ecuador, and saw and heard first hand how American trading rules sometimes harmed those abroad. I learned more about my own social privilege — how I had benefited unknowingly from so many rules, written and unwritten — and I didn’t want anything more to do with any of it. The powerful wanted the marginalized to follow the rules to so that the powerful could stay in power. My political disillusionment peaked as I lost an election as a 21-year old campaign manager for three high school district board candidates in East County who had supported a non-discrimination clause that included sexual orientation. Then Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor and I had to leave the country for a while.
So I spent nine months in El Salvador. I wanted to wash off all this problematic, oppressive American-ness in the rural, jungly mountains where Communist-backed guerrillas made their stand against Reagan-supported Salvadoran government forces in the 80s. I’d eat beans and rice every day, sit in the hammock and write radical thoughts in my journal, and share communion with three nuns and a 76-year old Jesuit priest. It was moral bliss for a while. It really was.
Then God started sneaking up on me. I’d sort of asked for it, because I’d gone to Central America searching for a way to help the poor and seeking out a place where liberation theology was alive and well. But God began asking pesky questions: Who are you to help out poor people? How’s that going to work? Do you think you’re going to live in Latin America the rest of your life? Where do you really belong? And with whom?
And God further disrupted this otherwise bucolic expatriate existence through the fact that I’d been dating a wonderful college student named Laurel whom I’d really begun missing from 3,278 miles away. Then God connected me up with a Jesuit spiritual director who guided me through a structured discernment process that led me to realize that I had a call to ordained ministry.
That was ten years ago. Falling in love with God has taken a while, and with any real relationship, it has its ups and downs. But loving God led me back to the United States and into a series of jobs — community organizer, media relations assistant, foundation program officer — that taught me a new relationship to society’s rules: If a rule does not intend and actually promote the thriving of creation, if it doesn’t promote life, then it needs rewriting.
Falling in love with God also helped me to distinguish between a society’s rules and God’s rules, the rules of love — loving God and loving neighbor. As I began to trust God I began to trust God’s way of life. In fact, I’ve come to trust God’s Church, as imperfect as its human dimensions may be at times, to promise in front of many of you this past October to be “loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them” and, “in accordance with the canons of this Church, [to] obey [my] bishop and other ministers who may have authority over [me] and [my] work.” My 21-year old self must have thought I was selling out. But what had changed? My relationship with God had helped me to clarify my relationship to rules. I am learning to trust God’s guidance in leading me in the way of life. But it’s not easy.
Loving God leads us deeper into a complicated, and in some ways, rule-based moral universe. For the ancient Israelites, learning the 613 rules of the sacred Torah (what we know as the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament) took at least a good forty years wandering in a wilderness. It’s important to remember — and this can be difficult for Christians to get our minds around — that for Jews the Torah and its guidelines for right living were the LORD’s most holy gift to them. The Torah was and is received with great joy. These rules do not form the bars of a crippling cage but rather the markers for a way that leads to the thriving of all creation. They help humans choose life. Except when they don’t. They always demand interpretation.
Jesus, a Torah-loving Jew, battled it out with the teachers of his time in order to interpret these rules for his day. He cared about how these rules were lived out in order to promote life for all. But there were no easy answers — perhaps that’s why so many of his great teachings lay hidden within parables. And some of his teachings were hard, as we heard today: If you don’t want to be a murderer, don’t let anger get the best of you. To avoid becoming an adulterer, avoid dwelling on even one lustful thought. Be truthful always. Actively seek out reconciliation with those whom you struggle in broken relationship.
These and other teachings by Jesus were not meant to replace the Torah. Instead, Christians came to understand Jesus as the sacred and eternal Word, the embodiment of God’s rules of love — that is to say, for Christians Jesus is God’s most holy gift to us. Loving Jesus is to love God, and to love God is to follow the way of life of Jesus.
Now this community knows a thing or two about rewriting a society’s rules that constrict life’s flourishing. But when we struggle with God’s rules of love that we find in Scripture and church tradition, it’s not about rewriting them but rather reinterpreting them — with help, of course. Jesus is our guide in this ongoing project, as is the collective wisdom of this community and the 2,000 years of the experience of the Church.
So where do you stand in relationship to God’s rules of love? I wonder if each of us is aware that we are on a way that leads to life — that is, except when we aren’t.
This is not about heaven and hell — that’s a sermon I’ll leave for our new dean! This is about following the way, marked by the rules of love, that honors the dignity of all people around us: the ones we choose to be around, and those we do not. This is not easy and even saints have not figured out exactly how to accomplish the task, except that they know a secret that’s often forgotten: we don’t have to live out our lives and make our daily moral choices by ourselves. We have each other. We have the traditions and teachings and Scripture of the Church. We have the experience of Jesus in prayer and in our interactions with those around us.
If you’re wondering whether you’re on the way of life, search for Jesus in your life and in the lives of those around you. He’s bound to be where you’re called to be, too — on life’s great adventure striving together to make possible the flourishing of all of God’s good, good creation.
The Rev Colin Mathewson