Saturday, August 25, 2007

House Rules (formerly "Whole-y Community")--a sermon for Ordinary 21 C

Rev. Teri Peterson
Ridgefield-Crystal Lake Presbyterian Church
House Rules (formerly Whole-y Community)
Ordinary 21 C—August 26, 2007
Luke 13.10-17

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things he was doing.

I want to tell you something that is probably no secret and will come as no surprise: I love words. I love talking, listening, reading, writing, learning new languages, figuring out how words, grammar, and rules work. I often don’t like when people misuse language—I want people to be precise with what they say. I have been known to correct my best friends’ grammar when they are in mid-sentence. I am particular about things like quotation marks, apostrophes, and trying not to use nouns as verbs. I know the rules about when to say “who” and when to say “whom.” At the same time, I love learning about language so I can figure out how to work it, how to massage it to work for me, how to make up my own words, to coin new phrases, to…not really break the rules, per se, but to use them in a new way that helps me communicate with people.

The people Jesus was teaching knew all the grammar rules of their community—when to sit and when to stand, when to speak and when to listen, what to eat and with whom, when to work and when to rest. They knew that their rules, especially their rules about resting and their rules about eating, were what made them who they were. The leader of the synagogue was charged with keeping the community inside the bounds of good grammar, making sure every t was crossed and i dotted, making sure there were no apostrophes loose in the sacred community of covenant people.

He had just such loose apostrophe, a rulebreaker, on his hands, it seems. But he was a rulebreaker who earned respect, a rulebreaker who spoke with authority, a rulebreaker who was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath day—not the time for a rebuke, not the place for a tongue lashing, and no way to do it without shaming a man who was extremely popular, thus putting his own reputation and life at risk.

As a woman, as a woman with an illness, as a woman with an illness attributed to a spirit, she lent herself to his need. Someone needed to be brought down, and here was a perfect victim—someone so burdened she could see only the dirt and feet, someone already victimized, someone used to public humiliation. And so the leader of the synagogue turns to his congregation and, rather than praising God as the woman does, shouts over the hubbub, over and over again, that this is not the day to come and be healed—there are plenty of days when you won’t find us all together here in the synagogue, there are plenty of days for work to be done, there are plenty of days for you outcasts to come and try to be healed. The day for new life to be given is not the Sabbath day. The day for experiencing God’s amazing grace is not the Sabbath day. The day for encountering the Living Word of God loose in the world, making up new phrases and re-defining old ones, is not the Sabbath day. The day for drinking from the streams of living water is not the Sabbath day—at least, not for you. Certainly, you may lead your animals, your livelihoods, your means of self-preservation, your status symbols, to the stream, but you may not come and be filled yourself. That is for another day.

Every community has rules. We have rules of the road that are designed to keep us safe. We have rules for games so that everything is fair and everyone’s chances are equal. We have rules in our church about who can stand in this pulpit and what we do in this room and who you ask when you want something done. We spent time this spring naming our own community’s written and unwritten rules—norms about families in worship, about liturgists, about education, about how we expect our clergy to behave and what we do in worship and how we treat one another and what we expect of children, youth, and parents.

Sometimes people get together and change the rules, or bend them into “house rules.” So if you come to my house to play Scrabble, we’ll agree ahead of time that foreign words are allowed, in spite of what the instructions say about English-only.

Sometimes, instead of changing the rules together ahead of time, we bend or break the rules first and ask forgiveness later. It is, after all, easier to ask forgiveness than permission. But when the rules we have are keeping people out, are placing more value on animals or objects than on people, or worse yet are holding up the rules as more important than the community they serve, then Jesus says that rulebreakers need ask neither permission nor forgiveness. This woman has been bound for 18 years. She has been as good as dead to you, and because of your hard-heartedness your community is just as broken as her body. When the woman stands up straight to look up to heaven and praise God for the first time in probably more than half her life, Jesus also reconciles her with her people and the whole community is healed. This woman, a daughter of Abraham, is much more valuable than your ox or donkey—and here Jesus has given both her life and ours back. Grace has fallen like rain on the just and the unjust, and the body that once was lame has been made whole again.

This is a scary thing. We like our rules—they make life easier to understand, easier to predict, easier to handle. These rules give us order and purpose and meaning. The trouble is just this: they are our rules. God asks us to play by different rules—rules founded on love, not fear. God says “Love me and love your neighbor.” God says “show compassion to the poor, the orphan, the widow.” God says “come and follow me.” God says, “come to me and I will give you rest”—rest from always being perfect, rest from upholding artificial boundaries, rest from paying so much attention to yourself that you have no time for others, rest from the human way, rest from trying to be God, rest that renews and restores and releases you from bondage, healing rest—Sabbath rest.

In following the letter of the law, we sometimes miss the spirit. While we follow all the grammar rules, no one can understand us. While we impose our rest on others, we keep ourselves from receiving healing and from true restorative, reconciling Sabbath keeping. While we keep the loose apostrophes and commas under control, the Word is loose in the world and can’t be contained in all our quotation marks. While we hold so tightly to the thing we think will keep our holy community whole-y, it shatters in our hands and we end up broken and bleeding, yet clinging to the shards and praying not for bandages but for glue.

Then the Living Word marches right into our midst and gives neither glue nor bandage, but instead living water, grace that falls like rain, true healing, new sight. And all of us, the entire crowd, rejoice together, whole at last, daughters and sons of Abraham, children of the holy covenant, people who belong to God forever.

Thanks be to God.


  1. concise and to the point. nicely done.

  2. Yes. What Serena said. I really appreciate how you develop your opening illustration of "following rules" to breaking some rules when it means following Jesus and God, following the spirit - rather than being locked into the rules. I like how you use scrabble as a way to unpack this, good example.

  3. yes, I like this. I like the ending.